Biography of Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington was the most famous African American of his time. He was the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, originally called the Tuskegee Normal School for Coloured Teachers, in which students were trained in industrial skills, morals, and religious life as well as in academics. He became a sought-after lecturer and was the dominant black leader from around 1890 until his death in 1915. 

Born into slavery, Washington was emancipated as a boy at the end of the Civil War. He spent much of his boyhood with his mother, two siblings, an adopted brother, and his stepfather in Malden, West Virginia, where he worked in a salt furnace, a coal mine, and the home of the mine's owner. 

Washington was determined to receive an education. His mother bought him a spelling book from which he taught himself to read, and he eventually persuaded his stepfather to allow him to attend school. While working in the mines, he overheard two men speaking of the Hampton Institute, a school which accepted students of any race and allowed poor but worthy students to work off the cost of their board and also learn a trade. With very little money, Washington made his way to Hampton, where he worked as a janitor. General Armstrong had founded the institute; he had led black troops in the Civil War and believed strongly in both industrial education and Christian values. Washington was highly influenced by Armstrong and based Tuskegee in large part on Hampton.  

After graduation, Washington taught for three years in a black school in Malden, then spent a few months at the Wayland Seminary in Washington, DC. Soon afterwards, he was invited back to Hampton to serve as a "house father" for Indian youth and to start a night school. 

In 1881, Washington was selected to open the Tuskegee Institute, a school for colored teachers in Tuskegee, Alabama. The state had allocated funds for teacher salaries but not for land, buildings, or materials. Washington therefore had to build the school literally from the ground up. He raised funds in the community and up north, becoming in the process a well-known public speaker. Students were not only taught academics, but also personal hygiene, moral development, and trades such as carpentry, brickmaking, farming, and domestic skills. In the spirit of self-reliance, they planted crops, constructed a large number of buildings, and even built their own furniture. As it grew, the school also sponsored a number of endeavors, such as the Annual Tuskegee Negro Conference, the National Negro Business League, women's conferences, and National Negro Health Week. By the time of Washington's death, Tuskegee had 2,000 acres of land, 100 buildings, a faculty of nearly 200, and an endowment of close to $2 million.   

The climax of Washington's career was his address in 1895 at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, a fair highlighting the progress of the south since the Civil War. There he urged blacks not to push for civil and political rights, but rather to improve their economic standing through education and hard work and thereby to win the respect of whites. In his famous quote, "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," he indicated his acceptance of segregation. Whites acclaimed the speech, although many blacks felt he had not been vocal enough on the issue of civil rights. 

Washington wielded a great deal of power in his time. In 1898, President McKinley visited the Tuskegee Institute, and in 1901 Theodore Roosevelt invited Washington to dine at the White House. Roosevelt regularly consulted him on matters involving race and southern policies, and nearly all minority political appointments had to be cleared by him first. He also wrote numerous articles and ten books, including three autobiographies. His writing helped to spread his influence, and the money he received helped Tuskegee.

After 1900 Washington received increasing criticism from blacks due to his response to legal segregation, loss of voting rights, and violence against blacks. Two of the most vocal were William Monroe Trotter (editor of Boston Guardian) and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois also questioned his emphasis on vocational and industrial education, arguing that blacks needed college-educated professionals to fight against discrimination and injustice. In fact, Washington secretly provided both money and legal support to challenge such things as segregated transportation, the disfranchisement of black voters, and all-white juries in Alabama. He maintained a secret relationship with Thomas Fortune, editor of the New York Age, the leading black newspaper of the time, and quietly endorsed stands against lynching and for civil rights. However, he chose not to reveal his position, as he feared jeopardizing the support he received from the white community.  

Washington married three times. His first wife, Fannie Smith, was his sweetheart from Malden. She gave birth to a daughter, Portia, in 1883, but died the next year. His second wife, Olivia Davidson, was Tuskegee's second teacher and the lady principal. She bore two boys, Booker Taliaferro and Ernest Davidson, but she too died just four years after their marriage. In 1893 Washington married Margaret Murray, who had replaced Davidson as lady principal. She helped him to raise his children and stayed with him for the rest of his life. 

On March 19, 1911, Henry Ulrich assaulted Washington while Washington was visiting New York City. Ulrich first claimed that Washington was a burglar, but later said he had been looking through the keyhole of a white woman's apartment and had made an advance towards Ulrich's wife. Washington charged him with assault and was supported even by his critics; however Ulrich was acquitted despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt. 

Washington died on November 14, 1915 of hypertension, most likely caused by overwork. However, his legacy has lived on to this day. He has been the recipient of numerous honors; for instance, he was the first African-American to be depicted on a postage stamp, and the house where he was born has been turned into a national monument. Numerous schools nationwide have been named after him, and the Booker T. Washington monument stands in the middle of the Tuskegee campus. Whether or not they agree with his views, he has influenced countless politicians, educators, and scholars who continue to read his works today. 




Study Guides on Works by Booker T. Washington

Up from Slavery is the autobiography of Booker T. Washington, one of the most prominent black leaders of the post-civil War era. Originally published in Outlook magazine in serial form, it was translated into 18 languages and is one of the...