Booker T. Washington Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Combining an optimistic outlook with a spirit of accommodation in race relations, Washington provided leadership and a program to American blacks during an era of segregation.

Early Life

Booker Taliaferro Washington was born April 5, 1856, on a farm near Hale’s Ford, Virginia. His mother, Jane Ferguson, was a slave and a cook for James Burroughs; his father was a white man whose identity is unknown. Washington had a brother John, four years his senior, also a mulatto, and a sister who died in infancy. When the family was emancipated, it settled in Malden, West Virginia, five miles from Charleston.

From 1865 to 1871, Booker worked in the local coal and salt mines, attending school between early morning and later afternoon stints of labor. For a year and a half, he was a houseboy for the wife of the mine owner; in this capacity, he learned demanding standards of performance, attention to detail, and the virtues of hard work, cleanliness, and thrift.

Having heard of a new school in eastern Virginia where blacks received vocational training, Washington entered Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in the fall of 1872. Founded by an idealistic Civil War general, Samuel C. Armstrong, the school reinforced the influences of his houseboy experience and pointed him toward his future. “At Hampton,” he later said, “I found the opportunities . . . to learn thrift, economy and push. I was surrounded by an atmosphere of business, Christian influences, and the spirit of self-help, that seemed to have awakened every faculty in me.” Armstrong, with his emphasis on industrial education for blacks and the virtues of hard work and self-discipline, was perhaps the major influence in molding young Washington.

During the four years after his graduation in 1875, he taught school at Malden, West Virginia, and briefly attended Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C. In 1879, he was called to Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute to supervise instruction of Indian students whom Armstrong had recruited in the West. During his second year, he taught night classes for youths who worked for the institute during the day.

In 1881, he eagerly grasped the opportunity to start his own school at Tuskegee, Alabama. His model was Hampton, and he established in the Deep South an institution which expressed his by then mature social values. The Civil War and Reconstruction had brought freedom, citizenship, and suffrage to blacks, yet little had been done to prepare blacks to live as citizens, voters, and independent workers. What was needed, Washington believed, was to give blacks industrial education and moral training by which they could become economically self-sufficient and able to partake of the blessings of liberty and citizenship. The exercise of political rights and entrance into the professions could be deferred. “Let us give the black man so much skill and brains that he can cut oats like the white man; then he can compete with him,” he affirmed. The liberal arts were not to be neglected, but they were not foremost.

Now twenty-five years of age and in good health, a persuasive speaker, he stood tall, an energetic figure with striking features—gray eyes, full lips, broad nose, reddish hair, and brown skin. Throwing himself vigorously into his challenging responsibilities, he recruited students from the countryside and secured an abandoned plantation for a campus. In 1882, he married a childhood friend, Fannie N. Smith, who bore him a daughter and died in 1884. When the number of pupils grew to fifty, he employed another black teacher, Olivia A. Davidson, who became his second wife and gave birth to two sons. She died in 1889; a third marriage was to Margaret James Murray, “lady principal” at Tuskegee, who survived him.

Meager legislative appropriations and growing enrollments impelled Washington to solicit funds in the North and Midwest. Beginning in 1883, he secured assistance from the Slater and Peabody funds, the money from the first being used to build a carpenter shop and make other improvements. Fund-raising became a fixed part of his activities; in the course of time he was garnering $100,000 a year, gaining support from John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Julius Rosenwald, and others. By the end of his career, Tuskegee Institute owned an endowment of nearly two million dollars.

Washington quickly emerged as a national spokesman for his race. In the summer of 1884, he was invited to address the annual meeting of the National Education Association in Madison, Wisconsin. He spoke on “the broad question of the relations of the races,” foretelling the views for which he became famous eleven years later. Meanwhile, the address won for him recognition among educators and helped his fund-raising efforts.

It was the address he delivered in 1895 at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta that made him a national figure and the leading spokesman for black Americans. In this address, Washington rejected ideas of return to Africa or migration to the North. “Cast down your bucket where you are,” he exhorted. Blacks must begin at the bottom of life and not at the top, as Reconstruction policy had attempted; the leap from slavery to freedom had been too quick. Life at the bottom meant labor in agriculture, mechanics, commerce, and domestic service. Blacks must “learn to dignify and glorify common labour and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life.”

Seeking to allay Southern white apprehensions about the potential advance of blacks within the region, Washington gave an assurance, “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” Progress, he went on, is inevitable, and nearly eight million blacks—one third of the South—would help in marching forward.

Blacks and whites listened while...

(The entire section is 2447 words.)