Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington
African American Educator, Memoirist 1856-1915

Booker T. Washington achieved a stature in American society that seemed impossible for a black man born into slavery in Franklin County, Virginia in 1856. A child when the Civil War ended in 1865, Washington spent the greater part of his life a freeman. However, young African Americans like Washington continued to face severely limited opportunities, despite the emancipation of the slaves after the war. In his teens, Washington worked a variety of jobs involving  hard labor and could not have predicted that he would one day be the most famous African American writer and speaker in the nation.
   Despite the hardships he faced in segregated America, Washington pieced together an education when he was not working. In 1872 he earned admission to Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia (now Hampton University), one of the first institutions of higher learning to service former slaves. He graduated in 1875 and, after brief stints as a teacher and as a student at a Baptist seminary, returned to Hampton as an instructor in 1879. Samuel Chapman Armstrong, the founder of Hampton, was so impressed with Washington’s drive that he asked the young teacher to help him open a school for African Americans in Tuskegee, Alabama. The Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, founded in 1881, became the base for Washington’s rise to fame.
   At Tuskegee, Washington devised a curriculum based on professional training and technical knowledge. He also taught his students the practical skills they would need in order to find jobs after emancipation, and hoped this strategy would prepare them for the economic challenges they faced. Many African Americans supported these methods because they promised financial stability; many white Americans supported these methods because they ensured that African Americans would continue to be workers instead of cultural or political leaders. White politicians were particularly impressed with Washington’s work after he delivered a speech in Atlanta in 1895 that detailed his plan for the gradual development of racial equality. But this speech also enraged a number of younger black intellectuals including W. E. B. Du Bois, who demanded an immediate recognition  of racial equality and would become Washington’s most influential opponent.
    Washington wrote or co-wrote a number of articles, biographies, and histories, but his most important literary work was Up from Slavery (1901). A memoir intended for white audiences, it emphasized the importance of hard work and patience in Washington’s own rise to fame and importance. Unlike Du Bois’s response in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), it did not openly criticize white prejudice or demand that African American men be allowed to vote, as was undermining American society and provided practical solutions to a problem that seemed insurmountable.
   By issuing only modest demands the black community, Washington set white politicians at ease. He was therefore admitted into the very center of American politics after the publication of the 1895 speech and Up from Slavery, befriending Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. But he did not abandon militant politics entirely; secretly he organized more radical demonstrations against racial oppression without attracting suspicion. Washington’s strategy of accommodation allowed him to manipulate racial politics from the inside and from the outside of the American political mainstream.
  But most Americans saw only the accommodating and modest approach detailed in works such as Up from Slavery. While strategy may have made him the most prominent black speaker and writer of his era, it may also have undermined his ultimate goal of racial equality. Later black activists would not accept economic self-reliance as the only goal of the Civil Rights struggle; they would follow Du Bois’s lead and demand immediate equality as well. And Washington, who prepared an entire generation  of African Americans for the harsh realities of a segregated nation, would seem the more old-fashioned of the two intellectuals.

More detailed information can be found in  the "Extraordinary American Writers" John Tessitore, and issued by The Scholastic Inc. in the USA.Information should be used just for educational purposes.


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