Booker T. Washington Legend

Media - 1967.59.664 - SAAM-1967.59.664_2 - 142413
Copied William H. Johnson, Booker T. Washington Legend, ca. 1944-1945, oil on plywood, 32 5825 14 in. (82.964.1 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.664

Artwork Details

Booker T. Washington Legend
ca. 1944-1945
Not on view
32 5825 14 in. (82.964.1 cm.)
Credit Line
Gift of the Harmon Foundation
Mediums Description
oil on plywood
  • Portrait male — Washington, Booker T.
  • Figure group
  • African American
Object Number

Artwork Description

Johnson presents a formally dressed Booker T. Washington (1856--1915) addressing a coeducational class of Black students. He is framed by a blackboard on which a saw, trowel, and hammer represent the building trades. A rake, shovels, and other farm implements attest to Tuskegee's importance as a center for agricultural research. (Washington hired George Washington Carver to run the agriculture program in 1896.) Opposite, an artist's palette, an inkwell, and musical instruments symbolize the liberal arts. 

For Washington, education was crucial to the economic and social advancement of African Americans. In his autobiography Up from Slavery, he told of his early years on a Virginia tobacco plantation and his adolescence working in a West Virginia coal mine. Only after his four-to-nine a.m. shift was over was he allowed to go to school. Determined to get a formal education, Washington walked five hundred miles to Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), where he proved to be a star student. Seven years later, he was invited to teach at Hampton. In 1881 he launched the Tuskegee Normal and Agricultural Institute in Alabama.


Media - 1983.95.53 - SAAM-1983.95.53_2 - 142417
Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice
March 8, 2024September 8, 2024
William H. Johnson's Fighters for Freedom series from the mid-1940s is a tribute to African American activists, scientists, teachers, and performers as well as international heads of state working to bring peace to the world. The exhibition Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice is drawn entirely from the collection of more than 1,000 works by William H. Johnson given to the Smithsonian American Art Museum by the Harmon Foundation in 1967 and reminds us that individual achievement and commitment to social justice are at the heart of the American story.