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July 2000

Up from Slavery: A Biography of Booker T. Washington

Born a slave, Booker T. Washington went on to found Tuskegee University, and raised money for many other black schools and colleges.

Booker T. Washington did more than anybody else to help blacks lift themselves up from slavery. He started a great institution, Tuskegee (now Tuskegee University), which has helped tens of thousands of people gain skills needed to lift themselves up. The graduates have included people from Africa, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and other places as well as the United States. Research conducted at Tuskegee, especially by botanist George Washington Carver, helped poor Southern farmers.

Washington’s influence as an educator extended well beyond Tuskegee. He directed a private campaign which led to the construction of thousands of elementary schools for blacks. As a trustee, he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Howard University and Fisk University, the two major institutions of higher learning for blacks.

Washington’s stirring autobiography Up from Slavery (1901) was translated in every major language, and it’s still in print. Though he was born a slave, he got a good education and found an important calling, and he helped other blacks improve their lives  despite discriminatory laws. He believed that personal responsibility and a spirit of enterprise were crucial. He expressed a long-term view: “Brains, property, and character for the Negro will settle the question of civil rights.”

Washington insisted that teaching moral behavior and competence was the best bet to promote racial harmony. He didn’t believe in salvation through government. The more things blacks produced which whites need, the more whites were likely to abandon their racial stereotypes and show respect. Improving racial relations required changing human hearts, which couldn’t be done by passing laws.

Washington did everything he could to cultivate the goodwill of the white majority which controlled legislatures, courts, businesses, newspapers, universities and other institutions. He was severely criticized by Northern black intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois for not adopting confrontational tactics against racial segregation. Historian Page Smith offered this perspective: “Much of the present-day discussion about Washington’s education and racial philosophy fails to take into account that he had no alternative. For the place and time his doctrine that blacks must win the confidence and friendship of whites in order to make even modest progress was unassailably true. Those who came to differ with him lived, almost without exception, outside the South. At the very least they did not have to protect an institution – Tuskegee – for which he had the primary, if not sole, responsibility.”

Until Louis R. Harlan’s authoritative biography, the first volume of which appeared in 1972, few people were aware that Washington fought racial segregation behind the scenes. He tapped contacts developed during his extensive fund raising tours through the North and the West. He insisted on anonymity as he financed court cases which challenged the disenfranchisement of blacks, the exclusion of blacks from juries and the improper application of the death penalty.

Washington always stayed close to his roots. According to Harlan, “When he dressed up for public occasions, it was as a prosperous peasant, wearing a brown derby instead of a top hat. The same rural southernisms showed in his speech, never salty but always earthy and direct…He rode horseback all his life, hunted and fished when he could, and derived psychic healing from cultivating his own garden.”

Yet he made himself into one of the most dynamic public speakers of his time as he travelled around the United States and Europe, promoting individual responsibility, self-help, hard work, thrift and goodwill. His former teacher Nathalie Lord remembered: “I can see his manly figure, his strong, expressive face, and hear his voice, so powerful and earnest when a thought required it, yet gentle and tender…”

Booker Taliaferro Washington as born on a plantation belonging to James Burroughs near Hale’s Ford, Virginia, probably in April 1856. His mother Jane almost certainly gave birth in a log cabin on a dirt floor covered with rags. He never knew who his father was.

His mother was the Burroughs’ cook. Washington recalled, “She snatched a few moments for our care in the early morning before her work began, and at night after the day’s work was done…I cannot remember a single instance during my childhood or early boyhood when our entire family sat down to the table together…meals were gotten by the children very much as dumb animals get theirs. It was a piece of bread here and a scrap of meat there…”

After the Civil War, the family moved to Malden, West Virginia where salt furnaces and coal mines had work. Washington developed a burning desire to read and write – laws of the Southern states had made it illegal to teach blacks these skills. He was inspired by the sight of a black man reading a newspaper to a crowd. His mother got him a spelling book. Washington began attending Sunday school at the African Baptist Church, and there he learned from William Davis, an 18-year-old Ohio boy living with the pastor. A school opened in nearby Tinkerville, and Washington attended while working at the salt furnaces.

Then he got a job as a servant with Louis Ruffner and his wife Viola. He learned to do cleaning that satisfied Mrs. Ruffner’s tough standards. After about a year and a half, Washington set out for a school he had heard about — Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia — where poor blacks could pay their expenses by working on campus. This was about 500 miles away. Washington rode part of the distance on a train, then boarded a stagecoach until he had no more money. He walked the rest of the way, occasionally getting rides on passing wagons. He reached Richmond broke, so he had to sleep under an elevated sidewalk. He earned food money by helping to unload pig iron from a ship. He continued to do this work until he had 50 cents which seemed enough to finish the trip.

When he arrived at the school, his clothes were rags, and he hadn’t had a bath in quite a while. The Lady Principal, Mary Fletcher Mackie, tested his ability to work by asking him to clean the recitation room. He did a great job, and she accepted him. He agreed to work as a janitor for his expenses.

“Life at Hampton was a constant revelation to me,” Washington continued. “The matter of having meals at regular hours, of eating on a tablecloth, using a napkin, the use of the bathtub and of the toothbrush, as well as the use of sheets upon the bed, were all new to me.”  Washington was introduced to public speaking. A teacher gave him private lessons in breathing, emphasis and articulation. He participated in the debating society which met on Saturday nights. The most outstanding part of Hampton was the 33-yeard-old founder Samuel Chapman Armstong who set an inspiring example for integrity, responsibility and enterprise.

After graduation in 1875, Washington was asked to teach at Tinkersville school where he displayed considerable enterprise. He taught hygienic practices as well as reading, writing and arithmetic. Soon attendance exceeded 80 students. He started a night school, and attendance was about 80 students there, too. He taught Sunday school at Zion Baptist Church and at the Snow Hill salt furnace. He established a public library and debating society. He went on to establish a night school at Hampton.

Then on May 27, 1881, Armstrong received a letter asking him to recommend a person who might be a good principal for a new school in Tuskegee, Alabama, a small town about five miles from the nearest railroad station. The purpose of the school would be to train elementary school teachers. Armstrong recommended Washington, and he was accepted. When he arrived on June 24th, he discovered the school hadn’t been built or even financed.

He resolved that although the new school would be starting with some government money, he would gain as much independence as he could. The new school, called the Tuskegee Institute, started in the African Methodist Church on July 4, 1881. Washington persuaded a local man to loan him $200 for a run-down farm which students could build into a campus, and the property was deeded to the school rather than the state. Friends donated newspapers, books, maps, knives and forks. Washington was the only teacher. He ran the place much like the Hampton Institute, including daily inspections of dress, rooms and facilities. Initially, average attendance was about 37. It doubled within two months. Washington began recruiting teachers, mainly Hampton graduates.

Over the years, Washington’s most illustrious recruit was the botanist George Washington Carver (1861?-1943). Born a Missouri slave, he was separated from his mother, and he never knew who his father was. While supporting himself as a household worker, laundryman, hotel cook and farm laborer, he learned as much as he could about plants and animals. He managed to acquire a high school education by his late 20s. He entered Simpson College, Indianola, Iowa, then transferred to Iowa State Agricultural College and earned a B.A. (1894) and a M.S. (1896).  He went to Tuskegee where he took over the agriculture department. The single-crop system in the South had substantially depleted the soil, so Carver encouraged farmers to restore soil nitrogen by planting soybeans, peanuts and sweet potatoes. Because there was limited demand for these, he conceived hundreds of new uses.

With merchant George Marshall looking after finances, Washington and Tuskegee teacher Olivia Davidson (mathematics, astronomy, botany) began fundraising tours of the North. They raised as much as $3,000 a month. Then they began tapping Northern philanthropic funds like the Slater Fund ($500) and Peabody Fund ($500). Washington organized the Tuskegee singers who toured the North raising money. A New England widow gave Washington a gold watch, and he pawned it many times.

Washington married Fanny Smith, a Tinkersville student of his who had gone on to graduate from Hampton, August 2, 1882. They had a daughter Portia born in 1883, but Fanny died the following year at age 26. In 1885, he married Olivia Davidson. They had a son, Booker Taliaferro Washington, Jr. Their second child Ernest Davidson Washington was born in 1889. Olivia’s health, which had been fragile, broke down, and she died on May 8, 1889. He buried her next to Fanny at Tuskegee.

While at Fisk University for a speaking engagement, Washington met a senior named Margaret James Murray who had written him about a teaching position at Tuskegee. Impressed, he hired her as an English teacher. Soon she was supervising women’s industries at Tuskegee. Then he asked her to become Lady Principal. Eventually they were married. She assumed more and more responsibility at Tuskegee, giving Washington the time to pursue fund raising and to address political issues.

On September 18, 1895, Washington appeared at the Cotton States and International Exhibition. He noted that a third of the population in the South was black, and the South couldn’t prosper unless black people prospered. He urged blacks to “Cast down your bucket where you are” and make the most of available opportunities. He encouraged whites to “Cast down your bucket among these [black] people who have, without strikes and labour wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, builded your railroads and cities, and brought forth treasures from the bowels of the earth, and helped make possible this magnificent representation of the progress of the South.”   Then, bidding for racial peace, he offered what came to be called the “Atlanta Compromise”:  “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”    

Overnight, Washington became recognized as a black leader, the successor to Frederick Douglass who had died seven months earlier. This was a tough time, because trends continued to move against blacks.. In 1890, Mississippi had become the first Southern state to deny blacks the vote. South Carolina did it in 1895. Three years later, Washington tried unsuccessfully to stop Louisiana from disenfranchising blacks. He won in Georgia. Despite his best efforts, Alabama disenfranchised blacks in 1900.

Washington did the best he could to influence political opinion, delivering as many as three talks a day. In October 1898, he warned 16,000 people at the Chicago Peace Jubilee: “we shall have, especially in the Southern part of our country, a cancer gnawing at the heart of the Republic, that shall one day prove as dangerous as an attack from an army without or within.”

With all the travelling, he suffered from chronic fatigue. Northern supporters arranged for Washington and his wife to take a much-needed vacation in Europe. In Holland, he was impressed by how Dutch farmers made a good living efficiently working small acreage. The Washington’s were treated like celebrities in Paris and London – Queen Victoria served them tea. They met American author Mark Twain, woman suffrage crusader Susan B. Anthony and British journalist Henry Stanley (who had tracked down explorer and antislavery crusader David Livingstone in Africa).

Back in the United States, Washington retained a writer to help him with his memoirs. The resulting rush job, The Story of My Life and Work (1900), was published by a Naperville, Illinois firm which marketed books by subscription. Reportedly it sold 75,000 copies. Then he retained Vermont-based writer Max Bennett Thrasher, and Doubleday’s Walter Hines Page agreed to publish a better autobiography. The book, Up from Slavery, appeared in 1901, and it was translated into Arabic, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Malayalam, Norwegian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish and Zulu.

Up from Slavery had a big impact on contributions. Among those inspired to support Tuskegee were photography entrepreneur George Eastman, Standard Oil partner Henry H. Rogers and steel entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie. Realizing that Jews had suffered much, too, Washington successfully appealed to Jewish entrepreneurs like investment bankers Jacob Schiff, Paul Warburg, Isaac Seligman, the Lehmans, Goldmans and Sachses. Sears Roebuck chief executive Julius Rosenwald became a big contributor.  Washington won the hearts of these entrepreneurs with his thrift and enterprise; after he had built Rockefeller Hall for less than was budgeted, Washington sent John D. Rockefeller Jr. a refund for $239.

Washington was outraged that everybody was taxed for government schools, but almost none of this money helped blacks. Philadelphia Quaker Anna Jeanes named Washington a trustee to spend $1 million improving the quality of Southern teachers for black children. Washington was an advisor for Julius Rosenwald who began financing the construction of school buildings for black children throughout the South.

Washington helped advance higher education for blacks when he served on the boards of Howard University and Fisk University. He used his influence with Carnegie to get a library building for Howard. Washington persuaded Carnegie to give Fisk $25,000. Washington and New York corporate lawyer Paul Cravath took charge of a $300,000 fund raising campaign for Fisk.

Behind the scenes, Washington helped mount a legal counter-attack against escalating white efforts to deny blacks their civil liberties. He paid his New York-based personal lawyer Wilfred Smith to bring two Alabama disenfranchisement cases, Giles v. Harris (1903) and Giles vs. Teasley (1904), before the Supreme Court. They lost. Washington and Smith challenged the practice of barring blacks from juries. They brought an Alabama case to the Supreme Court in 1904, and the Court overturned the conviction of a black man who had been found guilty by a jury from which blacks were excluded. Washington raised money and recruited lawyers who persuaded the Supreme Court to strike down peonage statutes which held debtors in servitude to their creditors.

Because Washington’s public persona was so accommodating, and he fought segregation behind the scenes, he was bitterly criticized by radical black Northern intellectuals. His most persistent critic was W. E. B. Du Bois, the Massachusetts-born sociologist who graduated from Fisk University and earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University. His critique of Washington first appeared in The Dial, The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and elsewhere. “Mr. Washington,” he charged, “represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission.”

In November 1915, Washington began to suffer the symptoms of serious kidney trouble and high blood pressure. He went to St. Luke’s Hospital in New York and consulted doctors there, but they couldn’t do much.    He decided to head home. “I was born in the South,” he remarked, “I have lived and labored in the South, and I expect to die and be buried in the South.”  His wife helped him take the train from Pennsylvania Station on Friday, November 12th. She arranged to have an ambulance meet them at Chehaw , the train station about five miles from Tuskegee, around 9 P.M. Saturday.

As he made his final journey, he had much to be proud of. Tuskegee was in great shape. There were about 200 teachers training some 1,500 students in 38 trades and professions. The campus had a hundred modern buildings. Tuskegee was debt-free with over 2,000 acres and a $2 million endowment. Most important was the legacy of graduates who, he noted, “are showing the masses of our race how to improve their material, educational, and moral and religious life…[and they are] causing the Southern white man to learn to believe in the value of educating the men and women of my race.” Washington got home, but he died at 4:45 Sunday morning, November 14, 1915. He was 59. A simple funeral was held Wednesday at Tuskegee. He was buried in the campus cemetery with a tremendous hunk of granite for a gravestone.

Self-help went out of fashion among black intellectuals who, like W. E. B. Du Bois, came to believe that improving the lives of blacks depended on political action and government intervention. Yet while blacks got nowhere politically from the 1890s through the 1920s, as Thomas Sowell reported in his book Race and Economics (1975), “for the masses of the black population, these were years of great economic advance…and even culturally the 1920s was a period of great development variously known as the ‘black renaissance’ and the arising of the ‘new Negro.’  Great numbers of Negroes entered industrial occupations for the first time during World War I and set in motion a mass migration to the North which transformed the history of black America.”  

Du Bois lived almost a half-century after Washington’s death, and his belief in salvation through government had a major influence on black intellectuals, even though black income relative to whites declined during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Du Bois made important contributions but didn’t help his cause by embracing communism. Among the most sickening things was his 1953 tribute to the “great man,” Soviet mass murderer Joseph Stalin.

Fortunately, blacks continued to help themselves. After World War II, four times more Southern blacks migrated North than had migrated North through the 1920s. “The Second Great Migration brought about an enormous improvement in the kinds of jobs held by African Americans and in the incomes they earned,” reported Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom in their book America in Black and White (1997). “In many respects the pace of progress was more rapid before the civil rights legislation of the early 1960s and the affirmative action policies that began in the late 1960s than it has been since.”

Booker T. Washington proved to have much better insights than Du Bois about improving people’s lives, especially the poorest among us. Washington understood that dramatic progress can be achieved, even in a hostile political environment, if individuals educate themselves, work hard and produce things other people want.  Washington recognized that as far as individual advancement is concerned, there’s no substitute for responsibility, honesty, thrift and goodwill. Our character is our destiny.

Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.