10 Facts About Booker T. Washington and Segregation You May Not Know

His Early Life
Booker T. Washington (April 5, 1856-Nov. 14, 1915) is known for creating Tuskegee University, delivering the Atlanta Compromise speech, and his public rivalry with W.E.B Dubois. Washington was born to a Black woman and a white plantation owner who has not been named. Between 1856 and 65, Washington moved from Virginia to West Virginia were he began working at the salt furnaces at nine years-old. Washington’s mother taught him to read, inciting a life-long fervor for education.

His Mentor
In 1872, when he was 16, Washington went to Virginia to study at Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute. He worked as a janitor to pay for his education and would go on to meet General Samuel C. Armstrong, a former union commander that wanted to provide an education for the formerly enslaved Blacks. Armstrong was impressed with him and offered Washington a teaching position at the institute.

The Beginnings of Washington’s Ideas on Race and Economy
By 1882, the Alabama legislature approved $2,000 for the creation of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, which is now called Tuskegee University. Armstrong was asked by the Alabama legislature to chose a white headmaster to run the school but Armstrong chose Washington. Since it was only a few years after the emancipation of Black people, many white legislatures were against his appointment.

Whites feared that Black people would become economic threats to them, and in an effort to appease them, Washington promised that would not happen. In The Future of the American Negro published in 1899, Washington wrote, “The Negro has the right to study law, but success will come to the race sooner if it produces intelligent, thrifty farmers, mechanics, to support the lawyers.”

White People as Role Models 

Washington believed that Black people had to be subordinate to whites in order to be financially independent of them, so vocational training and manual work became the easiest and quickest way to earn money and build Black communities. Washington’s ideas on segregation were controversial and they were rooted in the idea that whites could serve as role models for Black people. He believed that white people could teach Black people to be “civilized,” as he stated in  My View of Segregation Laws  published in New Republic in December 1916.

“White people who argue for the segregation of the masses of black people forget the tremendous power of objective teaching. To hedge any set of people off in a corner and sally among them now and then with a lecture or a sermon is merely to add misery to degradation. But put the black man where day by day he sees how the white man keeps his lawns, his windows; how he treats his wife and children, and you will do more real helpful teaching than a whole library of lectures and sermons. Moreover, this will help the white man. If he knows that his life is to be taken as a model, that his hours, dress, manners, are all to be patterns for someone less fortunate, he will deport himself better than he would otherwise.”

The rest of the article points out the unjust nature of segregation, and Washington states that whites are not prevented from doing business in Black neighborhoods so they don’t fully commit to it. From the article, it’s evident he held a strong belief that both races could coexist, arguing that many politicians had been raised by Blacks and did not become “inferior,” so what makes the average white person any different?

Was Booker T. Washington a Pawn? 

Washington was a smart and deliberate man. He knew how to use words and get people to agree with him. On Sept. 18, 1895 at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Washington was asked to speak to show that the South was more progressive than northerners would assume. Washington knew he was being used, so he played to the crowd’s base ideologies on segregation and race, even though he had much more complex opinions about both.

The Atlanta Compromise 

“No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem,” declared Washington in his Atlanta Compromise speech in front of a predominately white audience. “It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.”

The speech has, for obvious reasons, been heralded as one of the greatest speeches in American history. Washington discussed the possibility of a economic relationship between whites and Blacks that would prove beneficial to both.

“As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, in nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one.”

It was clear Washington didn’t expect this economic relationship was not based on equality.  He suggested to the whites of America that Blacks knew their place and would remain in it. He advocated for Blacks to willfully and ungrudging remain servants to whites before expecting major advances in American society.  Many whites loved this about Washington and they praised his go-slow rhetoric and goals.

W.E.B Du Bois and Booker T. Washington

The Atlanta Compromise pit Du Bois and Washington at odds. The two men would have a public feud that would last until Washington’s death. Du Bois believed that speech was problematic because it reinforced ideas that Black people were second class citizens. The 14th Amendment granted Black people citizenship and in all levels Black people should be equal to whites. Education and actively seeking civil rights could guarantee that Blacks would be equal. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folks was released in 1903 as a direct response to Washington.

Booker T Washington and Marcus Garvey

Garvey admired Washington’s business ownership approach toward self-reliance. The two made plans to meet and work together, but Washington died before Garvey arrived in the United States.  Though Garvey agreed with Washington that other forms of advancement would follow economic development, he disagreed with parts of his approach. Garvey believed that Blacks should aspire to positions of power and influence even though it would bring them into direct competition with the white power structure. Instead of asking or appeasing whites for to obtain liberation Garvey taught that Blacks should strive to first build a solid industrial foundation and the consequential success would allow them to shape their own destiny.

Booker T. Washington and Dinner at the White House

Because of his politics, many whites became friends to Washington and donors to the Tuskegee institute. Washington was so popular for his views on race that President Theodore Roosevelt sought out his counsel on many occasions on the subject. On October 16, 1901, Roosevelt invited Washington to a private dinner at the White House but it had to be canceled after an outcry from southern Democrats who objected to the two men meeting because it would make the two appear as equals.


The legacy of Booker T. Washington has been controversial. Many believe he sold out his people by encouraging Blacks to “prove their worth” to whites by becoming productive members of society — at a time when they were mired in overt racism.  Still, it cannot be denied that he has made significant contributions to the progress of African-Americans, working to provide education for Black people at a time when that was not easily accessible. He navigated many obstacles to become the first leader of Tuskegee Institute, a feat that deserves respect.

source: atlantablackstar.com by


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