Booker Taliaferro Washington,April 5, 1856 – November 14, 1915 was an American educator, author, orator, and political leader. He was the dominant figure in the African American community in the United States from 1890 to 1915. Representative of the last generation of black leaders born in slavery, he spoke on behalf of the large majority of blacks who lived in the South but had lost their right to vote. While his opponents called his powerful network of supporters the "Tuskegee Machine," Washington maintained his power because of the sponsorship of powerful whites, widespread support within the black business, educational and religious communities nationwide, his ability to raise large amounts of money from philanthropists, and his accommodation to the political realities of the age of Jim Crow segregation.
Washington was born into slavery to a slave mother and white father, who was a nearby planter, in a rural area in southwestern Virginia. After emancipation, he worked in West Virginia in a variety of manual labor jobs before making his way to Hampton Roads seeking an education. He worked his way through Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) and attended college at Wayland Seminary (now Virginia Union University). After returning to Hampton as a teacher, in 1881 he was named as the first leader of the new Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Washington attained national prominence for his Atlanta Address of 1895, which attracted the attention of politicians and the public, making him 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 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, helping to raise funds to establish and operate thousands of small community schools and institutions of higher education for the betterment of blacks throughout the South. This work continued for many years after his death.
Northern critics called Washington's followers 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 for advancement of civil rights needs. Washington replied that confrontation would lead to disaster for the outnumbered blacks, 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 disenfranchised blacks.
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 led to a foundation of the skill set needed to support the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and further adoption of important federal civil rights laws.
Honors and memorials
For his contributions to American society, Washington was granted an honorary master's degree from Harvard University in 1896 and an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth College in 1901.
Washington, as the guest of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, was the first African-American ever invited to the White House. At the end of the 2008 presidential election, the defeated Republican candidate, Senator John McCain, referred to Washington’s visit to the White House a century before as the seed that blossomed into the first African American becoming the President of the United States, Barack Obama. The visit was also recalled in the 1927 song by Banjo Blues Musician Gus Cannon, titled "Can You Blame The Coloured Man.
In 1934 Robert Russa Moton, Washington's successor as president of Tuskegee University, arranged an air tour for two African American aviators, and afterward the plane was christened the Booker T. Washington.
On April 7, 1940, Washington became the first African American to be depicted on a United States postage stamp. The first coin to feature an African American was the Booker T. Washington Memorial Half Dollar that 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. 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.
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.