Booker T Washington
WASHINGTON, Booker Taliaferro, educator, born in Hale’s Ford, Franklin County, Virginia, 18 April, 1856. He is of African descent, and early removed to West Virginia. He was graduated at Hampton institute in 1875, and in the same year entered Wayland seminary, whence he was called to fill the chair of a teacher at Hampton. There he was elected by the Alabama state authorities to the presidency of Tuskegee Institute, which he organized in 1881. Under his management it has grown from an institution with one teacher and thirty students to one with twenty teachers and 300 students. The property consists of 540 acres, a blacksmith’s shop, sawmill carpenter’s shop, brickyard, printing-office, and several large school-buildings, one of which, shown in the vignette, was built by the students. It is valued at $68,000, and by 1890 it was out of debt.
Washington then became a dominant figure of the African-American community from 1890 to his death in 1915, especially after his Atlanta Address of 1895. To many he was seen as a popular spokesman for African-American citizens. Representing the last generation of black leaders born into slavery, Washington was generally perceived as a supporter of education for freedmen in the post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow-era South. Throughout the final twenty years of his life, he maintained his standing through a nationwide network of supporters including black educators, ministers, editors, and businessmen, especially those who supported his views on social and educational issues for blacks. He gained access to top national leaders in politics, philanthropy and education, raised large sums, was consulted on race issues and was awarded honorary degrees from leading American universities.
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Washington, in 1901, wrote his autobiography, Up from Slavery detailing his work to rise from the position of a slave child during the Civil War, to the difficulties and obstacles he overcame to get an education at the new Hampton University, to his work establishing vocational schools—most notably the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama—to help black people and other disadvantaged minorities learn useful, marketable skills and work to pull themselves, as a race, up by the bootstraps. He reflects on the generosity of both teachers and philanthropists who helped in educating blacks and native Americans. He describes his efforts to instill manners, breeding, health and a feeling of dignity to students. His educational philosophy stresses combining academic subjects with learning a trade (something which is reminiscent of the educational theories of John Ruskin). Washington explained that the integration of practical subjects is partly designed to reassure the white community as to the usefulness of educating black people.
This text, while certainly a biography of his life, is in fact an illustration of the problem facing African Americans by detailing the problems of one. By showing how he has risen from servitude to success, he demonstrates how others of his race can do the same, as well as how sympathizers can aid in the process.
President, Roosevelt, before the publication of Booker’s autobiography, had occasionally conferred with the educator, asking his advice on appointments and candidates in the South. After becoming President, Roosevelt invited Washington to meet with him at the White House for a similar conference. Washington came to the White House on October 16 and, when the meeting lasted longer than anticipated, the President asked him to join him for dinner. Washington later noted that they “talked a considerable length concerning plans about the South.” Although their dinner was a private affair, a reporter leaked the news and a tidal wave of criticism erupted. Reaction was predictably very vocal in the deep South where Roosevelt was accused of “encouraging racial mixing and social equality for blacks.” Roosevelt was shocked by the furor.
In a letter dated October 24, 1901, Roosevelt writes to New York Congressman Lucius Littauer : “As to the Booker T. Washington incident, I had no thought whatever of anything save of having a chance of showing some little respect to a man whom I cordially esteem as a good citizen and good American.” He expresses dismay over the public reaction: “The outburst of feeling in the South about it is to me literally inexplicable. It does not anger me. As far as I am personally concerned I regard their attacks with the most contemptuous indifference, but I am very melancholy that such feeling should exist in such bitterly aggravated form in any part of the country.” He vows not to bend to pressure from these critics: “There are certain points where I would not swerve from my views if the entire people was a unit against me, and this is one of them. I would not lose my self-respect by fearing to have a man like Booker T. Washington to dinner if it cost me every political friend I have got.”