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Booker T. Washington’s undervalued legacy

When Booker T. Washington died on this day in 1915, he was widely regarded not just as “the most famous black man in the world” but also “the most admired American of his time.” In the one hundred years since his death, he and his legacy have lost much of their luster in the eyes of the public, even though he, no less than Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of the foremost figures in the history of the American civil rights movement. All four were eloquent proponents of the cause. All four advised US presidents on matters pertaining to race relations. All four braved the dangers of virulent racism to play critical roles in nudging forward equal rights for their people. King’s dazzling oratory and martyrdom earned him singular acclaim among the four, whereas Washington, for reasons rooted in the wisdom of hindsight, has been relegated to the periphery of the civil rights movement as the least among its leaders. Modern historians have tended to dismiss him as an anomaly and an embarrassment for having accepted segregation, for his outward humility and his opposition to black militancy. He has been criticized for having struggled to get what he could for his people rather than what they deserved, for having been subservient to white interests, for remaining silent before racial injustice, for accepting second-class education for blacks, and for suppressing dissent among blacks who opposed him.

Photograph of Booker T. Washington taken sometime between 1905 and 1915 from the Harris & Ewing Collection at the Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph of Booker T. Washington taken sometime between 1905 and 1915, from the Harris & Ewing Collection at the Library of Congress. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

And yet, Washington accomplished much during a career that coincided with an end of effective black political power in the post-Civil War South. At a time when vigilante groups such as the Klu Klux Klan, the White League, and the Red Shirts made learning to read and write in the Deep South a life-threatening endeavor for black Americans, he succeeded, in just two decades, in building from scratch a university in Tuskegee, Alabama that boasted one hundred new buildings, a faculty of nearly two hundred black men and women, a student body composed of people of color from around the world, and an endowment of nearly two million dollars. The thousands of graduates of what is now the Tuskegee University are his principal legacy. However, he also used his position and influence as Frederick Douglass’s successor in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War to direct charitable contributions from northern philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Julius Rosenwald to many of the nation’s other black institutions and causes.

Shortly before he died, Washington began to abandon his accommodationist tactics in advancing the civil rights of black Americans by denouncing unequal educational facilities, disenfranchisement, lynching, and segregation of his people. What more he might have accomplished if the evolution of his program hadn’t been cut short by the ravages of malignant hypertension, unfortunately, will never be known.

Featured image credit: Segregation 1938b by John Vachon, US Farm Security Administration. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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