Booker T. Washington had a complex legacy and would eventually become one of the most well-known African American men of his time. He was born a slave on a Virginia plantation during the Civil War, and his father was a white man that he would never know. After the war, he worked at a salt furnace, where he discovered a desperate wish to attend school.
"The opening of the school in the Kanawha Valley, however, brought to me one of the keenest disappointments that I ever experienced. I had been working in a salt-furnace for several months, and my stepfather had discovered that I had a financial value and so, when the school opened, he decided that he could not spare me from my work. This decision seemed to cloud my every ambition. The disappointment was made all the more severe by reason of the fact that my place of work was where I could see the happy children passing to and from school, mornings and afternoons. Despite this disappointment, however, I determined that I would learn something, anyway. […]
"From the time when I could remember anything, I had been called simply "Booker." Before going to school it had never occurred to me that it was needful or appropriate to have an additional name. When I heard the school-roll called, I noticed that all of the children had at least two names, and some of them indulged in what seemed to me the extravagance of having three. I was in deep perplexity, because I knew that the teacher would demand of me at least two names, and I had only one. By the time the occasion came for the enrolling of my name, an idea occurred to me which I thought would make me equal to the situation; and so, when the teacher asked me what my full name was, I calmly told him "Booker Washington," as if I had been called by that name all my life; and by that name I have since been known."
As he grew older, he learned of the Hampton Institute in Richmond Virginia and became determined to attend. He saved his money and then walked or begged rides to get to Richmond. By the time he arrived, he was broke, starving, and had no place to stay. For weeks, he slept on the street to save money and worked aboard a ship. Finally, he was able to get the Hampton and was accepted on a work-basis.
Booker excelled at Hampton and was offered a job as a professor. Later, he advanced to becoming the head of the newly established Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Panorama of the Tuskegee Institute c. 1916.
Booker is viewed as a controversial black leader because he emphasized economic success over political success. He encouraged black people to work within the social framework to become economically successful and influential – and basically stay out of politics and voting. After his death, some modern civil rights leaders criticized him for essentially being afraid to "rock the boat." However, it was later discovered that Washington had secretly been funding civil rights lawsuits throughout his life.
Regardless of criticisms, Booker’s writings are beautiful to read – as are many of his thoughts on peace, love, and wisdom.
Up From Slavery is available online for free at the link below. I often come back to this book and skip around -- each part of his life was fascinating.
The campus house pictured below is known as “The Oaks,” and served as Booker’s house from 1900 until his death in 1915. His wife continued to live there until her own death years later. The Oaks was the first house in Macon County that had electricity and steam heating. The house has dark colored walls and furnishings, and it is also dimly lit with low-wattage bulbs that are similar to the originals. The color scheme is based on those developed by George Washington Carver, who came to teach at Tuskegee in 1896.
The house is open to the public with guided tours. Before making travel plans, be sure to verify that they are open on whatever certain day of the week. The tours take about 45 minutes.
Washington's grave in the center of the Tuskegee University campus below.
George Washington Carver's grave also on the campus.
Posts are a combination of my own research, visits, and conversations, plus various information found around the web. I try to provide sources, but if you have specific questions, feel free to ask!