Booker T. Washington, celebrated political leader, orator, educator and author, was born in a rural Virginia town near Roanoke. He and his mother, a small plantation cook, were slaves until the emancipation in 1865. After emancipation, he chose the surname of Washington and worked himself through schools including Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) and Wayland Seminary. At age 25, in 1881, he taught at and headed the new school, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama (now Tuskegee University).
As an orator, he attracted many supporters including black ministers, educators, editors, and businessmen and through these, and support of white philanthropists, industrialists, and liberal politicians, he was able to help establish many small community schools (estimated at over 5,000) and institutions of higher education for the black communities in the South. A few of Washington's major white supporters included Henry Huttleston Rogers (Standard Oil magnate), Julius Rosenwald (president of Sears, Roebuck and Company), and George Eastman (inventor and founder of Kodak), Andrew Carnegie, William Taft, John D. Rockefeller,and Robert Ogden.
It was his position that cooperation, funding important legal cases concerning the segregation and disfranchisement of blacks, and building working relationships would gain support and progress. Other powerful African Americans, mostly from the North, criticized this position. They believed it would take hard line confrontation, rather than the slower incremental changes Washington advocated, to make any progress toward civil rights and racism. Washington held true to his position and, through his friendships, books, funding, and slower, forward thinking efforts he did make progress. Though his position may have been controversial to some, it is believed Washington's position and efforts were instrumental in laying the groundwork toward the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
Among Washington's accomplishments, he authored four books within twelve years: The Story of My Life and Work (1900); Up From Slavery (1901); My Larger Education (1911); and The Man Farthest Down (1912). After his book, Up From Slavery became a bestseller, he was invited to the White House by Theodore Roosevelt. It was this visit, proposed to be the first visit of an African American, that Senator John McCain referred to in his speech at the end of 2008 presidential race ('...the seed that blossomed into the first African American becoming the President of the United States, Barack Obama...').
He founded the National Negro Business League in 1900. Harvard University granted him an honorary master's degree on April 15, 1896 for his contributions to American society. In 1901, Dartmouth College granted him an honorary doctorate degree.
Throughout his lifetime, Washington remained the principal of Tuskegee, but he never forgot his roots, the community of his youth in West Virginia. His work brought him to such places at the World's Fair in Paris. It was in New York City where he collapsed from exhaustion. He died on November 14, 1915 at the age of 59 from what may have been a result of hypertension and congestive heart failure.
In 1942, the first major ocean ship to be named after an African American was named after him.
Minted from 1946 through 1951, the first coin to feature an African American was the Booker T. Washington Memorial U.S. half dollar. He was also depicted on a U.S. half dollar from 1951-1954.
Compiled from various Internet resources including Wikipedia and the U.S. Postal Service.