Booker T. Washington
influential black leader and educator

1856 - 1915

Booker T. Washington was the most influential black leader and educator of his time in the United States. He became prominent largely because of his role as founder and head of Tuskegee Institute, a vocational school for blacks in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Washington advised two presidents--Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft--on racial problems and policies. He also influenced the appointment of several blacks to federal office, especially during Roosevelt's Administration. Washington described his rise from slavery to national prominence as an educator in his best-selling autobiography, Up from Slavery (1901).

Booker Taliaferro Washington was born a slave in Hales Ford, Virginia, near Roanoke. After the U.S. government freed all slaves in 1865, his family moved to Malden, West Virginia. There, Washington worked in coal mines and salt furnaces. From 1872 to 1875, he attended the Hampton Institute, an industrial school for blacks in Hampton, Virginia. He became a teacher at the institute in 1879. Washington based many of his educational theories on his training at Hampton.

In the late 1800's, more and more blacks became victims of lynchings and Jim Crow laws that segregated blacks. To reduce racial conflicts, Washington advised blacks to stop demanding equal rights and to simply get along with whites. He urged whites to give blacks better jobs.

In a speech given in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1895, Washington declared: "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." This speech was often called the Atlanta Compromise because Washington accepted inequality and segregation for blacks in exchange for economic advancement. The speech was widely quoted in newspapers and helped make him a prominent national figure and black spokesman.

Washington became a shrewd political leader and advised not only Presidents, but also members of Congress and governors, on political appointments for blacks and sympathetic whites. He urged wealthy people to contribute to various black organizations. He also owned or financially supported many black newspapers. In 1900, Washington founded the National Negro Business League to help black business firms.

Throughout his life, Washington tried to please whites in both the North and the South through his public actions and his speeches. He never publicly supported black political causes that were unpopular with Southern whites. However, Washington secretly financed lawsuits opposing segregation and upholding the right of blacks to vote and to serve on juries.

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