Skip to main content

Washington was in many ways a distinguished personality, provincially wise, astute, and certainly diplomatic. A tireless educator, masterful orator and advocate of black self-improvement, Booker T. Washington's ideas were as controversial in his day as they are in ours. Born into slavery, he was taken to West Virginia by his mother soon after emancipation . There he went to school at night while he worked in a salt furnace during the day. In May 1881, Washington became the principal of the newly founded Tuskegee Institute, where he taught blacks the technical skills he thought they would need in their newly enfranchised state.

His views on accommodation earned him many enemies in the black community. Accusations of compromise were commonly hurled at him. Booker believed that the now freed black person's best chance at success depended on his or her ability to integrate into white American society. Integration could only occur after education.

Washington thought that inculcating the values of individual responsibility, the dignity of work, and the need for enduring moral and spiritual character were the best means for former slaves to assume their rightful place in America. And the best way to do this, he argued, was to encourage business, industry, and entrepreneurialism, and not through political agitation. He therefore labored incessantly to help blacks become more prosperous through helping them build an economic foundation, most notably through his founding of the National Negro Business League.

Sources: Concise Dictionary of American Biography, Third Edition (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1980) and “Booker T. Washington: An Uncommon Perspective”, The Boule Journal, Summer 1993 by Archon Theodore M. Pryor.

Hero of Liberty image attribution: Unknown photographer, cropped by User:Connormah [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons