Booker T . Washington

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Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was one of the most influential (and controversial) African Americans in history. Raised the son of a slave mother, Washington was self-motivated and committed to his own education from a young age. The tumultuous time in America's history during which he lived afforded him new freedoms that came from Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the eventual success of the North in the Civil War. He took the first opportunity to attend a formal school, Hampton Institute, which led to professorship and the founding of one of the most prestigious African American educational institutions of the nineteenth century, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Washington was seen as accommodating the status quo of African American subordination because the message of his writings and speeches was that the road to success for blacks was through achieving economic stability through education (mainly, vocational training); he did not protest, did not challenge the political system, did not speak about the lack of social equality like his critics, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois. Washington chose to concentrate on what blacks could accomplish by focusing on learning industrial skills; he believed this would help his race secure economic self-reliance. Washington felt the militant rhetoric of Douglass and Du Bois distracted his people from the path to prosperity through economic success.

Historic Roots

Booker Taliaferro Washington was born on April 5, 1856, in Hales Ford, Virginia. His mother, Jane, was a slave and his biological father was her master, James Burroughs. Washington had two brothers and his mother later married another slave, Washington Ferguson. His early life was spent living in a small shanty, sleeping on the floor, and working from an early age. At first he only knew his name to be Booker. When he recognized that other children had two names, he added the last name of Washington. It was not until later in life that he learned that his mother had given him the name of Taliaferro at birth.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, life did not immediately change for Booker and his family. His stepfather escaped to the North during the War and, after it ended, Booker and his family joined him in Malden, West Virginia. At this stage in life, Booker was forced to work in the salt mines of West Virginia. He dreamed of going to school, but that was not legal for black children at the time. He was relegated to carrying the books of white children and looking through the school windows. Eventually, his mother was able to acquire a copy of a Webster's spelling book and Booker studied it vigorously. After some convincing, his stepfather did allow him to attend a school for African American children, but he still had to work in the salt mines before and after school to help provide for the family.

Washington learned about a school for former slaves called Hampton Institute while working in the mines. In 1872, after saving enough money, he left the mines to attend Hampton. It was said that he walked a significant part of the 400-mile journey to the school. Initially denied entrance, Booker impressed the staff of the institution with his janitorial skills and maintained that role to help pay for his education. It was at Hampton Institute where Washington established his ideals for industrial education. Upon graduation, he returned for a short time to Malden to teach, but eventually was hired by Hampton as a faculty member. In 1881, upon the recommendation of the founder of Hampton, Washington was asked to go to Alabama to start another industrial school.

When Booker T. Washington arrived in Tuskegee, Alabama, he was surprised to find that no provisions had been secured for purchase of land or buildings. The only funds for the school—$2500 for teachers' salaries secured from the legislature as a favor to blacks who had supported a local politician. Booker faced the challenge of...
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