Black History Spotlight: Booker T. Washington

William FedererBy William Federer5 Minutes

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was one of the most significant figures in post-Reconstruction America. While he was never technically an entrepreneur, his life work was committed to advancing the educational and economic position of blacks in the United States. He authored 14 books, such as Up From Slavery, which continue to be widely read today.

Through his work, he established deep relationships with renowned entrepreneurs and philanthropists, including Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, George Eastman, and William Howard Taft; these connections allowed him to funnel huge donations to several initiatives and programs aimed at educating African-Americans.

He also founded the National Negro Business League.

Booker T. Washington stated: “Anyone can seek a job, but it requires a person of rare ability to create a job … What we should do in our schools is to turn out fewer job seekers and more job creators.”

At Memorial Hall in Columbus, Ohio, May 24, 1900, Booker T. Washington delivered an address, “The Place of the Bible in the Uplifting of the Negro Race”: “The men doing the vital things of life are those who read the Bible and are Christians and not ashamed to let the world know it … No man can read the Bible and be lazy.”

George Washington Carver at Tuskegee

In the Spring of 1896, Booker T. Washington invited George Washington Carver to teach in Alabama:

“Tuskegee Institute seeks to provide education — a means for survival to those who attend. Our students are poor, often starving. They travel miles of torn roads, across years of poverty. We teach them to read and write, but words cannot fill stomachs. They need to learn how to plant and harvest crops … I cannot offer you money, position or fame. The first two you have. The last, from the place you now occupy, you will no doubt achieve. These things I now ask you to give up. I offer you in their place work — hard, hard work — the challenge of bringing people from degradation, poverty and waste to full manhood.”

On May 16, 1896, George W. Carver responded to Booker T. Washington:

“My dear Sir, I am just in receipt of yours of the 13th inst., and hasten to reply. I am looking forward to a very busy, pleasant and profitable time at your college and shall be glad to cooperate with you in doing all I can through Christ who strengtheneth me to better the condition of our people. Some months ago I read your stirring address delivered at Chicago and I said amen to all you said, furthermore you have the correct solution to the ‘race problem’ … Providence permitting, I will be there in November. God bless you and your work, Geo. W. Carver.”

Economic Independence

Booker T. Washington’s solution of the “race problem” was to gain respect through economic independence – the path taken by every wave of immigrants, ie., German, Irish, Jewish, Polish, Italian, Asian, and others.

Immigrants arrived at the bottom of the social ladder and were often met with racial discrimination. They would work hard, get educated, start businesses, and pool their resources. As they accumulated wealth and made positive contributions to society, they rose in public respect.

Booker T. Washington stated: “At the bottom … there must be for our race, as for all races … economic prosperity, economic independence … Political independence disappears without economic independence.”

He recommended they: “… concentrate all their energies on industrial education, and accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South … (then) Blacks would eventually gain full participation in society by showing themselves to be responsible, reliable American citizens.”

More from our special feature: Celebrating the Faith of Black History Makers.