Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was a black American leader, teacher, speaker and writer. He founded the Tuskegee Institute in 1881, which was his life’s work. He became the most famous and powerful black man in the country. He spoke on race relations and had the ear of President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1901 Roosevelt invited him to dinner at the White House, the first black American so invited. He wrote about his life in “Up From Slavery” (1901).
Washington did not openly push for equal rights, like the right to vote, he did not push for an end to Jim Crow. He said blacks must first pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Education, hard work, saving money and patience were the way. Rocking the boat will help no one. White people both North and South agreed!
But W.E.B. Du Bois did not agree. He and others founded the NAACP to fight for equal rights by challenging racism through the courts. In time it led to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the huge growth of black middle-class that followed.
Washington, in his defence, wanted to help people in the here and now. The best way he could do that was to start a school – Tuskegee – that would produce black teachers, tradesmen and farmers. He also raised millions for black education – for Tuskegee, Fisk, Howard and Hampton. None of this would have been possible if he openly opposed white power.
Washington, as it turns out, was for equal rights too – in private. We know that because he secretly gave money to help fight for them in court. From his private letters we know he was putting on something of a front for whites.
Washington started life as, yes, a house Negro. His mother, like him, was a slave in Virginia. She was a cook. He helped her out, learning the ways of white people. His father was some unknown white man.
The summer he was nine the slaves were freed. Soon after his family moved to West Virginia where his stepfather found work in the salt furnaces and coal mines.
More than anything he wanted to learn to read. His mother could not read but bought him spelling books. Although he worked full-time he still got as much education as he could – even if it was just two hours at night
At 16 he left home to go to Virginia to become a schoolteacher. He went to Hampton, which was founded after Emancipation to produce black schoolteachers.
At 19 Washington came back home to teach, but soon was asked back to Hampton to teach there. They loved him. The state of Alabama wanted a school just like Hampton and so at age 25 Hampton sent him to Alabama to start it. The state did not give him much money, but slowly he made it into one of the best black schools in the land – Tuskegee.