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Booker Taliaferro Washington was the foremost Black educator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  He also had a major influence on southern race relations and was the dominant figure in Black public affairs from 1895 until his death in 1915.  Born a slave on a small farm in the Virginia backcountry, he moved with his family after emancipation to work in the salt furnaces and coal mines of West Virginia.  After a secondary education at Hampton Institute, he taught an upgraded school and experimented briefly with the study of law and the ministry, but a teaching position at Hampton became his decided future career.  In 1881, he founded Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute on the Hampton model in the Black Belt of Alabama.  Though Washington offered little that was innovative in industrial education, which both northern philanthropic foundations and southern leaders were already promoting, he became its chief Black exemplar and spokesman.  In his advocacy of Tuskegee Institute and its educational method, Washington revealed the political adroitness and accomodationist philosophy that were to characterize his career in the wider arena of race leadership.  He convinced southern white employers and governors that tuskegee offered an education that would keep Blacks "down on the farm" and in the trades. 

To prospective northern donors and particularly the new self-made  millionaires such as Rockefeller and Carnegie, he promised the inculcation of the Protestant work ethic.  To Blacks living within the limited horizons of the post-Reconstruction South, Washington held out industrial education as the means of escape from the web of sharecropping and debt, and the achievement of attainable, petit-bourgeois goals of self-employment, landownership, and small business.   Washington cultivated local White approval and secured a small state appropriation, but it was northern donations that made Tuskegee Institute by the 1900's, the best supported Black educational institution in the country.  The Atlanta Compromise Address, delivered before the Cotton States Exposition in 1895, enlarged Washington's influence into the arena of race relations and Black leadership. 


Revised: July 18, 2013.