15 minute read

Booker T. Washington (1856–1915)

Early Years, The Black Commitment to Free Education, Industrial Education

Born a slave on a Virginia plantation five years before the Civil War began, Booker T. Washington's professional life as an educator and leader of African-American interests demonstrates how education, race, public policy, and politics intersected in the United States during the late nineteenth century. Washington's career placed him at the center of a debate among African Americans about the proper path to full citizenship and complete participation in American society economically, politically, and socially.

He was also the instrument of elite white industrialists such as George Foster Peabody, William H. Baldwin Jr., and Robert C. Ogden. They shaped the shift in black American educational focus from universal, state-supported public education with its liberal arts component to an industrial education, a move that accommodated their aims for national industrialization and southern white planters' demands for a subservient African-American working class. As a result of his collaboration, Washington became the primary exponent of white philanthropic—industrial efforts to channel African-American and working-class white education to meet the needs of industrial America. The words Industrial education and Washington became synonymous between his 1895 Atlanta Cotton Exposition Speech and death in 1915. The legacy of Washington's educational philosophy continues to be the source of an early-twenty-first-century debate among African Americans who attempt to reconcile questions of how education must lead the black working class to life as middle-class Americans. This debate also seeks to ensure that the majority of African-American working people obtain access to a better life with mass education as the primary path to modernization and the technology that transforms black political, economic, and social status in the United States.

Early Years

Booker T. Washington was born to a slave mother and "unknown" father near Hales Ford, Virginia, on James Burroughs's plantation in 1856. He survived chattel slavery and the Civil War. He moved with his mother and siblings to West Virginia to join his step-father, a Union Army veteran. Living under impoverished circumstances, Washington worked in the local salt mines to assist the family. He attended night school initially and eventually obtained permission from his stepfather to go to the day school while he worked from 4 A.M. to 9 in the mines. Employed as a houseboy by General Lewis Ruffner, he furthered his early education under Mrs. Viola Knapp Ruffner, a former governess and schoolteacher.

The major transformative event, however, in Washington's personal education occurred at Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, under the direction of former Union Army General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, the school's founder. At Hampton, Washington absorbed Armstrong's industrial education philosophy of manual labor, trade training, economic development, self-help, and normal school training. After brief sojourns in black higher education in Washington, D.C., at Howard University and exploration of the ministry, Washington returned to Hampton Institute to teach. Armstrong recommended his protégé, Washington noted, to a "group of white Alabama gentlemen" in Tuskegee, Alabama, who endeavored to open a school similar to the Hampton model (Washington 1965, p. 82). Washington accepted their invitation to lead this normal and industrial institution.

In 1881 Washington began organizing and building Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, literally from the ground up. His leadership of Tuskegee Institute from 1881 to 1915 would elevate him from obscurity to national prominence. He became not only a leader in black education, but also a patron of such industrialists and education philanthropists as Andrew Carnegie; George Foster Peabody; Charles D. McIver, president of the Southern Education Association; and Edgar Gardner Murphy, racial moderate and distinguished southern educator. Washington also advised U.S. presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft. With these associates and supporters Washington amassed enough political power to become the most powerful southern politician of his era, 1895 to 1915.

The Black Commitment to Free Education

The emancipated slaves, including Washington, looked to education in 1865 to define their newly earned freedom and citizenship. According to education historian James D. Anderson, black people emerging from slavery committed themselves to universal, state-supported public education. It continued a tradition developed in slavery among African Americans that the ability to read and write were important skills within the slave community. Blacks held in high esteem fellow slaves and free blacks who had mastered literacy. Even Washington, a critic of slaves and black working-class behavior and goals, acknowledged that freedom was a "great responsibility" and that slaves realized they had "to think and plan for themselves and their children" including "the question … of a school … for colored children" (Washington 1965, pp. 27–28, 32). Education meant self-reliance, self-determination, and the right to control the institutions of education for their benefit. According to William Channing, an American Missionary Association teacher from New England, black people sought free public education that included white assistance but not white control–seemingly contradictory concepts. Black people challenged white planter repugnance against state government control of the education of all children, especially slaves. African Americans contested the rationale of a society that used the law to prohibit reading and writing. Black educator and Booker T. Washington's political rival, W. E. B. Du Bois, asserted that free public education for all citizens in the South was "a Negro idea," proposed by enslaved blacks as a condition of freedom.

Washington observed that black slaves and ex-slaves were determined to educate themselves by securing their own teachers and even paying "for school as best they could" (Washington 1965, p. 33). They made this commitment long before white and black northern American Missionary Association teachers came south during the Civil War. These efforts at self-education served as a foundation for universal schooling as slaves and ex-slaves organized and willingly taxed themselves to keep the private schools they founded on their own initiative. At the beginning of Reconstruction, the Freedmen's Bureau took control of some of these schools founded by slaves. In 1866 the Freedmen's Bureau in Louisiana failed to force blacks to retake responsibility for administering education for African Americans. Blacks in Georgia in 1865 created a free system of schools. Sabbath schools were also free and operated in black churches stressing literacy. Black student enrollment increased in Sabbath schools in the 1870s and 1880s, demonstrating the African-American commitment to free education and literacy. The ability to read and write was a key to black freedom. These skills helped African Americans secure jobs and direct their access to upward mobility. Literacy ensured that ex-slaves could defend their economic rights in written contracts as well as acquire land, the main symbol of freedom.

Black people attained universal, state-supported public education through a union of African Americans and radical members of the Republican Party. Conservative Republicans and southern Democrats opposed universal education. Black Republicans at southern constitutional conventions during Reconstruction, between 1865 and 1868, institutionalized free public education based on state-supported taxation. By 1870 the eleven states of the former Confederacy had installed constitutions that established free education as a basic citizenship right.

Emancipated blacks also viewed education as the key to political, economic, and personal independence. They pursued education to learn how to organize themselves and build institutions they controlled. To achieve this they sought training and development of their intellectual and leadership capacities. In this context, Anderson notes, "black leaders and educators adopted the New England classical liberal curriculum" (p. 28). After attaining political power in 1895, Booker T. Washington objected to classical education for the general black population on the grounds that it was "impractical"; however, working-class African Americans in Alabama and across the south insisted that blacks needed classical, common school, normal, and industrial education to ensure the advancement of the race to full citizenship in the United States.

White southern planters and merchants used their control over land, labor, housing, and wages to undermine universal, state-supported public education. This class had opposed state-supported public education for the working classes (white people who were not part of the landed elite) before the Civil War. The planters, Anderson asserts, "did not believe in giving the Negro any education" (p. 22). Any degree of education eroded the planter's ability to exploit black labor "upon which their agrarian order depended" (p. 23). Southern white leaders used labor to prevent black children from attending school after the Civil War. Between 1869 and 1877 the planters and merchants ousted African-American legislators from southern state governments. The planters and merchants, armed with political power that gave them a dominant position in state government, dismantled universal, state-supported public education utilizing state authority, economic intimidation, and violence. By legal means, white opponents of universal education lowered taxation, challenged compulsory attendance laws, and prevented the passage of new laws that could have reinforced free public education. The planters and merchants wanted to restore slavery and their domination of all societal institutions, which were undermined by the Civil War, Reconstruction, northern capital investment in the south, and the centralization of federal power.

No white group challenged white planter-merchant class antipublic education policies between 1865 and 1880. Beginning in the late 1880s, however, white Populists and Progressive-era reformers who followed the Populists questioned the planter-merchant vision of limiting white working-class education. As the nineteenth century drew to a close white people were forced by black agitation to confront their conflicting views of universal, state-supported public education.

Industrial Education

Industrial education introduced northern educators, industrialists, philanthropists, and Booker T. Washington into the debate between African-Americans' universal, state-supported public education and the white planter-merchant class's efforts to reconstruct antebellum slavery. The partnership formed by General Samuel Chapman Armstrong and Washington at Hampton Institute in the 1870s was part of a broader northern industrial-capital campaign to undercut black adaptation of the New England classical curriculum. The Hampton Institute was not envisioned as an industrial education institution. It was a normal school dedicated to training teachers, such as Washington, who would teach black workers and prepare them for their "place" in the South after Reconstruction. The institute was additionally part of a national movement focused on technological, trade, and manual education for the general American population. Although Hampton focused on teacher training, industrial education as it was originally defined did not involve teacher preparation.

There were three primary areas of vocational training that defined industrial education in the latter part of the nineteenth century. One area was collegiate training in applied science and technology to educate engineers, architects, chemists, and other professionals to work in the newly emerging technologically based twentieth-century economy. A second area encompassed trade schools that taught labor supervision and management. The third area supplemented the academic curriculum to modify or transform the behavior of working people from sloth to "habits of industry," thrift, and morality.

General Armstrong's Hampton Institute was founded in 1868. It utilized daily manual labor as the base of its normal school training. Armstrong wrongly assumed that the newly freed black people had to be guided and controlled because they were incapable of "self-direction" due to slavery's destruction of their minds and moral compasses. He hoped Hampton Institute might train black teachers who would impart the lessons of "work habits, practical knowledge, Christian morality, and acceptance of a subservient role" (Anderson, p. 35) in the post-Reconstruction southern household. Washington completed Hampton's curriculum and became the chief disciple of the Hampton model.

The Hampton model of industrial education was intended to "de-politicize" and "defuse" black challenges to white opposition to universal education. Providing, Anderson asserted, "the equivalent … of a fair tenth grade" education, the Hampton model preached an education gospel that emphasized that black people be apolitical (p. 35). Armstrong believed that African Americans should not be "allowed to vote," serve as politicians, or participate in public policy decisions because black people were "not capable of self-government" (p. 37). Armstrong based his assertions on the supposition that black people needed "moral development" as the basis for voting intelligently. He rejected the belief embraced by black people that a "literate culture" created a morally responsible voting electorate. Finally, Armstrong believed that African Americans' real role was to serve the planters' and merchants' needs for cheap non-confrontational labor.

Armstrong created the Southern Workman, a monthly magazine founded in 1872 to create a "public forum" on black education and to more broadly disseminate his views on the "place" of black people in the New South's social, political, and economic structure. He aligned his vision of black education with the planter and merchant class and northern industrialists. Armstrong was a friend of Robert C. Ogden, who also served as a Hampton Institute trustee. He wrote Ogden that the southern workman needed to be "a power" who would influence northern philanthropists and white southern racial moderates principally opposed, Anderson contended, "to black higher education, equal job opportunities, civil equality, and equal political rights" (pp. 36–37). Together they hoped to be the critical individuals in determining the direction of black education, especially in the south.

Planter-Merchant and Northern Industrialist Agenda

In 1896, a year after Booker T. Washington's infamous "Atlanta Compromise" speech (partly crafted by industrialist William H. Baldwin Jr.) at the Atlanta Cotton States International Exposition, a conference on "the higher education of the colored people" was convened in Saratoga, New York. Du Bois biographer David Levering Lewis characterized the meeting as a "watershed conclave" where national white leaders decided to forsake and cut off their support for "black higher education" in favor of the Hampton model of industrial education. George Foster Peabody, Hampton trustee and a key distributor of funding to black education in the south, attended the meeting, and alumnus Washington spoke favoring practical education superceding liberal arts instruction. Philadelphia's Baptist leader H. L. Wayland was enthused to hear Washington's industrial education vision was being substituted for Atlanta and Fisk Universities' New England classical education for black people. Wayland also threatened to terminate funding support to these black liberal arts institutions and shift financial aid to the exponents of the Hampton model, Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes. According to David L. Lewis, William Baldwin Jr. and Robert C. Ogden were determined to let nothing impede "the regional reconciliation [of the north and south] and southern modernization that their kind of educational philosophy and capital investment was intended to foster." With Samuel Armstrong's death three years before this conclave, Washington inherited Armstrong's mantle and the people who had supported his mentor. Washington after 1895 was the instrument of the industrialists and planters to restore the Union, modernize the South, and control black mass education.

The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century was defined by a debate between former slaves establishing a vision and the utility of universal, state-supported public education for all U.S. citizens, especially in the South, and the white planters-merchants and northern industrialists coalition to create a cheap labor force. Black people hoped to utilize education as the means to acquire full citizenship and the key to political participation and economic success. The north-south white elite coalition used education to control blacks politically, economically, and socially, while reconciling the sectional divisions of the Civil War. Washington was at the center of this debate. He represented the white elite and some emerging black middle-class members' thoughts on African-American education for the masses. Political reality in the 1890s and afterward caused Washington to publicly accept white violations of the Fourteenth Amendment that included denying black people the right to vote across the south. Privately, Washington paid lawyers to challenge disfranchisement in the American court system, but even the Supreme Court of the United States endorsed preventing black voting as "an appropriate reform" to remove corruption from politics.

Washington's Legacy

In the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, the debate about Booker T. Washington's educational legacy has been transformed into a contest between "liberal" thinking African Americans and conservative black intellectuals seeking a viable route to economic success in technology-based America. Specifically, Washington has wrongly become the proponent of a classical education that opened black students' minds to a broader world culture that included the exploration of Latin and the classics. Advocates of this position assert that Washington had a plan for black education that could have ensured African American access to economic success and perhaps middle-class status.

A look back to the Booker T. Washington of the past disregards his criticism of "Latin and Greek" for the newly freed ex-slave as making "a very superior human being … something bordering almost on the super natural" (Washington 1965, p. 65). Washington suggested in Up from Slavery that "the craze for Greek and Latin learning" was wrongly tied by blacks to "a desire to hold [political] office." He did stress that black people should embrace "manual labor" first and then build to the next levels of human achievement over time. He publicly charged that black working people were not ready for all the avenues of freedom. They would have to work toward attaining these privileges over an unspecified amount of time. This was the public rationale of African Americans for forsaking the right to vote in exchange for access to economic success, which would be supervised by white northern and southern capitalists. The white elite, Washington argued publicly, would see to it that black political rights were protected when black people proved their economic importance to white leaders.

For Washington, Samuel Chapman Armstrong was "the perfect man." Washington was "convinced that there is no education which one can get from books and costly apparatus that is equal to that which can be gotten from contact with great men and women…. Instead of studying books … how I wish that our schools and colleges might learn to study men and things (1965, p. 49). Washington wanted African Americans to have access to America's material wealth. That objective is still the subject of education reform in the twenty-first century.


ANDERSON, JAMES D. 1988. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

HARLAN, LOUIS H. 1972. Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856–1901. New York: Oxford University Press.

HARLAN, LOUIS H. 1983. Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901–1915. New York: Oxford University Press.

LEWIS, DAVID LEVERING. 1993. W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868–1919. New York: Holt.

WASHINGTON, BOOKER T. 1965. Up from Slavery. New York: Dell

WASHINGTON, BOOKER T. 1972–1989. Booker T. Washington Papers, Vols. 1–14, ed. Louis H. Harlan, et al. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

WOODWARD, C. VANN. 1971. Origins of the New South, 1877–1913. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.


Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia