Booker T. WashingtonBooker T. Washington was the first African American whose likeness appeared on a United States postage stamp. Washington also was thus honored a quarter century after his death. In 1946 he also became the first black with his image on a coin, a 50-cent piece. The Tuskegee Institute, which Washington started at the age of 25, was the where the 10-cent stamps first were available. The educator’s monument on its campus shows him lifting a symbolic veil from the head of a freed slave.
Booker Taliaferro Washington was born a slave on April 5, 1856, in Franklin County, Va. His mother, Jane Burroughs, was a plantation cook. His father was an unknown white man. As a child, Booker swept yards and brought water to slaves working in the fields. Freed after the American Civil War, he went with his mother to Malden, W. Va., to join Washington Ferguson, whom she had married during the war.
At about age 16 Booker set out for Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which had been established by the chief of the Freedmen’s Bureau to educate former slaves. He walked much of the way, working to earn the fare to complete the long, dusty journey to Virginia. For his admission test he repeatedly swept and dusted a classroom, and he was able to earn his board by working as a janitor. After graduation three years later he taught in Malden and at Hampton.
A former slave who had become a successful farmer, and a white politician in search of the Negro vote in Macon County obtained financial support for a training school for blacks in Tuskegee, Ala. When the board of commissioners asked the head of Hampton to send a principal for their new school, they had expected the principal to be white. Instead Washington arrived in June 1881. He began classes in July with 30 students in a shanty donated by a black church. Later he borrowed money to buy an abandoned plantation nearby and moved the school there. By the time of his death in Tuskegee in 1915 the institute had some 1,500 students, more than 100 well-equipped buildings, and a large faculty.
Washington believed that blacks could promote their constitutional rights by impressing Southern whites with their economic and moral progress. He wanted them to forget about political power and concentrate on their farming skills and learning industrial trades. Brickmaking, mattress making, and wagon building were among the courses Tuskegee offered. Its all-black faculty included the famous agricultural scientist George Washington Carver.
The open controversy over acceptable black leadership dated from 1895, when Washington was invited to address a white audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Ga. While emphasizing the importance of economic advancement to blacks, he repeatedly used the paraphrase, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” Some blacks were incensed by his comment, “The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly.” Others feared that the enemies of equal rights were encouraged by his promise, “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”