Diverse Threads in the History of the United States: The Life of Booker T. Washington

“What’s resulted in the decades since is supposed to be an opportunity for White people and their institutions to redress their perpetual erasure of the roles of Black folks in building this country on our backs… What we’ve been given, however, is a rote acknowledgment of the same five people — Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington Carver, Madame C.J. Walker, and Malcolm X.” (1)

In the above quote, the writer Tre’vell Anderson argues for the inclusion of queer voices in the Black History Month canon, but his comment extends equally to what might be considered the extended pantheon of Black leaders in American history

Booker T. Washington’s life is a case in point. 

A man of the 19th century, Washington was part of a diverse group of thinkers; his middle-of-the-road philosophy — which took hold after the period of American Reconstruction — has largely been supplanted by the convictions of progressives like W.E.B. Du Bois. 

But the latter grew up in the North. Washington’s experiences of life in the sharecropper South led him to different convictions and actions. His legacy to the United States? Generations of trained teachers, the development of vocational training, and the Tuskegee Institute — now University — in Alabama. 

Booker T. Washington: The Slave

It is generally accepted that the slave known as “Booker” was born somewhere between 1856 and 1859 — the years he cites in his 1901 memoir, Up From Slavery. Here, he admits to not knowing his exact birthday, as well as mentioning, “I cannot remember having slept in a bed until after our family was declared free by the Emancipation Proclamation.” (2) 

There’s insufficient information to clearly outline Booker’s early life as a slave, but we can consider a few facts in the light of what is known about plantation life in general. 

In 1860 — right before the start of the American Civil Warfour million people lived as enslaved African Americans in the Antebellum South (3). Plantations were relatively large farming complexes, and “field hands” were expected to work harvesting tobacco, cotton, rice, corn, or wheat.

READ MORE: Who Invented the Cotton Gin? Eli Whitney and Cotton Gin Impact on America

That, or help to maintain the institution of the plantation by making sure the laundry, barn, stable, loomery, granary, carriage house, and every other facet of the “business” owner’s life all ran smoothly.

Housed away from the “big house” — the nickname given to the Southern mansions where slave masters lived with their families — slaves formed their own little “towns” on the larger plantations, living in big groups in cabins on the property.

And in areas where there were several plantations nearby to each other, slaves sometimes had contact, which helped to build a small and scattered community.

But what little community these slaves had was entirely dependent on their masters’ will. Slaves worked from dawn to dusk, unless needed for longer hours.

They were given staples such as peas, greens, and cornmeal, and expected to cook their own food. They were not allowed to learn to read or write, and corporal punishment — in the form of beatings and whipping — was distributed often, without whatever passed as a reason, or to cause fear so as to enforce discipline. 

And, only to add to that already terrible reality, masters also often forced themselves on the enslaved women, or required two slaves to have a baby, so that he could increase his property and future prosperity.

Any children born to a slave were themselves also slaves, and therefore the property of their master. It was no guarantee that they would remain on the same plantation as their parents or siblings. 

It wasn’t unusual for such horrors and misery to push a slave to run away, and they could find refuge in the North — even more so in Canada. But if they were caught, the punishment was often severe, ranging from life threatening abuse to the separation of families. 

It was common for the insubordinate slave to be sent further into the Deep South, into states such as South Carolina, Louisiana, and Alabama — places that burned with a special tropical heat during the summer months and that possessed an even stricter racial social hierarchy; one that made freedom seem even more of an impossibility.

A lack of sources prevent us from knowing the many nuances that existed across the lives of the millions of slaves that lived in the United States, but the monstrosity of slavery forged the fingerprint of the United States and has touched the lives of every American to ever live.

But those who had to live through a life in bondage have a perspective like none other. 

For Booker T. Washington, being able to draw on his direct experience caused him to see the plight of freed Blacks in the South as the product of a recurring system of oppression.

So he advocated for what he saw as the most practical way to end the cycle and give Black Americans the chance to experience even greater freedom.

Booker T. Washington: Growing Up

The child known as either “Taliaferro” (per his mother’s wishes) or “Booker” (per the name used by his masters) was raised on a Virginia plantation. He was given no education and expected to work from the time he was old enough to walk.

The cabin where he slept was fourteen by sixteen feet square, with a dirt floor, and was also used as the plantation kitchen where his mother worked (4). 

As an intelligent kid, Booker noticed an oscillating set of beliefs in his community on the issue of slavery. On the one hand, the adult slaves in his life kept themselves informed on the process of the emancipation movement and ardently prayed for freedom. On the other, however, many were emotionally attached to the White families that owned them. 

The majority of child-raising — for both Black and White children — was done by “mammies,” or older Black women. Many other slaves also found a sense of pride in their ability to farm, work as a “house servant,” cook, or keep the horses.

With each passing generation, enslaved Black people gradually lost their connection to life in Africa, identifying more and more closely as Americans waiting to be freed but having little idea of what that would actually mean. 

Booker began to question what life would be like for a free Black person in the United States, and especially for one living in the South. Freedom was a dream he shared with all his fellow slaves, but he, from an early age, was trying to figure out what freed slaves would need to do in order to survive in a world that had for so long feared their liberty. But this concern didn’t stop Booker from dreaming of a time when he would no longer be a slave.

When the Civil War began in 1861, hopes for that different life became even stronger. Booker himself noted that “when war was begun between the North and South, every slave on our plantation felt and knew that, those other issues were discussed, the primal one was that of slavery.” (5)  

Even so, their ability to wish aloud on the plantation was compromised, as five of the master’s sons enlisted in the Confederate Army. With the men engaged in battle, the plantation was run by the owner’s wife during the war years; in Up From Slavery, Washington noted that the hardships of the war were easier borne by the slaves, who were used to a life of hard work and little food.  

Booker T. Washington: The Freeman

To understand the impact of Washington’s early life as a freedman, it is important to understand the treatment of Blacks during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War.  

Life in the “New” South

The Republican party, anguished over the assasination of Abraham Lincoln, spent the years after the end of the war focused on extracting vengeance from the Southern states, rather than on improving the lives of freed slaves.

Political power was given to those who could best serve the “new masters” rather than to those who could best govern; in other words, unqualified people were put into positions as figureheads, hiding the greedy masterminds that profited off the situation. The result was a battered South. 

Convinced of its ill-treatment and fearing for its well-being, those capable of political work focused not on creating a more equal society but on repairing the welfare of former Confederates.

Southern leaders pushed back against the changes forced upon them; newly formed organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan roamed the countryside at night, committing acts of violence that kept freed ex-slaves terrified of exerting any sort of power.

In this way, the South soon slipped back into the Antebellum mindset, with White supremacy replacing slavery. 

Booker was somewhere between the ages of six and nine at the end of the Civil War, and so was old enough to remember the mixed joy and confusion felt by his newly-emancipated community. 

While freedom was a jubilant experience, the bitter truth was that ex-slaves were uneducated, penniless, and without any means to support themselves. Although originally promised “forty acres and a mule” after Sherman’s march through the South, land was, soon enough, returned to White owners. 

Some freedmen were able to find “jobs” as government figureheads, helping to hide the ruse of unscrupulous Northerners hoping to make a fortune off the re-integration of the South. And worse, many others had no choice but to find work on the plantations where they had originally been enslaved.  

A system known as “sharecropping,” which had previously used poor Whites to help farm large areas, became common during this period. Without money or the ability to earn it, freedmen could not buy land; instead, they rented it from White owners, paying with a portion of their farmed crop. 

The terms of labor were set by the owners, who charged for the use of tools and other necessities. The share given to the landowners was independent of farming conditions, often leading croppers to borrow against a forthcoming harvest if the current one performed poorly. 

Because of this, many freedmen and women found themselves locked into a system of subsistence farming, harnessed and more and more tied down by increasing debt. Some chose instead to “vote” with their feet, moving to other areas and labor in the hopes of establishing prosperity. 

But the reality was this — the vast majority of former slaves found themselves doing the same back-breaking physical labor as they had in chains, and with very little financial improvement in their lives.  

Booker the Student

Newly emancipated Blacks longed for the education they had long been denied. During slavery they had been given no choice; legal statutes prohibited teaching slaves to read and write for fear that it conveyed “a dissastisfaction in their minds…” (6), and, of course, even the punishments differed amongst race — White lawbreakers were fined, while Black men or women were beaten. 

The penalty for slaves teaching other slaves was especially severe: “That if any slave shall hereafter teach, or attempt to teach, any other slave to read or write, the use of figures excepted, he or she may be carried before any justice of the peace, and on conviction thereof, shall be sentenced to receive thirty nine lashes on his or her bare back” (7).

It’s important to remember, right about now, that this kind of heavy punishment was disfiguring, disabling, or worse — many people died from the severity of their injuries. 

Emancipation may have brought with it the idea that education was indeed possible, but during Reconstruction, freedmen and women were kept from reading and writing by a lack of teachers and a lack of supplies.

Simple economics meant that, for the vast majority of former slaves, days that were previously filled with hard work for their masters were still filled in the same way, but for a different reason: survival. 

Booker’s family was no exception to the changing fortunes experienced by those newly freed. On the positive side, his mother was able to finally reunite with her husband, who had previously lived on a different plantation.

However, this meant leaving the place of his birth and moving — on foot — to the hamlet of Malden in the newly established state of West Virginia, where mining offered the potential for a living wage. 

Although quite young, Booker was expected to find a job and help support the family. He first labored in a salt mine, working even harder as a freedman than he had as a slave.

He wanted to attend school and learn to read and write, but his step-father didn’t see the point, and so kept him from doing so. And even when the first day-school for Black children was established, Booker’s job kept him from enrolling. 

Disappointed but undeterred, Booker made arrangements for nightly tutoring in reading and writing. He continued to ask his family for the privilege of attending day classes, knowing all the while that his financial contributions were urgently needed. 

Finally, an agreement was reached; Booker would spend the morning at the mine, attend school, and then leave school to return to work for two more hours. 

But there was a problem — in order to attend school, he needed a last name. 

Like many emancipated slaves, Booker wanted it to signify his status as a freedman and as an American. Thus, he christened himself with the last name of the first US president. 

And when a conversation with his mother shortly afterwards unveiled her earlier christening of “Booker Taliaferro” he simply combined the various names together; becoming, in this way, Booker T. Washington.

Soon, he found himself caught between two aspects of his personality. A hard worker by nature, his work ethic soon translated into his contribution becoming the lion’s share of family financial support. And at the same time, his ability to attend day school was compromised by the sheer physical difficulty of essentially working two full-time jobs. 

His attendance at school thus became irregular, and he soon went back to night tutoring. He also moved from working in a salt furnace to a coal mine, but disliked the extreme physical labor intensely, and so eventually applied to become a house servant — an occupation that he kept for a year and a half. 

The Pursuit of Education

Washington’s move into service proved to be a defining point in his life. He worked for a woman by the name of Viola Ruffner, the wife of a leading citizen in the Malden community.

Impressed by Booker’s ability to learn new tasks and his desire to please, she took an interest in him and his desire for an education. She also taught him a personal code that included “his knowledge of the Puritan work ethic, cleanliness, and thrift.” (8)  

In return, Washington began to develop his belief in the necessity of freedmen to work within the established community. His increasingly warm relationship with the family meant that Viola allowed him some time during the day to study; and also that the two remained lifelong friends. 

In 1872, Washington decided to attend the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a school that had been established to educate freed Black men.

He lacked the money to travel the necessary five hundred miles back to Virginia, but it was of no matter: he walked, begged rides, and slept rough until reaching Richmond, and there, he took on work as a stevedore to finance the rest of the journey. 

Upon arriving at the school, he worked as a janitor to pay for his education, at times living in a tent when no dormitory space was available. He graduated with honors in 1875, somewhere between the ages of sixteen and nineteen.

The Teacher

With a practical education under his belt, Washington found work at a hotel for a few months before returning to his family in Malden, and there, he became the teacher of the school he had so briefly attended. 

He stayed for the remainder of the Reconstruction period, following the fortunes of others in the community. Many of his later beliefs were crystallized by his early teaching experience: in working with local families, he saw the inability of many ex-slaves and their children to become economically independent. 

For lack of a trade, families went into debt, and this shackled them as surely as the sharecropping system his family had left behind back in Virginia.

At the same time, Washington also witnessed the vast numbers of people who went without knowledge of basic cleanliness, financial literacy, and many other essential life skills.

In response, he stressed practical accomplishments and the development of job know-how — finding himself giving lessons in how to use a toothbrush and wash clothing in addition to reading.  

These experiences brought him to the belief that any education pursued by an African-American needed to be practical, and that financial security should be the first and most important objective.

In 1880, Washington returned to the Hampton Institute. He was originally hired to teach Native Americans, but reached out to the African-American community as well, tutoring in the evenings.

Beginning with four students, the night program became an official part of the Hampton program when it grew to twelve and then to twenty-five pupils. By the turn of the century, there were over three hundred in attendance.

The Tuskegee Institute 

One year after his appointment at Hampton, Washington proved to be the right person at the right time and the right place. 

An Alabama senator by the name of W.F. Foster was running for re-election, and hoped to be able to earn the vote of Black citizens. To do this, he provided legislation for the development of a “normal,” or vocational school, for African-Americans. This cooperation led to the founding of what is now the Historic Black College of Tuskegee Institute. 

As the school’s website tells it:

“A $2,000 appropriation, for teachers’ salaries, was authorized by the legislation. Lewis Adams, Thomas Dryer, and M. B. Swanson formed the board of commissioners to get the school organized. There was no land, no buildings, no teachers only State legislation authorizing the school. George W. Campbell subsequently replaced Dryer as a commissioner. And it was Campbell, through his nephew, who sent word to Hampton Institute in Virginia looking for a teacher.” (9)

Samuel Armstrong, the leader of Hampton Institute, was tasked with finding someone to launch the venture. It was originally suggested that he find a White teacher to lead the new normal school, but Armstrong had watched the development of Hampton’s night program and had a different idea. Armstrong asked Washington to take on the challenge, and Washington agreed. 

The dream had been approved, but it still lacked some important practical details. There was no site, no educators, no advertisement for students — all of which needed to be put into place. 

To ensure the effectiveness of the school’s opening, Washington started from scratch, looking to develop a program specific to the needs of future students.

He left Virginia and traveled to Alabama, steeping himself in the culture of the state and noting the conditions under which many of its Black citizens lived.  

Although no longer slaves, the vast majority of freedmen in Alabama were living in extreme poverty, as the sharecropping system kept families attached to the land and in constant debt. To Washington, people had been legally freed from bondage but this had done little to lessen their suffering. 

Blacks in the South, on top of being hated for the color of their skin, also lacked many of the skills needed to compete in a free market economy, leaving them jobless and desperate.

They had little to no other choice but to accept a situation that was really different only in name from their previous status as slaves.

Washington’s mission now became much larger, and, undaunted by the size of the task, he began searching for both a site and a way to pay for building construction. 

But despite the pragmatism and logic of Washington’s approach, many residents of the town of Tuskegee were instead in favor of a school which taught not the trades, but liberal arts — humanities-focused fields of study that were seen as a dream pursued by the affluent and noble.  

Many Blacks felt it was necessary to promote an education focused on the arts and humanities amongst the newly-free population, in order to demonstrate their equality and freedom.

Acquiring such knowledge would prove that Black minds worked just as well as White ones did, and that Blacks could serve society in many more ways than by simply providing manual labor.

Washington noted that, in his conversations with the men and women of Alabama, that many seemed to have little idea of the power of education and that being literate could bring them out of poverty.

The very idea of financial security was completely alien to those raised as slaves and then cast out to their own devices, and Washington found this to be a major problem for the community as a whole. 

Discussions only strengthened Washington’s belief that education in the liberal arts, while valuable, would do nothing for the newly-freed Blacks in the United States.

Instead, they needed a vocational education — mastery of particular trades and courses in financial literacy would allow them to build up economic security, thus allowing them to stand tall and free in American society. 

The Founding of Tuskegee Institute

A burnt-out plantation was found for the site of the school, and Washington took out a personal loan from the treasurer of Hampton Institute to pay for the land. 

As a community, the newly entering students and their teachers held donation drives and offered suppers as fundraisers. Washington saw this as a way to engage the students and as a form of self sufficiency: “…in the teaching of civilization, self-help, and self-reliance, the erection of the buildings by the students themselves would more than compensate for any lack of comfort or fine finish.” (10) 

Further fund-raising for the school was done both locally in Alabama and in New England, the home of a great many former abolitionists now eager to help raise the standard of living for freed Blacks. 

Washington and his associates also endeavored to demonstrate the usefulness of the newly-christened Tuskegee Institute to both its students and to the White people living in the area.

Washington later noted that “just in proportion as we made the White people feel that the institution was a part of the life of the community… and that we wanted to make the school of real service to all the people, their attitude toward the school became favorable.” (11)

Washington’s belief in developing self-sufficiency also led him to engage students in the creation of the campus. He developed a program for making the actual bricks needed to construct the buildings, created a system of students building the buggies and carts used for transportation around campus as well as their own furniture (such as mattresses stuffed with pine needles), and created a garden so that growing their own food was possible. 

In doing things this way, Washington not only constructed the Institute — he taught students how to take care of their own everyday needs. 

Throughout all of this, Washington canvassed cities throughout the North in an effort to ensure funding for the school. And as its reputation grew throughout the United States, Tuskegee began to attract the attention of noted philanthropists, which eased the financial burden on him. 

A gift from railroad baron Collis P. Huntington, donated shortly before his death, in the amount of fifty thousand dollars, was followed by one from Andrew Carnegie, in the amount of twenty thousand dollars, to cover the cost of the school library. 

Slowly but surely, the school and its programs developed and flourished. So much so, that at the time of Washington’s death in 1915, the school had fifteen hundred students in attendance. 

Booker T. Washington Enters the Civil Rights Discussion

By 1895, the South had completely retreated from the ideas suggested by Lincoln and later Reconstructionists — largely reestablishing the social order that had existed in the South before the war, only this time, in the absence of slavery, they had to rely on other means of control. 

In an effort to return as much as possible to the “glory” of the Antebellum period, Jim Crow laws were passed in community after community, making legal the separation of Black people from the rest of society in areas ranging from public facilities such as parks and trains to schools and private businesses.

In addition, the Ku Klux Klan terrorized Black neighborhoods, as continued poverty made it difficult to resist the re-emergence of White supremist ideals. While technically “free,” the lives of most Black citizens were in fact very similar to the conditions endured under slavery. 

Both Black and White leaders of the time became concerned about tensions within the South, and discussions were held on how to best approach the problem.

As the head of Tuskegee, Washington’s ideas were valued; as a man of the South, he was adamant in his focus on economic advancement through vocational education and hard work. 

It is worth noting here that Washington’s life experiences up to this point were very different from other Black activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois — a Harvard graduate who had grown up in an integrated community and who would go on to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), one of the nation’s most prominent civil rights groups. 

The experience Du Bois had growing up in the North left him with a very different vision as to how to best help newly-freed slaves, one that focused on educating Blacks in the liberal arts and humanities. 

Washington, unlike Du Bois, not only had personal experience with slavery, but also relationships with other emancipated slaves who then floundered under the twin yokes of poverty and illiteracy.

He had seen his fellows used as government figureheads, essentially set up for failure while others made it rich; he had benefited from his involvement with White community leaders such as Viola Ruffner, who championed Puritan work ethic. 

Due to his particular experiences, he was convinced that economic security, not liberal education, was essential in lifting up a race that had been essentially abandoned by its government. 

The Atlanta Compromise

In September of 1895, Washington spoke at the Cotton States and International Exposition, an event which allowed him the honor of being the first African-American to address a mixed-race audience. His remarks are now known as “The Atlanta Compromise,” a title that emphasizes Washington’s belief in putting economic security first. 

In the Atlanta Compromise, Washington argued that the push for political racial equality was hindering ultimate progress. The Black community, he stated, needed to focus on legal due process and education — basic and vocational — as opposed to the right to vote. “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.” 

He urged his people to “cast down your buckets where you are” and focus on practical rather than idealistic goals. 

The Atlanta Compromise established Washington as a moderate leader in the Black community. Some condemned him as an “Uncle Tom,” arguing that his policies — which in some ways encouraged Blacks to accept their lowly position in society so that they could slowly work to improve it — were focused on appeasing those who would never truly work for full racial equality (i.e. White people in the South who did not want to envision a world where Blacks were considered their equals).

Washington even went so far as to agree with the idea that two communities could live separately in the same general area, stating “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.” (12)

One year later, the United States Supreme Court would agree with Washington’s logic. In the Plessy v. Ferguson case, justices argued for the creation of “separate but equal” facilities. Of course, what then transpired might have been separate, but it was definitely not equal. 

This case allowed Southern White leaders to maintain their distance from the actual African-American experience. The result? Politicians and other community activists saw no need to look closely at the lived experiences of Black communities in the early twentieth century. 

This is likely not the future Washington had envisioned, but because of the relative oversight by the federal government in the South after the end of the Civil War, segregation became a new inevitability in the late 19th and early 20th century American South. 

Because these separate facilities were so far from being equal, they did not even allow Blacks a fair chance at developing the skills Washington felt were so strongly needed to better their position in society.

This left Black Americans, who had waited and suffered for generations, adrift. Nominally free, the vast majority were unable to support themselves or their families.  

For the next half-century, their outlook on the future would be dominated by a new type of oppression, driven by the deep hatred of misunderstanding which would persist long after the abolition of slavery and even until the present day.

Washington and the Nascent Civil Rights Movement

With Jim Crow and segregation rapidly becoming the norm all across the South, Washington continued to focus on education and economic self-determinism. But other Black community leaders looked to politics as a way to improve living conditions for those in the South. 

Clashing with W.E.B. Du Bois

In particular, the sociologist, W.E.B. Du Bois, focused his efforts on civil rights and enfranchisement. Born in 1868, a critical decade later than Washington (as slavery had already been abolished), Du Bois grew up in an integrated community in Massachusetts — a hotbed of emancipation and tolerance. 

He became the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University, and was actually offered a job at Tuskegee University in 1894. Instead, during that year, he chose to teach at various Northern colleges.

His life experience, so different from Washington’s, led him to be considered a member of the elite while also giving him a very different perspective on the needs of the Black community. 

W.E.B. Du Bois was originally a supporter of the Atlanta Compromise but later moved away from Washington’s line of thinking. The two became opposing icons in the fight for racial equality, with Du Bois going on to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. And unlike Washington, he would live to see the nascent civil rights movement gain steam in the 1950s and 60s.

Washington as a National Advisor

In the meantime, Booker T. Washington, confident in his vision for Black Americans, continued to lead Tuskegee Institute. He worked with the local communities to establish the kinds of programs that would best serve the local area; by the time of his death, the college offered thirty-eight different vocational, career-driven pathways.  

Washington was recognized as a leader of the community, and was honored as someone who had worked his way up, taking the time to bring others with him.

Harvard University recognized him in 1896 with an honorary master’s degree, and, in 1901, Dartmouth presented him with an honorary doctorate. 

That same year saw Washington dining with President Theodore Roosevelt and his family at the White House. Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, would continue to consult him on various racial issues of the early twentieth century.  

Washington’s Later Years

Finally, Washington was finally able to give attention to his personal life. He married a woman by the name of Fanny Norton Smith in 1882, only to be widowed and left with a daughter two years later. In 1895, he married the assistant principal of Tuskegee, who gave him two sons. But she also later died in 1889, leaving Washington a widower for the second time.

In 1895, he would marry for the third and final time, having no more children, but enjoying his blended family for a decade filled with work, travel, and joy. 

In addition to his duties at Tuskegee and at home, Washington journeyed across the United States to give talks about education and the need for African-Americans to improve their lot in life.

He sent Tuskegee graduates out across the South to teach the next generation, and acted as a role model for the Black community across the nation. In addition, he wrote for various publications, gathering different articles together for his books. 

Up From Slavery, perhaps his best-known book, was published in 1901. Because of Washington’s devotion to community and local values, this memoir was written in plain language, detailing the various parts of his life in an easy-to-read, accessible tone.

Today, it still remains very readable, allowing us to see how the big events of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Emancipation affected individuals in the south. 

Washington’s respect alone would mark this tome as an important addition to the Black literature canon, but the level of detail into daily life after the Civil War brings it into even more prominence. 

Waning Influence and Death

In 1912, Woodrow Wilson’s administration took over the government in Washington D.C. 

The new president, like Booker T. Washington, was Virginia born; however, Wilson was disinterested in the ideals of racial equality. During his first term, Congress passed a law making racial intermarriage a felony, and other laws that restricted Black self-determination soon followed. 

When confronted by Black leaders, Wilson offered a cool retort — in his mind, segregation served to further the friction between the races. During this time, Booker T. Washington, like other Black leaders, found himself losing much of his government influence.  

By 1915, Washington found himself in declining health. Returning to Tuskegee, he passed away swiftly that same year from congestive heart failure (13).

He did not live to witness the lives of African-Americans during the two World Wars and the space between; he missed the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the valiant efforts of the Buffalo Soldiers; and he would never watch the victory of the civil rights movement. 

Today, his legacy has been diminished by the rise of more radical leaders such as Du Bois, but his greatest achievement — the founding and development of what is now Tuskegee University — remains.

Washington’s Life in Perspective

Washington was a realist, seeking to improve lives one step at a time. Many people, however, were displeased with what they saw as appeasement rather than true progress — Du Bois in particular came to regard Washington as a traitor to Black advancement. 

Ironically, many White readers found Washington’s stance too “uppity.” To these people, he demonstrated arrogance in his contention that economic progress was possible.

Distanced as they were from the daily realities of Black life, they found his desire to educate — even at a vocational level — a threat to the “Southern way of life.” 

Washington, they believed, needed to be put in his place, which of course meant out of politics, out of economics, and, if possible, out of sight completely. 

Of course, Washington’s experience here was the same as that of many other Black citizens during the segregation era. How would it be possible to move the community forward without creating another backlash such as the one that followed Reconstruction? 

When we review the history of the post-Plessy v. Ferguson era, it is important to keep in mind the way in which racism differs from prejudice. The latter is a situation of emotions; the former entails an entrenched belief in inequality combined with a political system that reinforces such ideals. 

From this distance, we can see that Washington’s relinquishment of political equality did not thus serve the Black community. But, at the same time, it’s hard to argue with Washington’s approach based on the idea that bread comes before ideals. 


The Black community is a diverse one, and it has thankfully resisted history’s attempt to force it into a stereotype of lone leaders braving the way for the entire race.

The “Big Five” that the writer Tre’vell Anderson speaks of — Martin Luther King, Jr.; Rosa Parks; Madame C.J. Walker; George Washington Carver; and Malcolm X — are all vibrant individuals with astonishingly important contributions to society. 

However, they do not represent every Black person, and our lack of knowledge of other, equally important individuals is appalling. Booker Taliaferro Washington — as an educator and thinker — should be better known, and his complex contributions to history should be studied, analyzed, debated, and celebrated. 


1. Anderson, Tre’vell. “Black History Month Includes Black Queer History, Too.” Out, February 1, 2019. Accessed on 4 February 2020. www.out.com

2. Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. Signet Classics, 2010. ISBN:978-0-451-53147-6. Page 3.

3. “Enslavement, the Making of African-American Identity, Volume 1L 1500-1865,” National Humanities Center, 2007. Accessed on 14 February 2020. https://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai/enslavement/enslavement.htm

4. “A Birthplace That Experienced Slavery, the Civil War, and Emancipation.” Booker T Washington National Historic Site, 2019. Accessed on 4 February, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/bowa/a-birthplace-that-experienced-slavery-the-civil-war-and-emancipation.htm

5. Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. Signet Classics, 2010. ISBN:978-0-451-53147-6. 

6. “History is a Weapon: Slaves Are Prohibited to Read and Write By Law.” February, 2020. Accessed on 25 February 2020. http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/slaveprohibit.html

7. ibid.

8. “Booker T. Washington.” Theodore Roosevelt National Historic Site, New York. National Park Service, updated April 25, 2012. Accessed on 4 February, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/thri/bookertwashington.htm

9. “History of Tuskegee University.” Tuskegee University, 2020. Accessed on 5 February, 2020. https://www.tuskegee.edu/about-us/history-and-mission

10. Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. Signet Classics, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-451-53147-6.

11.. Ibid, page 103.

12. “The Atlanta Compromise.” Sightseen Limited, 2017. Accessed on 4 February, 2020. Http: //www.american-historama.org/1881-1913-maturation-era/atlanta-compromise.htm

13. “Atlanta Compromise.” Encyclopedia Brittanica, 2020. Accessed on 24 February, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/event/Atlanta-Compromise

14. Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Booker T. Washington”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net, 20 July 2018. Accessed on 4 February, 2020. https://www.biographyonline.net/politicians/american/booker-t-washington-biography.html

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