Booker Taliaferro Washington was born a slave on a small farm in Virginia, USA in 1856. He moved with his family after emancipation to work in the salt furnaces and coal mines of West Virginia. After a secondary education at Hampton Institute, Washington taught and experimented briefly with the study of law and the ministry, but a teaching position at Hampton decided his future career.
In 1881, Washington founded Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in the Black Belt of Alabama. Though Washington offered little that was innovative in industrial education, he became its chief black exemplar and spokesman. To blacks living within the limited horizons of the post- Reconstruction South, Washington held out industrial education as the means of escape from the web of sharecropping and debt and the achievement of attainable, petit-bourgeois goals of self-employment, landownership, and small business. By 1900, the Tuskegee Institute was the best-supported black educational institution in the country.
The Atlanta Compromise Address, delivered before the Cotton States Exposition in 1895, enlarged Washington's influence into the arena of race relations and black leadership. Washington offered black acquiescence in disfranchisement and social segregation if whites would encourage black progress in economic and educational opportunity. Hailed as a sage by whites of both sections, Washington further consolidated his influence by his widely read autobiography Up From Slavery (1901), the founding of the National Negro Business League in 1900, his celebrated dinner at the White House in 1901, and control of patronage politics as chief black advisor to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
Washington kept his white following by conservative policies and moderate utterances, but he faced growing black and white liberal opposition in the Niagara Movement (1905-9) and the NAACP (1909-), groups demanding civil rights and encouraging protest in response to white aggressions such as lynchings, disfranchisement, and segregation laws. Washington successfully fended off these critics, and managed to translate his own personal success into black advancement through secret sponsorship of civil rights suits, serving on the boards of Fisk and Howard universities, and directing philanthropic aid to these and other black colleges. His speaking tours and private persuasion tried to equalize public educational opportunities and to reduce racial violence.
Washington died in 1915, aged 59. He is regarded as the foremost black educator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and exerted a major influence on southern race relations over the course of his life. Up from Slavery (1901) aside, Washington's best-known books works are The Future of the American Negro (1899), Working With the Hands (1904), Tuskegee & Its People (1905) and The Negro in the South (1907).