It’s easy to dislike Booker T. Washington. After all, he is the African American leader best known for compromising in the face of racial segregation. Washington rose to national prominence in 1895 when he seemingly endorsed southern segregation, vowing that Blacks and Whites could stay “in all things that are purely social” “as separate as the fingers." Washington’s speech comforted southern White segregationists ushering in new laws to legally separate the races while it let northern Whites who were weary of the nation’s “race problem” off the proverbial hook. Most people who discuss Washington today are quick to dismiss him as at best passive or, at worst, an Uncle Tom.
However, Washington emerged as a leader in a particularly bleak time in American history. At the turn of the twentieth century, the promise of full citizenship offered during Reconstruction was being washed away. Threatened by the possibility of Black success, White supremacists terrorized Black landowners, burned Black schools and churches, and lynched Black business owners. All-White state legislatures passed new poll taxes and literacy tests designed to strip Black citizens of their right to vote. Segregationists instituted new ordinances and state laws separating White and Black passengers on trains and streetcars, threatening the mobility freed Black southerners valued so highly. Washington led in a time when African Americans had few choices.
Given such awful circumstances, many of Washington’s achievements were truly remarkable. Washington helped to found Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, which became one of the largest landowners in the county and by 1895 had more students than any other institution of higher learning in the Alabama. In a state that had effectively defunded Black elementary schools after the close of federal Reconstruction, Washington managed to build a vital Black institution that produced generations of Black scholars and provided the institutional space for Black achievement. Washington led in this age of White supremacy, and decided that the best approach would be the path of least resistance, doing what he could without publicly upsetting the racial status quo. Although we can be critical of his choice to promote industrial education that did not offer a rich liberal arts curriculum, Tuskegee serves as a reminder of what Washington did achieve through compromise.
It is also important to recall that although Washington was embraced by White philanthropists in the North and South, he faced hostility from White southerners who felt that Black men had no role to play in American society. When Washington was invited by President Theodore Roosevelt to dine in the White House in 1901, threats rang out from every corner of the American South. Perhaps the most disturbing threat came from Alabama Congressman “Cotton” Tom Heflin, who represented the district that included Tuskegee, who told a newspaper he wished he could have stuffed dynamite under the portion of the White House where Washington and Roosevelt were sitting. This probably wasn’t an idle threat given that Heflin had a violent history and would center his race-baiting political campaigns on the threat posed by Washington and Tuskegee Institute; in 1908, he shot a Black man on a streetcar in Washington D.C. The furor caused by the White House visit shows us that even Washington’s cautious accommodationist approach was too radical for some.
However, Washington should be criticized for the ways that he sought to be the only Black leader with a voice on national politics. Washington could be petty with those that he viewed as competitors or those who disagreed with his approach, which earned him the title of the Wizard of Tuskegee for his behind the scenes machinations. His most infamous conflict was with activist and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois, who spoke out against Washington’s willingness to water down Black education and discourage agitation in the face of White supremacy. When Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement, which called for direct political agitation against segregation and disfranchisement, Washington attempted to silence the burgeoning effort by smearing Niagara leaders and dissuading Black newspapers from printing stories about the organization. Washington even sent a spy to Niagara’s inaugural meeting. Washington’s leadership was hindered by his habit of rewarding loyal, but timid followers, and punishing his critics through political patronage. In the end, it was Washington’s inability to accept criticism, ally with strong leaders, or see the value in other political approaches that stilted his long-term influence.
Looking back, it is appropriate that Tuskegee would be the place where Washington had the biggest impact. In many ways, Tuskegee’s legacy is as complicated as its founder. It is a school that continues to do the important work of educating thousands who might not otherwise have access to higher learning. It is a school whose history is marred by the horrors of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and burnished by the groundbreaking accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen. And through it all it remains a cultural touchstone. Tuskegee and its founder remind us of the ways that history refuses to give us easy answers, and continues to deny us clear villains or perfect heroes.
Blair L.M. Kelley is an associate professor of History at North Carolina State University; she is also the author of the award-winning Right to Ride:Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson. Follow her on Twitter: @profblmkelley