Booker T. Washington, Booker Taliaferro Washington

Booker T. Washington (Photo credit: Frances Benjamin Johnston; Johnston Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. [LC-J694-255])

Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), who wrote his life’s story in Up From Slavery, believed that through hard work, economic success, acquiring property, and attaining a practical education, rather than by speaking out against prejudice, blacks would eventually win their civil and political rights. Born Booker Taliaferro into slavery in Franklin County, Virginia, to his mother Jane and an unknown white man, the hardworking enslaved child often peered longingly into the schoolhouse where the white children were reading books and writing. Following the Civil War, Booker took the name Washington as his surname after he and his mother moved to Malden, West Virginia, where she married freedman Washington Ferguson. In 1866, he began working as a houseboy for Viola Ruffner, whose husband Lewis owned a coal mine. She saw potential in Booker and during the winter months allowed him to go to school for one hour a day. Booker left home in 1872 and walked 500 miles to the Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute in Virginia, where he convinced the administration to allow him to attend school while he worked as a janitor to pay his tuition. The headmaster General Samuel C. Armstrong, a former commander of a Union African American regiment during the Civil War, soon discovered the intelligent, hardworking boy and offered him a scholarship, which was sponsored by a white man. Armstrong, who supported practical education for newly freed slaves and valued hard work and strong moral character, became Booker's mentor.

After graduating with high marks from Hampton Institute in 1875, Booker taught children and adults in Malden and then attended Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C. Upon the conclusion of Booker's address to the class of 1879 at Hampton Institute, General Armstrong offered him a teaching position at the school.

In 1881, with a $2,000 appropriation from the Alabama legislature, Booker became head of the newly founded Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) to train black students for agricultural, vocational, and industrial jobs. He traveled the country to raise money for the school, reassuring white contributors that nothing in the Tuskegee program would threaten white supremacy or compete with the white's economy. To ensure this promise to whites, he taught the students that economic success for African Americans would take time and that they had to work hard, obtain financial independence, and demonstrate cultural advancement to win acceptance and respect from the white segment of American society. Booker's philosophy on race relations was at odds with his contemporary, W.E.B. Du Bois, who demanded equality for African Americans. Under Booker's leadership, however, Tuskegee thrived, becoming a leading school in the country. For his educational endeavors, he received two honorary degrees: Harvard University (1895) and Dartmouth College (1901).

In 1901, Booker became the first African American to receive an invitation to the White House, when President Theodore Roosevelt invited him to dinner. The president's actions created anger among whites, because the act of dining together implied that the two men were equal. President Roosevelt and his successor, President William Howard Taft, sought Booker's advice on matters of race, but Booker was both admired and despised in both the black and white communities because of his views on racial subservience.

In 1915, while still president of the Tuskegee Institute, Booker died of congestive heart failure. At the time of his death, Tuskegee Institute had 1,500 students and a 200-member faculty that filled the campus's 100 well-equipped buildings, reinforced with an endowment valued at close to two million dollars. In 1940, he was honored posthumously as the first African American featured on a U.S. postage stamp and, in 1946, his likeness appeared on a U.S. fifty-cents piece. During his life, and with the help of ghostwriters, Booker wrote several books, including The Story of My Life and Work (1900), Up from Slavery (1901), The Story of the Negro: The Rise of the Race from Slavery (1909), My Larger Education (1911), and The Man Farthest Down (1912).

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Last modified: 31 January 2020