Booker Taliafero Washington was born to a slave mother and unknown white man in Hale’s Ford, Virginia on April 5, 1856. Washington was also a slave and at an early age, he carried 100-pound sacks of grain, and later worked in salt furnaces and coal mines to support himself.
The civil rights activist and instructor was able to obtain a college education despite being illiterate late into his life. The spokesperson for African-Americans in the 1890s, Washington was lauded for being the first leader of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, the Atlanta Address of 1895 and formed alliances with wealthy businessmen such as Standard Oil tycoon Henry Huttleston Rogers and George Eastman – the founder of Eastman Kodak; his friendships with these wealthy men enabled him to secure funding for his educational causes and his fight for civil rights for blacks.
Keep reading to learn how the activist was honored in American media.
White House appearance
In 1901, then President Theodore Roosevelt invited Washington to the White House making him the first African-American to have his presence requested to the president’s dwelling. This gesture caused an uproar among conservative whites and became the talk of the town.
“A Guest of Honor”
Washington’s White House visit became the subject of renowned composer, Scott Joplin’s opera “A Guest of Honor.” It was produced in 1903.
“Can You Blame the Colored Man”
Musician Gus Cannon’s song titled “Can You Blame the Colored Man” was also inspired by Washington’s appearance at the White House.
The 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow and the film version both feature a character inspired by the likeness of Washington. The premise is that Washington negotiates the surrender of an African-American artist who is threatening to bomb the Pierpont Morgan Library.
“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”
“You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him.”
“Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way.”
“Those who have accomplished the greatest results are those who never grow excited or lose self-control, but are always calm, self-possessed, patient and polite.”
After a fruitful life of a seemingly passive approach to fighting for the rights of people of color while secretly fighting against segregation and inequality, Washington died of congestive heart failure in Tuskegee, Alabama on November 14, 1915. He was 59 years old.