Booker T. Washington


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Booker T. Washington (1856?-1915), American educator, race leader and author, founded the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama.

The first of three of Washington's autobiographies, Up From Slavery: An Autobiography (1901) is a poignant memoir from Washington's early days of slavery on a plantation and his emancipation at the age of nine. Washington would go on to be the single-most powerful influence to disenchanted young blacks Nationwide. He was a powerful presence and self-made man, leading the way for future leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Booker Taliaferro was born a slave on 5 April, possibly in the year 1856, near Hale's Ford in Franklin County, Virginia, in a ramshackle one-room cabin on a tobacco farm owned by James Burroughs. It is not known who his white father was, but he took no responsibility for him. His mother's name was Jane, who was a farm cook and a pious woman who prayed for freedom from slavery every day. She married another slave, Washington Ferguson, and Washington was added to Booker's name.

Although his mother was illiterate, early on she encouraged Booker to read. At the time it was illegal to educate slaves in schools so Washington's only exposure to them was by carrying Burroughs’s daughters' books to school for them. In 1865 the Emancipation Proclamation was read and young Booker, his half-sister and half-brother moved with their mother to Malden, West Virginia. His step-father, after escaping during the Civil War, had found work in a mine. Washington worked in a salt mine, then a coal mine in the mornings and evenings to make up for the time he spent in school during the day.

A key figure in Washington's life was Viola Ruffner, the wife of General Lewis Ruffner, owner of the mines. She hired young Washington to be her houseboy. Although she was a formidable figure, demanding and strict, there soon developed a bond of affection between the two. It was Viola's conservative values that Washington eagerly adopted, they being a strong work ethic, cleanliness and thrift. Viola saw the strong conviction and aspirations of the youth early on.

Washington was soon to take one of the most important journeys of his life. He had heard miners talking about a school for young blacks. He was determined to further his education, and at the age of sixteen set out on a five-hundred mile trip to Hampton, Virginia. It was there, in 1872, that Washington enrolled at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, founded by a former Union General. F. Griffiths Morgan paid Washington's tuition and John H. Washington, Washington's brother, worked in a West Virginia coal mine to keep his brother in school. Hampton's principal, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, would become the most supportive and influential figure in Washington's life. Washington immersed himself in the standard subjects as well as agriculture and brick masonry, but he also continued to develop the exceptional character that Viola had seen the beginnings of, under the tutelage of the charismatic Armstrong. In 1878 Washington graduated, then became an instructor there a year later while also supervising a group of Native Americans who were attending as an experiment.

In 1881 Armstrong was asked to recommend a white principal for a black normal school that was planned in Tuskegee, but instead he persuaded them to select Washington. The young teacher soon gained the confidence of the whites in the area and adeptly obtained donations. He would continue to secure finances for the Institute in the years to come from such illustrious benefactors as George Eastman, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. Washington put all his effort into teaching eager young blacks, first from a small shanty, but he eventually secured land for the Institute. What followed was a tremendous effort by the students themselves to erect the principle buildings, and they provided their own food by various farming techniques. Porter Hall was the first building erected. Cassedy Industrial Hall, Science Hall, Alabama Hall, a blacksmith shop, a laundry building and Church were soon built. Psychology, dairying, bee culture, horticulture, shoemaking, dressmaking, tailoring, cooking, brick making, carpentry, harness making and carriage dressing were some of the thirty-eight subjects taught. Of the many facilities available there was a tin shop, a machine shop, and a printing press where the students published their own newspaper.

Washington had learned early the values of hard work and industrial skills and they became the foundations for the school. Daily attendance at chapel service was recommended. George Washington Carver, eminent botanist and agricultural researcher was one of more notable staff at the Institute, which consisted of all blacks. Monroe Nathan Work, noted bibliographer of black history and sociologist, was head of the Records and Research department for thirty-seven years. Washington over-saw all operations of the Institute and it continued to be his home-base for the rest of his life.

In 1882 Washington married his Malden sweetheart Frannie M. Smith, with whom he'd have a child, though it died a year later. In 1885 he married Olivia Davidson (d. 1889) with whom he'd have two children. A few years later Washington married Margaret J. Murray. For a number of years Washington had been touring as a lecturer, expressing his philosophy on racial advancement, education, and accomodationist compromises for blacks. His eloquent "Atlanta Compromise" speech on 18 September, 1895, at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition positively appealed to northern and southern whites and blacks from the south. The fates of all were inextricably bound he said and he pled for greater understanding and perseverance, and said that through hard work, self-discipline and education blacks would gain their deserved respect.

"The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing." .. "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."

Although contrasted with the current lynchings and worst rampant discrimination since the Civil war, his speech was met with a thunderous ovation and became the pinnacle of his career as spokesperson for American blacks' position in white corporate and political power structure. Theodore Roosevelt was a good friend of Washington's and he came to be one of the President's advisors, as he continued to wield power and influence on race relations and policy.

Washington was a supporter of the civil rights group Afro-American League and later the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People though he was reluctant to make this public information for fear that his white supporters would abandon him. He was well-connected with journalists, newspapers and various organisations, though it is said that some of his actions were questionable and ultimately self-serving, including having spies planted to gather information from opposing groups.

Washington was not without his opponents who criticised his non-aggressive stance towards violence and inequality, and his support of legal segregation and loss of voting rights. They also argued that what young American blacks needed was college-education, not vocational and industrial training if they were to become future leaders. The race riots in Alabama and the Brownsville affair in 1906 were set-backs for Washington's politics though he did succeed in bringing the opposing groups together for discussion of remedy.

On 24 June, 1896, Harvard University President Eliot conferred an honorary degree upon Mr. Washington. Washington founded the National Negro Business League in 1900. In 1915 he joined the ranks to criticise the stereotypes of black in the film "Birth of a Nation." Booker T. Washington died at the age of fifty-nine, of arteriosclerosis on 14 November, 1915 and is buried at Tuskegee Institute, in Macon county, Alabama. A large, rough-hewn stone marks his grave and a monument stands at the Institute in memory of him and Hampton University also has a monument to him. Washington was a product of the times, at times dealing in ambiguities in order to appeal to both sides of particularly controversial circumstances, and he is still inspiration for people to rise up from economic slavery through hard work and education as a means to their personal freedom.

"I permit no man, no matter what his color, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him"

Other works by Washington are The Future of the American Negro (1899) and The Story of My Life and Work (1900).

Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc 2005. All Rights Reserved.

The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

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