Booker T. Washington

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He overcame enslavement and abject poverty and went on to help lift others up through the power of education. What was his recipe? Hard work, discipline, patience, and a long tail view.

Both beloved and controversial, Booker T. Washington was undeniably one of the greatest Americans of his generation. He had a vision for the future that he knew was unachievable in his own lifetime. But he did not let that stop him from constructing a foundation for a more equitable and just nation, one brick -- or educated African-American -- at a time.

Booker T. began life on a Virginia plantation in 1856. His youth coincided with the final years of institutionalized slavery in the United States; the succession of the southern "slave states" from the nation as northern states moved to abolish the practice; and the eruption of a brutal Civil War as a result of this moral and ideological division.

It was a critical time in history of the United States. Would the country finally make good on the promise set forth by its own constitution over 100 years before: to treat all "men" as equals? Or would it continue to traffic and trade people of color?

As an enslaved child, Booker was fed like a dog on scraps left over from the master's table. But in 1865, as the Civil War drew to a close, President Abraham Lincoln's Union forces occupied the plantation on which he and his mother lived. Under the tenets Lincoln laid out in the Emancipation Proclamation three years before, Booker and his mother were now free.

They were free, but they were penniless. And like many other former enslaved in the Confederate south, they were in great danger of starving to death.

So 9-year-old Booker went to work. He rose at 4 in the morning to pack salt at a salt furnace until 9 A.M. After work, Booker went to school to learn to read and write.


In 1872, at the age of 16, Booker decided to pursue a college education. He wanted to become a teacher. The Hampton Institute of Virginia educated former slaves, but it was 300 miles away. So Booker walked or hitched rides on trains all the way across his home state, stopping periodically to work for food. He arrived at Hampton filthy, thin, and with only 50 cents to his name.

The teacher took one look at Booker and told him he could not afford to pay tuition. When Booker refused to leave, the teacher returned with a broom and told him to clean one of the classrooms. Booker scrubbed, swept, and washed for hours until the classroom was spotless. The teacher hired Booker as on the spot. He would be the school janitor, allowed to attend classes in his spare time. 

In 1875, Booker graduated from Hampton and soon began to teach at the school. He gained a reputation for discipline and hard work, and in 1881 he was invited to head a new school dedicated to training black teachers. This school would be located in the deep south, in Alabama. It would be called the Tuskegee Institute.

Tuskegee became Booker's lifework. He organized the school on the principle of self-reliance. Students were required to clean classrooms, raise crops and animals for food, and construct new buildings, learning practical trades and skills in the process. In exchange, they were taught academic subjects in science and the arts. Prominent black scientists like George Washington Carver were recruited as faculty, giving Tuskegee a reputation for excellence in research and challenging the myth that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites.


As Tuskegee evolved, "Jim Crow" laws came into effect throughout the Southern US, separating blacks from whites. Black people were prevented from voting and forced out of white-owned businesses and public spaces. To protect his school, Booker T. Washington issued the "Atlanta Compromise" speech in 1895 in which he very controversially urged black people to accept segregation and instead focus on building wealth through job skills. Only economic power, Washington expressed, could effectively weaken racism in America. In this stance, he betrays a long-tail view that the profound social ills engendered by the nation's centuries-long reliance on slavery would take decades to unwind. 

Washington's compromise kept his school open. Northern white industrialists, happy with his non-confrontational politics, donated millions of dollars to Tuskegee. 

However, his advocacy of segregation would alienate the younger black generation, especially a Howard University graduate named W.E.B. Dubois. Dubois claimed that only a direct confrontation with segregation could end Jim Crow. 

Ultimately, Tuskegee trained thousands of black teachers under the shadow of Jim Crow, while many other schools failed to prosper. Fast forward another half century and you find many Tuskegee graduates at the front lines of the Civil Rights movement and founding projects to empower black people.

Booker T. Washington died in 1915, but the legacy he left behind at Tuskegee continued to grow and expand. During World War II, the school trained black aviators who became known as the "Tuskegee Airmen," helping to bring attention to the contributions African-Americans made to the war effort. Tuskegee came to symbolize black achievement and professionalism. It remains today a university of higher education dedicated to preparing talented students of color.

Born a slave, Booker T. Washington rose out of poverty to became an educator, author, orator, and advisor to presidents. He was the dominant leader in the African-American community through his adult life, mastering the nuances of 19th century politics so that he might pave the way to a more just society for all US citizens, but especially blacks. His long-term goal was to end the disenfranchisement of the vast majority of African Americans, particularly in the deeply racist deep South of his youth. For all these reasons, as well as for his clear grit and courage, we are honored to call Booker T. Washington a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero during Black History Month 2018.

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