Booker T. Washington
Born a slave on a plantation in 1856, Booker T. Washington had little in the way of hope to be more. But Washington was determined, and, after his mother moved to Maryland and married a freed man, she began trying to help him to read. He worked a full time job as a child and then devoted himself to learning.
This commitment led Washington to become one of the top educators, statesman, author and African-American leaders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Washington founded Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, now known as Tuskegee University.
When Washington took a position with a white family, the wife realized Washington’s desire to learn and allowed him an hour per day to study and attend school during the winter months. After leaving the area, Washington walked 500 miles to Virginia and the founder of the Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute in Virginia, Samuel C. Armstrong, offered Washington a scholarship to attend.
Armstrong was a supporter of educating the freed slaves and African-Americans. Armstrong became a major role model for Washington as he learned both education and strengthened his moral characters and values of hard work.
After graduation, Washington became a teacher in a ‘colored’ school (school for African-Americans) and then traveled the country to get money and support for a new school that was approved to be built in 1881, Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now known as Tuskegee University).
Armstrong recommended that Washington be put in charge of the school, instead of a white head master. Washington became devoted to the success of the school and it eventually became one of the leading schools in the country, teaching Black Americans all of the levels of education in the hopes that hard work and diligence would lead to acceptance in the white communities.
By 1895, Washington decided to make public his personal philosophies on race relations at the Cotton States and International Exposition that was held in Atlanta, Georgia. The speech, known as the “Atlanta Compromise” said that African Americans should accept social segregation if the white people would let them have economic progress, justice in the courts and educational opportunities.
The speech launched a hail of anger from many of the northern Black Americans as they felt that the 14th Amendment granted all Americans freedom and equal rights. This was important during that time as white officials were passing sneaky laws such as the Jim Crow laws that didn’t allow Black Americans certain rights, including voting.
Booker T. Washington had by this time made a name for himself as an educator and writer and he was invited to Washington, D.C. by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901. Washington became the first Black American to be honored at the White House, and both Roosevelt and later President Taft had Washington as an advisor. He celebrity for the White House visit, combined with the publication of his book “Up From Slavery”, made him famous as well as disliked for his philosophies.
Booker T. Washington lived in a very unusual time that almost required a subservient attitude to be accepted by the white race. Washington believed in challenging segregation but also understood that to be successful, African Americans might be required to take a ‘back seat’ to the white community. His name has remained one of the most well-known and his history and beliefs are part of the American History lessons of every child.