Born to a slave on April 5, 1856, Booker Taliaferro 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 became a slave. Booker’s mother, Jane, worked as a cook for plantation owner James Burroughs. 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.
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, sponsored by a white man. 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 recommended Booker T. Washington. Classes were first held in an old church, while Washington traveled all over the countryside promoting the school and raising money.
Under Booker T. Washington’s leadership, Tuskegee became a leading school in the country. 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.
In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to the White House, making him the first African American to be so honored. Both President Roosevelt and his successor, President William Howard Taft, used Washington as an adviser on racial matters, partly because he accepted racial subservience. Booker T. Washington was a complex individual, who lived during a precarious time in advancing racial equality. On one hand, he was openly supportive of African Americans taking a “back seat” to whites, while on the other he secretly financed several court cases challenging segregation. By 1913, Washington had lost much of his influence. The newly inaugurated Wilson administration was cool to the idea of racial integration and African-American equality.
Booker T. Washington remained the head of Tuskegee Institute until his death on November 14, 1915, at the age of 59, of congestive heart failure.