Booker T. Washington

From New World Encyclopedia

Booker T. Washington

Booker Taliaferro (T.) Washington (April 5, 1856 – November 14, 1915) was an African-American reformer, businessman, educator, public speaker, and author. Respectfully dubbed as "The Wizard of Tuskegee," Washington worked to achieve economic and social equality for American blacks after their emancipation from centuries of slavery following the U.S. Civil War.

In the decades after the war, millions of Southern freedmen needed an action program to meet the challenges of poverty, illiteracy, and social dislocation. Washington, who lived the horrors of the slave system as a youth, recognized both the psychological and social barriers African Americans faced in their quest for full participation in the nation's civic life. Eschewing militancy, Washington sought to improve opportunities for freedmen through a program of education and empowerment that would equip them with employable and entrepreneurial skills.

Washington was named as the first principal of the historic black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, in 1881. The school prospered largely through Washington's promotional efforts across the country and among people of wealth and influence, such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. Washington believed that education should encompass both academic and vocational training, but, more importantly, character development. Stressing personal morality and irreproachable character, Washington believed that economic self-reliance had to precede demands for equal social status and political rights.

Washington and his program of self-improvement were bitterly attacked by the Northern black intelligentsia in the early twentieth century. Many critics, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, were influenced by Marxist interpretations of class struggle and denigrated Washington as an "accommodationist" and "Uncle Tom." Yet, Washington displayed the courage and leadership to take the masses of newly freed blacks in the only direction that made sense in the context of Reconstruction. Though not successful in entirely reconciling blacks and whites, Washington encouraged American blacks to to lay aside their grievances over past experiences and work toward building a more just and inclusive America, at the same time making it next to impossible for Marxism to ever be taken seriously by the masses of American blacks.

Through his personal faith that God would aid their efforts toward racial justice with or without the help of others, Washington urged the nation to fulfill its creed of equal rights for all people as articulated in the American Declaration of Independence. Washington was granted an honorary Master of Arts degree from Harvard University in 1896, and an honorary doctorate degree from Dartmouth College in 1901.

Youth, freedom, and education

Booker T. Washington was born April 5, 1856, on James Burroughs's farm in the community of Hale's Ford, Virginia. His mother, Jane, was the plantation's cook, and his father was a white man from a nearby farm. Booker later recalled that moment, in early 1865, when emancipation came (Up from Slavery, p. 19-21).

As the great day drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom… Some man who seemed to be a stranger (a United States officer, I presume) made a little speech and then read a rather long paper—the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. After the reading, we were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.

In the summer of 1865, at the age of nine, Booker, along with his brother, John, and his sister, Amanda, moved, with their mother, to Malden in Kanawha County, West Virginia, to join their stepfather. The young Washington worked with his mother and other freed blacks as a salt packer and in a coal mine. He even signed up briefly as a hired hand on a steamboat. Eventually, however, he was employed as a houseboy for Viola Ruffner, the wife of General Lewis Ruffner, who owned both the salt furnace and the coal mine. Many other houseboys had failed to satisfy the demanding and methodical Mrs. Ruffner, but Booker's diligence and scrupulousness met her standards. Encouraged to do so by Mrs. Ruffner, young Booker, whenever he could, attended school, and learned to read and to write. Predictably, he soon yearned for even more education than was available in his community.

After traveling from Malden at age sixteen, Washington enrolled at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, in Hampton, Virginia. Poor students such as he could get a place there by working to pay their way. The normal school at Hampton had been founded for the purpose of training black teachers, and had been funded primarily by church groups and individuals such as William Jackson Palmer, a Quaker, among others. In many ways, young Washington was back where he had started, earning a living through menial tasks. But his time at Hampton ushered him away from a life of labor. After graduating from there in 1875, he spent the summer working as a hotel waiter, before returning to Malden, where he lived for the next three years. During this period, he taught public school, wrote letters and editorials to advance Hampton's ideals, and participated in debating contests, through which he enhanced his oratorical powers and honed his public-speaking skills.

The year of 1878-1879, Washington spent as a student at Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C. Of that experience, he wrote

In 1878, I went to Wayland Seminary, in Washington, and spent
a year in study there. G.M.P. King, D.D., was President of
the Wayland Seminary while I was there. Notwithstanding I was
there but a short time, the high Christian character of Dr.
King made a lasting impression upon me. The deep religious
spirit which pervaded the atmosphere at Wayland made an impress-
ion upon me which I trust will always remain.

(An Autobiography: The Story of My Life and Work, p. 45).

Upon leaving the seminary, he returned to teach at Hampton. Following the next two years, the Institute's officials recommended him to become the first Principal of a similar school being founded in Alabama.


Former slave Lewis Adams, and other organizers of a new normal school in Tuskegee, Alabama, sought a bright and energetic leader for their new institution. They initially anticipated employing a white administrator, but instead, they found the desired qualities in 25 year old Booker T. Washington. At the strong recommendation of Hampton University founder, Samuel C. Armstrong, Washington became the first Principal of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. The new school's doors opened on July 4, 1881. It later developed into the Tuskegee Institute and is, today, known as Tuskegee University.

Tuskegee and its surrounding community provided a setting for the academic instruction and growth of teachers. But equal—if not greater—emphasis was placed upon providing young black men and women with relevant, practical, and employable skills, such as carpentry and masonry, household management, culinary arts, and farming-and-dairy sciences. And by steadily evolving into an education-centered enclave of effective black entrepreneurship and financial empowerment, the Institute came to embody Washington's heartfelt aspirations for his race. Central to his life view was the conviction that by equipping themselves with these and other related competencies, American blacks would effectively play their economic part in society, and they would inevitably raise themselves to full-fledged financial and cultural parity with American whites. This outcome, Washington believed, was the indispensable prerequisite to blacks attaining their full Civil Rights. By showing themselves to be self-reliant, responsible, prosperous, and highly moral American citizens, blacks would ultimately position themselves such that, here, in this nation's free enterprise economy, their full legal rights would be the natural consequence of their excellence and value as a people.

Still an important center for African-American learning in the twenty-first century, Tuskegee University, according to its website information, was created "to embody and enable the goals of self-reliance." This theme was fundamental to the remainder of Washington's life and work, which spanned some thirty-four additional years. He was Principal of the school until his death in 1915. At that time, Tuskegee's endowment had grown to over $1.5 million, from the initial $2,000 annual appropriation obtained by Lewis Adams and his supporters.


Booker T. Washington's house at Tuskegee University

Washington was married three times. In his autobiography, Up From Slavery, he gave all three of his wives enormous credit for their work at Tuskegee, and he stated emphatically that he would not have been successful without them.

Fannie N. Smith was from Malden, West Virginia, the same Kanawha River Valley town located eight miles upriver from Charleston, where Washington had lived from age nine to sixteen, and to where he maintained ties throughout his later life. Washington and Smith were married in the summer of 1882. They had one child, Portia M. Washington. Fannie died in May 1884.

He next wed Olivia A. Davidson in 1885. Davidson was born in Ohio. She spent time teaching in Mississippi and Tennessee, and she received her education at Hampton Institute and at the Framingham State College at Framingham, Massachusetts. Washington met Davidson at Tuskegee, where she had come to teach. She later became the Assistant Principal there. They had two sons, Booker T. Washington, Jr. and Ernest Davidson Washington, before his wife died in 1889.

His third marriage took place in 1893, to Margaret James Murray. She was from Mississippi and a graduate of Fisk University. They had no children together. She outlived Washington and died in 1925.


A frontline central figure who lived a life through which he fostered a high level of social influence and visibility, Booker T. Washington was routinely consulted by both Republican Party and Democrat Party leaders of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This came about, despite the fact that Washington's official practice was one of shunning any and all involvement with protest politics. Washington consistently stated his view that the nation's Reconstruction-Era experiment in racial democratization had floundered, due to the fact that it had started from the wrong end, with a focus upon politics and civil rights, instead of upon economics and self-reliance. Washington never campaigned for nor held office. He staunchly avoided recommending politics to aspiring young black men. And he openly disparaged politics as an answer to black America's ills. All of this notwithstanding, Congressmen and Presidents sought his counsel with regard to appointing blacks to political positions. Washington worked and socialized with many white politicians and notables. All the while, he argued that self-help and wealth acquisition were the keys to blacks improving their situation in the United States. If blacks would forge and use economic clout to combat racism, while refusing to let their grievances overshadow their opportunities, they would inevitably succeed in their efforts to win their full legal rights.

Washington's 1895 Atlanta Exposition Address, given at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, sparked a deluge of praise and congratulations, as well as a firestorm of anger and invective. With regard to the latter, the condemnation and opposition were led by a faction of college-educated blacks, who viewed the man from Tuskegee and his methods as a blight upon their own vision of a better world for their race. These professionals saw themselves as the rightful heirs of Frederick Douglass' legacy and call to "Agitate, Agitate, Agitate" for social change. Their existence was indisputable proof that not all blacks endorsed the Tuskegeean's leadership. Thus, within black America, the ideological debate ensued. On one side was Washington and those who embraced his "industrial" education and economics-based approach. On the other side were those such as William Monroe Trotter and W.E.B. Du Bois, who backed the idea of "classical, liberal" education, plus immediate, full political and civil rights. Each side believed itself best equipped to pilot the task of improving the conditions of the post-Civil War, American black community. Washington's position that, "I am no politician; on the other hand, I have always advised my race to give attention to acquiring property, intelligence, and character, as the necessary bases of good citizenship, rather than to mere political agitation" (Letter To The Louisiana State Constitutional Convention, February 19, 1898), incensed his critics on the intellectual Left, such as Du Bois, who labeled Washington "The Great Accommodator." It should be noted, however, that despite his longstanding refusal to publicly condemn Jim Crow laws and the inhumanity of lynching, Washington privately contributed funds for numerous legal challenges against racial segregation and disfranchisement, such as was the situation in his supporting the case of Giles v. Harris, which went before the United States Supreme Court in 1903.

Although earlier in his career, he had viewed Washington as a friend and had expressed glowing respect for the Tuskegeean's achievements, Du Bois later found himself so ideologically distant from Washington that, after the latter's death, Du Bois stated, "In stern justice, we must lay on the soul of this man a heavy responsibility for the consummation of Negro disfranchisement, the decline of the Negro college and public school, and the firmer establishment of color caste in this land."

Rich friends and benefactors

Washington associated with the richest and most powerful businessmen and politicians of his era. He was viewed by both blacks and whites as the preeminent spokesperson for black America. In addition, the measurable growth and the operational impact of Tuskegee Institute was so prolific that the school and its surrounding community-level enclave all came to be known as the "Tuskegee Machine." Because of this, Washington, not surprisingly, became a conduit for the funding of numerous educational programs. His contacts included such diverse and well-known personalities as Andrew Carnegie, William Howard Taft, and Julius Rosenwald, to whom he made well known the need for better educational facilities. As a result, through Washington's efforts, countless small schools were established, initiating programs and evolving into colleges and universities that continued many years after his death.

Henry Rogers

A representative case of an exceptional relationship was his connection with millionaire industrialist Henry H. Rogers (1840-1909), a self-made man who had risen to become a principal of Standard Oil. Around 1894, Rogers heard Washington speak and was surprised that no one had "passed the hat" after the address. The next day, he contacted Washington and requested a meeting, thereby sparking a close friendship that was to extend over a period of 15 years.

Handbill from 1909 tour of southern Virginia and West Virginia.

In June 1909, a few weeks after Rogers died, Washington embarked on a previously planned speaking tour along the newly completed Virginian Railway. He rode in Rogers' personal rail car, "Dixie," making speeches at many locations over a 7-day period. The Tuskegeean told his audiences that his goals were to improve relations between the races and to better the economic conditions for the blacks along the route of the new railway, which touched many previously isolated communities in the southern portions of Virginia and West Virginia. He revealed that Rogers had been quietly funding operations of 65 small country schools for blacks, and had given substantial sums of money to support Tuskegee Institute and Hampton Institute. Rogers encouraged programs with matching-funds requirements, so that the recipients would have a stake in knowing that they were helping themselves through their own hard work and sacrifice.

Anna T. Jeanes

One million dollars was entrusted to Dr. Washington by Anna T. Jeanes (1822-1907) of Philadelphia, in 1907. She was a woman who hoped to construct some elementary schools for black children in the South. Her contributions, together with those of Henry Rogers and some others, funded schools in many communities where the white people were also very poor, and, consequently, few funds were available for black schools.

Julius Rosenwald

Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) was another self-made tycoon with whom Dr. Washington found common ground. In 1908, Rosenwald became president of Sears, Roebuck and Company. Rosenwald was concerned about the poor state of black education, especially in the South. In 1912, Rosenwald was asked to serve on the Board of Directors of Tuskegee Institute. He accepted the position, which he held for the remainder of his life. Rosenwald endowed Tuskegee so well that Dr. Washington could spend less time traveling to seek funding, and could devote more time to management of the school. Later in 1912, Rosenwald provided funds for a pilot program involving six new small schools in rural Alabama, which were designed, constructed, and opened in 1913 and 1914, and were overseen by Tuskegee. The model proved successful. Rosenwald later established the The Rosenwald Fund. The school building program was one of its largest aspects. Using state-of-the-art architectural plans, initially drawn by professors at Tuskegee Institute, the Rosenwald Fund spent over $4 million to help build 4,977 schools, 217 teachers' homes, and 163 shop buildings in 883 counties across 15 states, from Maryland to Texas. The Rosenwald Fund used a system of matching grants, and black communities raised more than $4.7 million to aid the construction. These institutions came to be known as Rosenwald Schools. By 1932, the facilities could accommodate one third of all black children in Southern schools.

Up from slavery and invited to the White House

In 1900, building upon his efforts to inspire the "commercial, agricultural, educational, and industrial advancement" of American blacks, Booker T. Washington founded the National Negro Business League (NNBL), the concept for which, ironically, may have been born in the mind of W.E.B. Du Bois, the man who was to later become the staunchest critic of Washington's business-centered agenda. In the Business League, Washington saw the vehicle for what he perceived as a new emancipation through the attainment of financial independence.

Booker T. Washington's coffin being carried to grave site.

When his autobiography, Up From Slavery, was published in 1901, it became a bestseller, which had a major impact on the black community, its friends, and allies. In 1901, the Tuskegeean, as the guest of President Theodore Roosevelt, was the first American black invited to the White House since Frederick Douglass was received by President Abraham Lincoln. In response to this event, many white Southerners bitterly complained.

The hard-driving Washington finally collapsed in Tuskegee, Alabama, due to a lifetime of overwork, and died soon after in a hospital, on November 14, 1915. In March of 2006, with the permission of his family, examination of medical records indicated that he died of hypertension, with a blood pressure more than twice normal. He is buried on the campus of Tuskegee University near the University Chapel.

Honors and memorials

For his contributions to American society, Dr. Washington was granted an honorary Master of Arts degree from Harvard University in 1896, and an honorary Doctorate from Dartmouth College in 1901. The first coin to feature an American black was the Booker T. Washington Memorial Half Dollar, which was minted by the United States from 1946 to 1951. On April 7, 1940, Dr. Washington became the first African-American to be depicted on a United States postage stamp. On April 5, 1956, the slave cabin where he was born in Franklin County, Virginia, was designated as the Booker T. Washington National Monument. Additionally, numerous schools across the United States are named in his honor (M.S.54). A state park in Chattanooga, Tennessee, bears his name, as does a bridge adjacent to his alma mater, Hampton University, across the Hampton River in Hampton, Virginia.

At the center of the campus at Tuskegee University, the Booker T. Washington Monument, called "Lifting the Veil," was dedicated in 1922. The inscription at its base reads: "He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry."


Washington obtained national prominence after his famous Atlanta Exposition Address of 1895. This speech garnered him widespread recognition by politicians, by academicians, and by the public at large. He was immediately viewed as the preeminent spokesperson for the uplift and advancement of American blacks. Simultaneously, a number of black critics on the intellectual left vehemently excoriated him as an "accommodationist" and a "sell out." This was due to his de-emphasis on protest politics and his refusal to constantly berate white America for its racial sin and guilt. The racially hostile culture notwithstanding, Washington's commitment was to the ideal of peaceful coexistence between blacks and whites. In practice, this meant reaching out to white people and enlisting the support of wealthy philanthropists, whose donations were used to establish and operate dozens of small community schools and institutions of higher education for the education of former slaves throughout southern states.

In addition to his substantial contributions in the fields of both industrial and academic education, Dr. Washington's proactive leadership produced something more. It raised to a new dimension the nation's awareness of how an oppressed people-group can uplift itself via persistent interior activism in the form of self-help and entrepreneurial business development. He taught that if blacks would cease replaying the sins of the past and, instead, remain focused on the goal of fostering economic stability, then the subsequent respect educed from whites would lead to an atmosphere much more conducive to the resolution of America's race problems. Many blacks embraced this strategy. They came to believe that they were playing a major role in the effort to effect better overall friendships and business relations between themselves and their white fellow Americans.

Washington's autobiography, Up From Slavery, first published in 1901, is still widely read. Other important writings include The Future of the Negro (1902), The Story of the Negro (1909), and The Man Farthest Down (1912).


  • "At the bottom of education, at the bottom of politics, even at the bottom of religion itself, there must be, for our race, as for all races, an economic foundation, economic prosperity, economic independence" (Annual Address To The National Negro Business League, 1915).
  • "Then, when we rid ourselves of prejudice, or racial feeling, and look facts in the face, we must acknowledge that, notwithstanding the cruelty and moral wrong of slavery, we are in a stronger and more hopeful condition, materially, intellectually, morally, and religiously, than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe" (Up From Slavery: The Autobiography of Booker T. Washington, p. 16)
  • "Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom, we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labor, and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial; the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful. No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life that we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities" (Atlanta Exposition Address, September 18, 1895).
  • "With all the conflicting opinions, and with the full knowledge of our weaknesses, I know that only a few centuries ago in this country we went into slavery pagans: We came out Christians; we went into slavery pieces of property: We came out American citizens; we went into slavery without a language: we came out speaking the proud Anglo-Saxon tongue; we went into slavery with the slave chains clanking about our wrists: we came out with the American ballot in our hands. My friends, I submit it to your sober and candid judgment, if a race that is capable of such a test, such a transformation, is not worth saving and making a part, in reality as well as in name, of our democratic government" (Democracy and Education, September 30, 1896).
  • "There is no power that can separate our destiny. Let us ascend in this matter above color or race or party or sectionalism into the region of duty of man to man, American to American, Christian to Christian. If the Negro who has been oppressed, ostracized, denied rights in a Christian land, can help you, North and South, to rise, can be the medium of your rising to these sublime heights of unselfishness and self-forgetfulness, who may say that the Negro, this new citizen, will not see in it a recompense for all that he has suffered and will have performed a mission that will be placed beside that of the lowly Nazarine" (Our New Citizen, January 31, 1896).
  • "The growth of the race in industrial and business directions within the last few years cannot perhaps be better illustrated than by what is now the largest secular national organization among the colored people, the National Negro Business League. This organization brings together annually, as I have elsewhere described, hundreds of men and women who have worked their way up from the bottom to the point where they are now in some cases bankers, merchants, manufacturers, planters, etc. The sight of this body of men and women would surprise a large part of American citizens who do not know the better side of Negro life…. It is because of the fact that the Tuskegee Institute began at the bottom, with work in the soil, in wood, in iron, in leather, that it has now developed to the point where it is able to furnish employment as teachers to twenty-eight Negro college graduates of the best colleges in the country…. It is now seen that the result of such education will be to help the black man to make for himself an independent place in our great American life. It was largely the poverty of the Negro that made him the prey of the designing politicians immediately after the war; and wherever poverty and lack of industry exist today, one does not find in him that deep spiritual life which the race must in the future possess in a higher degree" (The Fruits of Industrial Training, 1907).
  • "The problem is how to make these millions of Negroes self-supporting, intelligent, economical, and valuable citizens, as well as how to bring about proper relations between them and the white citizens among whom they live" (The Future of the American Negro, p. 5).
  • "Reduced to its lowest terms, the fact is that a large part of our racial troubles in the United States grow out of some attempt to pass and execute a law that will keep one man superior to another, whether he is intrinsically superior or not. No greater harm can be done to any group of people than to let them feel that a statutory enactment can keep them superior to anybody else. No greater injury can be done to any youth than to let him feel that because he belongs to this or that race, or because of his color, he will be advanced in life regardless of his own merits or efforts" (Is The Negro Having A Fair Chance? November 1912).
  • "It is probably useless to discuss the legality of segregation; that is a matter that the courts will finally pass upon. It is reasonably certain, however, that the courts in no section of the country would uphold a case where Negroes sought to segregate white citizens. This is the most convincing argument that segregation is regarded as illegal, when viewed on its merits by the whole body of our white citizens. Personally, I have little faith in the doctrine that it is necessary to segregate the whites from the blacks to prevent race mixing. The whites are the dominant race in the South. They control the courts, the industries, and the government in all of the cities, counties and states except in those few communities where the Negroes, seeking some form of self-government, have established a number of experimental towns or communities" (My View of Segregation Laws, December 4, 1915).
  • "I will let no man drag me down so low as to make me hate him."
  • "There is another class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs—partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs."

Partial bibliography

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External links

All links retrieved November 20, 2023.


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