His mother was a mulatto slave on a plantation, his father a white man. After the Civil War, he worked in salt furnaces and coal mines in Malden, W.Va., and attended school part time, until 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 a normal 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 self-respect and economic independence for black people. 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. DuBois. Washington was the organizer (1900) of the National Negro Business League, a group committed to black economic independence. He received honorary degrees from Dartmouth and Harvard. Among his many published works are his autobiography, Up From Slavery (1901, repr. 1963), The Future of the American Negro (1899), Tuskegee and Its People (1905, repr. 1969), Life of Frederick Douglass (1907, repr. 1968), The Story of the Negro (1909, repr. 1969), and My Larger Education (1911).
See biographies by E. J. Scott and L. B. Stowe (1916, repr. 1972), Basil Mathews (1948, repr. 1969), S. R. Spencer, Jr. (1955), Arna Bontemps (1972), and L. R. Harlan (1972); studies by Hugh Hawkins, ed. (1962) and E. L. Thornborough, ed. (1969).
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