Booker T. Washington (1856-1915)
Being born the son of a slave and an unknown white father in antebellum Virginia posed no insurmountable obstacle to the unbridled ambition of Booker T. Washington. His personal drive led him up from slavery (the title of his widely read autobiography) to become the founder and first head of the Tuskegee Institute and a leading advocate for the educational and economic improvement of African Americans. Inspired by his education as a boy at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, Washington shaped Tuskegee as the leader in vocational curriculum and character building.
Steeped in his philosophy of racial solidarity, self-help and accommodation, Washington advocated vocational education for African Americans as a way to teach his community the manual skills that would help them work their way up the social ladder and improve their economic status. His vision, persuasively articulated on the lecture circuit, enhanced public awareness of the educational needs of African Americans. His popular lectures espoused the values of hard work, persistence and self-discipline values he embodied and for which he is remembered. Washingtons views were hotly contested by African-American educator W.E.B. Dubois in one of the great debates of U.S. educational history at the start of the twentieth century. Dubois held that what African Americans needed was real education that would teach African American children to know, to think and to aspire.