Profiles in Greatness: Booker T. Washington

As the foremost black educator and public figure at the turn of the last century, Booker T. Washington was often controversial. Believing economic self-determination offered the road to equality with whites, Washington advised 19th- and early 20th-century African-Americans to learn essential trade skills, work hard and lead lives of frugality and strict morality to earn their place as equal partners in a nation recovering from Civil War.

“Nothing ever comes to one that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.”

Washington was born on a small tobacco farm in western Virginia in 1856, the son of a slave woman and a white farmer. He was only 9 years old when the Civil War ended. Once he was old enough to work, he labored alongside his stepfather in the salt mines and eventually moved into the even more dangerous labor of coal mining. While working as a miner, Washington heard about the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a freedman’s school in eastern Virginia dedicated to teaching African-Americans industrial arts.

Inspired that education and a better life were possible, Washington took a job as a servant in the home of a mine owner, earning $5 a month. He credited the mine owner’s wife with providing him an education in honesty, order and cleanliness, traits he would adopt as his own and preach to others in the coming years. In the early 1870s, Washington left for the Hampton Institute with the purpose of leaving behind “the degrading influence of the slave plantation and the coal mines.” Resolute despite his poverty, he walked most of the 500 miles from Malden, W.Va., to Hampton to attend school.

“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”

After graduating from the Hampton Institute, Washington returned to Malden and taught students in his hometown for a short time, then taught a couple of years at his alma mater in Hampton. In 1881, he was invited to head the newly established school for blacks in Alabama, the Tuskegee Institute, and became its president. Modeled on Hampton, the school was designed to train African-Americans in the trades and equip them to teach those trades in other public schools and black colleges across the South.

Aware of the constraints of racism in the South, Washington focused on helping blacks advance in the world by doing work that whites would accept them doing, thus working within the confines of the prejudices of the day to change those very prejudices. He sincerely felt that if African-Americans proved themselves a hardworking people with strong ethics, they would eventually gain not only the esteem of white neighbors and employers but economic and social equality.

“Character—not circumstances—makes the man.”

Washington rose in influence quickly because audiences of all races admired his strong moral character and desire to forward the lot of his people, as well his strong speaking and networking skills. He had a major influence on the success of a national network of schools and black newspapers and later founded the National Negro Business League.

More moralist than intellectual, Washington felt at least some of the failure of African-Americans to gain equal rights after the Civil War was the result of efforts to gain political and social equality before assuring their own economic futures. Thus, Washington relentlessly preached a doctrine of economic self-determination, urging blacks to acquire their own financial stability first.

His message struck home with blacks and whites, particularly northern white philanthropists who supported his school-building efforts. He had the support of some of the most powerful philanthropists in the United States, including Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.

“No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.”

Criticized at times for not pushing hard enough for equal rights, as well as for blacklisting contemporaries who opposed him, Washington was nevertheless a powerful influence on racial politics and economics. His critics referred to him as an accommodationist who gave in to the will of many southern whites, in particular, to restrict black voting rights, legal rights and access to higher education in professional spheres.

Washington was, at heart, a pragmatist, often speaking in ambiguous language to avoid offense while still promoting the economic advancement of African-Americans. He knew he could gain a much larger base of financial support for his educational goals if he appealed to a wider portion of the white population, one reason for his public stance on segregation. Washington also believed that if blacks could prove their ability to contribute economically, racism would eventually end, and social and political equality would follow.

“Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him.”

He was easily one of the most powerful African-American men of the late 19th century, demonstrating the ability to bring money to causes and people he cared about as well as jobs to blacks who might otherwise remain insufficiently employed. While many black leaders of the time urged African-American workers to join trade unions, Washington demurred. He felt the trade unions were often more racist than the employers themselves and urged black workers to garner the respect of their bosses first.

Washington was also widely admired for being a self-made man, a struggle he recounted in his autobiography Up From Slavery, published in 1901. President Theodore Roosevelt thought highly enough of Washington to consider him an informal advisor on race issues.

“Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.”

By the early part of the 20th century, Washington’s influence was slowly being eclipsed by rising black leaders like W.E.B. DuBois, who urged blacks to seek education and helped found the NAACP, which was publicly active in demanding equal rights and ending lynch mob rule in the South. However, Washington was always working in the background to fight Jim Crow laws and violence against blacks, writing letters under code names and protecting endangered blacks from lynch mobs. It was not a role he wanted to make public though, fearing it would compromise his influence with the powerful and wealthy whites who supported his schools.

“Years ago I resolved that because I had no ancestry myself, I would leave a record of which my children would be proud and which might encourage them to still higher effort.”

In the last years of his life, Washington had begun to realize that the progress of blacks in the United States would require more than their attainment of economic independence, though his efforts to promote African American education would have lasting impact. By the time of Washington’s death at age 59 in 1915, he left behind three children, and the Tuskegee Institute had an endowment of more than $2 million and a faculty of almost 200, serving some 1,500 students annually. And though he never strove to be an intellectual, Washington was awarded honorary degrees by both Harvard University and Dartmouth College in recognition of a life devoted to service, education and the economic advancement of those who had been slaves but a half century before.

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