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        Booker T. Washington | Orator, Teacher, and Advisor

        Freed from the bonds of slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation, Booker T. Washington worked relentlessly to become a teacher, an accomplished orator, and an advisor to two Presidents. He was considered a hero in the late 1800s, although some opposed his philosophy that equality and respect must be patiently earned. Through two primary source activities and watching a short video, students will learn about Booker T. Washington’s commitment to African American education, and assess his ideas about how to achieve equality for African Americans in the years after the Civil War.

        Lesson Summary

        Students will learn about Booker T. Washington’s struggle to become educated and his contributions to educating his fellow African Americans. After watching a short video, they will discuss the role that compromise played in Washington’s rise to power and fame. By examining a 1906 image of Washington and reading excerpts from his Atlanta Exposition speech, students will be able to recognize Washington’s contributions to the early Civil Rights movement and to assess his controversial philosophy.

        Time Allotment

        20 - 40 minutes



        • Diligence - hard work
        • Eloquent - well spoken
        • Endowment - a large amount of money given to support an institution such as a school
        • Accommodate - to provide with something desired
        • Vocational - training related to a job skill
        • Freedmen - formerly enslaved people


        Emancipation Proclamation - Issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation freed all enslaved people in Confederate territory, thus linking the Union’s war aims more closely to ending slavery. It also enabled African Americans to join the Union Army and Navy. 

        Learn more about the Emancipation Proclamation:

        14th Amendment - Ratified in 1868, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ensures citizenship to anyone born in the United States, thus granting citizenship to freed slaves. It also guarantees due process and equal treatment under the law.

        Learn more about the 14th Amendment:

        Atlanta Compromise - A term coined by W.E.B. Du Bois to characterize Booker T. Washington’s idea, put forth in his 1895 Atlanta Exposition Speech, that African Americans should be willing to accept limited civil rights and limited access to higher education as they slowly worked their way toward full equality through hard work.

        Learn more about the Atlanta Compromise:

        Jim Crow Laws: Racially segregated schools, libraries, parks, waiting rooms, buses, water fountains, rest rooms and even Bibles used in court rooms were the norm throughout the southern United States from the 1890s until successfully challenged by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s. The legal underpinning for this system was the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision of 1896, which declared that “separate but equal” facilities for whites and African Americans were constitutionally acceptable. Facilities for blacks, however, were virtually always substandard. 

        Learn more about the Jim Crow Laws:

        Background on Booker T. Washington | Orator, Teacher, and Advisor

        Booker T. Washington was born into slavery on a large plantation in Virginia on April 5, 1856. His mother also was enslaved as the cook for the plantation.

        In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation officially freed enslaved people in states of rebellion. When Washington was about 9 years old, he and his family moved to West Virginia to live with Washington Ferguson, who had escaped from slavery during the Civil War. Booker loved his new stepfather so much he took his name Washington as his surname.  

        Because the family was poor, nine year-old Washington had to go to work with his stepfather in salt furnaces and coal mines instead of going to school. But his desire to learn never diminished. His mother bought her son his first book, and he got up early every morning to teach himself to read and write before work.  

        At 16, Washington left home and walked 500 miles to the Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute in Virginia, a school created to educate freedmen. Despite having to work while in school, he studied diligently. And in 1879, Washington was chosen to speak at Hampton's graduation ceremonies. Impressed with Washington’s eloquence, Gen. Samuel Armstrong, the principal, offered him a job as a teacher at Hampton.

        Two years later, in 1881, the Alabama legislature asked Gen. Armstrong to approve a white man to run a new school for “colored” people. Gen. Armstrong instead selected Booker T. Washington. In 1881, Washington started the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute on an old plantation with just 30 students. On Sundays, Washington traversed the countryside, hitching rides to recruit students for the school.

        Under Washington's guidance, Tuskegee became a renowned school, and attracted the attention of several U.S. presidents. Theodore Roosevelt first invited Washington to the White House in 1901. Both Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, asked Washington for his advice on matters related to race.

        Between 1895 and 1915, Booker T. Washington wrote 14 books and many newspaper and magazine articles. He also delivered thousands of speeches. On September 18, 1895, at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Washington delivered one of the most significant speeches in American history. In it, he encouraged his mostly white audience to give African Americans educational and work opportunities. He stressed that it was in the entire country’s best interest to have all men be educated and able to do skilled work, to better themselves, their families, their communities, and, thus, the nation as a whole. His speech called for vocational-industrial education for African Americans as the best way to improve race relations in the south. 

        He believed that African Americans needed to strive for economic betterment and independence, instead of focusing on fighting discriminatory laws (like the Jim Crow laws). He felt that African Americans first needed to achieve economic stability, and that then they’d be able to prove to whites that they had earned respect and equality. He called this strategy “accommodation”. Many prominent African American activists, like WEB Du Bois, disagreed. They believed that the Fourteenth Amendment gave them immediate equal rights—economically, judicially, and socially--and felt that Washington’s stance undermined their fight for true equality. WEB Du Bois disparagingly deemed Washington’s strategy a “compromise.”

        However, Washington argued that his focus on self-help and racial solidarity would alleviate white fears about integration, and was the best path to securing equality. 

        When Washington died in 1915, Tuskegee had a $2 million endowment, and more than 1,500 students and 200 faculty members teaching 38 trades and professions. Today, at least 45 U.S. elementary, middle-, high- or charter schools bear the name “Booker T. Washington.” 


        Introductory Activity

        (5 minutes)

        • Ask students to define the term compromise and to think of examples of compromises they have made in the past. What does it mean to compromise? When is it a good idea to compromise and when is it a bad idea?
        • Introduce Booker T. Washington:
          Booker T. Washington was born into slavery. After Emancipation, he became the founder of a university, an active writer and speaker, and an advisor to two American presidents. He believed strongly that education was the key to African American advancement. 

        Learning Activities

        Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)

        Distribute the Graphic Organizer [PDF] for students to fill out while viewing the video.

        Play the Video

        Discussion questions after viewing:

        1. Ask students to think about the struggles that Washington went through to obtain his own education. Why might this have led him to dedicate his life to educating other African Americans?

        2. Why do you think Washington chose to emphasize vocational education over traditional academic subjects? Do you think this was a good plan?

        3. Why was Washington’s philosophy of encouraging African Americans to work hard, gain white acceptance, and delay full equality considered a compromise? Was it a fair trade-off?

        Examining Primary Sources

        Visual Primary Source Activity (5 minutes)

        Project or make copies of this image, a 1906 stereocard of Booker T. Washington from the Library of Congress collection.

        Explain to students that this is a stereocard, which is a photograph printed on a card with two images of the same subject at slightly different angles. When viewed through a special device called a stereoscope, the picture appears as a single three-dimensional image. The type of stereoscope used during the early 20th century was invented by poet, professor, and medical expert Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in 1860. He intentionally did not have his idea patented so that it could be widely reproduced. Stereoscopes were a popular home entertainment and even used in classrooms, particularly during the early 1900s. 

        Instruct students to take a look at the images. 


        1. Where is Washington and what is he doing? 

        2. Washington taught himself to read and write, and believed that education was the key to equality and advancement. In what ways do the photographs reflect his ideas?

        3. Washington believed that having an education would lead to respect and success. Examine the pictures and notice Washington’s clothing and the room’s furnishings. How do you think this setting compares to his childhood home? 

        4. Why do you think Washington is depicted looking down rather than at the camera?

        Written Primary Source Activity (20 minutes)

        The speech given by Booker T. Washington at the 1895 Atlanta Exposition is one of the most famous in American history. By examining three key passages in the speech, students will define and evaluate the speech that W.E.B. Du Bois derisively called the “Atlanta Compromise.”

        Download the Written Primary Source Activity [PDF]

        Culminating Activity

        This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.

        To be completed using Graphic Organizer.

        As indicated in the video, about fifty American schools are named after Booker T. Washington. Using their graphic organizers, ask students to design a plaque for one of these schools that explains why the school is named for Washington. The plaque can include the image from the stereocard or another image of the students’ choice. The wording on the plaque must briefly

        1. Summarize Booker T. Washington’s own education

        2. Indicate what Washington did to further African American education

        3. Include any other compelling information that the students’ learned from the lesson or through additional research


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