Booker T. Washington was born a slave, but when he died in 1915, he was a celebrated educator, Civil Rights speaker, adviser to two presidents, and a closeted segregation activist. Washington rose to prominence by developing a meticulous work ethic, a driving motivation, and through meeting the right people at the right times.
Booker T. Washington was a child when the Civil War ended, freeing his family from slavery. He moved to West Virginia and got a job as a houseboy for Viola Ruffner. Ruffner was not particularly known for treating her servants kindly, but she saw something different in young Washington. He was driven, hardworking, and devoted to study. In fact, he was often up hours before work to study reading and writing. Ruffner was impressed and allowed Washington to attend school part time.
In 1872, Washington moved to Virginia and persuaded the school officials at Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute to trade tuition for janitorial services. But Washington’s work ethic and dedication to study caused him to stand out again, this time to the headmaster General Samuel C. Armstrong. Armstrong offered Washington a scholarship to complete his studies.
He graduated, attended seminary school, and was invited in 1987 to come back to speak to the graduating class at Hampton. General Armstrong took the chance to offer him another opportunity: this time as a teacher at the school.
Washington accepted, and his strong performance caused General Armstrong to recommend him to run the newly opening Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, a school for African-Americans.
In order to promote the school and get financial and political backing from the white community, he stressed that the school would not be a challenge to the white success. He gained prominence for his views as a Civil Rights speaker after giving a speech called the “Atlanta Compromise”, essentially arguing that African-Americans would have to accept subordination until they could prove they were deserved political and financial rights, at which point they would earn the respect of the white community.
This speech lead to many more, and soon Washington was drawing harsh criticism from other activists of the time such as W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1901, he was the first African-American invited to the White House, by Teddy Roosevelt. He was an adviser to both Roosevelt and Taft. One reason he was so embraced at the time was his willingness to defer to white rule.
Washington was viewed as a hero by a segment of the population while being labeled a traitor by many others. However, despite publicly embracing subservience, he was involved in a number of attempts to push back against segregation. He funded many legal battles challenging segregation and helped to form the National Negro Business League. Many details surrounding his social philanthropy were not uncovered until after his death, which is a testament to his personal philosophy that learning to work with the white community would be his most successful pathway to influence.
Booker T. Washington’s method of networking may be a debatable Civil Rights strategy, but the strength of his ability to meet and impress influential people is undeniable. In the business world, you’ll interact with people who you don’t see eye to eye with. Learning to work within the parameters of your customers might be a struggle, but it can open opportunities you’ve never imagined before. By proving your work ethic and dedication to their needs, you’ll find success in business.