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Booker T. Washington: Up from Slavery

The policy which the abolitionists advanced for the South, freedom from slavery for blacks, may have sounded hollow to free blacks in the North, who were regularly discriminated against in all aspects of life, including employment. When the National Council of Colored People formed in Rochester, New York, in 1853, the equal rights they demanded began with better jobs. In particularly, they advocated for a "Negro school" with an emphasis on training for manual labor. A few years later, the man who was to become the foremost proponent of black advancement through productive labor was born on April 5, 1856. Booker Taliaferro was born a slave on a small farm in Franklin County, Virginia. His father, a white man, was absent from his life. Booker later took a name from his stepfather, Washington Ferguson. The family, then free, relocated to Malden, West Virginia following the end of the Civil War. As a youth, Washington worked at the salt furnaces and in the coal mines of the region. He secured the houseboy position in the mine operator's home and was encouraged by the executive’s wife to pursue an education. Studying at night after work, Washington progressed rapidly and in 1872 showed up unannounced and without funds at Hampton Institute in Virginia, the leader in black education of the day. Samuel Chapman Armstrong, founder of Hampton and Washington’s mentor, was dedicated to training teachers, but insisted that all students learn a dependable trade. Washington learned janitorial skills. Following graduation, he worked for three years as a teacher in West Virginia, considered going into law and spent six months in a seminary. Booker T. Washington In 1881, on Armstrong’s recommendation, Washington was appointed principal (president) of the new Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama. Patterned after Hampton, Tuskegee offered a number of academic courses, but emphasized training in the trades. Many students learned the building trades and put their talents to work constructing buildings and facilities on the campus. Great stress was laid on refined speech, proper dress and absolute cleanliness. The emphasis that Washington placed upon moderation and culture aided him in raising money for Tuskegee among white circles. Benefactors included John D. Rockefeller, ^Andrew Carnegie and C.P. Huntington. Washington spent most of his time on public speaking tours and was noted as one of the great lecturers of his day. Tuskegee continued to grow and boasted among its faculty the great botanist, George Washington Carver^. Whether fairly or unfairly, Washington developed a reputation as an accommodationist. He was willing to deliver one message to one audience and different versions to others. The theme of hard work and respectability was gladly received by white audiences in the North. In the South, however, he offered a message best typified in the Atlanta Compromise Address, a speech widely reported in the national press. Washington urged blacks to accept segregation and the loss of voting rights in exchange for Southern support of educational and economic opportunities. Many white Southerners were pleased to keep the blacks out of politics and in the menial trades. In 1901, Washington published his autobiography, Up from Slavery, an immediate bestseller among white readers. In that same year, Washington’s profile was heightened by his famous dinner in the White House with Theodore Roosevelt. As the most conspicuous black man in America in the early 20th century, Washington’s leadership began to experience a number of challenges. Both blacks and liberal whites began to criticize and pushed for increased emphasis on restoring civil rights, and combating the unconscionable violence against blacks in the South. Leading opponents included W.E.B. Du Bois and his Niagara Movement; later, a stronger line was advanced by the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People NAACP. It was increasingly evident that proper speech and good conduct alone were not going to bring blacks to full participation in the political process. Washington remained influential until the end of his life, but was forced to share leadership with others as time went on. Booker T. Washington was indisputably one of the foremost educators of his day and the dominant black leader. He became controversial, and his legacy remains so today, because of his belief that blacks could earn the respect of white society by being responsible and not pushing too hard for civil rights. His defenders point out that Washington had few options and did the best he could under exceedingly difficult circumstances. Booker T. Washington died November 14, 1915 at Tuskegee, Alabama.