Washington was the founder of the renowned Tuskegee University, a dedicated activist, and a driven educator. In this video, we will take a look at his life, legacy, and impact on education.
Meet Booker T. Washington
Before we take a formal look at Booker T. Washington, pause for a moment and consider this scenario: The year is 1856, just a few years before the start of the American Civil War. It’s also the year you were born. Your mother is a slave on a Virginia plantation, which means you are also a slave the moment you enter the world.
You won’t know your father. He is a white man who will never claim you, possibly because of the social stigma that would be attached to fathering a child with an African American slave. As a slave, you have no rights.
It’s even illegal for you to learn to read. Doesn’t sound like a very promising beginning, does it? The outlook isn’t so good. Well, that is the story of Booker T. Washington, and despite that difficult beginning, he was able to become one of the most influential African Americans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
A Path to Education
Part of what makes Booker T. Washington so unique is his determination to overcome obstacles.
His path to education is certainly no different. Washington would begin the literal journey towards an education in 1872. He would walk more than 500 miles to the Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute in Virginia.
He would work hard, perform well, and gain the respect of many along his path to graduation in 1875. His connection to Hampton would prove to be quite valuable. He continued to stay connected with the institute post-graduation by teaching at the institute.
In 1881, funding was approved for a colored school in Alabama, and Washington was appointed as the leader of the institute. The institute was the famous Tuskegee Institute located in Tuskegee, Alabama. Under Washington’s leadership, this institute would become one of the most esteemed places in higher learning in the country.
Washington’s Impact on Education
Clearly a man of high intelligence and possessing a strong work ethic, it is easy to imagine that Washington was a man who impacted others.
As an African American man working predominately in the Post-Civil War Deep South, it is also easy to imagine that Washington met his fair share of struggles. In terms of Washington’s impact on education, it was an interconnectedness of the power of his life philosophy as well as his work at Tuskegee. Under the guidance of Washington, the Tuskegee Institute would become one of the most esteemed places of higher learning in the country. It was an opportunity for people of color to receive a quality, high-level education that would empower them to navigate an extremely difficult economy and social structure.
Not only did Washington work to make sure the curriculum at Tuskegee was rigorous and innovative, but he worked to make sure there was a values component. Washington believed it was important that young African Americans learn to be patient and hard working. These were the tenets of his philosophy. While this seems like a benign philosophy, it sometimes was ill received.Washington believed that in order for African Americans to begin to receive equal treatment to their white counterparts, there would be some aspects of life that would just have to be accepted. He believed that one of the unfortunate truths of his time was that African Americans would often need to remain submissive to whites when it came to equal treatment and employment opportunities.
While remaining submissive, he believed that African Americans needed to remain diligent in demonstrating incredible work ethic, intelligence, and value. He felt that over time this would result in gained respect and thus more equal treatment. He believed that it was perfectly acceptable for African Americans to remain socially segregated. For Washington, it was possible for both African Americans and whites to gain equal status and provide equal societal contributions while remaining essentially separate.Washington famously lay out his philosophical beliefs in 1895 while speaking at the Cotton States and International Exposition. Here he expressed his vision of the advancement of African Americans. He preached a vision of an America where blacks and whites could each find equal success and opportunity without a forced integration.
The most controversial part of his plan, however, was the idea that African Americans would obtain this equality by temporarily accepting the racist and discriminatory state in which the country existed. This approach brought much scrutiny to Washington, most notably by fellow educator and advocate W.E.
B. Du Bois. Du Bois had a large following and was incredibly influential in the African American community.
Du Bois’ approach was much more aggressive in the demand for equality. He did not ascribe to the passive approach presented by Washington, nor did many of his followers. Washington, however, remained dedicated to his approach, an approach that granted him access to the highest levels of government. He became an advisor to presidents Roosevelt and Taft. In fact, when President Roosevelt invited him to the White House, he became the first African American to receive the honor.
Still, like many people working in controversial and difficult circumstances, Washington would experience both love and rejection.Regardless of whether someone loved or hated his philosophy, there were few who could criticize his dedication to the improving the educational opportunities for African Americans in the post-Civil War era. The Tuskegee Institute he founded would flourish during his life and continues to flourish today. At the time of his death, more than 1,500 students attended the institute, and they received high-quality training in numerous fields.
In summary, Booker T.
Washington was an influential African American leader in the post-Civil War United States. Born a slave on a Virginia plantation, he became one of the most prominent African American educators of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His own path to education involved walking over 500 miles to the Hampton Institute, where he would work hard and gain the respect of many. He is responsible for founding the Tuskegee Institute, an esteemed institute of higher education. Washington’s political philosophy for the advancement of African Americans was one that preached equality through separation and a temporary acceptance of social mistreatment from whites. This caused him to receive staunch criticism from fellow educator and activist W.
E.B. Du Bois. Regardless of controversy, Washington remained an influential figure and educator throughout his life and beyond.
You might do the following after watching this video lesson:
- Recall Booker T. Washington’s early years and education
- Discuss Washington’s founding of the Tuskegee Institute, his vision for America, and his dedication to the education of African Americans
- Evaluate the philosophical differences between Washington and his contemporary, W.E.B.