An Accommodator or Freedom Rider: Booker T. Washington (1856-1915)

Article excerpt

For decades, Booker T. Washington was the major African -American spokesman in the eyes of white America. Born a slave in Virginia, Washington was educated at Hampton Institute, Norfolk, Virginia. He began to work at the Tuskegee Institute in 1881 and built it into a center of learning and industrial and agricultural training.

A handsome man and a forceful speaker, Washington was skilled at politics. Powerful and influential in both the black and white communities, Washington was a confidential advisor to presidents. For years, presidential political appointments of African-Americans were cleared through him. He was funded by Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, dined at the White House with Theodore Roosevelt and family, and was the guest of the Queen of England at Windsor Castle.

Although Washington was an accommodator, he spoke out against lynchings and worked to make "separate" facilities more "equal." Although he advised African-Americans to abide by segregation codes, he often traveled in private railroad cars and stayed in good hotels.

Booker T. Washington's controversial address at the opening ceremonies of the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, September 18, 1895, argued the importance of material advancement over integration: "The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house." He called agitation for social equality "the extremest folly," and assured his white audience, "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate ass the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutal progress."

The (white) New York World called Washington's speech "a revelation," "epoch-making," and a "turning point in the progress of the Negro race." It was met with "unanimous approval." President Grover Cleveland had similar praise: "I thank you with much enthusiasm for making the address...Your words cannot fail to delight and encourage all who wish well for your race..,"

Black leaders were not so enthusiastic. The brilliant W.E.B. Du Bois framed the terms of a heated debate when he warned that Washington was "leading the way backward. …