Born as Booker Taliaferro in Franklin County, Virginia in 1856, the exact date of his birth went unrecorded, the future educator and African-American leader began life as a slave. Young Booker T. took his last name from his stepfather, Washington Ferguson, in 1870. Before his teenage years, he was already working in a mine but was encouraged by his mother to learn to read and attend school. At sixteen, Washington made a life changing decision and traveled 500 miles to enroll at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute where he worked as a custodian to pay his expenses. The school was founded and led by General Samuel Chapman Armstrong whose philosophy, which was adopted by Washington, emphasized character building and utilitarian education. Washington graduated in 1875, returned to teach at Hampton in 1879, and, on the recommendation of Armstrong, was named the principal of a new normal school to be established in Tuskegee, Alabama.
What began as the Tuskegee Normal School would become famous as the Tuskegee Institute and continues to educate young people today as Tuskegee University. Tuskegee Normal School was the great work of Washington’s life, and he literally built the school from the ground up; when he arrived in Alabama he found that the money appropriated by the legislature was only for salaries. Washington raised money and took out loans to purchase land, with student labor constructing the initial buildings and growing much of the school’s food. The philosophy of Tuskegee reflected the Hampton Institute and emphasized industrial skills and character building. Besides just attending classes, students worked with their hands and were required to learn fundamental trades. Another aspect of the school was the teaching of personal hygiene which became known as the “Gospel of the Toothbrush.” Washington believed that someone who brushed their teeth, which was yet to become part of most American’s daily routine, was more likely to succeed. Dental hygiene represented more than just cleanliness but showed discipline and projected self-respect. A toothbrush was required to enroll at Tuskegee Normal School.
Besides his work at Tuskegee, Washington became a prominent speaker which helped fund the school and allowed him to spread his views on racial advancement. Washington preached compromise and accommodation with whites; even acceptance of separate but equal facilities if they were truly equal. He hoped that African Americans could gain acceptance by showing good citizenship, hard work, and strong character; ultimately leading to full social and political equality. His views gained prominence after an 1895 speech at Atlanta’s Cotton States and International Exposition. In what would become known as the Atlanta Compromise, Washington encouraged African Americans to accept segregation while seeking educational opportunities and working for economic advancement. The speech secured Washington’s position as the African American spokesman to the white community.
Letter from Booker T. Washington to Theodore Roosevelt, December 17, 1901. From the Library of Congress Manuscript collection.
Washington corresponded with many prominent businessmen and politicians, directing their charitable contributions to African American causes and providing advice on racial and southern politics. His influence extended all the way to the White House; Presidents McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft consulted with Washington on African American issues and appointments. Washington’s friendship with Theodore Roosevelt led to an unfortunate national controversy shortly after Roosevelt took office in 1901. Roosevelt hosted Washington at the White House and they ate dinner together. This was a family dinner consisting of President Roosevelt, Mrs. Roosevelt, four of the Roosevelt children, Washington, and Philip Battell Stewart, a Roosevelt family friend. The few hours Washington spent with the Roosevelts were historic as he was the first African American to be a dinner guest at the White House and because of the scandal this seemingly small victory for equality unleashed.
Outrage was primarily in the South as the dinner swirled together longstanding fears of social equality, African American aspirations, and miscegenation. Instead of a closer friendship, Roosevelt and Washington were faced with banner headlines, death threats, political pressure, and increased racial tensions across the nation. Their relationship would survive the scandal. The two men respected one another and ultimately Roosevelt had little to lose by upsetting Southern sensibilities; the South was solidly Democratic at that time. Washington continued to provide advice on Southern politics and potential African American political appointments. Their interactions included subsequent visits, but not dinners, at the White House.
President Roosevelt and Booker Washington reviewing the 61 "industry" floats, Tuskegee, Ala., January 12, 1906. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs collection.
In his final years, Washington’s position and influence in the African American community would be challenged. Continued segregation and racial violence brought criticism of Washington’s accommodationist philosophy. New leaders, such as W. E. B. DuBois, and organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, sought to confront racial injustice and to secure full political and civil rights. Secretly, Washington favored these goals, going so far as to covertly provide financial and legal support against segregation and for full civil rights. However, he did not speak out for fear of losing his base among African Americans and sympathetic whites. Faced with the reality of his time’s race relations, he chose not to force the issue but seek incremental gains that would eventually confer full rights on all Americans. After an extended illness, Booker T. Washington passed away at Tuskegee on November 14, 1915.
Davis, Deborah. Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation. New York: Atria Books, 2012. Print.
Mugleston, William F. “Washington, Booker T.” American National Biography. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. Vol. 22. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.