Booker T. Washington: Biography, Quotes & Accomplishments

Instructor: Cirrelia Thaxton

Cirrelia is an educator who has taught K-12 and has a doctorate in education.

Experience the life and legacy of the famous African-American leader of post-Civil War America, Booker T. Washington. Learn about his conservative ideas on race relations and his dedicated pursuit of black economic empowerment through vocational training. Then, take the quiz for the lesson to see what you know!

Early Years

On April 5, 1856, Booker Taliaferro Washington was born in Franklin County, Virginia in the western part of the state. His mother, Jane, was a slave who worked for James Burroughs, a plantation owner, while his father was an unknown, white man who probably lived in a nearby county. A product of pre-Civil War era society, Booker T. Washington was subjugated by a slave culture that did not allow blacks to become educated. As a young boy, however, Washington had a strong inclination toward learning, and he would peer into the windows of a schoolhouse near his home to watch white children reading books.

When Washington was nine years old and the Civil War had concluded, Jane married a free slave named Washington Ferguson in Malden, West Virginia. At this point in her son's impoverished youth, Jane understood the need to educate him so that he would one day have a better life. She gave him a book and he learned the alphabet and how to read and write. In 1866, Washington found work as a houseboy for Viola Ruffner, the wife of a coal mine owner. Seeing his potential, Viola enabled the boy to attend school daily for an hour during the winter months. This fed Washington's appetite to become the learned young man who would leave his home on foot in 1872 to travel to eastern Virginia for secondary schooling at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute.

Booker T. Washington


Being rather convincing, Washington persuaded the staff at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute that he was worthy of becoming a student there. Earning his tuition while working part-time as a janitor, he was able to enter the school. General Samuel C. Armstrong, school founder and headmaster, took notice of Washington's integrity and promise and became his mentor. In 1875, after graduating, Washington taught grade school in Malden, his hometown, before going to Washington, DC and attending seminary school for a short time.

Asked to speak at Hampton's graduation ceremony in 1879, Washington returned to his old school where he met with his mentor, Armstrong. The two men discussed the founding of a new technical school for black students in Alabama. Inspired by the idea of leading the cause for Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, Washington assumed his new role and campaigned for Tuskegee's establishment in 1881. Washington raised money through diligent promotion of the school and gained the support of white investors, according to the philosophy of accommodation. Through this philosophy suggesting white supremacy as a 'necessary evil,' Washington and his followers conceded that black citizens should 'accommodate' racism in order to develop economic self-reliance.

Booker T. Washington & Tuskegee Institute Staff

By training black students to become teachers, farmers, and carpenters, the staff at Tuskegee focused on providing a vocational education that would help their students avoid the pitfalls of poverty and disillusionment. W.E.B. Dubois, a contemporary of Washington's and a University of Atlanta scholar, disagreed with the notion of accommodation and professed the urgency of empowerment and activism against racial prejudice and discrimination. Nonetheless, Washington's appeal among working-class black citizens remained strong.

Legacy and Accomplishments

A caring intellectual, Washington was not only an educator but also a spokesman and writer. In 1895, he spoke at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia. The speech he gave catapulted him to the status of a national hero almost overnight. In the speech, he recognized the segregation and disenfranchisement common in the post-Reconstruction South. However, he proposed that whites give blacks a chance to prosper through education; survive in the economy; and have justice in the court system.

In 1901, publicizing the success of Tuskegee and his social vision of black achievement in small business, landownership (as opposed to sharecropping), and self-employment, Washington wrote his autobiography, Up from Slavery. This book was very successful in that both blacks and whites heralded its meaningful message. Up from Slavery was the main symbol of Booker T. Washington's success as a black leader during a time of growing racial strife in American history. Moreover, President Theodore Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft had appointed Washington to the post of Presidential Advisor on racial issues. In fact, at the request of President Roosevelt, Washington was the first black leader ever invited to a White House dinner.

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