National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Born Hale’s Ford, Virginia
In the face of segregation, disenfranchisement, and considerable racial violence, Booker T. Washington contended that it was unrealistic for African Americans to expect to gain entry into America’s white-collar professions. Instead, he suggested they establish themselves as a skilled laboring class. With that accomplished, racial discrimination would gradually disappear. In 1881 Washington put this theory to the test, becoming the director of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. As the school grew, he became viewed as the nation’s leading spokesman for African Americans. A magnetic speaker and the author of ten books, he attracted many critics, however, who contended that his “get along” philosophy undermined the quest for racial equality.