In 1872, at the age of 16, Booker decided to pursue a college education. He wanted to become a teacher. The Hampton Institute of Virginia educated former slaves, but it was 300 miles away. So Booker walked or hitched rides on trains all the way across his home state, stopping periodically to work for food. He arrived at Hampton filthy, thin, and with only 50 cents to his name.
The teacher took one look at Booker and told him he could not afford to pay tuition. When Booker refused to leave, the teacher returned with a broom and told him to clean one of the classrooms. Booker scrubbed, swept, and washed for hours until the classroom was spotless. The teacher hired Booker as on the spot. He would be the school janitor, allowed to attend classes in his spare time.
In 1875, Booker graduated from Hampton and soon began to teach at the school. He gained a reputation for discipline and hard work, and in 1881 he was invited to head a new school dedicated to training black teachers. This school would be located in the deep south, in Alabama. It would be called the Tuskegee Institute.
Tuskegee became Booker's lifework. He organized the school on the principle of self-reliance. Students were required to clean classrooms, raise crops and animals for food, and construct new buildings, learning practical trades and skills in the process. In exchange, they were taught academic subjects in science and the arts. Prominent black scientists like George Washington Carver were recruited as faculty, giving Tuskegee a reputation for excellence in research and challenging the myth that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites.
As Tuskegee evolved, "Jim Crow" laws came into effect throughout the Southern US, separating blacks from whites. Black people were prevented from voting and forced out of white-owned businesses and public spaces. To protect his school, Booker T. Washington issued the "Atlanta Compromise" speech in 1895 in which he very controversially urged black people to accept segregation and instead focus on building wealth through job skills. Only economic power, Washington expressed, could effectively weaken racism in America. In this stance, he betrays a long-tail view that the profound social ills engendered by the nation's centuries-long reliance on slavery would take decades to unwind.
Washington's compromise kept his school open. Northern white industrialists, happy with his non-confrontational politics, donated millions of dollars to Tuskegee.
However, his advocacy of segregation would alienate the younger black generation, especially a Howard University graduate named W.E.B. Dubois. Dubois claimed that only a direct confrontation with segregation could end Jim Crow.
Ultimately, Tuskegee trained thousands of black teachers under the shadow of Jim Crow, while many other schools failed to prosper. Fast forward another half century and you find many Tuskegee graduates at the front lines of the Civil Rights movement and founding projects to empower black people.
Booker T. Washington died in 1915, but the legacy he left behind at Tuskegee continued to grow and expand. During World War II, the school trained black aviators who became known as the "Tuskegee Airmen," helping to bring attention to the contributions African-Americans made to the war effort. Tuskegee came to symbolize black achievement and professionalism. It remains today a university of higher education dedicated to preparing talented students of color.
Born a slave, Booker T. Washington rose out of poverty to became an educator, author, orator, and advisor to presidents. He was the dominant leader in the African-American community through his adult life, mastering the nuances of 19th century politics so that he might pave the way to a more just society for all US citizens, but especially blacks. His long-term goal was to end the disenfranchisement of the vast majority of African Americans, particularly in the deeply racist deep South of his youth. For all these reasons, as well as for his clear grit and courage, we are honored to call Booker T. Washington a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero during Black History Month 2018.