Washington, Booker T. (1856–1915) By Pecora, Vincent P.
Born into slavery in Virginia, Booker Taliaferro Washington was the most prominent spokesman for Black Americans at the end of the 19th century. After attending the Hampton Institute, a school established to educate freedmen (freed black slaves), he was named head of the new Tuskegee Institute, a teachers college in Alabama that, like Hampton, would become one of the historically black universities in the United States. At Tuskegee, Washington earned the respect of a wide array of white businessmen, industrialists, and philanthropists, from George Eastman and Julius Rosenwald (a president of Sears, Roebuck and Company) to Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.
Washington’s most important intellectual contribution may have been his Atlanta Address of 1895. In the midst of Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation, which arose in response to failed reconstruction policies in the American South, Washington argued that the direct legal confrontation of the segregation of white and black Americans was premature. Instead, in his address at the Atlanta Exposition of 1895 (also known as the “Atlanta Compromise”), Washington argued for a slow, ameliorative approach to racial equality and desegregation, one that emphasized technical and industrial schooling, self-help, and success in business in order to demonstrate a black citizenry capable of responsible and reliable political participation, one deserving of full civil rights, including equal access to electoral polls (that is, free of poll taxes and literary tests) and equal representation before the law.