Booker T. Washington: Biography

Depiction of Booker T. Washington by Henry Osawa Tanner
Booker T. Washington by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1917. Public Domain

Overview

Booker Taliaferro Washington was born into slavery yet rose to become the preeminent spokesperson for African-Americans in the post-Reconstruction era.

From 1895  until his death in 1915, Washington was respected by working class African-Americans because of his promotion of vocational and industrial trades.

White Americans supported Washington because of his belief that African-Americans should not fight for civil rights until they could prove their economic worth in society.

Key Details

  • Born: April 5, 1856 in Hale's Ford, Va.
  • Died: November 14, 1915, in Tuskegee, Ala
  • Spouse(s): Fannie N. Smith (d.1884); Olivia Davidson (d.1889); Margaret Murray James (d.1925)
  • Children: Portia M. Washington, Booker T. Washington Jr., and Ernest Davidson Washington

Early Life and Education

Born into slavery but emancipated through the 13th Amendment in 1865, Washington worked in salt furnaces and coal mines throughout his childhood. From 1872 to 1875, he attended Hampton Institute.

Tuskegee Institute

In 1881, Washington founded Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute.

The school began as one building, but Washington used his ability to build relationships with white benefactors—from the South and North—to expand the school.

Advocating for the industrial education of African-Americans, Washington assured his patrons that the philosophy of the school would not be to challenge disenfranchisement, Jim Crow laws or lynchings.

Instead, Washington argued that African-Americans could find upliftment through an industrial education. Within a few years of opening, Tuskegee Institute became the greatest institution of higher learning for African-Americans and Washington became a prominent African-American leader. 

Atlanta Compromise

In September of 1895, Washington was invited to speak at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta.

In his speech, known as the Atlanta Compromise, Washington argued that African-Americans should accept disenfranchisement, segregation and other forms of racism as long as whites allowed them the opportunity to have economic success, educational opportunities and in the criminal justice system. Arguing that African-Americans should “cast down your buckets where you are,” and that “Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands,” Washington gained the respect of politicians such as Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

National Negro Business League

In 1900, with the support of several white businessmen such as John Wanamaker, Andrew Carnegie, and Julius Rosenwald, Washington organized the National Negro Business League.

The purpose of the organization was to highlight the “commercial, agricultural, educational, and industrial advancement…and in the commercial and financial development of the Negro.”

The National Negro Business League further emphasized Washington’s belief that African-Americans should “leave political and civil rights alone” and focus instead on making “a businessman of the Negro.”

Several state and local chapters of the League were established to provide a forum for entrepreneurs to network and build leading businesses.

Opposition to Washington's Philosophy

Washington was often met with resistance. William Monroe Trotter heckled Washington at a 1903 speaking engagement in Boston. Washington countered Trotter and his group by saying, “These crusaders, as nearly as I can see, are fighting windmills…They know books, but they do not know men…Especially are they ignorant in regard to the actual needs of the colored people in the South today.”

Another opponent was W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois, who had been an early follower of Washington,  argued that African-Americans were citizens of the United States and needed to fight for their rights, especially their right to vote.

Trotter and Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement to assemble African-American men to aggressively protest against discrimination.

Published Works

Washington published several works of nonfiction including:

  • 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)