West Virginia State Capitol Complex Walking Tour


Booker T. Washington Memorial, West Virginia State Capitol

Historic Sites, Monuments, Landmarks, and Public Art (State Historical Landmark)

Overview Listen

This memorial on the grounds of the West Virginia State Capital grounds pays tribute to Booker T. Washington, one of the most influential educators in American history. Washington was born into bondage just prior to the end of slavery and later moved to West Virginia with his father who worked in the salt mines around Malden, a small community near Charleston. Washington accompanied his father into the mines where he also labored as a young child. Upon learning of a nearby school, young Washington secured a deal with his father whereby he could work mornings and nights and attend school in the daytime. This ambition and thirst for knowledge became the hallmarks of Washington's life.

Photos

Photo Booker T. Washington Memorial at WV Capitol Complex
Photo Undated black and white photo of boyhood cabin in WV.
Photo A photo of young Booker T. Washington
Photo ten-cent Booker T. Washington stamp
Photo Booker T Washington commemorative half dollar issued in 1946

Backstory Listen

Booker T. Washington was born a slave in Virginia in 1856. After the Civil War, his family resettled in West Virginia. He worked his way through his early school years and supported himself during his years at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. After graduation, Washington attended college at Wayland Seminary. In 1881 he was named as the principal of a one-room school in Tuskegee Alabama. Washington labored to turn this school into the Tuskegee Institute and later a fully-accredited university. To do so, he convinced white leaders to provide funding for his organization. In the Age of Jim Crow, the often compromises such as accepting segregation and building programs that prepared African Americans for jobs rather than careers.  

By 1895, Washington was the most well-known African American educator and many, including later critics, saw his philosophy of self-help and tactical accommodation of the racial status quo as a practical strategy. Washington's message to African Americans to work hard and prove themselves to white people, as well as his emphasis on preparing African Americans for jobs in factories and as farmers won him support among many white Southern leaders. At the same time, many African American leaders saw potential in his gradualist approach to civil rights, believing that the first step was to secure basic education and jobs for millions of African Americans who were working as tenant farmers. Washington promoted the values of patience, enterprise, and perseverance. By taking small steps and securing economic security first, Washington hoped that African Americans would win the respect of whites who would then see the value of allowing African Americans to be full citizens within an integrated into society.

Black leaders in the North later turned against Washington's gradual approach to breaking down racial barriers, but Washington was hailed by white leaders. He was invited to consult with the President at the White House and succeeded in creating numerous charitable funds that led to the creation of schools throughout the South. Washington was the first black person to be depicted on currency, and his image was also printed on stamps. 

Washington secured financial support from benefactors such as the Carnegie and Rockefeller families, as well as the vice president of Sears. In an age when Southern legislatures were reluctant to fund public schools for African Americans, these funds along with matching donations from black communities led to the creation of nearly one-third of the public schools in the South in the early decades of the 20th century.    

Booker T. Washington was raised in present-day West Virginia and a replica of his boyhood cabin may be seen at Malden, a few miles east of Charleston. 

Washington's legacy is complicated. He turned a one-room school in Alabama into a university and spent his life campaigning for better conditions and educational opportunities for African Americans in the South. In his quest to secure funds for this school and others, however, he made many compromises with Southern whites such as the tacit acceptance of segregation and the assumption that African American schools would focus on job preparation rather than the liberal arts and other fields that might prepare African Americans for professional careers. 

Washington's tactics and his personal ambition led to conflicts with W.E.B. DuBois, William Monroe Trotter, and other black leaders in the North. From the perspective of these Northern leaders, Washington's tactics were tantamount to accommodating the agenda of segregationists. From Washington's perspective, however, his tactical negotiations with white Souther leaders were necessary both for survival and as a way to secure funding for black schools. While Washington raised funds that led to the construction of hundreds of schools, his legacy is marked by his personal ambition to speak for all African Americans rather than accept the perspectives of those who hoped to confront segregation more directly. 


1900 Kanawha Blvd. E.
Charleston, WV 25301

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State Capitol grounds open to the public


Sources
Harlan, Louis R.. Booker T. Washington Volume 2: The Wizard Of Tuskegee, 1901-1915. New York. Oxford University Press, 1986.


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