A consummate politician without portfolio, Booker T. Washington was a controversial figure throughout much of his life. So he remains to day. Yet he had such a passionate belief in the American Creed, progress, black pride, racial uplift, interracial cooperation, and the dignity of labor that he gained the respect of many blacks and whites. His own life as revealed in his autobiography was the classic American success story: a poor black boy struggling up from slavery and the coal mines of West Virginia to unofficial Presidential adviser, internationally known educator, and guest of the crowned heads of Europe. Washington gave Southern blacks a vision of the future unclouded by the lynchings, political powerlessness, and Jim Crow laws which governed their daily lives. At the same time, he gave whites a vision of a Nation no longer divided into warring sections over the place of black people in the body politic.
Although Washington was sincerely devoted to racial uplift, he was accused by his black contemporaries of being too passive when it came to asserting the black man's claims to equality.. But even his severest critics would concede that he was a great educator, a man who had overcome almost unbelievable obstacles, and a symbol of the promise of America which was realized in the lives of so few blacks. His contemporaries and subsequent generations have recognized him as a great American. In this booklet Barry Mackintosh, a former park historian at Booker T. Washington National Monument, describes the successes and failures of this complex man who made such an impact on his age.
John W. Blassingame, Yale University
Last Updated: 20-Feb-2009