Honoring Black Leaders in Public Health, Government, and IT: Booker T. Washington

DLH is celebrating Black History Month by honoring the legacy of African-American leaders in public health, government, and information technology. Click here to view more entries in our series.

Booker T. Washington was born into slavery. He rose to become one of the leading black intellectuals of the 19th century, preaching a philosophy of racial solidarity and accommodation that often led him to clash with leaders such W.E.B. DuBois. Notwithstanding these conflicts, Washington is a towering figure in the history of American education. Washington helped establish Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, now known as Tuskegee University, as well as the Negro Business League. He advocated for an education in crafts, industry, and agriculture, and would go on to advise two U.S. presidents: Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. 

While working at a local coalmine as a teenager following the Civil War, Washington overheard a conversation about the Hampton Institute, a school for formerly enslaved individuals founded by Brigadier General Samuel Chapman. Chapman had dedicated himself to improving educational opportunities for newly freed individuals. He enlisted and excelled, graduating in 1875 with high marks.

He took a job teaching back home until he was recommended to run a school for African Americans in Alabama. The legislature had allocated a $2,000 budget for the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. Classes were held in an old church building. Washington traveled the South promoting the school and raising money, and through his efforts, Tuskegee became a leading educational institution in the nation. By the time he passed away, the school had over 100 buildings, 1,500 students, hundreds of faculty members, and an endowment of nearly $2 million dollars.

His work in education helped provide new access to opportunity for thousands of black Americans.

Learn more about the life and legacy of Booker T. Washington from Frontline.


Booker T. Washington,’ History

The Debate Between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington,’ Frontline

Booker T. Washington Biography,’ Biography

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