FW: ANB - Bio of the Day: Booker T. Washington
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Booker T. Washington.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-25624).
Washington, Booker T. (5 Apr. 1856?-14 Nov. 1915), educator and
race leader, was born on the plantation of James Burroughs, near
Hale's Ford in Franklin County, Virginia, the son of an unknown
white father and Jane, a slave cook owned by Burroughs. Washington
was never certain of the date of his birth and showed little
interest in who his father might have been. His mother gave him
his first and middle names, Booker Taliaferro; he took his last
name in 1870 from his stepfather, Washington Ferguson, a slave
whom his mother had married. In his autobiography Up from Slavery
(1901), he recalled the poverty of his early years as a slave
on Burroughs's plantation, but because emancipation came when
he was around nine, he was spared the harsher experiences of
the slave system. In 1865, at the end of the Civil War, his mother
moved him, his half-sister, and his half-brother to Malden, West
Virginia, where her husband had found work. Young Booker was
put to work packing salt from a nearby mine and later did even
harder work in a coal mine.
Two women were influential in Washington's early education.
The first was his mother. He displayed an intense interest in
learning to read; although illiterate herself, she bought her
son a spelling book and encouraged him to learn. While working
in the mines, Washington also began attending a local elementary
school for black youths. The other female influence was Viola
Ruffner, wife of General Lewis Ruffner, owner of the mines. Probably
around the age of eleven, eager to escape the brutal mine work,
he secured a position as Viola Ruffner's houseboy. She had a
prickly personality, was a demanding taskmaster, and had driven
off several other boys, but in the eighteen months he worked
for her he came to absorb and appreciate her emphasis on the
values of hard work, cleanliness, and thrift; thereby an unlikely
bond of affection and respect developed between these two people
from very different backgrounds. Early on Ruffner spotted the
ambition in young Washington: "He seemed peculiarly determined
to emerge from his obscurity. He was ever restless, uneasy, as
if knowing that contentment would mean inaction. 'Am I getting
on?'--that was his principal question" (quoted in Gilson Willetts,
"Slave Boy and Leader of His Race," New Voice 16 [24 June 1899]: 3).
In 1872, at age sixteen, Washington entered Hampton Normal and
Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia; it turned out to
be one of the most important steps of his life. Having overheard
two miners talking about the school for young blacks, he had
determined to make his way there and set out on the 500-mile
trip with a small sum of money donated by family and friends,
barely enough to take him partway by train. The rest of the monthlong
journey was on foot or via an occasional passing wagon. He arrived
with fifty cents in his pocket and asked to be admitted. Ordered
to clean out a room, and sensing that this might be his entrance
examination, he swept and dusted until the room was spotless
and was soon a Hampton student. While there he worked as a custodian
to help defray his expenses.
Hampton Institute, only four years old at the time, was a monument
to its principal, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, probably
the single most influential person in Washington's life. Born
of missionary parents in Hawaii, Armstrong had led black troops
in the Civil War. Convinced that the future of the freedmen lay
in practical and industrial education and the instilling of Christian
virtues, Armstrong had founded Hampton under the auspices of
the American Missionary Association. In Booker Washington he
found an extraordinarily apt and ambitious pupil. Washington
not only learned agriculture, brickmasonry, and the standard
academic subjects taught at Hampton, more importantly he absorbed
the entire philosophy of character building and utilitarian education
stressed by the handsome and charismatic Armstrong.
After graduating in 1875, Washington returned to Malden for
three years to teach in a black school and to spread the Hampton
philosophy. Several months spent at Wayland Seminary, a Baptist
institution, in Washington, D.C., in 1878-1879 convinced the
restless young Washington that he was not cut out for the ministry.
In addition, his exposure to the poverty and degeneracy of lower-class
urban life instilled in him a lifelong dislike of cities. This
prejudice would later weaken to a degree his message to his fellow
blacks to remain in the rural South, at a time when far greater
job opportunities were to be found in the nation's burgeoning cities.
Somewhat adrift in the late 1870s, having rejected the ministry,
law, and public school teaching as viable careers, Washington
was invited back to Hampton in 1879 by General Armstrong to run
the night school and later to supervise the dormitory for Indian
boys, who had recently been admitted. As usual, his performance
was exemplary. In the spring of 1881 Armstrong received a request
from three education commissioners in Alabama to recommend a
white principal for a new Negro normal school to be established
in Tuskegee. He wrote a persuasive letter urging them to accept
Washington instead. They agreed, and the young educator was soon
on the way to what would be his life's work. On arriving in Alabama,
he learned that the state legislature had appropriated $2,000
for salaries only. There was no land, no buildings, no campus.
Plunging into unremitting activity, Washington won over local
whites in the community, began to recruit black students who
were hungry for education, and held the first classes in a shanty.
One of his mentors at Hampton was the school's treasurer, James
F. B. Marshall, an elderly and kindly ex-general who now began
coaching Washington in the arts of financial management and extracting
money from wealthy white benefactors. With a $200 loan from Marshall,
Washington purchased land outside of town for a permanent campus.
Student labor erected the initial buildings of Tuskegee Institute,
and student farming supplied much of the foodstuff for the dormitory
kitchen. Tuskegee would grow to 2,000 acres and 100 buildings,
with a faculty of nearly 200 and an endowment close to $2 million
by the time of Washington's death.
In spite of Washington's national fame in years to come, Tuskegee
never ceased to be his base of operations and the enterprise
to which he devoted most of his time. Each morning began with
a horseback ride to inspect the campus. He hired and fired faculty,
admitted and expelled students, oversaw the smallest details
of finances and purchasing, bought more land when he could, kept
creditors at bay when he had to, and spent much time cultivating
northern philanthropists for donations, at which he became extremely
adept. Among the notable benefactors of Tuskegee were steel magnate
Andrew Carnegie, oilman John D. Rockefeller, camera manufacturer
George Eastman, and Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck, and Co.
In many respects Tuskegee was a "colony" of Hampton Institute,
as Washington had imbibed General Armstrong's emphasis on industrial
skills and character building. The vocational curriculum included
some thirty-eight subjects, including printing, carpentry, cabinetmaking,
and farming. Female students specialized in cooking, sewing,
and other domestic skills. In addition to the standard academic
subjects, from grammar and composition to history, mathematics,
chemistry, and bookkeeping, strong emphasis was placed on personal
hygiene and moral development and on daily chapel services. At
the time of Washington's death the student body numbered more
than fifteen hundred.
Unlike Hampton, however, Washington's faculty and administrative
staff were all black, and many were graduates of Hampton and
Fisk University. Notable among the staff were botanist and agricultural
researcher George Washington Carver and Monroe Nathan Work, the
sociologist and bibliographer of black history and life who spent
thirty-seven years at Tuskegee as head of the Records and Research
Department. The highly capable Olivia Davidson, a graduate of
Hampton and the Framingham State Normal School near Boston, arrived
in 1881 to serve as principal of the female students and came
as close as anyone to being Washington's co-superintendent. For
the last eighteen years of his life, Washington's personal private
secretary, factotum, and alter ego was Emmett J. Scott, an extraordinarily
loyal, astute, and circumspect assistant who handled much of
Washington's correspondence, supervised the Tuskegee office staff,
and was privy to all of Washington's secret machinations at controlling
black American politics.
Washington was married three times. His first wife, Fannie N.
Smith, his sweetheart from Malden, gave birth to a child in 1883,
the year after their marriage, but died prematurely the next
year. In 1885 Washington married Olivia Davidson; they had two
children. This too was a short marriage, for she had suffered
from physical maladies for years and died in 1889. Four years
later he married Margaret J. Murray, a Fisk graduate who had
replaced Davidson as lady principal. She remained Washington's
wife for the rest of his life, helping to raise his three children
and continuing to play a major role at Tuskegee.
As Tuskegee Institute grew it branched out into other endeavors.
The annual Tuskegee Negro Conferences, inaugurated in 1892, sought
solutions for impoverished black farmers through crop diversity
and education. The National Negro Business League, founded in
1900, gave encouragement to black enterprises and publicized
their successes. Margaret Washington hosted women's conferences
on campus. Washington established National Negro Health Week
and called attention to minority health issues in addresses nationwide.
By the mid-1880s Washington was becoming a fixture on the nation's
lecture circuit. This exposure both drew attention and dollars
to Tuskegee and allowed the black educator to articulate his
philosophy of racial advancement. In a notable 1884 address to
the National Education Association in Madison, Wisconsin, Washington
touted education for Negroes--"brains, property, and character"--as
the key to black advancement and acceptance by white southerners.
"Separate but equal" railroad and other public facilities were
acceptable to blacks, he argued, as long as they really were
equal. This speech foreshadowed the accommodationist racial compromises
he would preach for the rest of his life. During the 1880s and
1890s Washington went out of his way to soft-pedal racial insults
and attacks on blacks (including himself) by whites. He courted
southern white politicians who were racial moderates, arguing
that black Americans had to exhibit good citizenship, hard work,
and elevated character in order to win the respect of the "better
sort" of whites. Full political and social equality would result
in all due time, he maintained.
The apogee of Washington's career as a spokesman for his race
occurred at the opening of Atlanta's Cotton States and International
Exposition in September 1895. This was one of a number of such
fairs held to highlight the South's progress since the Civil
War. Blacks had their own, albeit segregated, exhibit space at
the exposition, and the Atlanta leaders of the affair invited
Washington to give a ten-minute address. He spent much time honing
the speech, sensing its symbolic importance, and was uncharacteristically
nervous as 18 September approached.
Dubbed the "Atlanta Compromise," the speech was a masterpiece
of tact and ambiguity intended to impress all members of the
integrated audience--northern whites, southern whites, and blacks
from the South. It had all been said before by Washington but
never as succinctly and before such an important gathering. Though
acceding realistically to the deplorable state of race relations
in the United States at that time, Washington seemed to accept
the existence of segregation for his people and urged them not
to push for integrated facilities and other civil and political
rights. "The wisest among my race understand that the agitation
of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that
progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come
to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather
than of artificial forcing." He urged southern Negroes to "cast
down your bucket where you are"--stay in the South, gain education,
and through hard work win the economic advancement that would
also gain them the respect of their white neighbors. He reminded
his white listeners that the blacks among them made up one-third
of the South's population and that the fates of the two races
were inextricably bound. The climax of the speech, which brought
the audience to its feet in thunderous applause, was the memorable
sentence: "In all things that are purely social we can be as
separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential
to mutual progress."
The Atlanta Compromise speech unquestionably secured Washington's
position as the leading spokesman for American blacks to the
larger white community and particularly to the white power structure
of American politics, and it was lavishly praised by white leaders.
Symbolically the torch of black leadership had also been passed
to a younger generation, inasmuch as Frederick Douglass, the
former slave turned abolitionist, orator, and journalist, who
had been the most notable black American of his day, had died
a few months before Washington spoke. Washington had tapped into
the classic American myth that hard work, self-discipline, and
economic independence would win for any citizen the respect of
his neighbors. He conveniently ignored or chose to omit the fact
that at the very time he spoke American race relations were at
their worst point since the end of the Civil War, with lynchings
and other violence, grinding poverty, and legal and extralegal
discrimination at the ballot box a fact of life for most American
blacks. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision the very next year
in Plessy v. Ferguson would place the fiction of "separate but
equal" on segregated public facilities.
Yet the decade after 1895 was for Washington the most influential
period of his life, if that influence is measured by his demand
as a speaker and the power he wielded among white political leaders.
In 1898 President William McKinley paid a visit to Tuskegee Institute.
McKinley's successor, Theodore Roosevelt, had been a friend of
Washington's for several years. The relationship between president
and educator began on an inauspicious note when Roosevelt, one
month after taking office in 1901, invited Washington to dinner
at the White House. Although other blacks had visited the executive
mansion on occasion since at least the time of Abraham Lincoln,
the Roosevelt-Washington dinner set off a firestorm of outrage,
especially in the southern white press. Washington was chagrined
by the whole affair; Roosevelt made light of it to his southern
friend but privately called it a "mistake" and never again invited
minorities to the White House.
The dinner aside, the relationship between the two men was unusually
close. Roosevelt regularly though privately consulted Washington
on matters involving race and southern policies, and almost all
of the minority political appointments Roosevelt made as president
were first cleared with the Tuskegeean. Washington's relationship
with Roosevelt's successor, William Howard Taft, was cooler,
given Taft's greater reluctance than Roosevelt to make significant
black political appointments; but Washington scored an occasional
minor victory with Taft, and it was one of the many ironies of
his career that while he urged ordinary blacks to eschew politics
and humbly go about their daily work, he himself wielded more
political power than any other black American of his day.
Washington's prolific writing also helped to spread his influence;
moreover, much of the royalties from his books went into the
coffers of Tuskegee. He wrote scores of articles and ten books,
often with the help of ghost-writers, due to his busy schedule.
Among them were The Future of the American Negro (1899), a collection
of his articles and speeches; The Story of My Life and Work (1900),
the first of three autobiographies; Up from Slavery (1901), his
most critically acclaimed autobiography, translated into some
eighteen languages; Working with the Hands (1904); The Negro
in Business and a biography of Frederick Douglass, both in 1907;
My Larger Education (1911), the last of the trilogy about his
own life; and The Man Farthest Down (1912), based on a European tour.
Washington's power involved not only close relationships with
influential white political leaders and industrialists but also
a secret network of contacts with journalists and various organizations.
He schemed with white and black Alabamians to try to keep other
black schools from locating near Tuskegee. He engineered political
appointments for supporters in the black community as a way of
solidifying his own power base. He planted spies in organizations
unfriendly to him to report on their activities and at one time
even used a detective agency briefly. Despite public denials,
Washington owned partial interests in some minority newspapers.
This allowed him to plant stories and to influence their news
coverage and editorial stands in ways beneficial to himself.
Beginning in the mid-1880s, and lasting for some twenty years,
he maintained a clandestine relationship with T. Thomas Fortune,
editor of the New York Age, the leading black newspaper of its
day. He helped support the paper financially, was one of its
stockholders, and quietly endorsed many of Fortune's militant
stands for voting and other civil rights and against lynching.
He also supported the Afro-American League, a civil rights organization
founded by Fortune in 1887. Washington secretly provided financial
and legal support for court challenges to all-white juries in
Alabama, segregated transportation facilities, and disfranchisement
of black voters. As black suffrage decreased nonetheless around
the turn of the century, Washington struggled to keep a modicum
of black influence and patronage in the Republican party in the
South. From 1908 to 1911 he played a major, though covert, role
in the successful effort to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn
a harsh Alabama peonage law under which Alonzo Bailey, a black
Alabama farmer, had been convicted.
It is clear, from research in Washington's massive correspondence,
that he supported the full agenda of civil and political rights
put forward by Fortune, the Afro-American League, and later the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But
he refused to go public with such efforts, fearing, probably
rightly, that to reveal his involvement would undercut if not
destroy his support from white politicians and philanthropists
and perhaps threaten his beloved Tuskegee. Emmett Scott was one
of very few blacks who knew the full range of Washington's secret
activities; certainly no whites did.
After about 1900 Washington came under increasing criticism
from black opponents who questioned his measured and nonaggressive
responses to legalized segregation, loss of voting rights, and
violence against blacks. His critics referred disrespectfully
to his enormous influence as the Tuskegee Machine. Among the
most vocal were William Monroe Trotter, the militant editor of
the Boston Guardian, and noted sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois.
In his The Souls of Black Folk (1903) Du Bois launched a strong
indictment of Washington's accommodationist philosophy toward
the terrible racial climate of the time. Du Bois and others also
questioned Washington's emphasis on vocational and industrial
education, claiming that the black race needed college-educated
professionals in its fight against discrimination and injustice.
A series of setbacks after the turn of the century illustrated
how little effect Washington's moderation had had in ameliorating
the nation's tense racial climate. The uproar over the 1901 dinner
with President Roosevelt was a harbinger of worse things to come.
In September 1906 five days of frenzied racial violence rocked
Atlanta, the supposedly progressive capital of the New South.
After the violence subsided, at least eleven citizens, ten black
and one white, were dead, many other blacks were injured, and
black areas of the city experienced destruction. Washington gave
his usual muted response, urging Atlanta's blacks to exercise
"self-control" and not compound the lawless white behavior with
violence of their own. He was, however, instrumental in bringing
leaders of both races together after the riot to begin the healing process.
Also in 1906 occurred the notorious Brownsville affair. In August
an undetermined group of people shot up an area of Brownsville,
Texas, nearby Fort Brown, where black infantry soldiers were
stationed. One white man was killed. The racial climate was already
strained due to previous attacks on soldiers by local residents.
Townspeople assumed that the soldiers had done the shooting in
retaliation for the previous attacks. All of the black soldiers
vehemently denied their involvement, however, and there was no
compelling evidence or proof whatsoever of their guilt. In spite
of Washington's pleas not to do so, President Roosevelt dishonorably
dismissed three companies of the black troops, creating an uproar
among blacks and liberal whites.
Exasperated with Washington's low-key responses in the Atlanta
and Brownsville cases, his old friend Fortune finally broke with
him. More serious for Washington was the founding of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in
1909. Melvin J. Chisum, a northern confidant of Emmett Scott,
had infiltrated Trotter's Boston Suffrage League and later the
Niagara Movement, the forerunner of the NAACP, and reported the
activities of both groups back to Tuskegee. Characteristically,
Washington had a spy planted at the NAACP's founding meeting.
Nonetheless he was unable to prevent the creation of the NAACP,
the membership of which included blacks, sympathetic white progressives,
Jews, and even a few white southerners, or to influence its agenda,
which included a broad-based call for a major assault on all
fronts against racial injustice and white supremacy. Washington's
old nemesis Du Bois became editor of the organization's monthly
magazine, the Crisis. Although Washington privately supported
many of the goals of the NAACP, his concern was its threat to
his own power within the black community.
An ugly incident that took place in New York City on the evening
of 19 March 1911 illustrates how little protection was then afforded
to a black person, even one as eminent as Washington, under certain
circumstances. While scanning the residents' directory in the
vestibule of an apartment building in search of a friend, Washington
was assaulted and repeatedly struck on the head by Henry Ulrich,
a white resident of the apartment. Ulrich first claimed that
Washington was a burglar; the second version of his story was
that the black educator was looking through the keyhole of a
white woman's apartment and that he had made an improper advance
toward Ulrich's wife. Washington charged him with assault, and
the ensuing trial received much national publicity. Washington
won considerable support from the black community, even from
his critics. Ulrich's acquittal in the face of overwhelming evidence
illustrated the difficulties that even a prominent black man
could have with the American justice system in the early twentieth century.
Washington died of overwork and arteriosclerosis at Tuskegee,
shortly after returning from New York City, where he had been hospitalized.
Assessments of Washington by his contemporaries and, later,
by historians have been wide-ranging and contentious, revealing,
if nothing else, his complexity and many-sidedness. In the 1960s
his secret life emerged as scholars began to plumb the one million
documents in his collected papers. They reveal a much more complex,
manipulative, secretive, vain, and at times deceptive individual
than the inspiring and benign image that Washington himself so
assiduously cultivated in his own lifetime. Indeed, he likely
enjoyed leading this "double life."
To most of his students and faculty at Tuskegee, and to millions
of poor blacks nationwide, he was a self-made and beneficent,
if stern, Moses leading them out of slavery and into the promised
land. He tirelessly preached an upbeat, optimistic view of the
future of his fellow blacks. "When persons ask me," he said once,
"how, in the midst of what sometimes seem hopelessly discouraging
conditions, I can have such faith in the future of my race in
this country, I remind them of the wilderness through which and
out of which a good Providence has already led us." When he also
wrote that he would "permit no man, no matter what his color,
to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him," he was
undoubtedly sincere. His message to his fellow blacks that hard
work, good citizenship, patient fortitude in the face of adversity,
and love would ultimately conquer the hatred of the white man
was appealing to the majority of whites of his time and foreshadowed
the similar message of a later leader, Martin Luther King, Jr.
Washington's hardscrabble "up from slavery" background made
it difficult for him to communicate with his college-educated
critics, such as Trotter and Du Bois. They in turn, from the
comfort of their editorial offices in the North, were perhaps
unable to fathom the pressures and constraints from the white
community that southern educators like Washington had to deal
with on a daily basis. Yet their point that the race needed lawyers
and doctors as well as farmers and bricklayers was valid, and
the growing crescendo of criticism against Washington on this
issue made the last decade of his life probably his most difficult.
The irony, of course, was that Washington was secretly supporting
the campaign against legal segregation and racial violence and
for full civil rights. But he was unwilling to reveal his covert
role for fear that it would undercut his power base among blacks
and sympathetic whites, and he was doubtlessly right.
Close analysis of Washington's autobiographies and speeches
reveals a vagueness and subtlety to his message lost on most
people of his time, whites and blacks alike. He never said that
American minorities would forever forgo the right to vote, to
gain a full education, or to enjoy the fruits of an integrated
society. But he strategically chose not to force the issue in
the face of the overwhelming white hostility that was the reality
of American race relations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries. In this sense, he did what he had to do to assure
the survival of himself and the people for whom he spoke.
Most of Washington's papers are in the Library of Congress.
A smaller but important collection is at Tuskegee Institute.
The major published collection is The Booker T. Washington Papers,
ed. Louis R. Harlan and Raymond W. Smock (14 vols. 1972-1989).
The earliest biography, Emmett J. Scott and Lyman Beecher Stowe,
Booker T. Washington: Builder of a Civilization (1916), is predictably
laudatory, with long passages from his writings. Basil Mathews,
Booker T. Washington, Educator and Interracial Interpreter (1948),
is inadequate. Samuel R. Spencer, Jr., Booker T. Washington and
the Negro's Place in American Life (1955), is brief and balanced.
The most-comprehensive biography is Harlan's superb two-volume
Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901
(1972) and Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915
(1983); Harlan was the first biographer to plunge into the massive
Washington correspondence and ferret out his secret machinations.
Hugh Hawkins, ed., Booker T. Washington and His Critics: The
Problem of Negro Leadership (1962), and Emma Lou Thornbrough,
ed., Booker T. Washington (1969), are useful collections of historical
assessments. August Meier, Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915:
Racial Ideologies in the Age of Booker T. Washington (1963),
is a significant study of Washington and his critics. Rayford
W. Logan, The Betrayal of the Negro (1965), has a good assessment
of the Atlanta Compromise speech and nationwide reactions to
it. August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, From Plantation to Ghetto
(1976), has a short but perceptive portrayal of Washington. An
obituary is in the New York Times, 15 Nov. 1915.
William F. Mugleston
Booker T. Washington, My Larger Education; Being Chapters
from My Experience, 1911
From the Documenting the American South Collection, University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Booker T. Washington, Up from
Slavery: An Autobiography, 1901
From the Documenting the American South Collection, University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Back to the top
William F. Mugleston. "Washington, Booker T.";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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