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Booker T. Washington is a name frequently associated with not only African-American history, but with education as well. After being freed from slavery, Washington paved the road for many other black men and women to not only read and write, but to go to a formal school. This then opened doors for the black community so they could advance and make something out of their new-found, free lives. Although some claim that Booker T. Washington actually hindered the black community, his work in education pioneered African-American social advancement.

Due to a lack of proper birth records, there is no certain date to which Washington’s birth can be assigned. It is believed that he was born in April of the late 1850’s, and he guessed that it was probably 1856. He was born on a plantation as a Virginian slave. At the time, slave owners considered slaves valuable property, and Washington’s owner valued him at about 400 dollars. He lived through the end of the American Civil War, which led to the emancipation of all slaves. After his emancipation, Washington’s family moved to Malden, West Virginia, where young Washington worked with his step-father and brother in a salt furnace and coal mine. It was in the mines where he learned to read. He worked from four in the morning until nine in the morning, so during the day, he managed to make it to a school for colored children for a few hours, and when he was working, he learned the alphabet by working out the letters stamped on the mine’s salt barrels. However, it was in school where his passion to learn flourished, and he decided that he needed to go to a proper school, to get farther on in life. Even from a young age, Washington knew that a quality education was the key to success.

Washington had heard about a school in Virginia that allowed colored students to enroll and work their way through, and decided that he wanted to go there. The school was located in Hampton and was called the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. He earned his way through school by being a janitor. Upon his arrival, he only had 50 cents in his pocket, and the principal almost didn’t admit him, but finally he was accepted into the school and earned his way through by working as a school janitor. Washington graduated in 1875, after mastering the trade of brick masonry. Following graduation, he proceeded to teach at a school for colored children for the next three years. After that, Washington moved on to study at Wayland seminary in Washington D.C., but he eventually returned and proceeded to set up night classes and supervise recently admitted Indian students. After all of the work he had already done in the field of education, eventually Washington was presented with the opportunity to have his own school, and he advanced to successfully found and run the Tuskegee Institute, a school similar in style to Hampton, which would later on become his biggest and most profound accomplishment. (Fenner and Fishburn 121-29, 1944)

Even though Washington is the man most closely associated with the Tuskegee Institute, it was originally George Campbell, a former slave owner, and Lewis Adams, a former slave, who really got the ball rolling for a school like Tuskegee to come into being. Campbell and Adams managed to get the funding for the school from the Alabama State Legislature, which provided a mere $2000 per year. This was not much, considering that the majority of the students who were to attend the school had little or no money, the school needed to be built from the ground up, and funding was required for the school’s resources and for the salary of its teachers. Campbell and Adams next went about trying to find a man to lead the school, so they asked the current president of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute for a recommendation. He immediately told them about Washington and highly recommended him, asserting that he would be a great choice for the position. The original building that was used for the Tuskegee Institute was a small church that served as a classroom for the first class of thirty students who attended the institute. Eventually enough land was purchased for buildings to be constructed so the school could be expanded. Just like at Hampton, students worked their way through, and it was their work that helped keep the school on its feet. (Karwatka, 2010) Tuskegee got its official charter in 1881 and was originally called the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. In 1937 it became the Tuskegee Institute, and in 1985 it became known as Tuskegee University. The school is still up and running to this day. From its humble beginnings, it always stressed the importance of a practical and applicable education. ("Tuskegee Institute" 2011)

Washington was very serious about the need for African Americans to have a solid, industrial education, believing that learning a trade would lead to a successful life. Nevertheless, during the early years of Tuskegee, he found it extremely important to educate public school teachers, and made this one of his first priorities. In fact, by 1889, out of the school’s 321 graduates, more than two thirds moved on to become teachers. (Mohr, 2009) Washington’s work with education earned him a lot of respect in both the black and white communities. Granted, it was a slow process to gain the level of respect he did, because as a black man in the very racist and segregated South, he had to overcome a lot of racial adversity.

A unique aspect of Tuskegee was its adult education programs. Most of the school’s first students were actually middle-aged adults who were public-school teachers from Macon County. Students continued to work their way through school, just like Washington did during his years at Hampton, but it was really Washington’s work as the administrator that got the school up and running and kept it on its feet as the years went by. He developed programs in all areas of study—academics, industrial arts, health, religion, music, and agriculture, which the now famous George Washington Carver took over in 1896, and conducted large amounts of agricultural research during his time there. (Fenner and Fishburn 127-28, 1944) Washington also carried the burden of two other important aspects of running a school—public relations and fundraising. Clearly it would be difficult to make a black school sound good in a time that was chock-full of racism and white supremacy, which would also make fundraising equally difficult. However, both were vital to the school’s survival, so Washington set out traveling all over the country to make business connections. It was through these travels that Washington became increasingly famous with each place he went to.

As the Tuskegee Institute grew, Washington’s name became more well-known across the States. This led him into the area of public speaking. Eventually, Washington became quite the sought-after speaker at many events that occurred all over the United States. His two most famous speeches are his address to the National Education Association (NEA) in Wisconsin in 1884, and his “Atlanta Compromise” speech given to the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in 1885.

In his NEA speech, Washington spoke of his plans for southern blacks to get the appropriate training, education, and preparation they needed to become good citizens. It was his Atlanta Compromise speech, however, which gained the most attention, with regards to the black education movement of the time. In the address, he encouraged southern blacks to deal with their problems in the South properly, instead of simply moving to other places. He also asked for cooperation between the races, even though segregation was out of control and widespread at the time. Washington was quoted as saying that, “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” (Moreland and Goldenstein 134, 1985) To many, this statement made it seem like Washington simply allowed segregation, which led to some conflict about whether his views were acceptable or not. (Moreland and Goldenstein 127-47, 1985)

In Washington’s book, A New Negro for a New Century, Washington makes it very clear that he feels that industrial education is best, rather than higher education. He says that “the more practical education is the better, especially as the tendency of modern industrialism is more and more towards specialization in all departments of learning and activity of whatever sort.” (Washington, 92, 1900) This is the opposite of what W.E.B. DuBois, another famous African-American academic believed. Although in his book, The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois recognizes Washington as an intellectual who has made a positive mark on black society and was an overall successful man, he also analyzes the other side of the story. DuBois implies that Washington may have actually held back the black population in their quest for higher learning and civil rights, rather than pioneered their advancement. In part, this was due to the lack of an anti-segregation position in his Atlanta Compromise speech, and for a number of other reasons as well. DuBois said that Washington’s theories required black people to surrender three important things: “First, political power, second, insistence on civil rights, third, higher education of Negro youth, and concentrate all their energies on industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South.” (DuBois, 42-46 1903) DuBois took the stance that, since Washington advocated schools like his Tuskegee Institute, in which students earned their way through to learn more basic academics and industrial skills, he was hindering black people from getting an advanced education, more like what today’s modern universities do. (DuBois, 36-48, 1903)

He may have pushed for industrial education, but Washington did also claim that “[he did not intend] in the least to deprecate or underrate what is regarded higher education” (Washington, 92, 1900) which, at its core, acknowledged that although he mainly supported industrial education, Washington also thought that higher education had its merits, so he wasn’t totally against what DuBois had to say. Interestingly enough, before the two men began clashing over education and the advancement of the African-American population, DuBois actually sought employment at Tuskegee, but found another job before he was offered a position teaching mathematics at Tuskegee. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that their feud over which kind of education is best began. (Bauerlein 74-75, 2004)

DuBois took the Atlanta Compromise for what it was—a compromise, not a solution or a triumph. Washington urged African-Americans not to try integrating themselves into the dominant, white society, but to take things slowly and to gradually emancipate themselves via education. DuBois addressed the actuality that perhaps the black community could have gotten a better education had they first received their proper civil rights, which would mean sacrificing an industrial education, but being able to reap bigger benefits down the road. By merely compromising for an industrial education, rather than pushing forward towards freedom and a more collegiate experience, Washington may have actually hurt the African-American education movement. By damaging the movement, black children were put at a disadvantage. It is difficult to procure freedom when you are less educated than those whom you are fighting against. (Johnson and Watson, 65-70, 2004)

Booker T. Washington passed away on November 14, 1915. Throughout the course of his life, he not only loved to learn and lived to become a better man through the pursuit of knowledge, but also to help his fellow man become a better person through education. It was his dedication to the African-American education movement that helped to lay the groundwork for what would eventually become the Civil Rights Movement. If Washington had not worked as hard as he did in making the Tuskegee Institute what it was, it would not remain in existence today as a full-fledged university. In addition, the thousands of African-American students who have attended the institute over the years would have been denied the opportunity of the quality education that would both better their lives as individuals, as well as lead to progress in gaining civil rights for their entire race. African-American education is still something that is stressed today—it is important for all children to get a high-quality education, and if not for Booker T. Washington that may have remained nothing more than a dream for both the thousands of students who have attended and graduated from Tuskegee over the past 131 years since it was founded, but also for students of high schools and colleges all over the United States, as well as students in other countries. Both in 1881, when Tuskegee got its official charter, and still today, his work can be seen in the faces of students, and his work and legacy will continue to live on.




Booker T. Washington and the African-American Education Movement


Page Author: Nichole Slack

Saturday, 11-Feb-2012 14:19



Bauerlein, Mark. "Washington, DuBois, and the Black Future." Wilson Quarterly. (2004): 74-75. Web. 24 Jan. 2012.

Denton, Virginia Lantz. Booker T. Washington and the Adult Education Movement. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993. 87-105. Print.

DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: First Vintage Books/ The Library of America, 1903. 36-48. Print

Fenner, Mildred Sandison, and Eleanor C. Fishburn. Pioneer American Educators. Terre Haute: Indiana State Teachers College, 1944. 121-29. Print.

Johnson, Keith V., and Elwood Watson. "The W. E. B. Dubois And Booker T Washington Debate: Effects Upon African American Roles In Engineering And Engineering Technology." Journal Of Technology Studies 30.4 (2004): 65-70. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.

Karwatka, Dennis. "Booker T. Washington And Tuskegee University." Tech Directions 70.4 (2010): 10-11. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Jan. 2012.

Mohr, Clarence L. "Minds of the New South: Higher Education in Black and White, 1880-1915." Southern Quarterly. (2009): n. page. Web. 24 Jan. 2012.

Moreland, Willis D., and Erwin H. Goldenstein. Pioneers in Adult Education. United States: Nelson Hall, 1985. 127-47. Print.

"Tuskegee University." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2011): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Jan. 2012.

Washington, Booker T. A New Negro for a New Century. Chicago: American Publishing House, 1900. 92. Print.


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