People & Events: Booker T. Washington, 1856-1915
Booker T. Washington was one of the most powerful African Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. Born a slave in Hale's Ford, Virginia, the son of a white man who did not acknowledge him and a slave woman named Jane (Burroughs) who later married a fellow slave, Booker T. Washington became a leader in black education, and a strong influence as a racial representative in national politics.
Washington learned to read and write in the late 1860s at a primary school overseen by the Freedmen's Bureau and in 1872 became a student at the Hampton Institute inVirginia, where he excelled. He was teaching at Hampton in 1881 when he was invited to become the first principal of the newly-founded Tuskegee Institute, a school for African Americans in Tuskegee, Alabama. At Tuskegee, Washington developed a vocational curriculum that emphasized carpentry, printing, tinsmithing, and shoemaking. Girls also took classes in cooking and sewing, and boys studied farming methods. All students received instruction in manners, hygiene, and character.
Washington was known as a racial accommodationist. He rejected the pursuit of political and social equality with whites in favor of developing vocational skills and a reputation for stability and dependability. In a famous 1895 Atlanta address, Washington urged African Americans to "cast down your buckets where you are," that is, to remain in the Jim Crow South and tolerate racial discrimination rather than make what he considered intemperate calls for equality. "In all things that are purely social," he said, blacks and whites "can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."
Through Tuskegee, Washington built a political machine based on the financial backing of a coalition of northern financiers, members of the white Southern elite, and conservatives attracted by his accommodationist rhetoric and vigorous espousal of the principle of self-help. His admirers included Theodore Roosevelt, who invited him to dine at the White House in 1901 and consulted him as an advisor on racial issues and southern political patronage. Washington, in turn, secretly used his wealth and power to finance challenges to Jim Crow laws and invest in selected black newspapers. Washington gained further prominence with the 1901 publication of his best-selling autobiography, Up From Slavery.
But Washington's philosophy of racial uplift was bitterly opposed by some African American intellectuals, most notably W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1903, Du Bois published the essay, "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others," in his book The Souls of Black Folk. He criticized Washington for failing to realize that without political power, economic gains were short-lived and vulnerable. Du Bois also believed that vocational education to the exclusion of the liberal arts would deprive African Americans of the well-trained leaders they sorely needed. In a time of increasing discrimination and racial violence, Du Bois argued, blacks must press for civil rights rather than accommodate inequality.
The "self-made man" image created in Washington's Up From Slavery, and the philosophy of self-sufficiency and social segregation epitomized in the Tuskegee curriculum, were inspirations to Marcus Garvey. Garvey contacted Washington in 1914 - 1915, and made plans to visit Tuskegee. Garvey intended to meet with Washington to discuss the formation of a school in Jamaica based on the Tuskegee model. But Washington died in November 1915, four months before Garvey arrived in the United States.
At the time of Washington's death, Tuskegee Institute, which had started with an appropriation of just $2000 from the Alabama state legislature, had a faculty of 200, an enrollment of 2000, and an endowment of $2 million.