Booker T. Washington : biography
Historians today often describe Washington as either a visionary capable of "read[ing] minds with the skill of a master psychologist" who expertly played the political game in 19th century Washington by its own rules; or as a typical self-serving, crafty narcissist who threatened and punishing those in the way of his personal interests, traveled with an entourage and spend much time fundraising, signing autographs and giving flowery patriotic speeches with lots of flag waving – acts more indicative of an artful political boss than an altruistic civil rights leader.
While his opponents called his powerful network of supporters the "Tuskegee Machine," Washington maintained control because of his ability to gain support of numerous groups including influential whites and the black business, educational and religious communities nationwide. He advised on financial donations from philanthropists, and avoided antagonizing white Southerners with his accommodation to the political realities of the age of Jim Crow segregation.
Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute
Booker T. Washington’s house at [[Tuskegee University]] The organizers of the new all-black state school called Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama found the energetic leader they sought in 25-year-old Washington. He believed that with self-help, people could go from poverty to success. The new school opened on July 4, 1881, initially using space in a local church. The next year, Washington purchased a former plantation, which became the permanent site of the campus. Under his direction, his students literally built their own school: making bricks, constructing classrooms, barns and outbuildings; and growing their own crops and raising livestock; both for learning and to provide for most of the basic necessities.. Both men and women had to learn trades as well as academics. Washington helped raise funds to establish and operate hundreds of small community schools and institutions of higher educations for blacks.. The Tuskegee faculty used all the activities to teach the students basic skills to take back to their mostly rural black communities throughout the South. The main goal was not to produce farmers and tradesmen, but teachers of farming and trades who taught in the new schools and colleges for blacks across the South. The school expanded over the decades, adding programs and departments, to become the present-day Tuskegee University.
Washington expressed his aspirations for his race in his direction of the school. He believed that by providing needed skills to society, African Americans would play their part, leading to acceptance by white Americans. He believed that blacks would eventually gain full participation in society by acting as responsible, reliable American citizens. Shortly after the Spanish-American War, President William McKinley and most of his cabinet visited Washington. He led the school until his death in 1915. By then Tuskegee’s endowment had grown to over $1.5 million, compared to its initial $2,000 annual appropriation.
Politics and the Atlanta Compromise
Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Exposition address was viewed as a "revolutionary moment" by both African-Americans and whites across the country. Then W. E. B. Du Bois supported him, but they grew apart as Du Bois sought more action to remedy disenfranchisement and lower education. After their falling out, Du Bois and his supporters referred to Washington’s speech as the "Atlanta Compromise" to express their criticism that Washington was too accommodating to white interests.
Washington advocated a "go slow" approach to avoid a harsh white backlash. The effect was that many youths in the South had to accept sacrifices of potential political power, civil rights and higher education. His belief was that African-Americans should "concentrate all their energies on industrial education, and accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South." Washington valued the "industrial" education, as it provided critical skills for the jobs then available to the majority of African-Americans at the time, as most lived in the South, which was overwhelmingly rural and agricultural. He thought these skills that would lay the foundation for the creation of stability that the African-American community required in order to move forward. He believed that in the long term "blacks would eventually gain full participation in society by showing themselves to be responsible, reliable American citizens." His approach advocated for an initial step toward equal rights, rather than full equality under the law. It would be this step that would provide the economic power to back up their demands for equality in the future. This action, over time, would provide the proof to a deeply prejudiced white America that they were not in fact "’naturally’ stupid and incompetent."