Booker T Washington’s Influence on the Course of African-American Life Through Education

Booker T. Washington who had only managed to get a primary education that allowed his probationary admittance to Hampton Institute after his emancipation from slavery through the 1865 proclamation by Abraham Lincoln, proved such an exemplary student, teacher, and speaker that the principal and founder of Hampton Samuel C. Armstrong  recommended him to Alabamans who were trying to establish a school for African Americans in their state to lead them in their effort.

But Washington preferred to become a teacher first in his home town in Tinkersville, West Virginia.  He served there for  three years. In 1878 he left to attend Wayland Seminary in Washington DC, but stayed on for only six months. In 1879 Armstrong asked him to return to Hampton Institute as a teacher. Washington did so.

In 1881, upon the recommendation of Hampton University founder Samuel C. Armstrong and Tuskegee’s governing body, even though such positions had always been held by whites up until that time, he was hired as the first principal of a similar school being founded in Alabama,. the new normal school -teachers’ college- in Alabama called Tuskegee Institute. It was founded under a charter from the Alabama legislature for the purpose of training teachers in Alabama.

They found the energetic and visionary leader they sought in Washington. Washington thus became the first principal of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. July 4, 1881,  the first day of school at Tuskegee Institute, was a humble beginning, The new school was initially using space rented from a local church with two small buildings, no equipment, and very little money. The next year, Washington purchased a former plantation, which became the permanent site of the campus.  He built it into a center of learning and industrial and agricultural training. in Tuskegee, Alabama. Tuskegee’s program provided students with both academic and vocational training. The students, under Washington’s direction, built their own buildings, produced their own food, and provided for most of their  basic necessities. The Tuskegee faculty utilized each of these activities to teach the students basic skills that they could share with African American communities throughout the South.

Even though Tuskegee provided an academic education and instruction for teachers, it placed more emphasis on providing young black boys with practical skills such as carpentry and masonry.Under Washington’s care both the school and Washington grew to be world famous, making lasting and profound contributions to the South and to the United States.

One of Booker Washingron’s main problems was always finding enough money to keep the institution running. The support he received from the state was neither generous nor stable enough to build the kind of school he wanted. So he had to raise the money himself by going on speaking tours and soliciting donations. As head and founder of the  Institute, he traveled the country unceasingly to raise funds from blacks and whites alike. Soon he became a well-known speaker. He received a lot of money from white northerners. For they were impressed with the work he was doing and his non-threatening racial views.He thus lured industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller who would donate money on a regular basis.

Booker Washington spent the rest of his life improving the school so that when he died, in 1915 the Tuskegee Institute boasted 100 buildings, 1,500 students, a variety of programs and $2 million. By then Tuskegee’s endowment had grown to over $1.5 million, compared to the initial $2,000 annual appropriation.

The institute illustrates Washington’s aspirations for his race. For during his lifetime, many African Americans who were former slaves and who did not have an education were  provided  with opportunities to learn vocational skills and obtain an education. He thought former slaves would gain acceptance through education and financial independence. His theory was, that by providing these skills, African Americans would play their part in society thus gaining acceptance by white Americans. He believed that they would eventually gain full civil rights by showing themselves to be responsible, reliable American citizens.

In 1895, Washington was asked to speak at the opening of the Cotton States Exposition, an unprecedented honor for an African American. His Atlanta Compromise speech explained his major thesis, that blacks could secure their constitutional rights through their own economic and moral advancement rather than through legal and political changes. Although his conciliatory stand angered some blacks who feared it would encourage the foes of equal rights, whites approved of his views. Thus his major achievement was to win over diverse elements among southern whites, without whose support the programs he envisioned and brought into being would have been impossible.

Although not everyone agreed with Booker, he became a respected leader who helped many schools and institutions gain donations and support from the government and donors. From this position of leadership he rose into a nationally prominent role as spokesman for African Americans.

It was these non-threatening racial views that gave Washington the appellation “The Great Accomodater”. He believed that blacks should not push to attain equal civil and political rights with whites. That it was best to concentrate on improving their economic skills and the quality of their character. The burden of improvement resting squarely on the shoulders of the black man. Eventually they would earn the respect and love of the white man, and civil and political rights would be accrued as a matter of course. This was a very non-threatening and popular idea with a lot of whites.