This Black History Month I’m Grateful for Booker T.
“No race can prosper until it learns that there is as much
dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.”
-Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington is a complicated and towering figure in
the history of Black America. Although Washington was born a slave, he died as
the most prominent Black person in America. In the interim, he created a
previously unmatched legacy of accomplishment.
Washington is most closely associated with Tuskegee
Institute, the school he led from its inception until his death. Tuskegee is
located in the deep southern state of Alabama and continues to exist as an Historically
Black College (HBCU). Founded in the Jim Crow era, Tuskegee specialized in
skilled labor training (a fact that eventually drew the ire of people like WEB
DuBois who wanted Blacks to explore the liberal arts) in an attempt to make
Blacks more economically valuable. The school eventually became one of America’s
pre-eminent Black colleges. Washington himself was a graduate of Hampton
Institute, another HBCU, where he was trained as a teacher. Washington’s career
served as a model for many Blacks as he transitioned from poverty to Tuskegee.
The most significant public moment of Washington’s career
was 1895’s Atlanta Address. In this speech, Washington seemed to accept Jim Crow
segregation policies and restrictions on voting as long as Blacks were granted
a measure of economic and educational opportunity. Washington was challenged by
DuBois and others who wanted to press for increased social justice but
Washington seemed convinced that Black safety was in constant jeopardy as seen
by the dramatic rise of the Ku Klux Klan and increase in lynchings after
Although Washington is frequently viewed as too accommodating
to White supremacists there is a strong line of argument that suggests his
public statements were an attempt to minimize the White fear of social change. It is now known that Washington spent years secretly
raising and funneling money toward legal challenges of the Jim Crow regime.
Washington became generally perceived as the leader of Black
America after his Atlanta speech and became connected with important leaders in
business and politics. Many of these relationships helped lead to the
foundation and perpetuation of schools for Black children throughout the
country. Eventually, there were more than 5 000 schools funded through Washington’s
network of donors. Tuskegee also received incredible financial gifts and
attention. Tuskegee’s successes led to a visit from President William McKinley.
After his 1901 autobiography Up From Slavery, Washington
became even more widely known. One of the fruits of this success was an
invitation to dinner from the new President, Theodore Roosevelt. Washington was
the first Black to be so honored. Roosevelt invoked the wrath of White America
by hosting Washington in the White House and both men received intense
criticism for this interaction.
The legacy of Booker T. Washington continues to be a
challenging one, filled with interpretive possibilities. If nothing else, it is
clear that Washington created an important institution and attempted to create
the best possible future conditions for his race and for his country.
Today I am grateful for Booker T. Washington. You should be