Booker T. Washington (1856–1915)
Educator, Civil Rights Leader
Educator, orator, author, and adviser to U.S. presidents, Booker T. Washington was born a slave on a Virginia plantation in 1856. Following the Civil War, Washington and his mother migrated to West Virginia to reunite with family, and there he taught himself how to read and received formal schooling for the first time in his life. Working in coal mines for seven years, he saved enough money to attend the Hampton Institute in Virginia, a center of higher education for freedmen. Washington impressed Hampton Institute’s president so much that he recommended his former student to lead the newly established Tuskegee Institute in 1882, which he did for the next thirty years. Washington built Tuskegee from a small teachers’ school into the one of the nation’s foremost colleges for African Americans. In addition to building Tuskegee, he cultivated the spread of vocational schools and colleges for African Americans across the South. This work garnered him widespread attention, and Washington was recognized as one of the country’s primary advocates for racial equality. Washington’s philosophy for the advancement of his community was rooted in the belief that an educated, active, and responsible citizenry present the best hope to combat racism in the Jim Crow South. Washington was successful in building a network of relationships with other African-American leaders as well as the support of Northern philanthropists who funded his endeavors. His work and reputation earned the respect of Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, who both sought his counsel on matters of race. Washington published numerous collections of his speeches and essays throughout his life, but his most famous work is Up from Slavery (1901), an autobiographical account of his rise from slavery to civic leader. It is still widely read and relevant to this day, perhaps nowhere more than at Tuskegee University, the former institute where Booker T. Washington died at the age of 59.