By Jaelyn Scott
New Journal and Guide
Booker T. Washington was a smart man who fought for what he believed to be the betterment of his people, and because of that most people view him as a hero. However, his views of how Blacks and whites should interact with each other cast him as an accommodationist in the sight of some. While his legacy may differ around the community, he was able to make a mark on others and encourage them to fight for what they believed would assist Black people in economic independence and inclusion, whether it was to focus on building up wealth and labor or focusing on fighting for change.
Washington was born on April 5, 1856, in Fredrick County Virginia to an enslaved women named Jane, who worked as a cook for James Burroughs, the plantation owner, and an unknown white man. He was her second son, having an older brother named John whose white father was also unknown. In 1865, by the time Washington was nine years old, their owners, James and Elizabeth Burroughs, had freed all their slaves. So Jane decided to move the family up to Malden, West Virginia, and she would go on to marry a free Black man named Washington Ferguson, having a daughter together named Amanda and adopting a son named James.
During their time in Malden, due to intense poverty in the area, education was difficult to come by. Because of this, he was not able to go to school, later getting a second job at the local coal mines. It was here at these coal mines that he would hear about a school in Virginia called Hampton Institute for African-Americans that was founded by Brigadier General Samuel Chapman Armstrong. Armstrong led Black Troops for the Union during the Civil War, and he was dedicated to improving and providing educational opportunities for African-Americans. So, in 1872, when Washington was only 16 years old, he walked 500 miles to attend Hampton Institute, graduating three years later at the age of 19 with high grades.
After he graduated, he returned to Malden to become an educator, teaching children during the day and teaching adults during the night. He continued his education at Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C for about eight months, before Chapman, who was impressed by him, reached out to Washington, and asked him to become a teacher at Hampton Institute. He would continue to teach here until 1881, when Washington would receive an opportunity that would change his life.
In Alabama, the state legislature approved $2,000 for a colored school in Tuskeegee. Armstrong was asked to recommend a white man to run the school but instead, he appointed Washington to be the new principal of what is today, Tuskeegee University. He was given this role at the age of 25, and he would keep this position until his passing several years later. In fact, it was Washington who hired another well-known Black figure, George Washington Carver, to teach agriculture at Tuskeegee in 1896. Washington would go on to marry three times in his life: Fannie Norton Smith, who passed in 1884; Olivia Davidson, who passed away in 1889; and Margaret James Murray, who passed away in 1925.
Washington was not only an educator, but he was a reformer as well. He developed and expressed his own philosophy on how Blacks could succeed economically in an era that was hostile to Black empowerment.
In a famous speech that he gave to a mixed audience on September 18, 1895, at an Atlanta exposition, Washington argued that instead of fighting against segregation, Blacks should focus more on building up their own separate community, wealth, and labor, so long as white people would provide access to economic progress, education, and justice under U.S. courts.
This became known as the Atlanta compromise, a speech that would later be criticized by another influential educator, W.E.B. Dubois, who supported integrating the Black and white communities. This would lead to a philosophical split in the African-American Communities, with some of them agreeing with Washington, and others agreeing with Dubois.
But Washington was not finished making history, and in 1901, he officially became the first African-American to be invited to the White house by then President Theodore Roosevelt. The invitation was considered controversial and unprecedented at the time, and it sparked an outrage in the white community. But Roosevelt himself, along with his predecessor, William Taft, saw Washington as a brilliant advisor on racial matters.
Washington’s legacy continues. On November 14, 1915, he passed due to congestive heart failure.