Booker Taliaferro Washington was the foremost black educator of the later 19th and early 20th centuries. He also had a major influence on the southern race relations and was the dominant figure in black public affairs from 1895 until his death in 1915. Born a slave on a small farm in the Virginia back country, he moved with his family after emancipation to work in the salt furnaces and coal mines of West Virginia. After a secondary education at Hampton Institute, he taught an upgraded school and experimented briefly with the study of law and the ministry, but a teaching position at Hampton decided his future career.
In 1881 he founded Tuskegee Normal and Industrial on the Hampton model in the Black Belt of Alabama.
Though Washington offered little that was innovative in industrial education, which both northern philanthropic foundations and southern leaders were already promoting, he became its chief black exemplar and spokesman. In his advocacy of Tuskegee Institute and its educational method, Washington revealed the political proficiency and accommodational philosophy that were to characterize his career in the wider arena of race leadership.
He convinced southern white employers and governors that Tuskegee offered an education that would keep blacks “down on the farm” and in the trades. To prospective northern donors and particularly the new self- made millionaires such as Rockefeller and Carnegie he promised the instillment of the Protestant work ethic. To blacks living within the limited distances of the post- Reconstruction South, Washington held out industrial education as the means of escape form the web of sharecropping and debt and the achievement of attainable, self-employment, landownership, and small businesses. Washington acquired local white approval and secured a small state accumulation, but it was northern donations that made Tuskegee Institute by, 1900, the best-supported black educational institution in the country.
The Atlanta Compromise Address, delivered before the Cotton States Exposition in 1895, enlarged Washington’s influence into the arena of race relations and black leadership. Washington offered black consent in disfranchisement and social segregation if whites would encourage black progress in economic and educational opportunity. Hailed as a sage by whites of both sections, Washington further consolidated his influence by his widely read autobiography Up From Slavery (1901), the founding of the National Negro Business League in 1900, his celebrated dinner at the White House in 1901, and control of patronage politics as chief black advisor to Presidents Theodor Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
Washington kept his white following by conservative policies and moderate remarks, but he faced growing black and white liberal opposition in the Niagra Movement (1905-9) and the NAACP (1909-), groups demanding civil rights and encouraging protest in response to white aggressions such as lynching, disfranchisement, and segregation laws. Washington successfully repelled these critics, often by underhanded means. At the same time, however, he tried to translate his own personal success into black advancement through secret sponsorship of civil rights suits, serving on the boards of Fisk and Howard, universities, and directing philanthropic aid to these and other black colleges. His speaking tours and private persuasion tried to equalize public educational opportunities and to reduce racial violence. These efforts were generally unsuccessful, and the year of Washington’s death marked the beginning of the Great Migration from the rural South to the urban North. Washington’s racial philosophy, pragmatically adjusted to the limiting conditions of his own era, but did not survive the change. Booker T. Washington was a man the greatly influenced that American society.
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