Booker T. Washington was the first African American whose likeness appeared on a United States postage stamp. Washington also was thus honored a quarter century after his death. In 1946 he also became the first black with his image on a coin, a 50-cent piece.
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The Tuskegee Institute, which Washington started at the age of 25, was the where the 10-cent stamps first were available. The educator’s monument on its campus shows him lifting a symbolic veil from the head of a freed slave. Booker Taliaferro Washington was born a slave on April 5, 1856, in Franklin County, Va. His mother, Jane Burroughs, was a plantation cook. His father was an unknown white man. As a child, Booker swept yards and brought water to slaves working in the fields. Freed after the American Civil War, he went with his mother to Malden, W. Va., to join Washington Ferguson, whom she had married during the war.
At about age 16 Booker set out for Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which had been established by the chief of the Freedmen’s Bureau to educate former slaves. He walked much of the way, working to earn the fare to complete the long, dusty journey to Virginia. For his admission test he repeatedly swept and dusted a classroom, and he was able to earn his board by working as a janitor. After graduation three years later he taught in Malden and at Hampton. A former slave who had become a successful farmer, and a white politician in search of the Negro vote in Macon County obtained financial support for a training school for blacks in Tuskegee, Ala. When the board of commissioners asked the head of Hampton to send a principal for their new school, they had expected the principal to be white.
Instead Washington arrived in June 1881. He began classes in July with 30 students in a shanty donated by a black church. Later he borrowed money to buy an abandoned plantation nearby and moved the school there. By the time of his death in Tuskegee in 1915 the institute had some 1,500 students, more than 100 well-equipped buildings, and a large faculty. Washington believed that blacks could promote their constitutional rights by impressing Southern whites with their economic and moral progress. He wanted them to forget about political power and concentrate on their farming skills and learning industrial trades.
Brickmaking, mattress making, and wagon building were among the courses Tuskegee offered. Its all-black faculty included the famous agricultural scientist George Washington Carver. The open controversy over acceptable black leadership dated from 1895, when Washington was invited to address a white audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Ga. While emphasizing the importance of economic advancement to blacks, he repeatedly used the paraphrase, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” Some blacks were incensed by his comment, “The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly.” Others feared that the enemies of equal rights were encouraged by his promise, “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” From 1895 until his death in 1915, Booker T. Washington, an ex-slave who had built Tuskegee Institute in Alabama into a major center of industrial training for black youths, was the nation’s dominant black leader.
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In a speech made in Atlanta, in 1895, Washington called on both blacks and whites to “cast down your bucket where you are.” He urged whites to employ the masses of black laborers. He called on blacks to cease agitating for political and social rights and to concentrate instead on working to improve their economic conditions. Washington felt that excessive stress had been placed on liberal arts education for blacks. He believed that their need to earn a living called instead for training in crafts and trades. In an effort to spur the growth of black business enterprise, Washington also organized the National Negro Business League in 1900. But black businessmen were handicapped by insufficient capital and by the competition of white-owned big businesses. Washington was highly successful in winning influential white support. He became the most powerful black man in the nation’s history. But his program of vocational training did not meet the changing needs of industry, and the harsh reality of discrimination prevented most of his Tuskegee Institute graduates from using their skills.
The period of Washington’s leadership proved to be one of repeated setbacks for black Americans. More blacks lost the right to vote. Segregation became more deeply entrenched. Antiblack violence increased. Between 1900 and 1914 there were more than 1,000 known lynchings.
Antiblack riots raged in both the South and the North, the most sensational taking place in Brownsville, Tex. (1906); Atlanta (1906); and Springfield, Ill. (1908). Meanwhile, black leaders opposed to Washington began to emerge. The historian and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois criticized Washington’s accommodationist philosophy in ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ (1903). Others were William Monroe Trotter, the militant editor of the Boston Guardian, and Ida Wells-Barnett, a journalist and a crusader against lynching. They insisted that blacks should demand their full civil rights and that a liberal education was necessary for the development of black leadership. At a meeting in Niagara Falls, Ont., in 1905, Du Bois and other black leaders who shared his views founded the Niagara Movement. Members of the Niagara group joined with concerned liberal and radical whites to organize the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910. The NAACP journal Crisis, edited by Du Bois, became an effective organ of propaganda for black rights. The NAACP won its first major legal case in 1915, when the United States Supreme Court outlawed the “grandfather clause,” a constitutional device used in the South to disfranchise blacks. Washington’s conciliatory policy appealed to white politicians, many of whom contributed money to Tuskegee. He became an adviser to United States presidents on racial issues and on the appointment of blacks to government positions. Blacks in the South were motivated by his self-help programs, but militant blacks in the North, including W.E.B. Du Bois, criticized his attitude toward racial segregation and discrimination. They argued that higher education, rather than vocational training, and political agitation would eventually win full civil rights.
Black contributions to scholarship and literature continued to mount. Historical scholarship was encouraged by the American Negro Academy, whose leading figures were Du Bois and the theologians Alexander Crummell and Francis Grimké. Charles W. Chesnutt was widely acclaimed for his short stories. Paul Laurence Dunbar became famous as a lyric poet. Washington’s autobiography ‘Up from Slavery’ (1901) won international acclaim. Washington received honorary degrees from Harvard University and Dartmouth College. Among his publications were ‘Up from Slavery’, his autobiography, and ‘Frederick Douglass’. Married three times, he outlived his first two wives. He died on Nov. 14, 1915. In 1945 he was the first black elected to the Hall of Fame.