Washington was "born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia..." (Up From Slavery) in 1856. After emancipation, he and his family moved to Malden, West Virginia. The nearby Kanawha Sapines salt furnaces provided wage work for many freed slaves in West Virginia, including members of Washington's family. A prominent white family, the Ruffners, hired the young Washington as a domestic. Washington later said the lessons he learned from them were "... as valuable to me as any education I have gotten anywhere since."
The young Booker first went to school, not as a student, but to carry his young mistress' books to class. Later he attended night school while working in the salt furnace. Washington thought that getting an education was "about the same as getting into paradise."
In 1872 he enrolled at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia. The school trained former slaves in the trades, industriousness, and thrift. An outstanding student, Washington graduated at the top of his class, and then taught in Malden and at Hampton.