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Booker Taliaferro Washington

Washington, Booker Taliaferro, 1856–1915, American educator, b. Franklin co., Va. Washington was born into slavery; his mother was a mulatto slave on a plantation, his father a white man whom he never knew. After the Civil War, he worked in salt furnaces and coal mines in Malden, W.Va., and attended school part time, until, at 16, he was able to enter the Hampton Institute (Va.). A friend of the principal paid his tuition, and he worked as a janitor to earn his room and board. After three years (1872–75) at Hampton he taught at a school for African-American children in Malden, then studied at Wayland Seminary, Washington, D.C. Appointed (1879) an instructor at Hampton Institute (now Hampton Univ.), he was given charge of the training of 75 Native Americans, under the guidance of Gen. S. C. Armstrong. He later developed the night school.

In 1881 he was chosen to organize (and construct) an academic, agricultural, and industrial school for African Americans at Tuskegee, Ala. Under his direction, Tuskegee Institute (see Tuskegee Univ.) became one of the leading African-American educational institutions in America. Its programs emphasized industrial training as a means to attaining self-respect and economic independence for black people, and Washington continued to advocate self-help and self-sufficiency as the most effective means of improving life for African Americans.

A skilled orator, Washington gave many lectures in the interests of his work, both in the United States and in Europe, and he was counted among the ablest public speakers of his time. In 1895 at Atlanta, Ga., Washington made a highly controversial speech on the place of the African American in American life. In it he maintained that it was foolish for blacks to agitate for social equality before they had attained economic equality. His speech pleased many whites and gained financial support for his school, but his position was denounced by many African-American leaders, among them W. E. B. Du Bois.

Though many African Americans saw him as a compromiser and a reactionary, in the early years of the 20th cent. Washington was widely viewed as the main spokesman for black America. He was the organizer (1900) of the National Negro Business League, a group committed to black economic independence. He also became a trusted adviser to President Theodore Roosevelt on matters related to the African-American community, and received honorary degrees from Dartmouth and Harvard. By the time of his death, however, Washington's influence had waned considerably. Among his many published works are his autobiographies, Up From Slavery (1901, repr. 1963) and My Larger Education (1911, repr. 2008) as well as such studies as The Future of the American Negro (1899), Tuskegee and Its People (1905, repr. 1969), Life of Frederick Douglass (1907, repr. 1968), and The Story of the Negro (1909, repr. 1969).

Bibliography

See L. R. Harlan et al., ed. The Booker T. Washington Papers (14 vol., 1972–89); biographies by E. J. Scott and L. B. Stowe (1916, repr. 1972), B. Mathews (1948, repr. 1969), S. R. Spencer, Jr. (1955), A. Bontemps (1972), L. R. Harlan (2 vol., 1972–83), R. J. Norrell (2009), and R. W. Smock (2009); studies by H. Hawkins, ed. (1962), E. L. Thornborough, ed. (1969), L. R. Harlan (1988), and S. Mansfield (1999).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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