WASHINGTON, BOOKER T. Following the death of Frederick Douglass in 1895, the most influential leader of the black race in the United States was Booker Taliaferro Washington. In fact, the period between 1895-1915 is usually referred to as the Age of Booker T. Washington in African American history. By the time of his death, he had exerted a degree of influence in national affairs as well as upon his own race unparalleled by any previous African American leader.
Born on the Virginia plantation of James Burroughs in 1856, Washington's mother was a "domestic" slave on the Burrough's plantation while his father was a white man from a neighboring farm. As was customary, Washington inherited the slave status of his mother. Following the Civil War and emancipation, his family moved to West Virginia, where he attended school while working nearly full-time in a salt mine. In 1872, Washington entered Hampton Institute, one of the educational institutions for freedmen established by northern philanthropists during the Reconstruction era.
Unlike a traditional liberal arts college, Hampton stressed a practical, utilitarian education. Accordingly, all students worked on campus and learned useful trades as well as academic subjects. Following his graduation from Hampton in 1876, Washington taught school for a short while and subsequently continued his studies at Wayland Seminary during 1878-79. Between 1879-81, he held a teaching position at his alma mater, Hampton Institute. In 1881 he was selected to serve as the director of a new black educational institution in Tuskegee, Alabama. Modeling the new school's philosophy and curriculum on the practical, utilitarian education he himself had received at Hampton, Washington taught his students such diverse skills as farming, masonry and printing, at the same time emphasizing the personal habits of thrift, cleanliness and industriousness. Starting out as a mere shanty with forty pupils, Tuskegee Institute, under the presidency of Booker T. Washington, grew to become the most prestigious black school in America by 1915. In that year, Tuskegee had 1,500 students, nearly two hundred faculty members, an annual budget of $300,000, an endowment of almost $2 million and a modern physical plant situated on two thousand acres of land.
Washington gained national prominence as the result of his speech at the Atlanta Cotton Exposition in 1895. Often referred to as his "Atlanta Compromise" speech, Washington suggested that African Americans abandon their struggle for equal political and social rights in return for an assurance on the part of whites that genuine economic opportunities be provided for blacks so that they might eventually "earn" these social and political rights via self-help and industriousness. This "compromise," of course, delighted whites who had the inaccurate impression that Washington was suggesting that blacks would permanently remain a laboring, servant class without social or political rights. Critics of Washington today, moreover, often accept this interpretation, forgetting the fact that Washington secretly financed and encouraged lawsuits and other efforts to protect black civil rights in the social and political realms.
While whites rejoiced and most blacks accepted Washington's compromise strategy, the black intellectual community, under the prominent leadership of W. E. B. Du Bois, began a two-decade campaign to displace Washington as the acknowledged leader of African Americans. Nevertheless, Washington's views and influence (in large part the result of the fact that he was massively financed by some of the wealthiest whites in America) would prevail until his death in 1915. A prolific writer, Washington wrote a dozen books and numerous articles. His autobiography, Up From Slavery, was published in 1901 and has since been translated into at least eighteen languages. See also: ATLANTA COMPROMISE, W. E. B. DU BOIS, HAMPTON INSTITUTE, MONROE TROTTER and TUSKEGEE MACHINE.