Booker Taliaferro Washington 1856-1915

Born a slave on a small farm in rural Virginia, after emancipation Washington and his family moved to work in the salt furnaces and coal mines of West Virginia. After a secondary education at Hampton Institute, he held several teaching positions before eventually becoming the first principal of the Tuskegee Institute.

He is famous as a man of compromise. Accommodationist is also frequently used to describe him and his philosophy. To keep the Tuskegee Institute running, he had to

  1. convince southern white employers and governors that Tuskegee offered an education that would keep blacks "down on the farm" and in the trades.
  2. convince prospective northern donors that Tuskegee would uplift the Black race through religion and the Protestant work ethic.
  3. convince Blacks living in the post-Reconstruction South that education could be a means of escape from the web of sharecropping and debt
In one of his most famous speeches, The Atlanta Compromise Address, Washington offered black acquiescence in disfranchisement and social segregation if whites would encourage black progress in economic and educational opportunity. This suggestion was very popular with segregationist whites, but was seen by many Blacks and their allies as a betrayal of the crusade for equal rights.

Though often sharply criticized for his carefully mild stance on racial politics, he secretly sponsored civil rights suits and raised a lot of money for Black universities across the country (especially Fisk and Howard).

Modern history tends to paint him as something of an Uncle Tom, and he probably was in some ways. But he also did a lot to further the cause of Black empowerment, during a time when Black men had to tread very carefully.

source: The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris. Copyright 1989 : the University of North Carolina Press.

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