Born to a slave named Jane on April 5, 1856, Booker T. Washington’s life had little promise early on. In Franklin County, Virginia, as in most states prior to the Civil War, the child of a slave was also a slave. Booker’s mother worked as a cook for the plantation owner; his father was an unknown white man, most likely from a nearby plantation. Booker and his mother lived in a one-room log cabin with a large fireplace, which also served as the plantation’s kitchen.
At an early age, Booker went to work carrying sacks of grain to the plantation’s mill. Toting 100-pound sacks was hard work for a small boy, and he was beaten on occasion for not performing his duties satisfactorily. Booker’s first exposure to education was from the outside of school house near the plantation; looking inside, he saw children his age sitting at desks and reading books. He wanted to do what those children were doing, but he was a slave, and it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write.
After the Civil War and emancipation, Booker and his mother moved to Malden, West Virginia, where she married a freedman named Washington Ferguson. The family was very poor, and 9-year-old Booker went to work in the nearby salt furnaces with his stepfather instead of going to school. Booker’s mother noticed his interest in learning and got him a book from which he learned the alphabet and how to read and write basic words. Because he was still working, he got up nearly every morning at 4 a.m. to practice and study.
In 1866, he got a job as a houseboy for Viola Ruffner, the wife of a coal mine owner. Mrs. Ruffner was known for being very strict with her servants, especially boys. But she saw something in Booker — his maturity, intelligence and integrity, and soon warmed up to him. Over the two years he worked for her, she fostered his desire for an education and allowed him to go to school for an hour a day during the winter months.
Washington was not his real name. Like many slaves, he had but one name; he was simply referred to as “Booker.” However, once Booker was allowed to go to school, he was surprised to learn that the kids had two names. So, he decided he’d use Washington, because, he said, it was the grandest name he could think of. Sometime later, he learned that his mother had given him the surname Talliaferro, so he adopted it as his middle name.
In 1872, Booker T. Washington left home and walked 500 miles to Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute in Virginia. Along the way he took odd jobs to support himself. He convinced administrators to let him attend the school and took a job as a janitor to help pay his tuition. The school’s founder and headmaster, General Samuel C. Armstrong, soon discovered the hardworking boy and offered him a scholarship. Armstrong had been a commander of a Union African-American regiment during the Civil War, and was a strong supporter of providing newly freed slaves with a practical education. Armstrong became Washington’s mentor, strengthening his values of hard work and strong moral character.
Booker T. Washington graduated from Hampton in 1875 with high marks. For a time, he taught at his old grade school in Malden, Virginia, and attended Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C. In 1879, he was chosen to speak at Hampton’s graduation ceremonies, where afterward General Armstrong offered Washington a job teaching at Hampton. In 1881, the Alabama legislature approved $2,000 for a “colored” school, the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now known as Tuskegee University). General Armstrong was asked to recommend a White man to run the school, but instead he recommended Booker T. Washington. The powers found him acceptable, and, until sufficient funds were raised, classes were held in an old church. Washington traveled all over the countryside promoting the school and raising money, reassuring Whites that nothing in the Tuskegee program would threaten them or pose any economic competition.
Under Booker T. Washington’s leadership, Tuskegee became one of the country’s leading schools. At his death, it had more than 100 well-equipped buildings, 1,500 students, a 200-member faculty teaching 38 trades and professions, and a nearly $2 million endowment. Washington put much of himself into the school’s curriculum, stressing the virtues of patience, enterprise, and thrift. He taught that economic success for African Americans would take time, and that subordination to Whites was a necessary evil until African Americans could prove they were worthy of full economic and political rights. He believed that if African Americans worked hard and obtained financial independence and cultural advancement, they would eventually win acceptance and respect from the White community.
In 1895, Booker T. Washington publicly put forth his philosophy on race relations in a speech at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia. In his speech, Washington stated that African Americans should accept disenfranchisement and social segregation as long as Whites allow them economic progress, educational opportunity and justice in the courts. This started a firestorm in parts of the African-American community, especially in the North. Activists like W.E.B. Du Bois (who was working as a professor at Atlanta University at the time) deplored Washington’s conciliatory philosophy and his belief that African Americans were only suited to vocational training. Du Bois criticized Washington for not demanding equality for African Americans, as granted by the 14th Amendment, and subsequently became an advocate for full and equal rights in every realm of a person’s life.
Then, in 1901, Booker T. Washington was invited to dinner at the White House with Teddy Roosevelt to discuss Negro appointments. This was too much. Not only had Roosevelt asked a Black to the White House, but then he had the effrontery to actually eat with him. The South was properly scandalized. One newspaper proclaimed, “The Most Damnable Outrage Ever Committed;” another stated bluntly, “a crime equal to treason.” Summing things up, Joseph Pulitzer wrote, “An American named Washington, one of the most learned, eloquent, most brilliant men of the day —the president of a college—is asked to dinner by President Roosevelt, and because the pigment of his skin is darker than that of others a large part of the United States is convulsed with shame and rage…in eating with him, the president is charged with having insulted the South. He may educate us but not eat with us…” Teddy blandly ignored all the hoopla, later doubling down when Jim Crow laws forced a Black woman named Minnie Cox to resign her position as postmistress of Indianola, Miss. Teddy responded by closing the Indianola post office and continuing to pay Minnie’s salary until her term ended a year later. The post office was then allowed to reopen.
His autobiography, Up From Slavery, is worth a read.