April 5, 1856 - November 14, 1915
Booker T. Washington was born a slave on a small plantation in southwestern Virginia. After the Civil War, the family moved to Malden, W.Va., to join his stepfather. Washington worked in a salt furnace and coal mines to help support his family and attended night classes whenever possible. After learning about the Hampton Normal and Industrial Institute (now Hampton University), a school in Virginia that allowed black students to work for their education, he made his way there, largely by walking and hitching rides. He graduated from Hampton with a BA in 1875 and returned home to teach school in Malden. He also spent a year at Wayland Seminary in Washington, DC, where he earned an MA in 1879 before returning to Hampton as a teacher.
In 1881, Washington went to Tuskegee, Ala., to found a school similar to Hampton Institute. When he arrived, there were many eager students, but no land, buildings, teachers, or money to start the school. After securing buildings for temporary classrooms, he established the school following the principles of the Hampton Institute: to promote the dignity of labor and to teach every student a useful trade in addition to more traditional education. His efforts to raise money for the school led him into a public speaking career, which took him around the country and made him a spokesperson for American blacks. He believed that self-reliance and shared knowledge would enable the black race to rise from the degradation into which slavery had placed them. Although his critics accused him of being an “Uncle Tom,” he believed that equal rights would benefit both races but would have to come gradually in order to be accepted.
Washington’s autobiography Up From Slavery has been in print continuously since it was first published in 1901. Its emphasis on hard work and self-improvement as the path to success echo that of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. His speeches and essays continue the theme and stress the message that blacks and whites can and should live and work together in a state of well-earned mutual respect.
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Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-49568.
Last updated on May 30, 2008.