Booker T. Washington

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Booker Taliaferro Washington (April 5, 1856 – November 14, 1915) was an American educator, author, orator, and political leader. He was the dominant figure in the African American community in the United States from 1890 to 1915. He was representative of the last generation of black leaders born in slavery and spoke on behalf of blacks living in the South. Washington was able throughout the final 25 years of his life to maintain his standing as the major black leader because of the sponsorship by powerful whites, substantial support within the black community, his ability to raise educational funds from both groups, and his accommodation to the social realities of the age of Jim Crow segregation.[1]

Washington was born into slavery to a white father and a slave mother in a rural area in southwestern Virginia. After emancipation, he worked in West Virginia in a variety of manual labor jobs before making his way to Hampton Roads seeking an education. He worked his way through Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) and attended college at Wayland Seminary (now Virginia Union University). After returning to Hampton as a teacher, in 1881 he was named as the first leader of the new Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Washington received national prominence for his Atlanta Address of 1895, attracting the attention of politicians and the public as a popular spokesperson for African American citizens. Washington 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 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, which helped raise funds to establish and operate thousands of small community schools and institutions of higher education for the betterment of blacks throughout the South, work which continued for many years after his death.

Northern critics called Washington's followers 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, and that cooperation with supportive whites was the only way to overcome pervasive racism in the long run. Some of his civil rights work was secret, such as funding court cases.[2]

In addition to the substantial contributions in the field of education, Dr. Washington was the author of 14 books; his autobiography, Up From Slavery, first published in 1901, is still widely read today. During a difficult period of transition for the United States, he did much to improve the overall friendship and 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 led to a foundation of the skill set needed to support the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and further adoption of important federal civil rights laws.

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