APRIL 5, 1856
Booker T. Washington was born in Virginia. He became a leading voice from the last generation of Black leaders who had once been enslaved. He promoted Black businesses and helped found the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
While lynchings were rampant across the South, he delivered an 1895 speech known as the “Atlanta Compromise,” calling for Black progress through education and entrepreneurship, rather than challenging the Jim Crow system that barred Black Americans from equal citizenship.
“The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly,” he said.
His speech gained him support from white leaders but criticism from a number of Black leaders, including W. E. B. Du Bois, who believed protests were a vital way to change the Jim Crow system. Six years later, he released his autobiography, “Up From Slavery”, which became a best-seller and remained the most popular Black biography until “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” was released in 1965.
In his book, Washington recalled the day his family was set free: “After the reading (of the Emancipation Proclamation), we were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.”
In 1915, he died on the campus of Tuskegee and was buried there. In the decades that followed, he continued to be honored — with a postage stamp, a coin, a liberty ship bearing his name and his childhood home, which was declared a national monument.