Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington, 1905
Booker Taliaferro Washington
April 5, 1856
Hale's Ford, Virginia, U.S.
|Died||November 14, 1915
Tuskegee, Alabama, U.S.
|Resting place||Tuskegee University|
|Alma mater||Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute
|Occupation||Educator, author, and African American civil rights leader|
|Opponent(s)||W. E. B. Du Bois|
|Spouse(s)||Fannie N. Smith
(1882–1884, her death)
Olivia A. Davidson
(1886–1889, her death)
Margaret James Murray
(1893–1915, his death)
|Children||Portia M. Washington
Booker T. Washington Jr.
Ernest Davidson Washington
Booker Taliaferro Washington (April 5, 1856 – November 14, 1915) was an American educator, author, orator, and advisor to presidents of the United States. Between 1890 and 1915, Washington was the dominant leader in the African-American community.
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.
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 historically black college in Alabama. 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. But, secretly, he also supported court challenges to segregation and restrictions on voter registration, passing on funds to the NAACP for this purpose. Black militants in the North, led by W. E. B. Du Bois, at first supported the Atlanta compromise but after 1909, they set up the NAACP to work for political change. They tried with limited success to challenge Washington's political machine for leadership in the black community but also 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 militant approach, which was also based on new grassroots organizations based in the South, such as CORE, SNCC and SCLC.
Booker T. Washington mastered the nuances of the political arena in the late 19th century, which enabled him to manipulate the media, raise money, develop strategy, network, push, reward friends, and distribute funds, while punishing those who opposed his plans for uplifting blacks. His long-term goal was to end the disenfranchisement of the vast majority of African Americans, who then still lived in the South.
- Early life
- Higher education
- Tuskegee Institute
- Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute
- Marriages and children
- Politics and the Atlanta compromise
- Wealthy friends and benefactors
- Up from Slavery to the White House
- Honors and memorials
- Representation in other media
In 1856, Washington was born into slavery in Virginia as the son of Jane, an African-American slave. After emancipation, she moved the family to West Virginia to join her husband Washington Ferguson. As a young man, Washington worked his way through Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (a historically black college now Hampton University) and attended college at Wayland Seminary (now Virginia Union University). In 1881, Washington was named as the first leader of the new Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, founded for the higher education of blacks.
Washington attained national prominence for his Atlanta Address of 1895, which attracted the attention of politicians and the public. He became a popular spokesperson for African-American citizens. He built a nationwide network of supporters in many black communities, with black ministers, educators, and businessmen composing his core supporters. Washington played a dominant role in black politics, winning wide support in the black community of the South and among more liberal whites (especially rich Northern whites). He gained access to top national leaders in politics, philanthropy and education. Washington's efforts included cooperating with white people and enlisting the support of wealthy philanthropists. Beginning in the 1920s, with the help of Julius Rosenthal, he raised funds to build and operate thousands of new, small rural schools and institutions of higher education to improve education for blacks throughout the South. This work continued for many years after his death. Washington argued that the surest way for blacks to gain equal social rights was to demonstrate "industry, thrift, intelligence and property."
Northern critics called Washington's widespread organization the "Tuskegee Machine". After 1909, Washington was criticized by the leaders of the new NAACP, especially W. E. B. Du Bois, who demanded a stronger tone of protest in order to advance the civil rights agenda. Washington replied that confrontation would lead to disaster for the outnumbered blacks in society, and that cooperation with supportive whites was the only way to overcome pervasive racism in the long run. At the same time, he secretly funded litigation for civil rights cases, such as challenges to southern constitutions and laws that had disenfranchised blacks across the South since the turn of the century. African Americans were still strongly affiliated with the Republican Party, and Washington was on close terms with national Republican Party leaders. He was often asked for political advice by presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
In addition to his contributions in education, Washington wrote 14 books; his autobiography, Up from Slavery, first published in 1901, is still widely read today. During a difficult period of transition, he did much to improve the working relationship between the races. His work greatly helped blacks to achieve higher education, financial power, and understanding of the U.S. legal system. This contributed to blacks' attaining the skills to create and support the Civil Rights Movement, leading to the passage of important federal civil rights laws.
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. Nor did he ever know his father, said to be a white man who resided on a neighboring plantation. The man played no financial or emotional role in Washington's life.
From his earliest years, the slave boy 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 recalled that
"I cannot recall 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 US troops occupied their region. Booker was thrilled by the formal day of their emancipation in early 1865:
"As the great day drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom... Some man who seemed to be a stranger (a United States officer, I presume) made a little speech and then read a rather long paper—the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. After the reading we were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see."
After emancipation Jane took her family to West Virginia to join her husband Washington Ferguson, who had escaped from slavery and settled there during the war. There the illiterate boy Booker began to painstakingly teach himself to read and attended school for the first time.
When he started school, Booker was faced with the need to provide a surname; he claimed 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, with the second name instantly falling into disuse. Upon learning of his original name, Washington immediately readopted it as his own, assuming the name he used for the rest of his life, Booker Taliaferro Washington.
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 to educate freedmen and their descendants, where he worked to pay for his studies. He also attended Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C. in 1878 and left after 6 months.
In 1881, the Hampton Institute president Samuel C. Armstrong recommended Washington to become the first leader of Tuskegee Institute, the new normal school (teachers' college) in Alabama. He led the institution for the rest of his life, more than 30 years. As he developed it, adding to both the curriculum and the facilities on the campus, he became a prominent national leader among African Americans, with considerable influence with wealthy white philanthropists and politicians.
Washington was instrumental in lobbying the state legislature in 1891 to locate the newly authorized West Virginia State University in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia near Charleston. He visited the campus often and spoke at its first commencement exercise.
Washington was a dominant figure of the African-American community, then still overwhelmingly based in the South, from 1890 to his death in 1915. His Atlanta Address of 1895 received national attention. He was considered 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 and their descendants 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 also gained access to top national white leaders in politics, philanthropy and education, raised large sums, was consulted on race issues, and was awarded honorary degrees from leading American universities.
Late in his career, Washington was criticized by leaders of the NAACP, a civil rights organization formed in 1909. W. E. B. Du Bois advocated activism to achieve civil rights. He labeled Washington "the Great Accommodator". Washington's response was that confrontation could lead to disaster for the outnumbered blacks. He believed that cooperation with supportive whites was the only way for his people to overcome racism in the long run.
While promoting moderation, Washington contributed secretly and substantially to mounting legal challenges against segregation and disenfranchisement of blacks. In his public role, he believed he could achieve more by skillful accommodation to the social realities of the age of segregation.
Washington's work on education problems helped him enlist both the moral and substantial financial support of many major white philanthropists. He became a friend of such self-made men as Standard Oil magnate Henry Huttleston Rogers; Sears, Roebuck and Company President Julius Rosenwald; and George Eastman, inventor of roll film, founder of Eastman Kodak, and developer of a major part of the photography industry. These individuals and many other wealthy men and women funded his causes, including Hampton and Tuskegee institutes.
He also gave lectures in support of raising money for the school. On January 23, 1906, he lectured at Carnegie Hall in New York in the Tuskegee Institute Silver Anniversary Lecture. He spoke along with great orators of the day including Mark Twain, Joseph Hodges Choate, and Robert Curtis Ogden; it was the start of a capital campaign to raise $1,800,000 for the school.
The schools which Washington supported were founded primarily to produce teachers, as education was critical for the black community following emancipation. Freedmen strongly supported literacy and education as the keys to their future. When graduates returned to their largely impoverished rural southern communities, they still found few schools and educational resources, as the white-dominated state legislatures consistently underfunded black schools in their segregated system.
To address those needs, in the 20th century Washington enlisted his philanthropic network to create matching funds programs to stimulate construction of numerous rural public schools for black children in the South. Working especially with Julius Rosenwald from Chicago, Washington had Tuskegee architects develop model school designs. The Rosenwald Fund helped support the construction and operation of more than 5,000 schools and related resources for the education of blacks throughout the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The local schools were a source of communal pride; African-American families gave labor, land and money to them, to give their children more chances in an environment of poverty and segregation. A major part of Washington's legacy, the model rural schools continued to be constructed into the 1930s, with matching funds for communities from the Rosenwald Fund.
Washington also contributed to the Progressive Era by forming the National Negro Business League. It encouraged entrepreneurship among black businessmen, establishing a national network.
His autobiography, Up From Slavery, first published in 1901, is still widely read in the early 21st century.
Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute
The organizers of the new, all-black state school in Alabama called the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute — the forerunner of Tuskegee University — found the energetic leader they sought in 25-year-old Washington. He believed that with self-help, people could go from poverty to success. The new school opened on July 4, 1881, initially using space in a local church. The next year, Washington purchased a former plantation, which became the permanent site of the campus. Under his direction, his students literally built their own school: making bricks, constructing classrooms, barns and outbuildings; and growing their own crops and raising livestock; both for learning and to provide for most of the basic necessities. Both men and women had to learn trades as well as academics. Washington helped raise funds to establish and operate hundreds of small community schools and institutions of higher educations for blacks. The Tuskegee faculty used all the activities to teach the students basic skills to take back to their mostly rural black communities throughout the South. The main goal was not to produce farmers and tradesmen, but teachers of farming and trades who taught in the new schools and colleges for blacks across the South. The school expanded over the decades, adding programs and departments, to become the present-day Tuskegee University.
Washington expressed his vision for his race in his direction of the school. He believed that by providing needed skills to society, African Americans would play their part, leading to acceptance by white Americans. He believed that blacks would eventually gain full participation in society by acting as responsible, reliable American citizens. Shortly after the Spanish–American War, President William McKinley and most of his cabinet visited Booker Washington. He led the school until his death in 1915. By then Tuskegee's endowment had grown to over $1.5 million, compared to its initial $2,000 annual appropriation.
Marriages and children
Washington was married three times. In his autobiography Up From Slavery, he gave all three of his wives credit for their contributions at Tuskegee. His first wife Fannie N. Smith was from Malden, West Virginia, the same Kanawha River Valley town where Washington had lived from age nine to sixteen. He maintained ties there all his life, and Smith was his student in Malden. He helped her gain entrance into the Hampton Institute, and Washington and Smith were married in the summer of 1882. They had one child, Portia M. Washington. Fannie died in May 1884.
Washington next wed Olivia A. Davidson in 1885. Born in Virginia, she had studied at Hampton Institute and the Massachusetts State Normal School at Framingham. She taught in Mississippi and Tennessee before going to Tuskegee to work as a teacher. Washington met Davidson at Tuskegee, where she was promoted to assistant principal. They had two sons, Booker T. Washington Jr. and Ernest Davidson Washington, before she died in 1889.
In 1893 Washington married Margaret James Murray. She was from Mississippi and had graduated from Fisk University, a historically black college. They had no children together, but she helped rear Washington's three children. Murray outlived Washington and died in 1925.
Politics and the Atlanta compromise
Washington's 1895 Atlanta Exposition address was viewed as a "revolutionary moment" by both African Americans and whites across the country. At the time W. E. B. Du Bois supported him, but they grew apart as Du Bois sought more action to remedy disfranchisement and improve educational opportunities for blacks. After their falling out, Du Bois and his supporters referred to Washington's speech as the "Atlanta Compromise" to express their criticism that Washington was too accommodating to white interests.
Washington advocated a "go slow" approach to avoid a harsh white backlash. The effect was that many youths in the South had to accept sacrifices of potential political power, civil rights and higher education. His belief was that African Americans should "concentrate all their energies on industrial education, and accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South." Washington valued the "industrial" education, as it provided critical skills for the jobs then available to the majority of African Americans at the time, as most lived in the South, which was overwhelmingly rural and agricultural. He thought these skills would lay the foundation for the creation of stability that the African-American community required in order to move forward. He believed that in the long term, "blacks would eventually gain full participation in society by showing themselves to be responsible, reliable American citizens." His approach advocated for an initial step toward equal rights, rather than full equality under the law, gaining economic power to back up black demands for political equality in the future. he believed that such achievements would prove to the deeply-prejudiced white America that African Americans were not "'naturally' stupid and incompetent."
Well-educated blacks in the North advocated a different approach, in part due to the differences they perceived in opportunities. Du Bois wanted blacks to have the same "classical" liberal arts education as upscale whites did, along with voting rights and civic equality, the latter two elements granted since 1870 by constitutional amendments after the Civil War. He believed that an elite, which he called the Talented Tenth, would advance to lead the race to a wider variety of occupations. Du Bois and Washington were divided in part by differences in treatment of African Americans in the North versus the South; although both groups suffered discrimination, the mass of blacks in the South were far more constrained by legal segregation and exclusion from the political process. Many in the North objected to being 'led', and authoritatively spoken for, by a Southern accommodationist strategy which they considered to have been "imposed on them [Southern blacks] primarily by Southern whites." Historian Clarence E. Walker wrote that, for white Southerners,
Free black people were 'matter out of place'. Their emancipation was an affront to southern white freedom. Booker T. Washington did not understand that his program was perceived as subversive of a natural order in which black people were to remain forever subordinate or unfree.
Both Washington and Du Bois sought to define the best means to improve the conditions of the post-Civil War African-American community through education.
Blacks were solidly Republican in this period, having gained emancipation and suffrage with the President Lincoln and his party and later fellow Republican President Ulysses S. Grant defending African American's newly won freedom and civil rights in the South during Reconstruction. After Federal troops left, Southern states disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites from 1890–1908 through constitutional amendments and statutes that created barriers to voter registration and voting, such as poll taxes and literacy tests. By the late nineteenth century, Southern white Democrats defeated some biracial Populist-Republican coalitions and regained power in the state legislatures of the former Confederacy; they passed laws establishing racial segregation and Jim Crow. In the border states and North, blacks continued to exercise the vote; the well-established Maryland African-American community defeated attempts there to disfranchise them.
Washington worked and socialized with many national white politicians and industry leaders. He developed the ability to persuade wealthy whites, many of them self-made men, to donate money to black causes by appealing to values they had exercised in their rise to power. He argued that the surest way for blacks to gain equal social rights was to demonstrate "industry, thrift, intelligence and property." He believed these were key to improved conditions for African Americans in the United States. Because African Americans had only recently been emancipated and most lived in a hostile environment, Washington believed they could not expect too much at once. He said, "I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has had to overcome while trying to succeed."
Along with Du Bois, Washington partly organized the "Negro exhibition" at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where photos of Hampton Institute's black students were displayed. These were taken by his friend Frances Benjamin Johnston. The exhibition demonstrated African Americans' positive contributions to United States' society.
Washington privately contributed substantial funds for legal challenges to segregation and disfranchisement, such as the case of Giles v. Harris, which was heard before the United States Supreme Court in 1903. Even when such challenges were won at the Supreme Court, southern states quickly responded with new laws to accomplish the same ends, for instance, adding "grandfather clauses" that covered whites and not blacks.
Wealthy friends and benefactors
State and local governments gave little money to black schools, but white philanthropists proved willing to invest heavily. Washington encouraged them and directed millions of their money to projects all across the South that Washington thought best reflected his self-help philosophy. Washington associated with the richest and most powerful businessmen and politicians of the era. He was seen as a spokesperson for African Americans and became a conduit for funding educational programs.
His contacts included such diverse and well-known entrepreneurs and philanthropists as Andrew Carnegie, William Howard Taft, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Huttleston Rogers, George Eastman, Julius Rosenwald, Robert Curtis Ogden, Collis Potter Huntington, and William Henry Baldwin Jr.. The latter donated large sums of money to agencies such as the Jeanes and Slater Funds. As a result, countless small rural schools were established through his efforts, under programs that continued many years after his death. Along with rich white men, the black communities helped their communities directly by donating time, money, and labor to schools in a sort of matching fund.
Henry Huttleston Rogers
A representative case of an exceptional relationship was Washington's friendship with millionaire industrialist and financier Henry H. Rogers (1840–1909). Henry Rogers was a self-made man, who had risen from a modest working-class family to become a principal officer of Standard Oil, and one of the richest men in the United States. Around 1894 Rogers heard Washington speak at Madison Square Garden. The next day he contacted Washington and requested a meeting, during which Washington later recounted that he was told that Rogers "was surprised that no one had 'passed the hat' after the speech." The meeting began a close relationship that was to extend over a period of 15 years. Although Washington and the very-private Rogers were seen by the public as friends, the true depth and scope of their relationship was not publicly revealed until after Rogers' sudden death of a stroke in May 1909. Washington was a frequent guest at Rogers' New York office, his Fairhaven, Massachusetts summer home, and aboard his steam yacht Kanawha.
A few weeks later Washington went on a previously planned speaking tour along the newly completed Virginian Railway, a $40-million enterprise which had been built almost entirely from Rogers' personal fortune. As Washington rode in the late financier's private railroad car, Dixie, he stopped and made speeches at many locations, where his companions later recounted that he had been warmly welcomed by both black and white citizens at each stop.
Washington revealed that Rogers had been quietly funding operations of 65 small country schools for African Americans, and had given substantial sums of money to support Tuskegee and Hampton institutes. He also disclosed that Rogers had encouraged programs with matching funds requirements so the recipients had a stake in the outcome.
Anna T. Jeanes
In 1907 Philadelphia Quaker Anna T. Jeanes (1822–1907) donated one million dollars to Washington for elementary schools for black children in the South. Her contributions and those of Henry Rogers and others funded schools in many poor communities.
Julius Rosenwald (1862–1932) was another self-made wealthy man with whom Washington found common ground. By 1908 Rosenwald, son of an immigrant clothier, had become part-owner and president of Sears, Roebuck and Company in Chicago. Rosenwald was a philanthropist who was deeply concerned about the poor state of African-American education, especially in the Southern states, where their schools were underfunded.
The collaboration between Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, who was Jewish, was the subject of the 2015 documentary Rosenwald, subtitled A Remarkable Story of a Jewish Partnership with African American Communities by by writer, producer and director Aviva Kempner, which won Best Documentary Jury Award at the Teaneck International Film Festival and the Lipscomb University Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, Nashville Film Festival.
In 1912 Rosenwald was asked to serve on the Board of Directors of Tuskegee Institute, a position he held for the remainder of his life. Rosenwald endowed Tuskegee so that Washington could spend less time fundraising and more managing the school. Later in 1912 Rosenwald provided funds for a pilot program to build six new small schools in rural Alabama. They were designed, constructed and opened in 1913 and 1914 and overseen by Tuskegee; the model proved successful. Rosenwald established the Rosenwald Fund. The school building program was one of its largest programs. Using architectural model plans developed by professors at Tuskegee Institute, the Rosenwald Fund spent over $4 million to help build 4,977 schools, 217 teachers' homes, and 163 shop buildings in 883 counties in 15 states, from Maryland to Texas. The Rosenwald Fund made matching grants, requiring community support, cooperation from the white school boards, and fundraising. Black communities raised more than $4.7 million to aid the construction; essentially they taxed themselves twice to do so. These schools became informally known as Rosenwald Schools. By 1932, the facilities could accommodate one third of all African-American children in Southern U.S. schools.
Up from Slavery to the White House
Washington's long-term adviser, Timothy Thomas Fortune (1856–1928), was a respected African-American economist and editor of the The New York Age, the most widely read newspaper in the black community within the United States. He was the ghost-writer and editor of Washington's first autobiography, The Story of My Life and Work. Washington published five books during his lifetime with the aid of ghost-writers Timothy Fortune, Max Bennett Thrasher and Robert E. Park.
They included compilations of speeches and essays:
- The Story of My Life and Work (1900)
- Up From Slavery (1901)
- The Story of the Negro: The Rise of the Race from Slavery (2 vol 1909)
- My Larger Education (1911)
- The Man Farthest Down (1912)
In an effort to inspire the "commercial, agricultural, educational, and industrial advancement" of African Americans, Washington founded the National Negro Business League (NNBL) in 1900.
When Washington's second autobiography, Up From Slavery, was published in 1901, it became a bestseller and had a major effect on the African-American community, its friends and allies. In October 1901 President Theodore Roosevelt invited Washington to dine with him and his family at the White House; he was the first African American to be invited there by a president. Democratic Party politicians from the South, including future Governor of Mississippi James K. Vardaman and Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina indulged in racist personal attacks when they learned of the invitation.
Austro-Hungarian ambassador to the United States Ladislaus Hengelmüller von Hengervár, who was visiting the White House on the same day, claimed to have found a rabbit's foot in Washington's coat pocket when he mistakenly put on the coat. The Washington Post elaborately described it as "the left hind foot of a graveyard rabbit, killed in the dark of the moon". The Detroit Journal quipped the next day, "The Austrian ambassador may have made off with Booker T. Washington's coat at the White House, but he'd have a bad time trying to fill his shoes."
Despite his travels and widespread work, Washington remained as principal of Tuskegee. Washington's health was deteriorating rapidly in 1915; he collapsed in New York City and was brought home to Tuskegee, where he died on November 14, 1915, at the age of 59. He was buried on the campus of Tuskegee University near the University Chapel.
His death was believed at the time to have been a result of congestive heart failure, aggravated by overwork. In March 2006, with the permission of his descendants, examination of medical records indicated that he died of hypertension, with a blood pressure more than twice normal, confirming what had long been suspected.
At his death Tuskegee's endowment exceeded $1.5 million. Washington's greatest life's work, the education of blacks in the South, was well underway and expanding.
Honors and memorials
At the end of the 2008 presidential election, the defeated Republican candidate, Senator John McCain, recalled the outrage that Booker Washington's visit to Theodore Roosevelt's White House a century before, caused. McCain pointed out the evident progress the country had made since that event: Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American President of the United States.
In 1934 Robert Russa Moton, Washington's successor as president of Tuskegee University, arranged an air tour for two African-American aviators. Afterward he had the plane named the Booker T. Washington.
On April 7, 1940, Washington became the first African American to be depicted on a United States postage stamp. Several years later, 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 from 1946 to 1951. He was also depicted on a U.S. Half Dollar from 1951–1954.
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. The ship was christened by Marian Anderson.
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.
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."
Numerous high schools, middle schools and elementary schools across the United States have been named after Booker T. Washington.
At the center of the campus at Tuskegee University, the Booker T. Washington Monument, called Lifting the Veil, was dedicated in 1922. The inscription at its base reads:
He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry.
In 2000, West Virginia State University (WVSU; then West Va. State College), in cooperation with other organizations including the Booker T. Washington Association, established the Booker T. Washington Institute, to honor Washington's boyhood home, the old town of Malden, and the ideals Booker Washington stood for.
On October 19, 2009, WVSU dedicated a monument to the memory of noted African American educator and statesman Booker T. Washington. The event took place at West Virginia State University's Booker T. Washington Park in Malden, West Virginia. The monument also honors the families of African ancestry who lived in Old Malden in the early 20th century and who knew and encouraged Booker T. Washington. Special guest speakers at the event included West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin III, Malden attorney Larry L. Rowe, and the president of WVSU. Musical selections were provided by the WVSU "Marching Swarm."
Washington was held in high regard by business-oriented conservatives, both white and black. Historian Eric Foner argues that the freedom movement of the late nineteenth century changed directions so as to align with America's new economic and intellectual framework. Black leaders emphasized economic self-help and individual advancement into the middle class as a more fruitful strategy than political agitation. There was emphasis on education and literacy throughout the period after the Civil War. Washington's famous Atlanta speech of 1895 marked this transition, as it called on blacks to develop their farms, their industrial skills and their entrepreneurship as the next stage in emerging from slavery.
By this time, Mississippi had passed a new constitution, and other southern states were following suit, or using electoral laws to raise barriers to voter registration; they completed disenfranchisement of blacks to maintain white supremacy. At the same time, Washington secretly arranged to fund numerous legal challenges to voting restrictions and segregation.
Washington repudiated the abolitionist emphasis on unceasing agitation for full equality, advising blacks that it was counterproductive to fight segregation at that point. Foner concludes that Washington's strong support in the black community was rooted in its widespread realization that frontal assaults on white supremacy were impossible, and the best way forward was to concentrate on building up the economic and social structures inside segregated communities. Historian C. Vann Woodward said of Washington, "The businessman's gospel of free enterprise, competition, and laissez faire never had a more loyal exponent."
Historians since the late 20th century have been divided in their characterization of Washington: some describe him as a visionary capable of "read[ing] minds with the skill of a master psychologist," who expertly played the political game in 19th-century Washington by its own rules. Others say he was a self-serving, crafty narcissist who threatened and punished those in the way of his personal interests, traveled with an entourage, and spent much time fundraising, signing autographs, and giving flowery patriotic speeches with lots of flag waving — acts more indicative of an artful political boss than an altruistic civil rights leader.
People called Washington the "Wizard of Tuskegee" because of his highly developed political skills, and his creation of a nationwide political machine based on the black middle class, white philanthropy, and Republican Party support. Opponents called this network the "Tuskegee Machine." Washington maintained control because of his ability to gain support of numerous groups, including influential whites and the black business, educational and religious communities nationwide. He advised on the use of financial donations from philanthropists, and avoided antagonizing white Southerners with his accommodation to the political realities of the age of Jim Crow segregation.
Representation in other media
- The guest of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, Washington was the first African American invited to the White House.
- This visit was dramatized as the subject of an opera, A Guest of Honor, by Scott Joplin, noted African-American composer. It was first produced in 1903. It was also recalled in the 1927 song by Banjo Blues Musician Gus Cannon, titled "Can You Blame The Colored Man."
- E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel Ragtime and its 1981 film adaptation feature a fictional version of Washington. He is portrayed as trying to negotiate the surrender of an African-American musician who is threatening to blow up the Pierpont Morgan Library.
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