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Booker T. Washington

[wosh-ing-tuhn, waw-shing-]
Booker Taliaferro Washington (April 5, 1856 – November 14, 1915) was an American educator, orator, author and leader of the African-American community. He was freed from slavery as a child, gained an education, and as a young man was appointed to lead Tuskegee Institute, then a teachers' college for blacks. From this position, he rose into a nationally prominent role as spokesman and leader for African Americans. He was successful in building relationships with major philanthropists to contribute to education at Tuskegee and for public schools for black children in the South, as well as to donate to legal challenges to segregation and disfranchisement. From 1895-1915 he was the most powerful African-American man in the nation.

Career overview

Washington was born into slavery in Jane, an enslaved
black woman on the Burroughs Plantation in southwest Virginia.  He knew little about his white father.  His parentage made him mixed-race, but the legal caste system of slavery meant he was classified with black slaves.  Some white fathers ensured "natural" children like Washington were educated or trained as artisans, and sometimes freed both mothers and children, but his did not.

He, his siblings and mother gained freedom after the Civil War, formally by the Thirteenth Amendment. After working in salt furnaces and coal mines in West Virginia for several years, Washington made his way east to Hampton Institute, established to educate freedmen. It became Hampton University. There, he worked his way through his studies and later attended Wayland Seminary to complete preparation as an instructor. In 1881, Hampton president Samuel C. Armstrong recommended Washington to become the first leader of Tuskegee Institute, the new normal school (teachers' college) in Alabama. He headed what became Tuskegee University for the rest of his life.

Washington was the dominant figure in the African-American community in the United States from 1890 to 1915, especially after he achieved prominence for his "Atlanta Address of 1895". To many politicians and the public in general, he was seen as a popular spokesperson for African-American citizens. Representing the last generation of black leaders born into slavery, Washington was generally perceived as a credible proponent of education for freedmen in the post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow South. Throughout the final 20 years of his life, he maintained his standing through a nationwide network of core supporters in many communities, including black educators, ministers, editors and businessmen, especially those who were liberal-thinking on social and educational issues. He gained access to top national leaders in politics, philanthropy and education, and was awarded honorary degrees. Critics called his network of supporters the "Tuskegee Machine."

Late in his career, Washington was criticized by leaders of the NAACP, which was formed in 1909. W.E.B. Du Bois especially looked for a harder line on activism to achieve civil rights. He labeled Washington "the Great Accommodator". Washington's response was that confrontation could lead to disaster for the outnumbered blacks. He believed that cooperation with supportive whites was the only way in the long run to overcome pervasive racism. Washington secretly contributed substantially to legal challenges of segregation and disfranchisement of blacks. In his public role, he believed he could achieve more by skillful accommodation to the social realities of the age of segregation. Washington clearly had his eyes on a better future for blacks. Through his own personal experience, Washington knew that good education was a powerful tool for individuals to collectively accomplish that better future.

Washington's philosophy and tireless work on education issues helped him enlist both the moral and substantial financial support of many major white philanthropists. He became friends with such self-made men as Standard Oil magnate Henry Huttleston Rogers; Sears, Roebuck and Company President Julius Rosenwald; and George Eastman, inventor and founder of Kodak. These individuals and many other wealthy men and women funded his causes, such as supporting Hampton and Tuskegee institutes. Each school was originally founded to produce teachers. However, graduates had often gone back to their local communities only to find precious few schools and educational resources to work with in the largely impoverished South.

To address those needs, Washington enlisted his philanthropic network in matching funds programs to stimulate construction of numerous rural public schools for black children in the South. Together, these efforts eventually established and operated over 5,000 schools and supporting resources for the betterment of blacks throughout the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The local schools were a source of much community pride and were of priceless value to African-American families when poverty and segregation limited their children's chances. A major part of Washington's legacy, the number of model rural schools increased with matching funds from the Rosenwald Fund into the 1930s.

Washington did much to improve the overall friendship and working relationship between the races in the United States. His autobiography, Up From Slavery, first published in 1901, is still widely read today.

Youth, freedom and education

Booker T. Washington was born on April 5, 1856 on the Burroughs farm at the community of Hale's Ford, Virginia about 25 miles from Roanoke. His mother Jane was an enslaved black woman who worked as a cook and his father was an unknown white plantation owner. Under the laws of the time, his mother's status meant that Booker was born a slave. The "T" in his name stood for Taliaferro (pronounced TAH-li-ver), his master's name.

Washington recalled Emancipation in early 1865: [Up from Slavery 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, their mother moved Booker, his brother John and his sister Amanda to Malden in Kanawha County, West Virginia to join his stepfather. Booker took the last name of Washington when he first went to school and found out that other children had more than one name. When the teacher called on him and asked for his name he answered, ""Booker Washington," as if I had been called by that name all my life;..." He worked with his mother and other free blacks as a salt-packer and in a coal mine. He even signed up briefly as a hired hand on a steamboat. He was hired as a houseboy for Viola Ruffner (née Knapp), the wife of General Lewis Ruffner, who owned the salt-furnace and coal mine. Many other houseboys had failed to satisfy the demanding Mrs. Ruffner, but Booker's diligence met her standards. Encouraged by Mrs. Ruffner, young Booker attended school and learned to read and to write. Soon he sought more education than was available in his community..

Leaving Malden at sixteen, Washington enrolled at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, in Hampton, Virginia. Students with little income such as Washington could work at the school to pay their way. The normal school (teachers college) at Hampton was founded to train teachers, as education was seen as a critical need by the black community. It was chiefly funded by church groups and individuals such as William Jackson Palmer, a Quaker, among others. Washington's work and studies at Hampton led him away from a life of unskilled labor. From 1878 to 1879 he attended Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C., and returned to teach at Hampton. Soon, Hampton president Samuel C. Armstrong recommended Washington to become the first principal at Tuskegee Institute, a similar school being founded in Alabama..

Along with W.E.B. Du Bois, he partly organized the "Negro exhibition" at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where photos, taken by his friend Frances Benjamin Johnston, of Hampton Institute's black students were displayed. The exhibition aimed at showing Afro-Americans' positive contributions to American society .

Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute

Lewis Adams and other organizers of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama found the energetic leader they sought in 25 year-old Booker T. Washington. With the strong recommendation of Hampton University founder General Samuel C. Armstrong, they hired Washington, although such positions had typically been held by white men until then. The new school opened on July 4, 1881, initially using space rented from a local church. The next year, Washington purchased a former plantation, which became the permanent site of the campus. Under his direction, his students literally built their own school: constructing classrooms, barns and outbuildings; growing their own crops and raising livestock, and providing for most of their own basic necessities. Both men and women had to learn trades as well as academics. The Tuskegee faculty utilized each of these activities to teach the students basic skills to take back to the mostly rural black communities throughout the South. The school later grew to become the present-day Tuskegee University.

Tuskegee provided an academic education and instruction for teachers, but placed emphasis on providing black males with practical skills, such as carpentry and masonry, which many would need for the rural lives most blacks led in the South. The institute illustrated Washington's aspirations for his race. His theory was that by providing needed skills to society, African Americans would play their part, leading to acceptance by white Americans. He believed that blacks would eventually gain full participation in society by showing themselves to be responsible, reliable American citizens. Washington was head of the school until his death in 1915. By then Tuskegee's endowment had grown to over $1.5 million, compared to the initial $2,000 annual appropriation.

Marriages and children

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

Fannie N. Smith was from Malden, West Virginia, the same Kanawha River Valley town where Washington had lived from age nine to sixteen. He maintained ties there all his life. Washington and Smith were married in the summer of 1882. They had one child, Portia M. Washington. Fannie died in May 1884..

Washington next wed Olivia A. Davidson in 1885. Davidson was born in Ohio and studied at Hampton Institute and the Massachusetts State Normal School at Framingham. She taught in Mississippi and Tennessee before going to Tuskegee to work. Washington met Davidson when she was a teacher at Tuskegee. She became the assistant principal there. They had two sons, Booker T. Washington Jr. and Ernest Davidson Washington, before she died in 1889.

Washington's third marriage was in 1893 to Margaret James Murray. She was from Mississippi and was a graduate of Fisk University, also a historically black college. They had no children together, but she helped rear Washington's children. Murray outlived Washington and died in 1925.

Politics

Washington's 1895 Atlanta Compromise address, given at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, was widely welcomed in the African-American community and among liberal whites North and South. He was supported by W.E.B. Du Bois at the time but years later the two had a falling out. Washington valued the "industrial" education oriented toward the jobs then available to the majority of African Americans. Du Bois wanted blacks to have the same "classical" liberal arts education as whites did, and believed that an elite he called the Talented Tenth would advance to lead the race to a wider variety of occupations. Both sought to define the best means to improve the conditions of the post-Civil War African-American community. While not publicly confrontational, Washington privately contributed substantial funds for legal challenges to segregation and disfranchisement, such as the case of Giles v. Harris, which went before the United States Supreme Court in 1903..

Blacks were solidly Republican. From 1890-1908 southern states essentially disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites through constitutional amendments and statutes creating barriers to voter registration and voting. More blacks continued to vote in border and northern states. Washington emerged as the spokesman for the black community. Republican national leaders routinely consulted with him about appointments of blacks to political positions throughout the nation.

Washington worked and socialized with many white politicians and industry leaders. He argued that the surest way for blacks eventually to gain equal social rights was to demonstrate patience, industry, thrift, and usefulness, and said that these were the key to improved conditions for African Americans in the United States. Because they had only recently been granted emancipation, he believed they could not expect too much at once..

Wealthy friends and benefactors

Washington associated with the richest and most powerful businessmen and politicians of the era. He was seen as a spokesperson for African Americans and became a conduit for funding educational programs. His contacts included such diverse and well-known personages as Andrew Carnegie, William Howard Taft, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Huttleston Rogers, and Julius Rosenwald, to whom he made the need for better educational facilities well-known. As a result, countless small schools were established through his efforts, in programs that continued many years after his death.

Henry Rogers

A representative case of an exceptional relationship was Washington's friendship with millionaire industrialist and financier Henry H. Rogers (1840-1909). Henry Rogers was a self-made man, who had risen from a modest working-class family to become a principal of Standard Oil, and had become one of the richest men in the United States. Around 1894, Rogers heard Washington speak at Madison Square Garden. The next day, he contacted Washington and requested a meeting, during which Washington later recounted that he was told that Rogers "was surprised that no one had 'passed the hat' after the speech." The meeting began a close relationship that was to extend over a period of 15 years. Although he and the very-private Rogers openly became visible to the public as friends, and Washington was a frequent guest at Rogers' New York office, his Fairhaven, Massachusetts summer home, and aboard his steam yacht Kanawha, the true depth and scope of their relationship was not publicly revealed until after Roger's sudden death of an apoplectic stroke in May 1909.

A few weeks later, Washington went on a previously planned speaking tour along the newly completed Virginian Railway, a $40 million dollar enterprise which had been built almost entirely from a substantial portion of Rogers' personal fortune. As Washington rode in the late financier's private railroad car, "Dixie", he stopped and made speeches at many locations, where his companions later recounted that he had been warmly welcomed by both black and white citizens at each stop.

Washington revealed that Rogers had been quietly funding operations of 65 small country schools for African Americans, and had given substantial sums of money to support Tuskegee Institute and Hampton Institute. He also disclosed that Rogers had encouraged programs with matching funds requirements so the recipients would have a stake in knowing that they were helping themselves through their own hard work and sacrifice, and thereby enhance their self-esteem.

Anna T. Jeanes

$1,000,000 was entrusted to Washington by Anna T. Jeanes (1822-1907) of Philadelphia in 1907. She hoped to construct some elementary schools for Negro children in the South. Her contributions and those of Henry Rogers and others funded schools in many communities where the white people were also very poor, and few funds were available for Negro schools.

Julius Rosenwald

Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) was another self-made wealthy man with whom Washington found common ground. By 1908, Rosenwald, son of an immigrant clothier, had become part-owner and president of Sears, Roebuck and Company in Chicago. Rosenwald was a philanthropist who was deeply concerned about the poor state of African American education, especially in the Southern states.

In 1912 Rosenwald was asked to serve on the Board of Directors of Tuskegee Institute, a position he held for the remainder of his life. Rosenwald endowed Tuskegee so that Washington could spend less time traveling to seek funding and devote more time towards 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 overseen by Tuskegee; the model proved successful. Rosenwald established the The Rosenwald Fund. The school building program was one of its largest programs. Using state-of-the-art architectural plans initially drawn by professors at Tuskegee Institute, the Rosenwald Fund spent over four million dollars to help build 4,977 schools, 217 teachers' homes, and 163 shop buildings in 883 counties in 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 schools became known as Rosenwald Schools. By 1932, the facilities could accommodate one third of all African American children in Southern U.S. schools.

Up from Slavery, invitation to the White House

In an effort to inspire the "commercial, agricultural, educational, and industrial advancement" of African Americans, Washington founded the National Negro Business League (NNBL) in 1900.

When Washington's autobiography, Up From Slavery, was published in 1901, it became a bestseller and had a major impact on the African American community, and its friends and allies. Washington in 1901 was the first African-American ever invited to the White House as the guest of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Lifetime of overwork, death at age 59

Despite his travels and widespread work, Washington remained as principal of Tuskegee. Washington's health was deteriorating rapidly; he collapsed in New York City and was brought home to Tuskegee, where he died on November 14, 1915 at the age of 59. The cause of death was unclear, probably from nervous exhaustion and arteriosclerosis. He was buried on the campus of Tuskegee University near the University Chapel.

His death was thought at the time to have been a result of congestive heart failure, aggravated by overwork. In March 2006, with the permission of his descendants, examination of medical records indicated that he died of hypertension, with a blood pressure more than twice normal, confirming what had long been suspected.

At his death Tuskegee's endowment exceeded US$1.5 million. His greatest life's work, the work of education of blacks in the South, was well underway and expanding.

Honors and memorials

For his contributions to American society, Washington was granted an honorary master's degree from Harvard University in 1896 and an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth College in 1901.

Washington in 1901 was the first African-American ever invited to the White House as the guest of President Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1934, Robert Russa Moton, Washington's successor as president of Tuskegee University, arranged an air tour for two African Americans aviators, and afterward the plane was christened the Booker T. Washington.

On April 7, 1940, Washington became the first African American to be depicted on a United States postage stamp. The first coin to feature an African American was the Booker T. Washington Memorial Half Dollar that was minted by the United States from 1946 to 1951. He was also depicted on a U.S. Half Dollar from 1951-1954.

On April 5, 1956, the hundredth anniversary of Washington's birth, the house where he was born in Franklin County, Virginia was designated as the Booker T. Washington National Monument. A state park in Chattanooga, Tennessee was named in his honor, as was a bridge spanning the Hampton River adjacent to his alma mater, Hampton University.

In 1984, Hampton University dedicated a Booker T. Washington Memorial on campus near the historic Emancipation Oak, establishing, in the words of the University, "a relationship between one of America's great educators and social activists, and the symbol of Black achievement in education.

Numerous high schools and middle schools across the United States have been named after Booker T. Washington.

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."

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