At the beginning of the 20th century, nine out of ten African Americans lived in the South. Jim Crow laws enforced segregation. The Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson granted the Southern states with the power to create two “separate but equal” societies.
Despite suffrage granted by the Fifteenth Amendment, few African Americans voted because of poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation. Most African Americans were sharecroppers trapped in a cycle of debt. Socially, few whites viewed blacks as equals. One man who fought for change was Booker T. Washington.
Washington was born into slavery in 1856. He had experienced racism his entire life. After emancipation, he was one of the few African Americans to get an education.
Washington believed that Southern racism was so entrenched that there was no value to demanding immediate social equality. He established a school, the Tuskegee Institute, aimed to train African Americans in crucial skills.
Tuskegee Institute became a center for agricultural research. One important graduate was George Washington Carver, a famous agriculturalist. Carver introduced crop diversification and new uses for common crops like sweet potatoes, pecans, and peanuts. Washington believed that this new approach to agriculture could improve the economic status of African Americans.
Washington believed that African Americans should focus on vocational education in order to make them productive members of society. He argued that only then would whites see them as equal.
Many whites approved of Washington’s moderate stance. The African American community was split. Critics such as early civil rights leader W. E. B. DuBois accused Washington of cooperating with Southern racism.
In 1906, Washington was invited to the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt—the first time in American history that an African American leader received such a prestigious invitation.
Source: Booker T. Washington
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