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Booker T Washington

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Booker T Washington

Booker T. Washington was a controversial figure in his day. Washington founded the Tuskegee University, advocated for economic progress for Black people, and was a successful author. Washington also advocated for Black people to remain outside of American politics. How can someone be an activist but not encourage political power? Why was Washington like this? Let's explore the life and philosophy of Booker T. Washington.

Booker T. Washington Childhood

Booker T. Washington was born in April 1856 to an enslaved woman and a white man who Washington would never know. After the Civil War when the slaves were freed, Washington's family moved to West Virginia. His stepfather worked in the salt mines and when Washington was nine years old, he began to work there too. He would walk to school and then walk to the salt mines to pack salt.

Between the ages of ten and twelve, Washington worked in the coal mines. In 1871, General Lewis Ruffner, owner of the mines, hired Washington as a servant for the general's wife. A year later, at sixteen years old, Washington walked from his home in West Virginia to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia.

Booker T Washington Booker T Washington StudySmarterBooker T. Washington. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Booker T. Washington Biography

When Washington arrived at the institution, he had no money or way to pay for tuition. He did pass the entrance exam, which was cleaning a room. A white benefactor sponsored Washington's tuition and he worked as a janitor to cover his room and board fees.

Benefactor

A person who donates money to someone else for a cause

At this institute, Washington met Samuel Chapman Armstrong. During the Civil War, Armstrong commanded Black troops. He believed that the way for African Americans to progress forward was through education and good morals. His education plan was academic but mostly agricultural. Some of Armstrong's ideas stuck with Washington throughout his life.

In 1875, Washing graduated from the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute and then took the eight-month Wayland Seminary in Washington. In 1879, Washington became a teacher in a Native American school.

Tuskegee Institution

In 1881, Washington became the first principal of Tuskegee Normal School for the training of Black teachers. When the school was conceptualized, Armstrong was approached to nominate the first principal. Armstrong was expected to pick a white man, but he advocated for Booker T. Washington.

Booker T Washington Tuskegee Students StudySmarterTuskegee Students Farming. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

When Washington arrived at the school, he found an empty lot. He set out to recruit students and raise funds to build a school. Students made and sold bricks. They even built some of the first buildings. A church allowed them to use the space for classes where they were given an academic education as well as training in technical disciplines (i.e., carpentry, farming, sewing).

Atlanta Compromise Speech

Booker T. Washington was invited to speak at the Atlanta Expo in 1895. He spoke in front of a mostly white crowd and encouraged African Americans to remain out of politics. Washington wanted African Americans to continue working labor jobs and seek education. Finally, he encouraged them to remain submissive to and separate from white people.

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.”

-Booker T. Washington

Washington's speech might seem like it was pushing progress backward but to understand his speech let's look at his beliefs.

Booker T. Washington's Beliefs

Washington believed that the way forward was through the economic progress of African Americans. Not only that, but he was living in the South while hate crimes were far too common of an occurrence. As lynching's still happened, Washington didn't want African Americans doing anything that white Southerners might see as an excuse to harm them.

Lynching

When a mob kills someone (often by hanging them) for a supposed crime without a trial

In the South, hate crimes against African Americans were not taken seriously by most white people. When Washington asked that Black people be peaceful, it was to prevent white people from hurting more Black people. This was Washington telling white people that Black people were not a threat. In the Atlanta Compromise Speech, Washington was asking that Black people be allowed to live in peace separate from white people.

Booker T Washington Up From Slavery StudySmarterUp From Slavery. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

He continued this message in his famous book, Up From Slavery. This autobiography told the story of Booker T. Washington's life. It gave insight into his beliefs about African American progression and asked that Black people accept their unequal position in life.

Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. du Bois

In 1905 Booker T. Washington was denounced by famous African American activist, W.E.B. du Bois. Du Bois disagreed with Washington's message of submission. He especially disliked Washington's idea that Black people should remain outside of politics. Let's look at the chart below to compare the two's styles.

Washington
Du Bois
Progress through economicsProgress through politics
Uplifting through the education of all Black peopleUplifting through education of top 10% of men
Slow Quick

Washington believed that by educating and training Black people that they could progress by making money. Du Bois thought that progress would come through politics. Black people had to fight for laws to protect themselves. He believed that the top 10% of Black men needed to be educated even further so that they could go out and change things.

On the other hand, Washington thought that by educating Black people and training them in technical disciplines that they would be able to advance. Washington thought progression had to be slow because if things changed too quickly in the South, then white people might attack Black people. Du Bois wanted change to be quick because African Americans still suffered.

Booker T Washington W E B du Bois StudySmarterW.E.B. du Bois. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Both men had valid points. The change would never occur if Black people did not enter the political sphere while economically uplifting the Black community was important. Black philosophy can be traced back to both Washington and du Bois. Du Bois was born a free man while Washington was not. Washington had first-hand experience with slavery and that affected his worldview.

Booker T. Washington Cause of Death

On November 14, 1915, Booker T Washington died of exhaustion and atherosclerosis. His students built a memorial for him on a high hill in the Tuskegee Institute so that he could overlook the school. His funeral was attended by 8,000 people at the Tuskegee Chapel.

Booker T. Washington's Accomplishments

By the 25th anniversary of Tuskegee, the school was worth 831,895 dollars. It had over 1,500 students and taught 37 different disciplines. This was no easy feat and Washington contributed a lot of his time and effort to the success of the school.

Historians have learned that while Washington taught of submission and peacekeeping, he secretly donated to causes to get Black people the right to vote.

Booker T. Washington Impact

Booker T. Washington's views on Black and white people remaining separate may seem wrong by today's standards but at the time, Washington was just advocating for what he thought was best for Black people in the South. His legacy is defined by the institution that he left behind. Tuskegee Institute continued to thrive after his death and gave many Black people a chance at education.

Booker T Washington - Key takeaways

  • Booker T Washington was born into slavery
  • Booker T Washington was a founder of the Tuskegee Institute
  • Booker T Washington disagreed with W.E.B. du Bois
  • Booker T Washington thought that black people needed to be submissive and separate from white people
  • Booker T Washington thought that black people would be uplifted through economics

Frequently Asked Questions about Booker T Washington

Booker T. Washington is known for his accomplishments as principal of Tuskegee Institute and his book Up From Slavery

Booker T. Washington was an advocate for the economic potential of African Americans. He was the principal of Tuskegee Institute and wrote Up From Slavery.

Booker T. Washington lived in Tuskegee, Alabama. 

Booker T. Washington was an advocate for the economic potential of African Americans. He was the principal of Tuskegee Institute and wrote Up From Slavery.

Three important facts about Booker T. Washington are:

  1. He founded Tuskegee Institute
  2. He wrote Up From Slavery
  3. He was born into slavery

Final Booker T Washington Quiz

Question

What was the entrance exam for the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute?

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Answer

Cleaning a room

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Question

Who inspired Booker T. Washington at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute? 

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Answer

Samuel Chapman Armstrong

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Question

What was the name of the university that Booker T. Washington helped create?

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Answer

Tuskegee Institute 

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Question

Which of these was not a part of the Atlanta Compromise Speech? 

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Answer

Be submissive 

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Question

True/False

Booker T. Washington wanted African Americans to be peaceful as a form of protection from white people.

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Answer

True

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Question

What was the name of Booker T. Washington's autobiography?

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Answer

Up From Slavery

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Question

Did Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. du Bois want "progress through politics"?

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Answer

Du Bois

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Question

Did Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. du Bois want to focus on the education of the top 10% of black men?

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Answer

W.E.B. du Bois

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Question

Did Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. du Bois want change to happen quickly?

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Answer

Du Bois

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Question

True/False

Booker T. Washington was born into slavery.

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Answer

True

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