Biography and Achievements of Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington (1856- 1915)

Booker T. Washington was an African-American who was notable for being a presidential advisor, an educator, an author and a founding father of the Tuskegee University. He also worked as a spokesperson for the African community in the U.S. during 1895-1915

Booker T. Washington’s Birth and Slavery Roots

Booker Taliaferro was brought into the world on 5th April 1856. Unlike your birth story, Booker T’s birth was tied to slavery, right from day one. Growing up in Virginia, Taliaferro’s dad was an unknown irresponsible American who left Booker’s mother (Jane) to singly raise up the little hero. On his mum’s side, she worked on James Burroughs’s plantation as a cook. Taliaferro’s early days became more challenging when his mum remarried a fellow slave.

The Booker family lived in a horrible shelter which was in fact, a log cabin with a bare floor. It also served as their kitchen.

Another dark side of his birth story occurred between 1861 and 1865; the American Civil War separated his parents. Booker T’s step dad run away to West Virginia. He was however lucky, when his parents later reunited in 1865, after the Civil War. His mum’s 3 children were set free by the Union Army, under the leadership of President Abraham Lincoln.

Education and Early Life

Booker Taliaferro had a burning desire to read books when he was  young. While he always loved to go to school to read and write, it was unlawful to do so when he was a slave. Booker T’s stepfather (also a slave) engaged him to mine salt when they were at West Virginia. Taliaferro added “Washington” as his third name; from his step father, Washington Ferguson.

In 1872, Booker T. later attended a black college in Virginia; the Hampton Institute. Before he was admitted by the institute, Booker T was given a cleaning job. An odd job for the poor guy. He had no money – Booker T. struggled to survive, often begging from friends. The headmaster of the school,General Armstrong, spotted Booker T’s hard work and offered him a scholarship which was financed by a Native American.

The Hampton Institute had a culture of instilling manual skills in its students. Booker T. studied brick laying and other subjects. When he completed school with high grades, he worked as a teacher for 2 years. Booker T. later studied at the Wayland Seminary, Washington. There, Taliaferro disagreed with his colleagues’ classical mentality about education. He held the view that education should be done in a manner that produces the most benefit on the lives of the have-nots in the society. His expertise and passion for imparting empowering knowledge earned him an appointment at his alma mater, the Hampton Institute in 1879.

Founder of Tuskegee Institute

Booker Washington's Tuskegee University

Aerial View of Tuskegee University, established by Booker T. Washington in 1881

Having experienced slavery for a period close to 9 years, Booker also tasted a fair share of racial abuse towards black citizens of the U.S. at the time. He was extremely fortunate to have gotten an opportunity to attend school,  an opportunity that few of his fellow black Americans hardly encountered.

Realizing the need for practical educational skills, he founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. At that time, in 1881, he was young as 25. His institute was rooted in training black Americans to gain relevant practical skills. Tuskegee soared into an agricultural research hub. George Washington Carver was one of the notable alumni of the Tuskegee Institute. Carver was highly successful in the field of agriculture. He discovered a lot of new ways in which potato could be used. Carver also believed that agriculture had a potential to uplift the economic status of the black race.

Booker T. Washington’s Popular Speech – “Atlanta Compromise”

It was 1895 when Booker T. gave out one of his most famous speeches during an exposition in Atlanta. He called on black Americans to venture into vocational training. He argued that learning Greek Latin was a fruitless approach to the entrenched southern racism. According to him, blacks should forget about seeking immediate equality status with the white Americans. He believed that if blacks contributed productively to the U.S. economy, the social balance (equality) would automatically follow by itself and sooner or later, racism will end itself.

His controversial views drew praises from some white people. Blacks on the other hand, weren’t very receptive of his idea. Many opponents labeled his speech as “Atlanta Compromise”. They accused him of sitting on a fence when obvious racial problems demanded better approaches.

Presidential Adviser

Despite his contrary opinions about racism, Booker T was a well-respected black figure. He was an inspirational leader to the black community.

In 1901, Booker T got a presidential invitation to the White House – President Theodore Roosevelt had summoned him. His visit to the office of the U.S. President was historical; it was the first of its kind. Due to Booker T’s intelligence and soft stance on racial equality, President Roosevelt sought advice from him about racial issues in the country.  The same was true of Roosevelt’s successor, President William Howard. His closeness to the U.S. presidents at the time, made him an enemy of white supremacists. They branded his actions as an insult, and openly demanded that Booker T should be put at where he belongs to.

Booker’s Clash with Du Bois

An influential black activist and then professor at Atlanta University, W. E. B Du Bois, saw Booker T as a traitor and loser. The two leaders often disagreed on a lot of racial matters concerning the black community. Du Bois hit hard at Washington, accusing him of doing nothing about racial inequality in America.

Washington’s idea of “vocational skills for blacks” sounded funny and unwise to Du Bois, who was of the view that African-Americans deserved better civil rights first of all. To some extent, Du Bois was right. When Booker T. became a spokesperson for Africans, discriminatory laws intensified which ultimately prevented blacks from voting in American elections.

Death and Legacy of Booker Washington

Booker T. lived a simple and exemplary life, even though he was in the middle of dangerous times of heightened racial tensions. He secretly fought against racial violence and also contributed immensely to education. Taliaferro authored five books between 1900 and 1912. Popular among them was “Up from Slavery (1901)”.

Aged 59, Booker T’s life was cut short in 1915 by a heart-related disease. In all, he married thrice and fathered 3 children.

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