There is one personality that has defined the tension of African Americanism for the 20th century and that is Booker T. Washington. Washington’s approach has historically had a dubious place in the African American story. His primary concern was not on the cultural or spiritual development of his people, instead he felt the best way for African Americans to raise their stake in the country was to turn inward and to build themselves socially and economically. Washington did not believe that African Americans needed to live up to the expectations of their white counterparts, instead he felt it more important that African Americans invest in themselves, build their own institutions and develop their own standards and ways of being. His ideas were so significant that he deeply influenced the development of both Pan-Africanist and African American Islamic thought and praxis throughout the 20th century as well. This essay will review the life of Booker T. Washington and his creation of the Tuskegee Machine with particular attention on his ideas that would help to shape the religious strain for African Americans in the US.
Much of Booker T. Washington’s early life is shrouded in mystery. That is to say, that there certain are details that have never fully come to light. For instance, the historical record is not clear on the actually date of his birth, just that he was born in 1856 five years before the start of the Civil War in the Virginia Commonwealth. It is also not clear who Washington’s father was; it is suggested that his paternal DNA donor was an enslaver from a neighboring plantation, but there is not enough evidence to support this notion. Furthermore, it is also not clear what his mother’s full name was, she is simply referred to as Jane. As well, the name “Washington” was not their original family name, instead it is the product of marriage after emancipation. For Booker T. and his mother, freedom came with the conclusion of the Civil War and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. After they were liberated they moved from Virginia to West Virginia, a state that had joined the Union before the conclusion of the Civil War, to be with Washington Ferguson, Booker T.’s stepfather. In West Virginia, young Washington worked in the salt and coal minds to earn his way and help his family. From a young age, he understood the value of hard work while keeping particular focus on the importance of a strong foundation.
Washington did not return to his birth state until he attended Hampton Institute (later named Hampton University, a Historically Black University) where he excelled. While attending Hampton he worked and studied, earning his way as a dedicated student. His hard work eventually earned the attention of Hampton president Samuel C. Armstrong, who recommended Washington to be leader of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. Washington’s work at Tuskegee institution would go on the shape American history in extremely dynamic ways. Under his guidance Tuskegee became an educational powerhouse known in many circles as the Tuskegee Machine. The Tuskegee Machine was not just comprised of the institution’s faculty but as well of prominent community leaders throughout the South, including farmers, artists, shade-tree teachers and small business owners. However, there was a palpable dictator-like manner by which Washington ran his Tuskegee Machine. He demanded unquestioning loyalty from those within the machine and for those outside of the machine (or those proven to be disloyal) he attacked with particular ferocity that was feared by many.
Due to Washington’s politics and the manner in which he ran his institution, many considered him to be a race traitor. In large part this was due to his seemingly placating approach to white leadership (read: white supremacist leadership), who were his and his institutions greatest financial supporters. His reputation was well earned because in addition to him accepting the support of not-so-well-meaning whites, he had no qualms about going after other African American scholars and leaders with whom he did not agree. Harlan elaborates: “Having committed himself to the business elite, Washington took a dim view of the leaders of the working class. Immigrants represented to him, as to many blacks, labor competitors; Jews were the exception here, as he held them up to ambitious black as models of the work-ethic and group solidarity.” Additionally, he often bought into the same ideology of the white supremacist zeitgeist of the time which believed Black people to be a “child race” and in need of cultural direction and guidance.
Despite conciliating to white power, Washington’s ideology and approach became extremely important to the evolution of Black Nationalist movements and organizations throughout the 20th century. To elaborate, one of the things that greatly influenced Marcus Garvey and his self-help philosophy was his personal reading of Washington’s Up From Slavery. Moreover, what Garvey did with Washington’s philosophy was to help usher in a new religious understanding for African Americans that helped to shape and redefine the religious conversation for the community in the 20th century. Garvey’s read of Washington lead to the formation of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). As well, at the same time the UNIA was being developed the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA) was also rising in the Midwest and on the East Coast with a similar philosophy and structure. From the rhetoric and philosophy of UNIA and the MSTA came the Nation of Islam (NOI) whose central focus was self-help, self-organization and self-autonomy. It is not a logical leap to argue that the cultural foundation of the NOI and the organizations that succeeded it originated from the self-help philosophy of Booker T. Washington given its lineage.
How many words does it take to define a life? For Booker T. Washington it only took three: Up From Slavery, one of the most influence books in African American history. Again, despite Washington’s dubious place in history, his impact and influence cannot be understated. Washington’s writing and his organization of the Tuskegee Machine at the Institute by the same name shaped the conversation concerning African American advancement in the 20th century. Though there is much ambiguity surrounding Washington and his politics, one cannot understate or take anything away from his impact. More than a century has passed since the death of Booker T. Washington and still we debate his impact in the context of African American advancement, making it clear his impact has reverberated through time. Because of this, despite how our personal feelings may sway us, his life and work are more than worthy of further critical examination.
 Robert Jefferson Norrell. Up from history: The life of Booker T. Washington. Harvard University Press, 2009. John Hope Franklin, and August Meier, eds. Black leaders of the twentieth century. (University of Illinois Press, 1982), 1-18.
 August Meier. Negro thought in America, 1880-1915: Racial Ideologies in the Age of Booker T. Washington. Vol. 118. University of Michigan Press, 1988. Booker T. Washington. Booker T. Washington-Up from Slavery: Autobiography. epubli, 2019.
 Michael Rudolph West. The Education of Booker T. Washington: American Democracy and the Idea of Race Relations. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 84.
 Booker T. Washington. Booker T. Washington-Up from Slavery: Autobiography. epubli, 2019. Booker T.’s stepfather’s name was Washington Ferguson. He escaped from slavery during the Civil War and secured his freedom in West Virginia. Once free Booker T. adopted his stepfather’s name.
 Not only was the entire student body of Tuskegee Institute Black, so was the faculty. This was not the case for every HBCU.
 John Hope Franklin and August Meier, eds. Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century.(University of Illinois Press, 1982), 4.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 33-36. T. Thomas Fortune, started out as a Tuskegee loyalist, but as he fell out of favor with Washington, he became meat for the Tuskegee machine to grind. Moreover, as discuss in a previous essay, Ida B. Wells-Barnett also became a target of Washington’s as well.
 To be fair W.E.B. DuBois was also known for going after those he didn’t agree with.
 John Hope Franklin and August Meier, eds. Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century. (University of Illinois Press, 1982), 10.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 109-111.
 The religious influence of the NOI in the 20th century cannot be understated – the NOI movement provided a necessary divergent perspective from that of the deeply Christian movement nurtured by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As well, they are responsible for the rise of Minister Malcolm X who rhetoric and philosophy set the world ablaze.