Booker Taliaferro Washington (1856-1915), African American educator and racial leader, founded Tuskegee Institute for black students. His "Atlanta Compromise" speech made him America's major black leader for 20 years.
Booker Taliaferro (the Washington was added later) was born a slave in Franklin County, Va., on April 5, 1856. His mother was the plantation's cook. His father, a local white man, took no responsibility for him. His mother married another slave, who escaped to West Virginia during the Civil War. She and her three children were liberated by a Union army in 1865 and, after the war, joined her husband.
Growing Up Black
The stepfather put the boys to work in the salt mines in Malden, W.Va. Booker eagerly asked for education, but his stepfather conceded only when Booker agreed to toil in the mines mornings and evenings to make up for earnings lost while in school. He had known only his first name, but when pupils responded to roll call with two names, Booker desperately added a famous name, becoming Booker Washington. Learning from his mother that he already had a last name, he became Booker T. Washington.
Overhearing talk about a black college in Hampton, Va., Washington longed to go. Meanwhile, as houseboy for the owner of the coal mines and saltworks, he developed scrupulous work habits. In 1872 he set out for Hampton Institute. When his money gave out, he worked at odd jobs. Sleeping under wooden sidewalks, begging rides, and walking, he traveled the remaining 80 miles and, bedraggled and penniless, asked for admission and assistance. After Hampton officials tested him by having him clean a room, he was admitted and given work as a janitor.
Hampton Institute, founded in 1868 by a former Union general, emphasized manual training. The students learned useful trades and earned their way. Washington studied brickmasonry along with collegiate courses. Graduating in 1876, he taught in a rural school for two years. Studying at Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C., he became disenchanted with classical education, considering his fellow students to be dandies more interested in making an impression and living off the black masses than in serving mankind. He became convinced that practical, manual training in rural skills and crafts would save his race, not higher learning divorced from the reality of the black man's downtrodden existence. In 1879 he was invited to teach at Hampton Institute, particularly to supervise 100 Native Americans admitted experimentally. He proved a great success in his two years on the faculty.
In 1881 citizens in Tuskegee, Ala., asked Hampton's president to recommend a white man to head their new black college; he suggested Washington instead. The school had an annual legislative appropriation of $2, 000 for salaries, but no campus, buildings, pupils, or staff. Washington had to recruit pupils and teachers and raise money for land, buildings, and equipment. Hostile rural whites who feared education would ruin black laborers accepted his demonstration that his students' practical training would help improve their usefulness. He and his students built a kiln and made the bricks with which they erected campus buildings.
Under Washington's leadership (1881-1915), Tuskegee Institute became an important force in black education. Tuskegee pioneered in agricultural extension, sending out demonstration wagons that brought better methods to farmers and sharecroppers. Graduates founded numerous "little Tuskegees." African Americans mired in the poverty and degradation of cotton sharecropping improved their farming techniques, income, and living conditions. Washington urged them to become capitalists, founding the National Negro Business League in 1900. Black agricultural scientist George Washington Carver worked at Tuskegee from 1896 to 1943, devising new products from peanuts and sweet potatoes. By 1915 Tuskegee had 1, 500 students and a larger endowment than any other black institution.
In 1895 Washington gave his famous "Atlanta Compromise" speech. Although he shared the late Frederick Douglass's long-range goals of equality and integration, Washington renounced agitation and protest tactics. He urged blacks to subordinate demands for political and social rights, concentrating instead on improving job skills and usefulness. "The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house, " he said. He appealed to white people to rely on loyal, proven black workers, pointing out that the South would advance to the degree that blacks were allowed to secure education and become productive.
Washington's position so pleased whites, North and South, that they made him the new black spokesman. He became powerful, having the deciding voice in Federal appointments of African Americans and in philanthropic grants to black institutions. Through subsidies or secret partnerships, he controlled black newspapers, stifling critics. Overawed by his power and hoping his tactics would work, many blacks went along. However, increasingly during his last years, such black intellectuals as W.E.B. Du Bois, John Hope, and William Monroe Trotter denounced his surrender of civil rights and his stressing of training in crafts, some obsolete, to the neglect of liberal education. Opposition centered in the Niagara Movement, founded in 1905, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which succeeded it in 1910.
Although outwardly conciliatory, Washington secretly financed and encouraged attempts and lawsuits to block southern moves to disfranchise and segregate blacks. He had lost two wives by death and married a third time in 1893. His death on Nov. 14, 1915, cleared the way for blacks to return to Douglass's tactics of agitating for equal political, social, and economic rights. Washington won a Harvard honorary degree in 1891. His birthplace is a national monument.
Further Reading on Booker Taliaferro Washington
Washington's autobiographical works are The Story of My Life and Work (1900), Up from Slavery (1901), and My Larger Education (1911), the last two especially revealing. Collections of his writings along with contemporary opinions are Hugh Hawkins, ed., Booker T. Washington and His Critics (1962), and Emma Lou Thornbrough, ed., Booker T. Washington (1969). There are three major biographies: Emmett J. Scott and Lyman Beecher Stowe, Booker T. Washington (1916), an unscholarly glorification, is useful because Scott was Washington's assistant; Basil Mathews, Booker T. Washington: Educator and Interracial Interpreter (1948), is also highly laudatory; Samuel R. Spencer, Jr., Booker T. Washington and the Negro's Place in American Life (1955), the most balanced account is still not sufficiently critical of Washington. The best account of Washington's times is August Meier, Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915: Racial Ideologies in the Age of Booker T. Washington (1963).