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Booker T. Washington
Booker T Washington retouched flattened-crop.jpg
Booker T. Washington in 1905
Booker Taliaferro Washington

(1856-04-05)April 5, 1856
Died November 14, 1915(1915-11-14) (aged 59)
Resting place Tuskegee University
Alma mater Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute
Wayland Seminary
  • Educator
  • author
  • African American civil rights leader
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Fannie N. Smith
(1882–1884, her death)
Olivia A. Davidson
(1886–1889, her death)
Margaret Murray
(1893–1915, his death)
Children 3
Booker T Washington Signature.svg

Booker Taliaferro Washington (April 5, 1856 – November 14, 1915) was an American educator, author, orator, and adviser to several presidents of the United States. Between 1890 and 1915, Washington was the dominant leader in the African-American community and of the contemporary black elite. Washington was from the last generation of black American leaders born into slavery and became the leading voice of the former slaves and their descendants. They were newly oppressed in the South by disenfranchisement and the Jim Crow discriminatory laws enacted in the post-Reconstruction Southern states in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Early life

Booker was born into slavery to Jane, an enslaved African-American woman on the plantation of James Burroughs in southwest Virginia, near Hale's Ford in Franklin County. He never knew the day, month, and year of his birth (although evidence emerged after his death that he was born on April 5, 1856).

From his earliest years, Washington was known simply as "Booker", with no middle or surname, in the practice of the time. His mother, her relatives and his siblings struggled with the demands of slavery. He later wrote:

I cannot remember a single instance during my childhood or early boyhood when our entire family sat down to the table together, and God's blessing was asked, and the family ate a meal in a civilized manner. On the plantation in Virginia, and even later, meals were gotten to the children very much as dumb animals get theirs. It was a piece of bread here and a scrap of meat there. It was a cup of milk at one time and some potatoes at another.

When he was nine, Booker and his family in Virginia gained freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation as U.S. troops occupied their region.

After emancipation Jane took her family to the free state of West Virginia to join her husband, Washington Ferguson, who had escaped from slavery during the war and settled there. The illiterate boy Booker began painstakingly to teach himself to read and attended school for the first time.

At school, Booker was asked for a surname for registration. He took the family name of Washington, after his stepfather. Still later he learned from his mother that she had originally given him the name "Booker Taliaferro" at the time of his birth, but his second name was not used by the master. Upon learning of his original name, Washington immediately readopted it as his own, and became known as Booker Taliaferro Washington for the rest of his life.

Higher education

Washington worked in salt furnaces and coal mines in West Virginia for several years to earn money. He made his way east to Hampton Institute, a school established in Virginia to educate freedmen and their descendants, where he also worked to pay for his studies. He later attended Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C. in 1878.


Washington was a key proponent of African-American businesses and one of the founders of the National Negro Business League. His base was the Tuskegee Institute, a normal school, later a historically black college in Tuskegee, Alabama at which he served as principal. As lynchings in the South reached a peak in 1895, Washington gave a speech, known as the "Atlanta compromise", which brought him national fame. He called for black progress through education and entrepreneurship, rather than trying to challenge directly the Jim Crow segregation and the disenfranchisement of black voters in the South.

Washington mobilized a nationwide coalition of middle-class blacks, church leaders, and white philanthropists and politicians, with a long-term goal of building the community's economic strength and pride by a focus on self-help and schooling. With his own contributions to the Black community, Washington was a supporter of racial uplift, but secretly he also supported court challenges to segregation and to restrictions on voter registration.

Washington had the ear of the powerful in the America of his day, including presidents. His mastery of the American political system in the later 19th century allowed him to manipulate the media, raise money, develop strategy, network, distribute funds, and reward a cadre of supporters. Nevertheless, opposition to Washington grew, as it became clear that his Atlanta compromise did not produce the promised improvement for most Blacks in the South. William Monroe Trotter and W. E. B. Du Bois, who Bookerites perceived in an antebellum way as "northern Blacks", found Washington too accommodationist and his industrial ("agricultural and mechanical") education inadequate. Washington fought vigorously against them and succeeded in his opposition to the Niagara Movement they tried to found but could not prevent their formation of the NAACP, whose views became mainstream.

Black activists in the North, led by Du Bois, at first supported the Atlanta compromise, but later disagreed and opted to set up the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to work for political change. They tried with limited success to challenge Washington's political machine for leadership in the Black community, but built wider networks among white allies in the North. Decades after Washington's death in 1915, the civil rights movement of the 1950s took a more active and progressive approach, which was also based on new grassroots organizations based in the South, such as Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Visit to president

Washington was invited to dinner by President Theodore Roosevelt. The President wanted to appoint Washington to advise him on issues of race. This upset some American people. African Americans had visited the White House before but had never been asked to dine there. In reaction several newspapers published a racist poem relating to black people in the White House. The poem was published again when the wife of Representative Oscar DePriest had tea with wife of President Herbert Hoover.


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Booker T. Washington's coffin being carried to grave site.

Washington died on November 14, 1915 of kidney failure brought on by high blood pressure. His funeral was held on November 17, 1915, in the Tuskegee Institute Chapel. It was attended by nearly 8,000 people. He was buried nearby in the Tuskegee University Campus Cemetery.

Honors and memorials

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Booker T. Washington was honored on a Commemorative U.S. Postage stamp, issue of 1940.

For his contributions to American society, Washington was granted an honorary master's degree from Harvard University in 1896, followed by an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth College.

At the center of Tuskegee University, the Booker T. Washington Monument was dedicated in 1922. Called Lifting the Veil, the monument has an inscription reading:

He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry.

1951 Carver-Washington half dollar commemorative, obverse
1951 Carver-Washington commemorative half dollar

In 1942, the liberty ship Booker T. Washington was named in his honor, the first major oceangoing vessel to be named after an African American.

In 1946, he was honored on the first coin to feature an African American, the Booker T. Washington Memorial half dollar, which was minted by the United States until 1951.

On April 5, 1956, the hundredth anniversary of Washington's birth, the house where he was born in Franklin County, Virginia was designated as the Booker T. Washington National Monument.

A state park in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was named in his honor, as was a bridge spanning the Hampton River adjacent to his alma mater, Hampton University.

In 1984, Hampton University dedicated a Booker T. Washington Memorial on campus near the historic Emancipation Oak, establishing, in the words of the university, "a relationship between one of America's great educators and social activists, and the symbol of Black achievement in education".

Interesting facts about Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington with his third wife Margaret and two sons, Ernest, left and Booker T., Jr., right
  • Booker T. Washington was born into slavery and never knew the day, month, and year of his birth.
  • He was an adviser to multiple presidents of the United States.
  • He was one of the founders of the National Negro Business League.
  • Booker worked in salt furnaces and coal mines in West Virginia for several years to earn money.
  • Booker's middle name “Taliaferro” is Italian. It was a common last name in the South. He chose the last name Washington when he was enrolled in his first school.
  • Booker T. Washington was married 3 times and had 3 children, Portia M. Washington, Booker T. Washington Jr. and Ernest Davidson Washington.
  • He thought that education was important for African Americans so they could prosper and become independent.
  • His autobiography, Up from Slavery, first published in 1901, is still widely read in the early 21st century.
  • He was the first African American to be featured on a postage stamp.

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See also

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