Black in the Day…The Wizard of Tuskegee
November 14, 1915:
On this day educator, author, orator, and advisor Booker T. Washington passed away from complications of hugh blood pressure.
Booker Taliaferro Washington (April 5, 1856 – November 14, 1915) was an American educator, author, orator, and advisor to multiple presidents of the United States. Between 1890 and 1915, Washington was the dominant leader in the African-American community known as a Black elite.
Washington was from the last generation of black American leaders born into slavery and became the leading voice of the former slaves and their descendants. They were newly oppressed in the South by disenfranchisement and the Jim Crow discriminatory laws enacted in the post-Reconstruction Southern states in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Washington was a key proponent of African-American businesses and one of the founders of the National Negro Business League. His base was the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college in Tuskegee, Alabama. As lynchings in the South reached a peak in 1895, Washington gave a speech, known as the “Atlanta compromise“, which brought him national fame. He called for black progress through education and entrepreneurship, rather than trying to challenge directly the Jim Crow segregation and the disenfranchisement of black voters in the South.
Washington mobilized a nationwide coalition of middle-class blacks, church leaders, and white philanthropists and politicians, with a long-term goal of building the community’s economic strength and pride by a focus on self-help and schooling. With his own contributions to the black community, Washington was a supporter of Racial uplift. But, secretly, he also supported court challenges to segregation and restrictions on voter registration. Washington mastered the nuances of the political arena in the late 19th century, which enabled him to manipulate the media, raise money, develop strategy, network, push, reward friends, and distribute funds, while punishing those who opposed his plans for uplifting blacks. His long-term goal was to end the disenfranchisement of the vast majority of African Americans, who then still lived in the South.
Historians since the late 20th century have been divided in their characterization of Washington: some describe him as a visionary capable of “read[ing] minds with the skill of a master psychologist,” who expertly played the political game in 19th-century Washington by its own rules. Others say he was a self-serving, crafty narcissist who threatened and punished those in the way of his personal interests, traveled with an entourage, and spent much time fundraising, signing autographs, and giving flowery patriotic speeches with lots of flag waving — acts more indicative of an artful political boss than an altruistic civil rights leader.
People called Washington the “Wizard of Tuskegee” because of his highly developed political skills, and his creation of a nationwide political machine based on the black middle class, white philanthropy, and Republican Party support. Opponents called this network the “Tuskegee Machine.” Washington maintained control because of his ability to gain support of numerous groups, including influential whites and black business, educational and religious communities nationwide. He advised on the use of financial donations from philanthropists, and avoided antagonizing white Southerners with his accommodation to the political realities of the age of Jim Crow segregation.
For his contributions to American society, Washington was granted an honorary master’s degree from Harvard University in 1896 and an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth College in 1901.
At the center of Tuskegee University, the Booker T. Washington Monument was dedicated in 1922. Called Lifting the Veil, the monument has an inscription reading:
He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry.
On April 7, 1940, Washington became the first African American to be depicted on a United States postage stamp.
In 1942, the liberty ship Booker T. Washington was named in his honor, the first major oceangoing vessel to be named after an African American. The ship was christened by noted singer Marian Anderson.
In 1946, he was honored on the first coin to feature an African American, the Booker T. Washington Memorial Half Dollar, which was minted by the United States until 1951.
On April 5, 1956, the hundredth anniversary of Washington’s birth, the house where he was born in Franklin County, Virginia, was designated as the Booker T. Washington National Monument.
A state park in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was named in his honor, as was a bridge spanning the Hampton River adjacent to his alma mater, Hampton University.
In 1984 Hampton University dedicated a Booker T. Washington Memorial on campus near the historic Emancipation Oak, establishing, in the words of the University, “a relationship between one of America’s great educators and social activists, and the symbol of Black achievement in education.”
Numerous high schools, middle schools and elementary schools across the United States have been named after Booker T. Washington.
In 2000, West Virginia State University (WVSU; then West Va. State College), in cooperation with other organizations including the Booker T. Washington Association, established the Booker T. Washington Institute, to honor Washington’s boyhood home, the old town of Malden, and Washington’s ideals.
On October 19, 2009, WVSU dedicated a monument to Booker T. Washington. The event took place at WVSU’s Booker T. Washington Park in Malden, West Virginia. The monument also honors the families of African ancestry who lived in Old Malden in the early 20th century and who knew and encouraged Washington. Special guest speakers at the event included West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin III, Malden attorney Larry L. Rowe, and the president of WVSU. Musical selections were provided by the WVSU “Marching Swarm.”
Washington’s health was deteriorating rapidly in 1915; he collapsed in New York City and was diagnosed by two different doctors as having Bright’s disease, related to kidney diseases. Told he only had a few days left to live, Washington expressed a desire to die at Tuskegee. He boarded a train and arrived in Tuskegee shortly after midnight on November 14, 1915. He died a few hours later at the age of 59. He was buried on the campus of Tuskegee University near the University Chapel.
At the time he was thought to have died by congestive heart failure, aggravated by overwork. In March 2006, his descendants permitted examination of medical records: these showed he had hypertension, with a blood pressure more than twice normal, confirming what had long been suspected.
At Washington’s death, Tuskegee’s endowment was close to $2 million. Washington’s greatest life’s work, the education of blacks in the South, was well underway and expanding.