Taliaferro Washington was a remarkable figure in American history. Usually, this phrase states that he was an icon of the history of Blacks in American, but I firmly deem that we shouldn’t underestimate his role in the national history of the United States.
Booker T. Washington began his life as a slave in slavery, in Virginia, on April 5, 1856. After the abolition of slavery, he had to work in salt and coal mines since early teens to earn his living and support his family. He was a promising child of outstanding intellectual abilities.
Unfortunately, he encountered many problems while trying to receive school education. It was only when he turned sixteen that he was allowed to leave work to go to school. Booker’s parents could afford education for his son, but the boy became independent and self-sufficient very early. His lust for knowledge was so intense that he walked 200 miles on foot to take classes at the Hampton Institute in Virginia. He had to work as a janitor to pay for his studies and board.
So we see that from the beginning of his life he confronted the challenges that all the emancipated blacks had to face: lack of money, the absence of social status, and hindered access to education. In his autobiography (Washington, 1986, p.30) he wrote the following:
“To some, it seemed that, now that they were in actual possession of it, freedom was a more serious thing than they had expected to find it.”
Freedom meant responsibility, and not everyone amongst yesterday’s slaves was ready to handle it.
Luckily, Booker Taliaferro Washington was the kind of person determined to shape his destiny himself.
But it wasn’t himself but the good of the broader community he cared about. He understood that education was the prerequisite to lifting Black America out of slavery. Therefore, he decided to become a teacher:
“Dedicating himself to the idea that education would raise his people to equality in this country, Washington became a teacher. He first taught in his hometown, then at the Hampton Institute, and then in 1881, he founded the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. As head of the Institute, he traveled the country unceasingly to raise funds from blacks and whites both; soon he became a well-known speaker.” (The African American Almanac, 1997, p.138)
What’s very characteristic of him, he was interested in raising the level of education of white and black citizens alike. Although his childhood memories from the times of slavery were often bitter, he had no hatred in his heart. He sincerely hoped that one-day equality and prosperity would come to every American.
However, his views on the ways of achieving this equality and prosperity differed from the views of many his contemporaries. Many blacks criticized the government for lack of affirmative action aimed at integrating them into the society. To the contrary, Washington taught that the one should play all his hopes within the government. Everyone, he thought, was responsible for his/her own life:
“In 1895, Washington was asked to speak at the opening of the Cotton States Exposition, an unprecedented honor for an African American. His Atlanta Compromise speech explained his major thesis, that blacks could secure their constitutional rights through their own economic and moral advancement rather than through legal and political changes.” (The African American Almanac, 1997, p.138)
Many blacks didn’t support his position, but Washington understood that the government was reluctant to take any further steps to help former slaves. His standpoint was shared by progressive whites who comprehended the notion of equality in precisely the same way as Washington did:
“Although his conciliatory stand angered some blacks who feared it would encourage the foes of equal rights, whites approved of his views. Thus his major achievement was to win over diverse elements among southern whites, without whose support the programs he envisioned and brought into being would have been impossible.” (The African American Almanac, 1997, p.138)
Washington’s fellow blacks were unhappy with his close ties with the dominant whites. They suspected him of having betrayed their collective interest:
“William Du Bois and twenty-two other prominent African Americans signed a statement claiming: ‘We are compelled to point out that Mr. Washington’s large financial responsibilities have made him dependent on the rich charitable public and that, for this reason, he has for years been compelled to tell, not the whole truth, but that part of it which certain powerful interests in America wish to appear as the whole truth.'” (Spartacus Educational, n/d., para.19)
Due to the support he received from progressive whites, Washington was able to find many socially essential institutions and organizations, ranging from educational to business:
“In addition to Tuskegee Institute, which still educates many today, Washington instituted a variety of programs for rural extension work, and helped to establish the National Negro Business League.” (The African American Almanac, 1997, p.138)
As for the business league, he was among the first successful black businessmen. He believed that the values of America, such as responsible citizenship and entrepreneurial spirit, should be shared by all the inhabitants of the country. As for the National Negro Business League, “[t]his organization encouraged blacks to become business owners. The NNBL promoted the achievements of black businessmen and protected them against fraud.
Washington was hailed as a genius in the black community after the successfulness of NNBL.” (Think Quest, n/d., para.6)
He became such an influential public figure that was offered a responsible post in national politics. “Shortly after the election of President William McKinley in 1896, a movement was set in motion that Washington be named to a cabinet post, but he withdrew his name from consideration, preferring to work outside the political arena.” (The African American Almanac, 1997, p.139)
He refused an official post in the government, but his influence was so strong that unofficially he continued to shape national politics:
“Washington continued to be consulted by powerful white politicians and had a say in the African American appointments made by Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) and William H. Taft (1909-13).” (Spartacus Educational, n/d., para.20)
Even during the last days of his life, Washington was able to behave himself in a dignified way. Before his death he decided to visit the Tuskegee Institute, which was one of the most important accomplishments of his life. The number of people that attended his funeral is a clear indicator of his historical significance and influence among the countrymen:
“Booker Taliaferro Washington was taken ill and entered St. Luke’s Hospital, New York City, on 5th November, 1915… [H]e was warned that he did not have long to live. He decided to travel to Tuskegee where he died on 14th November. Over 8,000 people attended his funeral held in the Tuskegee Institute Chapel.” (Spartacus Educational, n/d., para.21)
Therefore, we can see that Booker Taliaferro Washington was a remarkable figure in American history. He is a person worth admiring; his sense of responsibility, equality, and justice should serve as an example for every public character of modern times.
1) Washington, B.T. “Up from Slavery: An Autobiography.” London: Penguin Classics, 1986.
2) The African American Almanac. 7th ed. Detroit: Gale, 1997.
3) Spartacus Educational. “Booker Taliaferro Washington.” N/d. March 24, 2006. www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAbooker.htm
4) Think Quest. “Booker Taliaferro Washington: Educator.” N/d. March 24, 2006. http://library.thinkquest.org/10320/Washngtn.htm
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