The Future of the American Negro, 1899
The Story of My Life and Work, 1900
Up from Slavery, 1901
Working with the Hands, 1904
The Story of the Negro, 1909
My Larger Education, 1911
Recognized during the early years of the twentieth century as the principal, though controversial, spokesman for African Americans, Booker Taliaferro Washington also won fame for his well-known rags to riches autobiography, Up from Slavery. He was born a slave of a white father and a black mother on a Virginia plantation, and the Civil War occurred early in his life. At age nine, moving with his mother and stepfather to West Virginia, where his stepfather went to work in the salt mines, Washington developed a hunger for education. Mrs. Lewis Ruffner, the wife of the mine’s owner, encouraged and helped him enter the Hampton Institute of Virginia, an industrial school for African Americans and American Indians.
Booker T. Washington
Washington graduated from Hampton in 1875, but his early career as a teacher ended abruptly when he was appointed in 1881 to organize and head the Tuskegee Normal School and Industrial Institute in Alabama. He spent the bulk of the rest of his life building Tuskegee through his philosophy of the dignity of hard work and thrift. He envisioned that African Americans would succeed in the postwar South through practical education and economic development. A master administrator and communicator, Washington attracted financial support, and within twenty years Tuskegee could boast a faculty of 125 and a student body that numbered more than a thousand.
Washington became a famous and controversial figure in 1895, when he delivered a much-reported speech at the Atlanta Exposition, sometimes referred to as the “Atlanta compromise” address. In his speech he extolled the value of African Americans and whites working together in the common cause of economically building the South. Perhaps the most famous quotation from the speech suggests that “we can be as separate as the fingers yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” The speech, like all his writing, is full of anecdote and employs a visionary oratorical style; it brought his audience to its feet.
While many lauded him as a black Moses, some African Americans, most notably W. E. B. Du Bois, believed that he demanded too little and gave too much in his program of accommodating whites and their view of their own superiority. Washington believed that African Americans should forgo political activism and concentrate on becoming useful, financially independent citizens. Du Bois, on the other hand, found such a “gospel of work and money” a limiting vision and a betrayal of African Americans. Though Washington played the accommodationist in public, however, the posthumous publication of his papers reveals that behind the scenes he was politically active, secretly financing court challenges of jury bans on blacks, segregationalist transportation laws, and peonage. H. G. Wells insightfully saw in Washington’s public accommodationism a “strategic cunning” covering his genuine indignation at racial injustice, a position Washington increasingly gave voice to in his later years.
Washington’s newfound fame led to the opportunity to have his ideas read by a prepared and interested public. His first book, The Future of the American Negro, is a collection of essays and speeches in which he develops his philosophy concerning race problems, their origins, and how to move positively into the future. He argues for the centrality of industrial education in the progress of African Americans in the South and in the movement toward racial harmony. He views higher education as impractical to the needs of most blacks, scorning the image of a youth studying French grammar in a one-room cabin. Publicly, he promoted the idea that African Americans should earn their civil rights through education and self-reliance.
The fame initiated by his speech in Atlanta enabled him to succeed Frederick Douglass as the most visible spokesman for African Americans and led to his publication of an autobiography. His first attempt, with a ghost writer, was called The Story of My Life and Work; it was brief, poorly written, and padded with speeches. With Max Bennett Thrasher he tried again, this time doing much more of the writing himself, practicing a plain eloquence that has made Up from Slavery, the story of his rise from plantation to power, an inspiration to millions. A minor classic that is often compared with Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, it describes a black American dream that goes literally from the rags of slavery to the riches of Tuskegee’s considerable assets. Like Washington himself, however, the book is controversial. Though called the last slave narrative published in the United States, which tells a story with some similarities to Douglass’s autobiographies, it has also been called a tool with which Washington solicited political and financial support for the “Tuskegee machine.” Two subsequent autobiographies, Working with the Hands and My Larger Education, are sequels to Up from Slavery focusing on his work at Tuskegee and his fund-raising and diplomatic activities. Like the second half of Franklin’s autobiography, they lack the energy and drama of the quest for success, merely filling in the picture of Washington’s public role.
Raised in the age of Horatio Alger and laissez-faire, during a period in which the Supreme Court was upholding segregation laws and disfranchisement, Washington, perhaps inevitably, believed that tact over political activism was the best path to progress for African Americans. He was a complex man whose life story continues to generate controversy, inspiring both resentment and respect.