Booker T. Washington acquired an education and turned a one-room schoolhouse in southern Alabama into Tuskegee University. He also raised funds that helped hundreds of African American communities create schools in an era when white school officials practiced both racial segregation and economic exploitation by reserving most of the public funding for schools that were only open to white children. At the same time, contemporary African American leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois was often critical of Washington's personal ambition and methods.
While northern black leaders such as DuBois and William Monroe Trotter believed that Washington was too willing to accommodate segregation by focusing his efforts on raising funds from white donors and building black schools, Washington became the dominant figure in race relations from 1895 until his death in 1915. Born into slavery and illiteracy, Washington rose up to become the foremost educator and leader of black Americans at the turn of the century.
In 1865, the nine-year-old Booker Washington walked with his family 225 miles from Hales Ford, VA, to his freedom home in Malden. There, the young boy labored as a salt-packer and worked in the coal mines before becoming a houseboy for the wife of Lewis Ruffner, the owner of the mine where he once labored as a child. Washington credits Ruffner with the encouragement and material support that allowed him to continue his education, but at the same time, this was not the fate of most young men and women of color and it is important to note that the Ruffner family was practicing what would be considered child labor in the modern era.
In 1872, Washington entered the Hampton Agricultural Institute. A forceful speaker, Washington became skilled in politics. Powerful and influential in both white and black communities, Washington was a confidential adviser to U.S. presidents. For years, presidential political appointments of African Americans were cleared through Washington. A man who overcame near-impossible odds himself, Booker T. Washington is best remembered for helping fund black schools and colleges as well as an individual who chose the tactic of raising funds to build these schools over the strategy of demanding equal accommodations. For many historians, an exploration of the methods and motivations of Booker T. Washington offers one of the best windows to understanding the realities faced by black leaders at the turn-of-the-century.