Booker T. Washington

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Booker T. Washington

Booker Talifero Washington (April 5, 1856November 15, 1915) was an African American educator and author. He was born into slavery at the community of Hale's Ford in Franklin County, Virginia. After he and his mother were freed, as a young man he made his way east from West Virginia to obtain schooling at Hampton in eastern Virginia at a school established to train teachers.

In his later years, Dr. Washington became a leading educator and was a prominent and popular spokesperson for African American citizens of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century. Although labeled by some activists as an "accommodator", his work cooperating with white people and enlisting the support of wealthy philanthropists helped raise funds to establish and operate dozens of small community schools and institutions of higher education for the betterment of black persons throughout the south.

Within the context of the times he did much to improve the friendship and working relationship between the races.

I will let no man drag me down so low as to make me hate him.
Booker T. Washington


After the American Civil War, when the Emancipation Proclamation was enforced, Booker T. Washington worked with his mother Jane as a salt-packer in a West Virginia facility, and, when he could, attended school.

At 16, Washington worked odd jobs to make his way across Virginia to reach Elizabeth City County near Hampton Roads where he enrolled at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University), in Hampton, Virginia. It was a school founded for the purpose of training black teachers and had been funded by individuals such as William Jackson Palmer, a Quaker, among others. From 1878 to 1879 he attended Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C.

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Booker T. Washington with third wife Margaret James Murray and his two sons.


In 1881 Booker T. Washington founded and became the first principal of the Normal School for Colored Teachers, a vocational school for African Americans during Reconstruction at Tuskegee, Alabama. He would serve as the first president of that institution. It would later become what is now Tuskegee University in Alabama. He went on to become one of America's foremost educators of his time. He also recruited George Washington Carver to teach and conduct research at Tuskegee. Washington married his first wife, Fannie N. Smith, in 1882. She died in 1884. He wed Olivia A. Davidson, his second wife, in 1885. She was a Hampton graduate and the assistant principal of Tuskegee. They had two sons, Booker T. Washington Jr. and Ernest Davidson Washington before she died in 1889. His third marriage took place in 1893 to Margaret James Murray who died in 1925.


Active in politics, Booker T. Washington was routinely consulted by Congressmen and Presidents about the appointment of African Americans to political positions. He worked and socialized with many white politicians and notables. He argued that self-reliance was the key to improved conditions for African Americans in the U.S and that they could not expect too much having only just been granted emancipation.

His 1895 "Separate as the Fingers ( " speech given at the Cotton States and International Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia sparked a controversy wherein he was cast as an accommodationist among those who heeded Frederick Douglass' call to "Agitate, Agitate, Agitate" for social change. A public debate soon began between those such as Washington, who valued the so-called "industrial" education and those who, like W. E. B. Du Bois, supported the idea of a "classical" education among African Americans. Both sides sought to define the best means to improve the conditions of the post-antebellum African American community. Washington's advice to African Americans to "compromise" and accept segregation, incensed other activists of the time, such as DuBois , who labeled him "The Great Accommodator". It should be noted, however, that despite not condemning Jim Crow laws and the inhumanity of lynching publicly, Washington privately contributed funds for legal challenges against segregation. Also noteworthy is that despite the image often painted concerning the relationship between Washington and DuBois, they were friends and respected each other considerably.

Henry H. Rogers: friend and benefactor

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Henry Huttleston Rogers 1840-1909
Around 1894, Dr. Washington developed a friendship with millionaire industrialist and financier Henry Huttleston Rogers. The latter had attended one of his speeches in New York City, and had been surprised that no one had "passed the hat" afterwords. Rogers had risen from a working-class family in a small town to become a partner of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Trust. He was one of the wealthiest men in the world.

Despite his great wealth, and reputation for tough business dealings, Rogers was apparently both a modest and generous man. Dr. Washington became a frequent visitor to Rogers' office, to his family's 85-room mansion in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, and was an honored guest aboard Rogers' yacht Kanawha. Their friendship extended over a period of 15 years.

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Handbill from 1909 Tour of southern Virginia and West Virginia

Among many other enterprises, Rogers was the builder of the Virginian Railway, completed in 1909. Although Rogers had died suddenly a few weeks earlier, Dr. Washington went on a previously arranged speaking tour in June, 1909 along the route of the new railroad which was built to transport bituminous coal from the mountains of West Virginia to port at Sewell's Point on Hampton Roads.

Dr. Washington rode in Rogers' personal rail car, "Dixie", making speeches at many locations over a 7-day period. He told his audiences that his recently departed friend, Henry Rogers, who was held in their esteem for having financed the railroad from his personal fortune, had urged him to make the trip and see what could be done to improve relations between the races and economic conditions for African Americans along the route of the new railway, which touched many previously isolated communities in the southern portions of Virginia and West Virginia.

Some of the places where Dr. Washington spoke on the tour were (in order of the tour stops), Newport News, Norfolk, Suffolk, Lawrenceville, Kenbridge, Victoria, Charlotte Courthouse, Roanoke, Salem, and Christiansburg in Virginia, and Princeton, Mullens, Page and Deepwater in West Virginia. One of his trip companions reported that they had received a strong and favorable welcome from both white and African American citizens all along the tour route.

It was only after the multi-millionaire's death that Dr. Washington said he felt compelled to reveal publicly some of the extent of Henry Rogers' contributions for his causes. The funds, he said, were at that very time, paying for the operation of at least 65 small country schools for the education and betterment of African Americans in Virginia and other portions of the South, all unknown to the recipients. Known only to a few trustees, Rogers had also generously provided support to institutions of higher education.

Dr. Washington later wrote that Henry Rogers had encouraged projects with at least partial matching funds, as that way, two ends were accomplished:

1. The gifts would help fund even greater work.
2. Recipients would have a stake in knowing that they were helping themselves through their own hard work and sacrifice.

"Up from Slavery", invitation to the White House

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

When his autobiography, Up from Slavery, was published in 1901, it became a bestseller and was one of the major influences to Marcus Garvey in the founding of the UNIA in Jamaica. He was also the first African-American ever invited to the White House as the guest of a President – which led to a scandal for the inviting President, Theodore Roosevelt.

"Think about it: We went into slavery pagans; we came out Christians. We went into slavery pieces of property; we came out American citizens. We went into slavery with chains clanking about our wrists; we came out with the American ballot in our hands... Notwithstanding the cruelty and moral wrong of slavery, we are in a stronger and more hopeful condition, materially, intellectually, morally, and religiously, than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe." – from Up From Slavery
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Booker T. Washington's coffin being carried to grave site

Washington finally collapsed in Tuskegee, Alabama due to a lifetime of overwork and died soon after in hospital, on November 14, 1915.

Honors and memorials

For his contributions to American society, Dr. Washington was granted honorary degrees from Harvard University in 1896 and Dartmouth College. On April 5, 1956, the house where he was born in Hardy, Virginia was designated a United States National Monument. Additionally, the first coin to feature an African-American was the Booker T. Washington Memorial Half Dollar that was minted by the U.S. Mint from 1946 to 1951. On April 7, 1940, Dr. Washington became the first African American to be depicted on a United States postage stamp.


  • The Awakening of the Negro, The Atlantic Monthly, 78 (September, 1896).
  • The Case of the Negro, The Atlantic Monthly, 84 (November, 1899).
  • Up from Slavery: An Autobiography (1901) - ISBN 0451527542
  • The Atlanta Compromise (1895)

See also

External links



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