Booker T. Washington:
The Quiet Force

By Harold Frost

Biography magazine, 2000

A child was born on the dirt floor of a certain shack in Virginia in 1856. The year has not been verified.

The father was apparently a local white man. The mother was a black woman named Jane, who, in keeping with the practice of the American slave trade, had no last name. The child’s value to his white owner was exactly $400, according to the precise financial records of the day.

Jane had little time for her bright-eyed child, whom she named Booker, but she tried to explain to him the essentials of life, including the fact that certain aspects of it were reserved for white people – for example, school. Booker would ponder this. He peered in the windows of the local schoolhouse and observed friends of his sitting at their desks, reading, laughing – kids with whom he went fishing – and puzzled over the invisible line that barred him from the building. He resolved that somehow, some way, he too would obtain an education.

Other questions bothered him too. Why did black folks have to eat cold potatoes, while whites enjoyed not only warm potatoes but ginger cakes? Why did white children own shoes? Why could a white man tie a black man to a tree and whip him? His mother answered as best she could.

When Booker was around eight years old, whispers passed through the quarters of a coming “day of jubilo.” On April 9, 1865, more than two centuries of American slavery ended. Finally, thought the lad – a chance to go to school!

The next decade would be the making of Booker Taliaferro Washington, as he named himself. When he was about 10, he got a job as a servant with a prominent white family, the Ruffners, and became the surrogate son of Viola Knapp Ruffner. Under her strict and loving tutelage he learned to read, and learned too that it was safe to be ambitious. Soon enough he was a whirlwind of striving – “ever restless,” Viola Ruffner recalled. He would ask her, “Am I getting on?” The answer: yes.

At age 16, in 1872, Washington met another benefactor, Gen. Samuel C. Armstrong, a white Northerner with a missionary zeal to help black people embrace freedom. Armstrong had founded the Hampton Institute, an all-black school in Richmond, Virginia, and young Washington became a student.

Armstrong roused his pupils at 5 a.m. and kept them busy until 9:30 p.m., studying arithmetic, history, and skilled trades, learning tenets of moral wisdom, and doing military drill. Washington became the institute’s star, and by the time of his graduation, in June of 1875, he was a paragon of discipline, leadership, oratory, and courtesy. Like Armstrong, who was basically his role model, he was socially conservative, not inclined to demand swift or major change, interested in the slow and steady approach to societal reform.

Washington thought about entering politics or the ministry, but in 1879 Armstrong offered him a job teaching at Hampton. The young man enjoyed the life of an educator, and in 1881, age 25, he won the post of principal and sole instructor at an embryonic school for blacks in the little town of Tuskegee, Alabama.

The first day of classes at Tuskegee was July 4, 1881, a day clearly chosen for its symbolic weight. About three dozen black men and women, ages 16 to 40, sat at their desks and eyed their teacher. The roof leaked. The textbooks were old and moldy. But, as everyone said, at least the school was up and running.

Within four months, the size of the student body had more than doubled; within three years, the school had 169 pupils. Washington’s initial goal was to give teacher training to his charges, but as Tuskegee expanded, he also brought together instructors in brickmaking, printing, farming, cooking, and other trades. He said that working with one’s hands was a foundation for moral uplift.

As Washington taught at Tuskegee in the 1880s and early ’90s, he developed a social philosophy, an approach to life that he believed could be an instrument for the survival and betterment of his fellow African Americans, 10 million strong, the vast majority of whom lived in the South.

At the heart of his philosophy was a tragic and apparently intractable dilemma: a milieu of racial hostility and hatred. In 1877 the federal government began halting Reconstruction, withdrawing the U.S. troops who had enforced a modicum of civil rights for newly-freed blacks after the Civil War. As the soldiers departed, Southern whites began tightening repression of blacks, using violence to appalling effect, and, starting in the 1890s, taking away the right to vote. Black people were trapped. Moving north or west – to Chicago, Detroit, New York, Milwaukee, Seattle, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area – was not yet a viable option because there were few jobs for them. The “great migration” of blacks out of the South – the exodus of vast numbers – was still many years away.

Washington wondered how the black race could survive in the South with a semblance of prosperity and dignity. He created an “accommodationist” philosophy, a conservative stance that he hoped would lessen tensions and lead to peaceful coexistence and harmony between the races.

He said that Negro agitation for social equality was “folly” – at least for the time being. He recommended that blacks quietly accept segregation – though not subordination. He advised eschewal, for the present, of political activism. He counseled economic advancement, an effort at polite friendship with whites, and the improvement of “moral character.”

On September 18, 1895, Washington stood before a large and influential audience of blacks and whites in Atlanta and described his philosophy. “In all things that are purely social,” he said, “we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” This was the “Atlanta Compromise” and it won an ecstatic standing ovation from the crowd. Washington became, overnight, a national leader for blacks. A vacuum had existed in African American leadership since the death of Frederick Douglass a few months earlier, and here was an articulate young man prepared to fill it. The white power structure was comfortable with him and his ideas, and a great many blacks found inspiration in his insistence that they could adjust to an evil climate and make something of their lives.

It should be noted that Booker T. Washington lacked, and could never develop, a capacity for deep moral outrage against whites, however appropriate such a stance might have been. Historian Louis R. Harlan writes, “Somewhere back in his life the power to lose his temper with a white man had been schooled out of him.”

Washington’s influence peaked in 1901 with two events. He published an autobiography, a bouyant work titled “Up From Slavery” that became a bestseller. And he dined with President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House, the first African American to eat dinner as an invited guest at the Executive Mansion. News of the dinner outraged many whites – an indication of the profound racism of the time – while blacks celebrated the event as a major breakthrough. As historian Harlan writes, the White House meal was the “final crown of success that secured Washington’s position as virtual monarch” of African Americans. Washington became an adviser to Roosevelt, guiding the president in appointments, making sure that blacks got a certain number of federal patronage jobs. These appointees formed a national network of loyal “Bookerites.”

His personal life was happy in this period after some sad times. His first wife, Fanny Smith, whom he had wed in 1882, gave birth to a daughter, Portia, in 1883, and died unexpectedly a year later. He married Olivia Davidson in 1885; they had two sons, Booker Jr. and Ernest, but Davidson died in 1889. Washington wed Margaret Murray in 1892; they did not have children.

Washington traveled constantly in the early ’00s, giving speeches, building his network, organizing, raising money, quietly paying for court cases, doggedly exploring every little crack in the door of opportunity for his people. He had great energy and an incredible capacity for work, but he often pushed himself too hard, functioning on little sleep for weeks on end.

His ideas increasingly came under attack after 1903 from some blacks, especially the younger generation born after slavery. W.E.B. Du Bois, born in 1868, a professor of sociology at Atlanta University, became the eloquent leader of the anti-Washington “Niagara Movement,” which criticized Negro political silence and demanded that blacks fight for civil rights, including the vote. Du Bois pointed out holes in the Atlanta Compromise, noting that segregation inevitably led to subordination, and that without the ballot, blacks could expect little protection from white legislators and sheriffs.

Washington fought back. He insisted that Du Bois was impractical, a dreamer too interested in the welfare of a few educated blacks, while he, Washington, did useful nuts-and-bolts work for all classes. Bitter conflict raged for years between the two camps. Washington conspired with his allies in the black press to muzzle the Niagara Movement, and arranged for cohorts to spy on, and undermine, the NAACP, founded by Du Bois and others in 1909.

A terrifying experience in March, 1911, nudged Washington a bit toward the Du Bois position. While walking in New York City one evening, Washington was set upon by a white man named Henry Ulrich, who mistook him for a burglar and began viciously beating him with a heavy cane. Bleeding from head wounds, Washington ran for his life through the streets with Ulrich in hot pursuit. “Don’t beat me this way!” Washington cried, until a police officer intervened.

Ulrich felt he had the right to brutalize and humiliate any “suspicious” Negro who crossed his path. Washington realized, writes historian Harlan, “that in the atmosphere of American racism even Booker T. Washington was lynchable.” Washington began speaking out more forcefully for civil rights, but was never forceful enough to suit Du Bois.

In November, 1915, when he was 59, the years of hard work, and perhaps a chronic illness, caught up with Washington. He was hospitalized in New York City. Doctors informed him and his wife that he might die at any moment, urging them to stay put, but Washington insisted on heading for home, for the South, for his native soil. “I was born in the South,” he said from his hospital bed, “I have lived and labored in the South, and I expect to die and be buried in the South.” Perhaps, like a Faulkner character, he had profound ambivalence about the South, but in any case he wanted to draw his last breath from its soft air. He boarded a southbound train with his wife and doctor, arrived in Tuskegee during the night of November 13-14, and died before daybreak.

He is buried in the yard of his school. Known today as Tuskegee University, it has educated some 30,000 people, and its alumni have founded more than a dozen academies of learning, aspiration, and hope.