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Booker T. Washington

"founder" of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute

Booker T. Washington

Booker Taliafero Washington was born a slave in Hale's Ford (near Roanoke), Virginia, on April 5, 1856. His mother worked as a cook for plantation owner James Burroughs; his father was an unknown white man, probably from a nearby plantation. As a child, Booker carried 100-pound sacks of grain to the plantation mill. When he wasn't working he would often find himself looking into the windows of a nearby school house and dreaming of being able to do the things the students inside were doing.

After the Civil War, Booker and his mother moved to Malden, West Virginia, where she married Washington Ferguson; Booker took his step-father's first name as his surname soon after. Because the family was poor, Booker chose to work in a salt mine with his step-father and help provide income rather than go to school. His mother was, however, able to get him a book, from which he was able to learn the basics of reading and writing.

In 1866, Booker got a job as a houseboy for Viola Ruffner, the wife of coal mine owner Lewis Ruffner. Mrs. Ruffner was known for being strict with servants, especially boys, but she was almost immediately impressed with Washington's maturity, intelligence, and integrity, and even allowed him to go to school for an hour a day during the winter months.

In 1872, Washington left his employer and walked the 500 miles to Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia, taking odd jobs along the way to support himself. Upon arriving at the Institute, he was able to persuade the administrators to admit him, and he took a job as a janitor to help pay his tuition. He soon came to the attention of General Samuel C. Armstrong, founder and headmaster of the Institute, who offered him a scholarship. Washington graduated with high marks in 1875, after which he spent some time attending Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C, before becoming a teacher at his old grade school in Malden. In 1879 he became a teacher at Hampton.

In 1881, the Alabama Legislature authorized $2,000 for the establishment of a "colored school." It then asked General Armstrong to recommend someone to set up and run the school, and, to the surprise of everyone, Armstrong recommended Washington. Washington accepted the job, and the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) was established that same year. The first classes were held in an old church and a shanty. The original curriculum focused on specific trades, such as carpentry, farming, and mechanics; the school also trained teachers. As the school expanded, Washington travelled the country promoting it and raising funds. Under Washington's leadership, Tuskegee soon became a model of industrial education.

In the late-1800's, the vast majority of Southern blacks lived in poverty, and Washington thought they should learn skills, work hard, and acquire property. He believed that the development of work skills would lead to economic prosperity, and predicted that blacks would gain civil and political rights only after first gaining a strong economic foundation. He explained his educational and social theories in his autobiography, Up from Slavery, which was published in 1901.

The late-1800's were also a time of increasing violence against blacks and a proliferation of "Jim Crow laws" making segregation between whites and blacks mandatory. Washington believed that the best way to curb racial violence was for blacks to stop demanding equal rights and accept segregation in exchange for economic advancement. His speeches and writings on the subject made him a prominent national figure and black spokesman, as well as an adviser to Presidents, Congressmen, and Governors on political appointments for blacks and sympathetic whites. He also owned or financially supported many black newspapers, and, in 1900, founded the National Negro Business League to help black business firms. Although he never publicly supported black political causes that were unpopular with Southern whites, he did secretly finance lawsauits opposing segregation and upholding the right of blacks to vote and serve on juries.

Although he was generally well-regarded by blacks and whites alike, Washington did have his detractors. One of his main opponents was W.E.B. Du Bois, a black historian and sociologist who supported higher education for blacks who showed promise as leaders. While he accepted the need for industrial training, Du Bois felt that blacks should also have the opportunity to obtain a college education. He also openly attacked Washington's views on political and civil rights by insisting that blacks should openly strive for their rights.

Washington remained a powerful leader until his death, but by 1910 his influence had started to decline as Du Bois and others began new, more active, movements. He died of congestive heart failure in Tuskegee on November 14, 1915.

The Biography Channel
Booker T. Washington National Monument
The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow

April 5
Civil War
Tuskegee University
November 14

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> African-Americans