• Exploring American History

Booker T. Washington, the Apostle of Freedom

Referred to by some as the Apostle of Freedom, Booker Taliaferro Washington was born on April 5, 1856, in Hale’s Ford, Franklin County, Virginia. The son of a black plantation cook and a white man whose identity was never revealed to him, Books was a member of the last generation of black leaders to have been born into slavery.

At the age of nine, Booker was put to work packing salt. A year later, he began two years working in the coal mines. In 1871, he became the houseboy for the wife of the mine’s owner. Booker would work from 4-9 a.m., then attend school. One day he learned of the Hampton Institute from coworkers in the mine. This school had been established for those who were previously enslaved. The school was begun by Brigadier General Samuel Chapman, leader of numerous black troops in the Union Army. General Chapman was dedicated to providing these individuals with an education.

In 1872, Booker walked 500 miles to attend the Hampton Institute. He studied hard and received good grades. He later transferred to Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C., then returned to Hampton with an invitation to teach. At Wayland, Booker was referred to a new school in Tuskegee, Alabama. He was soon hired as the school’s principal and spent the remainder of his life at the school known today as Tuskegee Institute. In 1896, Booker hired Dr. George Washington Carver to teach agriculture. During his years there, Dr. Carver made huge discoveries in both the fields of botany and farming technology.

Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan made life dangerous for blacks in the South. On September 18, 1895, Booker spoke to a predominantly white audience in Atlanta regarding the need for Negro self-improvement through the dignity of common labor. He promoted segregated labor with black individuals working together, providing they were granted an equal opportunity for economic progress, education and justice – for both men and women.

"The wisest of my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than artificial forcing. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than to spend a dollar in an opera house."

A white gentleman in the audience, W.E.B. DuBois, referred to Booker’s remarks as “The Atlanta Compromise” in a book he released in 1903 – The Souls of Black Folks. DuBois later established his place in American history when in 1909, he began the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

The years 1890 – 1915 were busy ones for Booker. Regarded as the black community’s paramount leader, he was constantly going somewhere with something to say. In 1901, Booker was invited to dine with President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt. A loud uproar from the Southern white elite was heard soon after. This protest was later exacerbated by the release of Booker’s autobiography, Up From Slavery. The outcry appeared to have little effect on the rough-riding president, or his successor – William Howard Taft.

By the time Woodrow Wilson arrived on the scene, things had changed and Booker’s speaking engagements began to dwindle. He now focused his time and attention on Tuskegee Institute. His work in the field of education was invaluable as it paved the way for thousands of black Americans to gain the knowledge needed to take their place in future endeavors.

On November 14, 1915, Tuskegee Institute and America said goodbye to Booker. He was 59 when he succumbed to congestive heart failure. Though the man known as Booker T. Washington was now gone, his legacy lives on. At the time of his death, Tuskegee Institute was vastly improved and boasted a student body of 1,500, a faculty of 200 and had an endowment fund of close to $2 million to carry on the work Booker had begun. The private institution is now situated on a campus 5,000 acres in size. Undergraduates number approximately 2,400. The school is ranked among the best colleges in the Regional South. In addition, Tuskegee Institute is the only historically black college or university (HBCU) in the United States to be designated a National Historic Site.

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