Black History Month • Booker T. Washington

Early Years

Booker Taliaferro Washington was born into slavery to Jane, an enslaved African-American woman on the plantation of James Burroughs in southwest Virginia, near Hale’s Ford in Franklin County. He never knew the day, month, and year of his birth, although evidence emerged after his death that he was born on April 5, 1856. Nor did he ever know his father, said to be a white man who resided on a neighboring plantation.


When he was nine, Booker and his family in Virginia gained freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation as U.S. troops occupied their region. After emancipation Jane took her family to the free state of West Virginia to join her husband, Washington Ferguson, who had escaped from slavery during the war and settled there. The illiterate boy Booker began to teach himself to read and attended school for the first time. At school, Booker was asked for a surname for registration. He took the family name of Washington, after his stepfather. Still later he learned from his mother that she had originally given him the name “Booker  Taliaferro” at the time of his birth, but his second name was not used by the master. Upon learning of his original name, Washington immediately readopted it as his own, and became known as Booker Taliaferro Washington for the rest of his life.

Washington worked in salt furnaces and coal mines in West Virginia for several years to earn money. He made his way east to Hampton Institute, a school established in Virginia to educate freedmen and their descendants, where he also worked to pay for his studies. He later attended  Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C. in 1878.In 1881, the Hampton Institute president Samuel C. Armstrong recommended Washington, then age 25, to become the first leader of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (later Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University), the new normal school (teachers’ college) in Alabama. The new school opened on July 4, 1881. 


The next year, Washington purchased a former plantation to be developed as the permanent site of the campus. Under his direction, his students literally built their own school: making bricks, constructing classrooms, barns and outbuildings; and growing their own crops and raising livestock; both for learning and to provide for most of the basic necessities. Both men and women had to learn trades as well as academics. The Tuskegee faculty used all the activities to teach the students basic skills to take back to their mostly rural black communities throughout the South. The main goal was not to produce farmers and tradesmen, but teachers of farming and trades who could teach in the new lower schools and colleges for blacks across the South. The school expanded over the decades, adding programs and departments, to become the present-day Tuskegee University. Washington expressed his vision for his race through the school. He believed that by providing needed skills to society, African Americans would play their part, leading to acceptance by white Americans. He believed that blacks would eventually gain full participation in society by acting as responsible, reliable American citizens. 

Washington was a dominant figure of the African-American community, then still overwhelmingly based in the South, from 1890 to his death in 1915. His Atlanta Address of 1895 received national attention. He was considered a popular spokesman for African-American citizens. Representing the last generation of black leaders born into slavery, Washington was generally perceived as a supporter of education for freedmen and their descendants in the post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow-era South. Late in his career, Washington was criticized by civil rights leader and NAACP founder W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois and his supporters opposed the Atlanta Address as the “Atlanta Compromise”, because it suggested that African Americans should work for, and submit to, white political rule

Washington enlisted his philanthropic network to create matching funds programs to stimulate construction of numerous rural public schools for black children in the South. Working especially with Julius Rosenwald from Chicago, Washington had Tuskegee architects develop model school designs. The Rosenwald Fund helped support the construction and operation of more than 5,000 schools and related resources for the education of blacks throughout the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Washington also contributed to the Progressive Era by forming the National Negro Business League. It encouraged entrepreneurship among black businessmen, establishing a national network

Family Life

Washington was married three times.His first wife Fannie N. Smith was from Malden, West Virginia, the same Kanawha River Valley town where Washington had lived from age nine to sixteen. They had one child, Portia M. Washington, born in 1883. Fannie died in May 1884. In 1885, the widower Washington married again, to Olivia A. Davidson (1854–1889). Born free in Virginia to a free woman of color and a father who had been freed from slavery, she moved with her family to the free state of Ohio, where she attended common schools.They had two sons, Booker T. Washington Jr. and Ernest Davidson Washington, before she died in 1889. In 1893, Washington married Margaret James Murray. She was from Mississippi and had graduated from Fisk University, a historically black college. They had no children together, but she helped rear Washington’s three children. 

Responsibility + Reliability

Washington advocated a “go slow” approach to avoid a harsh white backlash. He has been criticized for encouraging many youths in the South to accept sacrifices of potential political power, civil rights, and higher education. Washington believed that African Americans should “concentrate all their energies on industrial education, and accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South”. He believed that in the long term, “blacks would eventually gain full participation in society by showing themselves to be responsible, reliable American citizens”. His approach advocated for an initial step toward equal rights, rather than full equality under the law, gaining economic power to back up black demands for political equality in the future. Washington worked and socialized with many national white politicians and industry leaders. He developed the ability to persuade wealthy whites, many of them self-made men, to donate money to black causes by appealing to their values.

Washington is associated with the richest and most powerful businessmen and politicians of the era. He was seen as a spokesperson for African Americans and became a conduit for funding educational programs

In October 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Washington to dine with him and his family at the White House. Although Republican presidents had met privately with black leaders, this was the first highly publicized social occasion when an African American was invited there on equal terms by the president. 

Later Years

Despite his extensive travels and widespread work, Washington continued as principal of Tuskegee. Washington’s health was deteriorating rapidly in 1915; he collapsed in New York City and was diagnosed by two different doctors as having Bright’s disease, an inflammation of the kidneys, today called nephritis. Told he had only a few days left to live, Washington expressed a desire to die at Tuskegee. He boarded a train and arrived in Tuskegee shortly after midnight on November 14, 1915. He died a few hours later at the age of 59. His funeral was held on November 17, 1915, in the Tuskegee Institute Chapel. It was attended by nearly 8,000 people. He was buried nearby in the Tuskegee University Campus Cemetery

At Washington’s death, Tuskegee’s endowment was close to $2,000,000 (equivalent to $53,572,368 in 2021). Washington’s greatest life’s work, the education of blacks in the South, was well underway and expanding.

Special thanks to the author, Shelby Tyre. For more Black History, click here.

Categories: Black History Month