Booker T. Washington; a controversial figure of greatness

    Lindsay Turner is a winner of the “Achieving Greatness Through Choices” Black History essay contest at the Charles M. Finley Recreation Center in East Mt. Airy/West Oak Lane. The contest concluded on the last Saturday in February, Black History Month. But since Black History is a critical part of American History, and so is important anytime, NewsWorks will run each winner’s piece here. Below is Lindsay’s complete essay.


    If one looked at Booker T. Washington while he was a slave living in Virginia, the thought of him becoming one of the most famous African Americans in history would never occur. However, Washington defied all thoughts of doubt.

    Washington believed that in order for the African American race to become stronger, they should not focus on educating themselves, but first on mastering their manual labor skills. His exact words were that African Americans should “concentrate all their energies on industrial education, and accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South.”

    Although the fact Washington wanted to gain respect for the African-American race was appreciated, the way he went about trying to do it gained mixed responses. He wished to make the race more powerful by building on generations of experience in manual labor. Many disagreed with his opinions.

    W.E.B. Du Bois, a co-founder of the NAACP, disagreed most strongly. Du Boise believed that African Americans first needed to educate themselves and expand their knowledge, instead of being content with physical work. However, as one can image, Washington gained the support of many whites.

    An assumption can be made that the reason whites were most satisfied with Washington’s opinion is because, in their eyes, it kept blacks in the place that whites had established for them; a place with no education, but with labor.

    Another reason why whites supported Washington was because of his willingness to accommodate Jim Crow laws. When Washington delivered his famous Atlanta Compromise speech of 1895, he said, “In all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers.” One can interpret this quote as degrading to blacks. It was a view that many blacks disagreed with and many whites favored.

    Washington’s view was that the way blacks were treated socially in his present time did not matter, because once they became wealthy and well respected from their labor, social treatment could be amended.

    The reason Washington can still be considered great is because of his attempts to get the black race to move forward in the world. He wanted blacks to be equal with whites, but he knew it had to be achieved in a way the could be acknowledged with respect.

    Booker T. Washington’s approach to this goal may have contradicted the views of many people, but the fact that he was so eager to fight for blacks‘ rights was what is most important. Washington wanted a future for blacks that held wealth and prosperity – he wanted to see his race excel.

    Booker T. Washington became a great man in African American history when he chose to try a and augment the position of blacks economically and financially.


    Click this link for biographical information about Booker T. Washington from the American Experience. 

    Click this link to search hundreds of pictures of W.E. B. Du Bois, his essays and primary source documents from his special collections at the Du Bois Library of the University of Massachusetts. 

    Click this link to view a map of the African American inhabitants of the Seventh Ward of Philadelphia from the original 1899 edition of W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Philadelphia Negro.”

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