Booker T. Washington: A Short Biography

“I shall allow no man to belittle my soul by making me hate him.”

-Booker T. Washington

Born a slave in Hales Ford, Virginia in 1856, Booker T. Washington was freed at 9 years old after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, going on to become one of the most influential, yet controversial African Americans in history.

After his newfound freedom, Booker was determined to learn and rise from the shadow of his family’s former oppression. Throughout the course of his life, he worked his way through an education, established one of the most prestigious African American educational institutions in the country, and even became an advisor on racial issues to both President Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. However, along with these accomplishments came significant controversy stemming from what he believed was the best way for African Americans to advance in America. 


Booker never met his father. He only knew that he was a white man, possibly his mother Jane’s master, or an owner of a neighboring plantation. It wasn’t until his mother married Washington Fergusson that Booker took on a second name. Much later in life he found out his mother gave him the name Taliaferro. The “T” in Booker T. Washington. 

Following the start of the Civil War in 1861, Fergusson fled north, to Malden, West Virginia, where Booker, his mother, and step-brothers soon joined. Booker worked with his step-father in the local salt mine to provide for his family. Although they were freed, life was still an immense challenge.

Despite being barred from school because of his race, Booker was dead set on getting an education. By carrying books for white students, he got as close as possible to the local schools. Many times he would peek through one of the windows to grasp an idea of what it was like. His dedication soon paid off – to Booker’s delight, when his mother eventually got ahold of  Webster’s Spelling Book. He studied this text vigorously until the option arose for him to attend an African American school in the area.

In 1866, Booker started another job as a houseboy for Viola Ruffner, wife of the man who owned the coal mine Booker worked at as his other job. Unfortunately, this employment cost him the time he would otherwise have spent in school. After noticing Booker’s maturity and immense desire to be educated however, Ruffner granted him permission to go to school for an hour a day during the winter. Booker continued to study and work until learning about Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a school for formerly enslaved people in southeastern Virginia. After saving money for years, Booker left Malden to make this nearly 500 mile journey. 

Upon his arrival in 1872, the head teacher had him sweep the floor for his “entrance exam”. Knowing this meant he was going to be denied, Washington hoped to make an impression and swept the floor three times over. When she inspected his work with a white handkerchief and it came back spotless, she decided to let him into the school, but on one condition: he continued to work as a janitor.  

Over his time at Hampton, the school’s founder and headmaster, General Samuel C. Armstrong, was greatly impressed with Washington’s determination. He became his mentor, strengthening his values of hard work and strong moral character.

After graduating with honors, Washington returned to Malden where he taught at his old grade school. He later attended Wayland Seminary in Washington D.C.. In 1879, Washington was chosen to speak at Hampton’s graduation ceremony. At the event, Armstrong offered him a teaching job. Washington accepted and remained at Hampton for three years until a new opportunity arose in 1881. The Alabama legislature had approved $2,000 for a new ‘colored’ vocational school, to be called the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now known as Tuskegee University). The legislature asked Armstrong to pick a white man to run the school. He refused, and instead chose Washington. 

When he arrived in Tuskegee, Washington discovered that the funds from the legislature did not provide for the purchase of land or buildings, but were meant to be used only for salaries and amenities. The school started in an old church with only 30 students. In his spare time, Washington traveled across the countryside where he attracted more students, which led to more students than this building could fit. 

Booker solved this problem with the purchase of an abandoned plantation, purchased with money borrowed from the Hampton Institute. Under his direction, Booker’s students built the entire school from the ground up.

Washington poured his knowledge from Hampton into Tuskegee’s curriculum, stressing the need for patience, enterprise, and thrift. He taught economic success for African Americans would take time, especially in a society which largely refused to accept them. He believed that only through hard work and financial independence could the African American community gain acceptance and respect from those opposed to racial equality.

By 1891, the school owned over 500 acres of land and enrolled roughly 400 students – an incredible contrast to the 30 students who started in the small church just 10 years prior. At the time of Washington’s death in 1915, the institution owned a repertoire of “over 100 buildings, 1,500 students, a 200 member faculty teaching 38 trades and professions, and a nearly $2 million endowment.

Five years after the initial founding of the Tuskegee Institute, Washington secured funding from the Slater Fund for Negro Education and opened another school in Tuskegee, appointing George Washington Carver as its head.

Political Career

In 1895, Washington delivered one of his most controversial speeches, later known as the “Atlanta Compromise”. He argued that the best way for African Americans to rise up in society was to capitalize on what they knew through vocational training. 

Washington considered himself pragmatic, believing that immediately trying to achieve equality would be counterproductive, since vast portions of the white population still did not view them as equal. He feared that attempting to enact immediate change would do more harm than good. Washington believed incremental progress to be a more sustainable path to equality.

His opinion produced extreme backlash from the black community, including notable activists Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois. Many within the white community misinterpreted his ideas as a suggestion that African Americans could only ever fit into society by engaging in manual labor. This was not Washington’s belief, however. He saw manual labor as a feasible starting point, but not where the black man belonged in society. It was never the end goal. 

In 1901, Washington published his autobiography, Up From Slavery. To his surprise the book garnered widespread support, prompting donations from Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller to the Tuskegee Institute. This increased recognition led to a White House invitation later that year. Washington dined with Theodore Roosevelt, becoming the first African American to have dinner with a sitting president in the building. Following the administration’s announcement of the dinner, white southerners responded with overwhelming negativity. They viewed the event as an affront to the American way of life. The Memphis Scimitar called it “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States.” Trying to quell the backlash, Roosevelt’s staff suggested that it had not been dinner, but only lunch. Additionally, they stressed that the President’s wife and daughters had not been present. Despite this, Roosevelt (and his successor) considered Washington to be a valuable ally and kept him as an informal advisor on racial issues. 

Not wanting to risk his close ties to the president, Booker declined to join a race relations conference that would soon become the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was suspicious of their motives and “wanted nothing to do with it’s militant policies.”  His hesitation likely came from an aversion to immediate change. In his mind, the best route towards integration was to achieve economic stability. It was not until the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912 however, that Washington began to change his tone.

Wilson initially earned the support of Booker through his assurances of equal rights for the African American community. To his frustration, these promises were never followed through after Wilson became President. In response, Washington started to publish articles slightly more akin to other black leaders of this time, the first entitled: Is the Negro Having a Fair Chance?. In this article he praised the country’s racial progress and its new economic opportunities. For the first time however, Washington publicly decried the treatment of African Americans across the nation. He detested the continuation of job discrimination in the North, the existence of Jim Crow transportation, and lack of good education for African Americans in the South. This marked his first public change in rhetoric from a more ‘accommodationist’ perspective to ‘critical.’


In 1915, Booker T. Washington died as one of the most influential and well respected leaders of his time, despite his controversial views. He worked his way through an education, built a remarkable institution (that stands to this day), and was a close advisor to two presidents. He accomplished all of this in a time when African Americans were not allowed to vote, many lived in poverty, and few were given the opportunity to pursue an education. 

Although he never had the chance to witness the rise of Martin Luther King Jr., Washington promoted a vision of equality similar to the ideals espoused in “I Have a Dream.” From his perspective:

 “More and more we must learn to think not in terms of race or color or language or religion or of political boundaries, but in terms of humanity. Above all races and political boundaries, there is humanity. That should be considered first; and in proportion as we teach the youths of this country to love all races and all nations, we are rendering the highest service which education can render to the world.” 

Little did he know, these ideals would inspire generations to come. 

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not proport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.

Categories: Arts

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