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Booker T. Washington: Views on Education & Slavery

Instructor: Amy Lively

Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.

This lesson discusses Booker T. Washington's life as a slave, his views about education, and his approach to helping African Americans become independent businessmen. Learn more about the beliefs of this influential educator and take a quiz to test your knowledge.

Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington

Washington as a Slave

Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in Virginia in 1856. He lived with his mother, his sister, and his brother on a plantation. His mother worked as the cook, and Washington was also expected to work as soon as he was old enough to do so. There was not one day in his life as a slave that he did not work. Even as a young boy, he had to clean or carry buckets of water out to the fields. When he was older, he took heavy bags of corn to the mill. Like many slaves, he was beaten if he worked too slow or if he got back from the mill too late. Slaves did not go to school, so Washington did not learn to read or write until the Civil War was over and slavery was abolished.

Education at Hampton

Even after his family was set free and they moved to West Virginia, Washington was faced with a life of hard work in the coal mines and salt furnaces. Wanting more for himself, he made the 500-mile trip to the Hampton Institute in Virginia by walking, hitching rides on buggies, or catching a train when he could. Washington paid his tuition by working as a janitor, and he proved to be an excellent student.

Education at Hampton was focused on teaching African Americans how to work in agriculture and industry. This made it acceptable to the whites of the South, who approved of a program that kept ex-slaves working the land. When Washington accepted a position as the principal of the new Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, he took the Hampton model of education with him.

The Tuskegee Institute

The Tuskegee Negro Normal Institute opened in a rundown shack on July 4, 1881. The only money that the school had was used to pay the teachers, so one of the first things that Washington had to do was borrow money to build a new school. Days were long at Tuskegee. Students had to get up at 5 a.m. and did not finish their work and studies until 9:30 p.m.

Since Tuskegee taught practical skills such as farming, carpentry, and shoemaking, there was work to be done outside of the classroom. This type of education made it easier for Washington to convince wealthy white men to donate money to Tuskegee. The white donors also liked the fact that Washington did not encourage African Americans to vote. Many African Americans accepted Washington's views because they believed they were learning how to be independent.

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