Social Justice Activists | Booker T. Washington

Booker T Washington photoBorn to a slave on April 5, 1856, Booker Taliaferro Washington's life had little promise early on. At an early age, Booker went to work carrying sacks of grain to the plantation’s mill. He frequently saw elite, white children sitting in school; he wanted to do what those children were doing, but it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write.

After the Civil War, Booker and his mother moved to Malden, West Virginia, where she married freedman Washington Ferguson. The family was very poor, and 9-year-old Booker went to work in the nearby salt furnaces with his stepfather instead of going to school; however, Booker's mother noticed his interest in learning and got him a book which explained how to read and write basic words.

In 1872, Booker T. Washington left home and walked 500 miles to Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute in Virginia. 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.

Booker T. Washington graduated from Hampton in 1875 with flying colors. 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 he instead recommended Booker T. Washington.

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, creativity, and thrift. Booker T. Washington remained the head of Tuskegee Institute until his death from congestive heart failure on November 14, 1915, at the age of 59.

Sources used/additional reading:
Booker T. Washington: the Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915
By Harlan, Louis R.

Then Darkness Fled: the Liberating Wisdom of Booker T. Washington
By Mansfield, Stephen