Essential Books on Booker T. Washington
There are numerous books on Booker T. Washington, and it comes with good reason, after being born into slavery, he became an educator, author, orator, and adviser to several presidents of the United States.
“I have begun everything with the idea that I could succeed, and I never had much patience with the multitudes of people who are always ready to explain why one cannot succeed,” he remarked.
In order to get to the bottom of what inspired one of America’s most consequential figures to the heights of societal contribution, we’ve compiled a list of the 5 best books on Booker T. Washington.
Up From History by Robert J. Norrell
Since the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr., has personified black leadership with his use of direct action protests against white authority. A century ago, in the era of Jim Crow, Booker T. Washington pursued a different strategy to lift his people. In this compelling biography, Norrell reveals how conditions in the segregated South led Washington to call for a less contentious path to freedom and equality. He urged black people to acquire economic independence and to develop the moral character that would ultimately gain them full citizenship. Although widely accepted as the most realistic way to integrate blacks into American life during his time, Washington’s strategy has been disparaged since the 1960s.
The first full-length biography of Booker T. Washington in a generation, Up from History recreates the broad contexts in which Washington worked: he struggled against white bigots who hated his economic ambitions for blacks, African-American intellectuals like W. E. B. Du Bois who resented his huge influence, and such inconstant allies as Theodore Roosevelt. Norrell details the positive power of Washington’s vision, one that invoked hope and optimism to overcome past exploitation and present discrimination.
Booker T. Washington: Black Leadership in the Age of Jim Crow by Raymond W. Smock
From the time of his famous Atlanta address in 1895 until his death in 1915, Booker T. Washington was the preeminent African-American educator and race leader. But to historians and biographers of the last hundred years, Washington has often been described as an enigma, a man who rose to prominence because he offered a compromise with the white South: he was willing to trade civil rights for economic and educational advancement. Thus one historian called Washington’s time the “nadir of Negro life in America.”
Raymond W. Smock’s interpretive biography explores Washington’s rise from slavery to a position of power and influence that no black leader had ever before achieved in American history. He took his own personal quest for freedom and acceptance within a harsh, racist climate and turned it into a strategy that he believed would work for millions.
Was he, as later critics would charge, an Uncle Tom and a lackey of powerful white politicians and industrialists? Sifting the evidence, Mr. Smock sees Washington as a field general in a war of racial survival, his compromise a practical attempt to solve an immense problem. He lived and worked in the midst of an undeclared race war, and his plan was to find a way to survive and to flourish despite the odds against him.
You Need A Schoolhouse by Stephanie Deutsch
Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, and Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck, and Company, first met in 1911 at a Chicago luncheon. By charting the lives of these two men both before and after the meeting, Stephanie Deutsch offers a fascinating glimpse into the partnership that would bring thousands of modern schoolhouses to African American communities in the rural South in the era leading up to the civil rights movement.
Trim and vital at just shy of fifty, Rosenwald was the extraordinarily rich chairman of one of the nation’s largest businesses, interested in using his fortune to do good not just in his own Jewish community but also to promote the well-being of African Americans.
Washington, though widely admired, had weathered severe crises both public and private in his fifty-six years. He had dined with President Theodore Roosevelt and drunk tea with Queen Victoria, but he had also been assaulted on a street in New York City. He had suffered personal heartbreak, years of overwork, and the discouraging knowledge that, despite his optimism and considerable success, conditions for African Americans were not improving as he had assumed they would.
From within his own community, Washington faced the bitter charge of accommodationism that haunts his legacy to this day. Despite their differences, the two men would work together well and their collaboration would lead to the building of five thousand schoolhouses. By the time segregation ended, the “Rosenwald Schools” that sprang from this unlikely partnership were educating one-third of the South’s African American children. These schoolhouses represent a significant step in the ongoing endeavor to bring high-quality education to every child in the United States – an ideal that remains to be realized even today.
Then Darkness Fled by Stephen Mansfield
At a time when Booker T. Washington is being rediscovered by African Americans today, the author offers a compelling look at the man and the qualities of leadership he embodied in his life and work. The result is a timeless message of hope, empowerment, and responsibility, which Washington himself characterized as the training of head, heart, and hand.
Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington
Born in a Virginia slave hut, Booker T. Washington rose to become the most influential spokesman for African Americans of his day. In this eloquently written book, he describes events in a remarkable life that began in bondage and culminated in worldwide recognition for his many accomplishments. In simply written yet stirring passages, he tells of his impoverished childhood and youth, the unrelenting struggle for an education, early teaching assignments, his selection in 1881 to head Tuskegee Institute, and more.
A firm believer in the value of education as the best route to advancement, Washington disapproved of civil-rights agitation and in so doing earned the opposition of many black intellectuals. Yet, he is today regarded as a major figure in the struggle for equal rights, one who founded a number of organizations to further the cause and who worked tirelessly to educate and unite African Americans.
Character Building by Booker T. Washington
In Character Building are thirty-seven addresses that Booker T. Washington gave before students, faculty, and guests at the Tuskegee Institute. These addresses take the form of timeless advice on a number of subjects, very motivational and uplifting. Washington was constantly, and often bitterly, criticized by his contemporaries for being too conciliatory to whites and not concerned enough about civil rights. It would not be until after his death that the world would find out that he had indeed worked a great deal for civil rights anonymously behind the scenes.
If you enjoyed this guide to essential books on Booker T. Washington, check out our list of The 10 Best Books on Frederick Douglass!