Most Americans recognize the name Booker T. Washington yet many people of all ages are not quite sure why.
Was his fame something to do with peanuts? No, that was George Washington Carver, the brilliant agronomist Washington hired to teach at Tuskegee Institute, the Alabama training school for black teachers that he founded in 1881. Washington became famous, not just in America but all over the world, with his 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery. The book tells of his childhood as a slave on a farm in western Virginia, his emancipation at age nine, his teen years working in a coal mine and then, finally, his trek to Hampton Institute where he was able to get an education. Was he an admirable leader or a troubling figure, overly accommodating of white prejudice and unwilling to push for full equality for African Americans? That’s a question that is debated still.
Washington’s place in the pantheon of pre-civil rights era black leaders, once pre-eminent, has slipped since the early years of the twentieth century when he dined with President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House and was entertained at tea by Queen Victoria. A hundred years after the publication of his famous memoir, a new edition of that book gathered together scholarly reflections on Washington under the title Uncle Tom or New Negro? The charge that he was willing to accept second class political and social status for blacks in exchange for economic opportunity was leveled at him often and bitterly during his lifetime and it has stuck to his reputation in the years since his death in 1915.
In fact, Washington’s emphasis on self-reliance and hard work, and his dignified refusal to see himself or his people as mere victims, were widely and justly admired during his lifetime. An ambitious, energetic and optimistic man, Washington was a beacon of hope and a source of pride for many blacks at a time when their lives were increasingly dangerous and discouraging. Burdened by personal sorrow, disheartened by events around him, Washington never publicly expressed bitterness or gave in to despair. He put his energies into practical solutions to problems faced by rural blacks as they confronted the dual burden of slavery’s heavy legacy of ignorance and the ongoing injustices and indignities of life under Jim Crow. The values articulated by Booker T. Washington are enduring ones. His was a life of courage, vision, and significant accomplishments that endure to this day and deserve to be celebrated.