Educator, author, controversial leader
Booker T. Washington was born a slave on a Virginia plantation in 1856. After the Civil War, his family moved to West Virginia. Washington worked in salt furnaces and coal mines before he enrolled at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia. Upon graduation, he taught in Malden, Va., and then joined the faculty at Hampton.
In 1881, he was selected to head a new school for blacks in Tuskegee, Ala. The Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute grew from a small, poor school into one with a faculty of 200 and an endowment of $2 million. (Tuskegee University continues today.)
Washington's reputation also grew. He said blacks should abandon their pursuit of civil rights in favor of developing industrial and farming skills to gain economic security. This idea was embodied in his address to a racially mixed audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition at Atlanta in 1895:
"In all things that are purely social we can be separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."
His convictions were met with opposition from black leaders of the day. W.E.B. Du Bois denounced Washington's belief in vocational skills and extolled the benefits of academic development and civil rights. Late in life, Washington moved closer to black leaders protesting racial inequality.