Booker T. Washington
Booker Taliaferro Washington was one of the most influential African American educators of the 19th and 20th centuries. He was a strong believer in practical education; Washington wanted to train African Americans in skills they would be able to use. These ideas of practical education can be seen in the Tuskegee Institute, a school Washington started at the age of twenty-five.
Washington was born in 1856 as a slave on small farm in backcountry Virginia. He worked in salt furnaces and coalmines as a child but was determined to educate himself. Washington was able to get a primary education after the Civil War ended in 1865 before traveling north to the Hampton Institute in 1872. When he arrived at the institute, Washington had fifty cents in his pocket and nothing more. He quickly became a star student, and upon graduating, Washington took over the administrative responsibilities of the school and taught a few courses.
In 1881, Washington was asked to head the new Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. The Tuskegee Institute focused on teaching practical skills that the students would actually be able to use. The school specialized in agriculture and other vocational skills. The students built their own buildings and grew their own food. The hope was that these students would take what they learned and share it with their communities. One of the institutes more famous students was George Washington Carver, who developed many new uses for the sweet potato, pecans, and peanuts.
Some felt that Washington was doing great work by teaching useful skills. However, many African Americans felt that by only teaching vocational skills, Washington was not helping people advance. Washington further upset some when he assured whites that his teachings would not challenge white supremacy or create economic competition. However, Washington told African Americans that his school would help them be able to support themselves. Despite all of the controversy, the school did very well and became a model for industrial education.
In 1900, Washington started the National Negro Business League. Then he published his autobiography, Up from Slavery, in 1901. Washington was invited, in 1906, to the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt. This was the first time an African American had been invited by the President to the White House. Towards the end of his life, Washington’s ideas started to come under fire much more frequently. Younger African Americans, like W.E.B. Du Bois, felt that Washington catered too much to what whites wanted. They found Washington too willing to accommodate and felt that he allowed for white supremacy to continue. Despite the criticism, Washington remained a leader of the African American community until his death in 1915.