himself through school and became a teacher. In 1881, he founded the
Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama (now known as
Tuskegee University), which grew immensely and focused on training
African Americans in agricultural pursuits. A political adviser and writer,
Washington clashed with intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois over the best avenues
for racial uplift.
Born to a slave on April 5, 1856, Booker Taliaferro Washington's life had
little promise early on. In Franklin County, Virginia, as in most states prior
to the Civil War, the child of a slave became a slave. Booker's mother,
Jane, worked as a cook for plantation owner James Burroughs. His father
was an unknown white man, most likely from a nearby plantation. Booker
and his mother lived in a one-room log cabin with a large fireplace, which
also served as the plantation’s kitchen.
At an early age, Booker went to work carrying sacks of grain to the
plantation’s mill. Toting 100-pound sacks was hard work for a small boy,
and he was beaten on occasion for not performing his duties satisfactorily.
Booker's first exposure to education was from the outside of school house
near the plantation; looking inside, he saw children his age sitting at desks
and reading books. He wanted to do what those children were doing, but
he was a slave, and 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 a salt mine with his stepfather
instead of going to school. Booker's mother noticed his interest in learning
and got him a book from which he learned the alphabet and how to read
and write basic words. Because he was still working, he got up nearly every
morning at 4 a.m. to practice and study. At about this time, Booker took the
first name of his stepfather as his last name, Washington.
In 1866, Booker T. Washington got a job as a houseboy for Viola Ruffner,
the wife of coal mine owner Lewis Ruffner. Mrs. Ruffner was known for
being very strict with her servants, especially boys. But she saw something
in Booker—his maturity, intelligence and integrity—and soon warmed up to
him. Over the two years he worked for her, she understood his desire for
an education and allowed him to go to school for an hour a day during the
In 1872, Booker T. Washington left home and walked 500 miles to
Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute in Virginia. Along the way he took
odd jobs to support himself. 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, sponsored by a white
man. Armstrong had been a commander of a Union African-American
regiment during the Civil War and was a strong supporter of providing
newly freed slaves with a practical education.
Armstrong became Washington's mentor, strengthening his values of hard
work and strong moral character.
Booker T. Washington graduated from Hampton in 1875 with high marks.
For a time, he taught at his old grade school in Malden, Virginia, and
attended Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C. 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 instead recommended Booker T.…