Booker T Washington was a remarkable member of the African American community, and was the foremost black educator of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He earned his legacy as one of the most important figures in black public affairs during his time, emerging as an iconic man who made it through the horrors of slavery. An educator, orator, writer and leader, Booker T Washington will always be remembered for his commitment to racial uplift.
This post takes a look at Booker T Washington’s life and legacy, including his greatest accomplishments and impact on society. During a time when African Americans were considered second-class citizens, Washington worked tirelessly to create better educational structures for blacks, and spoke to raise awareness of black issues. You can also discover more about Booker T Washington in one of our original 1940 newspapers, since on April 7th 1940, he became the first African American to appear on a postage stamp!
Booker T Washington (Source: Wikipedia)
Founding the Tuskegee Institute
One of the major accomplishments of Booker T Washington was his founding of the Tuskegee Institute. Unlike the majority of African Americans, Washington was one of the fortunate few that finished his education. Despite being born into slavery, his emancipation and access to learning led him to begin teaching.
At the age of 25, Washington established the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He believed that African Americans should be educated in the skills that would help them fight for social equality, rather than demand it straight away. This was because racism in the South was so deeply entrenched that Washington thought African Americans gaining an education was a logical way to start achieving civil rights. This was a remarkable step forward for African Americans, since their enslavement had denied them an education and educational facilities for blacks were extremely inadequate.
The Institute became a leading school in the country, and Washington put a lot of himself into the curriculum. He taught African Americans that civil rights and economic prosperity would take time, and gaining a proper education would help them gain acceptance and respect from the white community. Washington remained the head of the Institute until his death in 1915.
A history class at Tuskegee (Source: Wikipedia)
The views and beliefs of Booker T Washington were somewhat mixed. He was openly supportive of African Americans taking a “back seat” to the white community, but simultaneously funded several court cases that challenged segregation. In large, Washington believed in focusing on the black individual, getting an education and making life better at the ground level. He thought too much social unrest and challenging of the racial structure would not be productive, and believed blacks should improve themselves before trying to reject the social order.
Being seen as the leader of the African American community, his work led him to become a self-made man and a role model to thousands. His 1895 speech at the Atlanta Exposition helped him establish his views, expressing his belief that blacks should focus on vocational learning, and that learning Latin and Greek was unnecessary for African American life in the South. He explained that equality would follow when blacks start establishing themselves as respectable, educated members of society. Washington tried to help blacks abandon short-term hopes of political and social equality, as he believed the two would take time.
Three-quarter length portrait of Booker T Washington, 1890 (Source: Library of Congress)
Dinner with Theodore Roosevelt
An important part of Booker T Washington’s legacy was his dinner at the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1901, Washington was the first African American to be invited to the White House, an incredible moment for himself and for the black community. Roosevelt saw Washington as a fantastic advisor on racial matters and admired his work and commitment to dealing with racial issues.
Naturally, the invitation caused an uproar among white Americans, particularly in the Jim Crow South where racial segregation was a huge part of society. This definitely made an impact on both Washington’s life and the larger community, showing that it’s possible for a civil rights activist and black educator to be recognised by powerful members of society.
First African American on a Postage Stamp
What did Booker T Washington accomplish other than the Tuskegee Institute and dinner at the White House? He was also the first African American to appear on a postage stamp! Postage stamps had usually depicted influential white men, with only 8 women appearing on stamps by 1940. Normally, the only people thought worthy of being depicted on stamps were presidents and generals – men whose national stature was important enough to be on public stamps.
Naturally, Washington emerged as a worthy candidate from the African American community to appear on stamps after a newspaper had questioned why no black figures had even been considered. Washington was nominated by supporters and Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed. There was undoubtedly racist criticism in response, especially in the Southern states, and the stamp also caused controversy with the depiction of Washington as purely an intellectual and not a public leader.
Booker T Washington on a 1940 US 10c Postage Stamp (Source: Flickr)
It can be easy to forget the magnificent work of Booker T Washington, since the turbulent 1960s saw the rise of Martin Luther King and the modern Civil Rights Movement that became a prominent part of the mid-twentieth century. Since the work and views of fellow intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois largely influenced the civil rights movement, it can be argued that Washington’s beliefs are outdated.
However, his commitment to education was fundamental at the time, opening the door for thousands of blacks to gain an education and work towards self-improvement following the end of slavery. Without his belief and commitment to education as an intellectual, many black Americans would have struggled to be educated and learn valuable skills to help them through their troubled society.