At 25, Washington was appointed principal of the newly established "Tuskegee Normal School for colored teachers." There were no buildings when he arrived. On July 4, 1881, Washington held his first classes for thirty male and female students in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and a shanty. The first permanent building was constructed a year later. It was designed by African-American instructors and built by African-American students, a tradition that would thrive at Tuskegee. The first students graduated in 1885.
Washington was determined to bring the best and brightest teachers to Tuskegee "not only for the money but also their deep interest in the race." Tuskegee embodied his total commitment to learning, self-help, practical training, and service to the community. Teachers trained to work with rural communities to improve farming, hygiene, and nutrition. Agricultural training provided experience and food for the table. Students learned trades to make themselves marketable and self-supporting. Tuskegee taught "classroom education ...practical knowledge, industry, thrift, and economy, that they (students) would be sure of knowing how to make a living after they had left us."
Washington traveled extensively to solicit funds. His achievements at Tuskegee earned the educator widespread support. An assertive, hands-on principal, Washington attended to every detail, from overseeing faculty and students, to school publications. He monitored the quality of instruction, inspected campus grounds and buildings, and scrutinized students. Washington personally made sure that Tuskegee maintained its excellent reputation.