Washington, Booker T.

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was a famous and highly respected leader among African Americans during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. Born into slavery in Virginia, Washington fought hard after the Civil War for an education. He attended Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute and Wayland Seminary. His love for learning and his belief that schooling was the key to advancement for black Americans drew him to a career in education. From 1881 to 1915, Washington served as head of Tuskegee Institute, a normal school for African Americans located in Alabama. Despite advocating accommodation with white society in his 1895 Atlanta Compromise address, Washington was a secret and life-long supporter of desegregation efforts and civil rights initiatives. He was also the author of six books, the founder of the National Negro Business League (in 1900), and a popular lecturer, and many whites—especially Southerners—assumed that Washington spoke for all African Americans.

Washington had a large circle of prominent supporters and friends, both African American and white. He traveled widely and his understanding of Southern politics was useful to President Roosevelt. The two men had known each other for several years before Roosevelt invited Washington to dinner at the White House on October 16, 1901, for the purpose of talking over the situation of the Republican Party in the South. On that night, Washington dined with the Roosevelt family. The next day, a firestorm of vitriol broke out from Southern whites who called for Roosevelt's impeachment. This stunned Roosevelt. While he continued to consult Washington, Roosevelt never invited him back to the White House.

By 1915, when Washington died, World War I had broken out in Europe, and a new generation of African Americans were overtly demanding their rights through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Although he was a political power-broker, an influential thinker, a leading educator, and a consultant to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist ideas were discredited by the end of his life.