Visionary Black Leaders: Booker T. Washington

In 1856, Washington was born into slavery in Virginia as the son of Jane, an African-American slave and an unnamed white man, from another plantation; who remained absent from the remainder of Washington's life. After emancipation, she moved the family to West Virginia to join her husband Washington Ferguson. As a young man, Washington worked his way through Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) and attended college at Wayland Seminary (now Virginia Union University). 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 of the South 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. Washington argued that the surest way for blacks to gain equal social rights was to demonstrate "industry, thrift, intelligence and property."


Booker Taliaferro Washington
 
(April 5, 1856 – November 14, 1915)
Alma Maters: Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute
Wayland Seminary
American Civil Rights Leader
Political Affiliation: Republican
Opponent: W.E.B. Dubois
United States Presidential
Advisor, 
Educator, Author, Orator
Founder: Tuskegee University
 National Negro Business League
 Calhoun Colored School


In an effort to inspire the "commercial, agricultural, educational, and industrial advancement" of African Americans, Washington founded the 
National Negro Business League (NNBL) in 1900.
When Washington's second autobiography, Up From Slavery, was published in 1901, it became a bestseller and had a major effect on the African-American community, its friends and allies. In October 1901 President Theodore Roosevelt invited Washington to dine with him and his family at the White House; he was the first African American to be invited there by a president. Democratic Party politicians from the South, including future Governor of Mississippi James K. Vardaman and Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina indulged in racist personal attacks when they learned of the invitation. Vardaman described the White House as:
"so saturated with the odor of the nigger that the rats have taken refuge in the stable", and declared "I am just as much opposed to Booker T. Washington as a voter as I am to the cocoanut-headed, chocolate-colored typical little coon who blacks my shoes every morning. Neither is fit to perform the supreme function of citizenship."
Tillman said, "The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again."
State and local governments gave little money to black schools, but white philanthropists proved willing to invest heavily. Washington encouraged them and directed millions of their money to projects all across the South that Washington thought best reflected his self-help philosophy. Washington associated with the richest and most powerful businessmen and politicians of the era. He was seen as a spokesperson for African Americans and became a conduit for funding educational programs.


Booker Taliaferro Washington and Family

His contacts included such diverse and well-known entrepreneurs and philanthropists as Andrew CarnegieWilliam Howard TaftJohn D. RockefellerHenry Huttleston RogersGeorge EastmanJulius Rosenwald, Robert Ogden, Collis Potter Huntington, and William Henry Baldwin Jr.. The latter donated large sums of money to agencies such as the Jeanes and Slater Funds. As a result, countless small rural schools were established through his efforts, under programs that continued many years after his death. Along with rich white men, the black communities helped their communities directly by donating time, money, and labor to schools in a sort of matching fund.
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 contributed to blacks' attaining the skills to create and support the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, leading to the passage of important federal civil rights laws.
Northern critics called Washington's widespread organization 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 in society, 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 disfranchised blacks. Washington was on close terms with national Republican Party leaders, and often was asked for political advice by presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Washington was held in high regard by business-oriented conservatives, both white and black. Historian 
Eric Foner argues that the freedom movement of the late nineteenth century changed directions so as to align with America's new economic and intellectual framework. Black leaders emphasized economic self-help and individual advancement into the middle class as a more fruitful strategy than political agitation. There was emphasis on education and literacy throughout the period after the Civil War. Washington's famous Atlanta speech of 1895 marked this transition, as it called on blacks to develop their farms, their industrial skills and their entrepreneurship as the next stage in emerging from slavery. By this time, Mississippi had passed a new constitution, and other southern states were following suit, or using electoral laws to complete disfranchisement of blacks and maintain white political supremacy. At the same time, Washington secretly arranged to fund numerous legal challenges to voting exclusions and segregation.
Booker Taliaferro Washington 
Speaking About the 'Talented 10th' (The Boule')

Washington repudiated the abolitionist emphasis on unceasing agitation for full equality, advising blacks that it was counterproductive to fight segregation at this point. Foner concludes that Washington's strong support in the black community was rooted in its widespread realization that frontal assaults on white supremacy were impossible, and the best way forward was to concentrate on building up the economic and social structures inside segregated communities. C. Vann Woodward concluded, "The businessman's gospel of free enterprise, competition, and laissez faire never had a more loyal exponent.

People called Washington the "Wizard of Tuskegee" because of his highly developed political skills, and his creation of a nationwide political machine based on the black middle class, white philanthropy, and Republican Party support. Opponents called this network the "Tuskegee Machine." Washington maintained control because of his ability to gain support of numerous groups, including influential whites and the black business, educational and religious communities nationwide. He advised on the use of financial donations from philanthropists, and avoided antagonizing white Southerners with his accommodation to the political realities of the age of 
Jim Crow segregation

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