Booker T. Washington was born on April 5th, 1856 on a farm near Hale's Ford, Virginia. He and his family were slaves of James Burroughs who was a prominent member of a small community of slave-owning farmers. Washington' mother was a cook for Burroughs' family and for the other slaves, but he did not know who his father was. His lighter skin indicated that he was probably the son of a white man, but Washington never learned the identity of his father.
Washington was nine years old in 1865 when the Civil War ended and all of the slaves were set free. However, their family quickly found out that legal freedom did not provide them with freedom from racism, inequality, and inopportunity. The family moved to Malden, West Virginia where Washington and his brother became salt packers. Because it had been illegal for slaves to be educated, it was only at this point that Washington could pursue his desire to learn how to read and write. A school opened up in the area, but Washington's stepfather refused to let him attend. Eventually, Washington was able to make a deal with him so that he would pack salt before and after he went to school every day.
Briefly afterward, Washington decided to leave his home and job and move into one of the wealthiest homes in town to become a house servant of General Lewis Ruffner and his wife Viola who were one of the leading families of Malden. While Washington worked there, all of his income went back to his parents. Viola took a particular interest in him and worked with him in his education. The experience had a great impact on Washington and it is where he attributed his knowledge of the Puritan work ethic, cleanliness, and thrift.
From his determination to learn, Washington finally gained the support of his family in 1872 to attend Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a school of higher learning in Virginia for blacks. While attending, he worked as a janitor which allowed him close contact with the whites running the school. The man who founded the institute, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, was his primary educator and had an immense influence on Washington. General Armstrong became "more than a father" to him and acted as a mentor. At the school, Washington was primarily trained to be a teacher, but he also studied the Bible and practiced oratory while he was there. Washington believed that the experience at Hampton changed his life and was the place where he matured from a boy to a man.
After graduation at age twenty, Washington was finally living alone. He opened a night school that about 80 students attended and became a strong presence in the community. In 1878, he attended Wayland Seminary in Washington D.C. but left after only one year. He then got a teaching job at Hampton Institute where he acted like a graduate student, both teaching the night school while taking additional coursework. In 1881, General Armstrong was asked to recommend a white student or teacher to take the position of principal at a normal school for blacks in Tuskegee, Alabama. General Armstrong, however, boldly recommended Washington as the most qualified for the position instead. To everyone's joy at Hampton, the Tuskegee commissioner decided that Washington's appointment was acceptable.
Washington began to gain skills in interracial diplomacy as he worked closely with the white commissioners as they set up the school in Tuskegee. The school first opened up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church with 37 students. From there, enrollment increased steadily. The goal was then to get the school on a labor basis so that they would not have to charge tuition. Washington knew that charging the students would seriously limit enrollment because most blacks at this time were very poor. They then purchased a farm to move the school to and Washington continued to work to raise funds for buildings and equipment for the institute. Eventually, hundreds of students were enrolled.
At the school, Washington encouraged his students to seek white approval and to behave in a respectable, hard-working manner so that blacks could show whites that they knew how to conduct themselves properly. He told his students to stay out of politics and to never put on airs, always being courteous. Washington wanted his students to focus on learning practical skills rather than pursuing higher learning because he felt that this would ignore the reality of a black person's situation in life in the United States. He wanted the school to have peaceful relations with Southern conservatives and he supported forms of segregation in the South. Washington always pursued a racial policy of accommodation. Washington led a life seeking delicate balance, trying to help the black race as much as he could but always careful not to upset the white majority.
The scope of his work and influence continued to widen and he began to give speeches. He spoke at the Atlanta Convention in 1893 to a crowd of a few thousand whites on "the relations of the races." From there, he was invited to make an appearance before the House Committee on Approbations in Washington D.C. along with a group of white men from Atlanta in order to ask for a federal grant for the Atlanta Exposition. The grant was approved.
Washington became a speaker for the opening day of the Atlanta Exposition, giving him a national audience for the first time. His Atlanta Address, which later became known as the Atlanta Compromise, launched him into national prominence, despite its controversy. In the speech, Washington argued for blacks to work hard in lower-level occupations and to slowly earn the respect of whites, allowing them to work their way up in society through peace and white cooperation. He discouraged blacks from clamoring for civil rights while encouraging whites to be patient with the black race as they figured out how to become respectable citizens. The speech earned him the approval of many whites and many blacks were proud to have a respected representative of their race.
His influence and power among the black community and black institutions grew quickly. Politics absorbed more and more of his time, leaving little time for teaching. Despite his other obligations, he still was concerned about the details of the operations at Tuskegee and ruled the institute in a very firm and rigorous manner. In 1896, Washington hired George Washington Carver to be a teacher of agriculture at his school and it would be in later years that Carver became famous for promoting the peanut.
Washington was a conservative, Southern-based leader and black intellectuals in the north were often critical of him for not being militant enough in his promotion for black civil rights. Washington believed in self-help and economic advancement for blacks and that they should not try to promote their interests through politics. Washington's biggest critic was W.E.B. Du Bois, a professor of sociology at Atlanta University. He criticized Washington's surrender of civil rights and refusal to promote the fact that whites and blacks deserved civil equality. He disagreed with Washington's view on liberal education for black students, believing that by de-emphasizing liberal education, blacks would lose sight of their goal of social improvement.
Washington's personal life was at times tragic. In 1882, Washington married his first wife, Fannie Smith. They had a daughter together they named Portia. Fannie died only two years later. In 1885, he married Olivia Davidson and they had two sons they named Booker T. Washington Jr. and Ernest Washington. In 1889, Olivia also died. Washington eventually met a woman named Margaret Murray while visiting Fisk University. He hired her as an English teacher, later making her the head of women's industries at Tuskegee. The two became close and eventually married in 1892. They did not have any children, but Margaret played a major role in raising Washington's children from previous marriages.
During his career, Washington was able to gain presidential favor. In 1898, President William McKinley visited Tuskegee. McKinley said the institute was "progressive" and declared Washington to be "one of the great leaders of his race." Then in 1901 when Theodore Roosevelt became president after McKinley's assassination, Roosevelt invited Washington to dine with him at the White House. The two men had already formed a relationship with one another starting in 1898 when Washington agreed to support Roosevelt's future bid for the presidency. Roosevelt was very fond of Washington personally and approved of his overall approach towards racial matters. When the two men dined at the White House just a month after Roosevelt's inauguration, the event became a sensation - it was the first time a president had ever invited a black man to a White House dinner. While Roosevelt had not meant for the event to have great political significance, many whites were outraged while many blacks applauded the president for the move. Even Washington's critics acknowledged Washington's success and approved of the meeting. If it had not been true before, the dinner secured Washington's position as the leading black figure and spokesman in the United States. From there, Washington became an advisor to Roosevelt on race politics and Southern politics in general. While Theodore Roosevelt did appoint a few offices to black politicians, he did not feel that many blacks would make competent politicians. Part of the reason he desired to work with Washington was because of Washington's policy of accommodation and because he did not clamor forcefully for advancing blacks politically or civically. While Roosevelt could admire a few black men that he considered to be exceptional, such as Washington, he generally held the same racist attitudes common to many white Americans of the day.
Washington remained principal of Tuskegee up to his death on November 14th, 1915 at the age of 59. He is remembered as being one of the most prominent black figures in United States history - for founding and running Tuskegee Institute, for his position on racial matters as expressed in his speech at the Atlanta Exposition, and for the contributions he made to racial and Southern politics.
"Booker T. Washington Biography." Encyclopedia of World Biography. n.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr.
Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1972.
Last updated: April 25, 2012