Booker T. Washington was the most famous black man in America between 1895 and 1915. He was also considered the most influential black educator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries insofar as he controlled the flow of funds to black schools and colleges. Born a slave on a small farm in the Virginia backcountry, he worked in the salt furnaces and coalmines of West Virginia as a child. Determined to educate himself, he traveled hundreds of miles under great hardship until he arrived -- broke, tired, and dirty -- at Hampton Institute.
He became a star pupil under the tutelage of General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, head of Hampton. Washington was teaching at Hampton when General Armstrong called him aside after chapel. He said he had received a letter from some "gentlemen in Alabama" asking him to recommend a white principal for a colored school they wanted to open there in the town of Tuskegee. In 1881, Washington founded Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute on the Hampton model in the Black Belt of Alabama.
Starting with a broken down building, he used his ability to win the trust of white Southerners and Northern philanthropists to make Tuskegee into a model school of industrial education. He reassured whites that nothing in his educational program challenged white supremacy or offered economic competition with whites. He accepted racial subordination as a necessary evil, at least until such time as blacks could prove themselves worthy of full civil and political rights. As far as blacks were concerned, Washington insisted that industrial education would enable them to lift themselves up by their bootstraps and escape the trap of sharecropping and debt.
In September 1895, Washington became a national hero. Invited to speak at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Washington publicly accepted disfranchisement and social segregation as long as whites would allow black economic progress, educational opportunity, and justice in the courts. "The wisest of my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than artificial forcing. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than to spend a dollar in an opera house."
Washington further publicized himself and his program by publishing his (ghost-written) autobiography, UP FROM SLAVERY, in 1901. He also founded the National Negro Business League in 1900. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, both men with deep racial prejudices, used Washington as an advisor because he accepted racial subordination. He was able to recommend candidates for minor political posts that traditionally were given to blacks. The industrialists who controlled the financing of many black schools in the South depended upon his advice as to which schools should receive funds. In 1903, Washington's policies received a challenge from within the black community. W.E.B. Du Bois, then a scholar at Atlanta University, attacked Washington's philosophy in the book THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK.
An organized resistance to Washington grew within the black intellectual community. But as far as the majority of middle-class and working-class blacks were concerned, Washington remained their man. His popularity enabled him to neutralize criticism, sometimes by devious means such as bribing newspapers to report false and unflattering reports of his critics. Because of his image as a conciliator, Washington seldom could publicly criticize injustice. Yet, behind the scenes, he did finance court cases challenging segregation and tried to mitigate some of its excesses. When Woodrow Wilson became president in 1913, Washington lost his influence in the federal government, which Wilson helped segregate further. Meanwhile, a new era had begun in the black community, and a younger generation would no longer accept white supremacy. Under the leadership of Du Bois and others, they would demand their political and civil rights. (via PBS.org)