Biography of Booker T. Washington, Early Black Leader and Educator

Booker T. Washington

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Booker T. Washington (April 5, 1856–November 14, 1915) was a prominent Black educator, author, and leader of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Enslaved from birth, Washington rose to a position of power and influence, founding the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1881 and overseeing its growth into a well-respected Black university. Washington was a controversial figure in his time and since, criticized for being too "accommodating" on the issues of segregation and equal rights.

Fast Facts: Booker T. Washington

  • Known For: Enslaved from birth, Washington became a prominent Black educator and leader during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, founding the Tuskegee Institute.
  • Also Known As: Booker Taliaferro Washington; "The Great Accommodator"
  • Born: April 5, 1856 (the only record of this birthdate was in a now-lost family Bible), in Hale's Ford, Virginia
  • Parents: Jane and unknown father, described in Washington's autobiography as "a white man who lived on one of the nearby plantations."
  • Died: November 14, 1915, in Tuskegee, Alabama
  • Education: As a child laborer, after the Civil War, Washington attended school at night and then school for one hour a day. At 16, he attended the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. He attended the Wayland Seminary for six months.
  • Published WorksUp From Slavery, The Story of My Life and Work, The Story of the Negro: The Rise of the Race from Slavery, My Larger Education, The Man Farthest Down
  • Awards and Honors: First Black American to receive an honorary degree from Harvard University (1896). First Black American invited to dine at the White House, with President Theodore Roosevelt (1901).
  • Spouses: Fanny Norton Smith Washington, Olivia Davidson Washington, Margaret Murray Washington
  • Children: Portia, Booker T. Jr., Ernest, adopted niece of Margaret Murray Washington
  • Notable Quote: "In all things that are purely social we [Black and White people] can be separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."

Early Life

Booker T. Washington was born in April 1856 on a small farm in Hale's Ford, Virginia. He was given the middle name "Taliaferro" but no last name. His mother Jane was an enslaved woman and worked as the plantation cook. In Washington's autobiography, he wrote that his father—whom he never knew —was a White man, possibly from a neighboring plantation. Booker had an older brother, John, also fathered by a White man.

Jane and her sons occupied a tiny, one-room cabin. Their dreary home lacked proper windows and had no beds for its occupants. Booker's family rarely had enough to eat and sometimes resorted to theft to supplement their meager provisions. Around 1860, Jane married Washington Ferguson, an enslaved man from a nearby plantation. Booker later took the first name of his stepfather as his last name.

During the Civil War, the enslaved Americans on Booker's plantation, like many enslaved people in the South, continued to work for the enslaver even after the issuance of Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. In 1865 after the war ended, Booker T. Washington and his family moved to Malden, West Virginia, where Booker's stepfather had found a job as a salt packer for the local salt works.

Working in the Mines

Living conditions in their new home were no better than those back at the plantation. Nine-year-old Booker worked alongside their stepfather packing salt into barrels. He despised the work but did learn to recognize numbers by taking note of those written on the sides of the salt barrels.

Like many formerly enslaved Americans during the post-Civil War era, Booker longed to learn how to read and write. When an all-Black school opened in a nearby community, Booker begged to go. His stepfather refused, insisting that the family needed the money he brought in from the salt packing. Booker eventually found a way to attend school at night. When he was 10, his stepfather took him out of school and sent him to work in the nearby coal mines.

From Miner to Student

In 1868, 12-year-old Booker T. Washington found a job as a houseboy in the home of the wealthiest couple in Malden, General Lewis Ruffner, and his wife Viola. Mrs. Ruffner was known for her high standards and strict manner. Washington, responsible for cleaning the house and other chores, impressed Mrs. Ruffner, a former teacher, with his sense of purpose and a commitment to improving himself. She allowed him to attend school for an hour a day.

Determined to continue his education, 16-year-old Washington left the Ruffner household in 1872 to attend Hampton Institute, a school for Black people in Virginia. After traveling over 300 miles—by train, stagecoach, and on foot—Washington arrived at Hampton Institute in October of that year.

Miss Mackie, the principal at Hampton, was not entirely convinced that the young country boy deserved a place at her school. She asked Washington to clean and sweep a recitation room for her; he did the job so thoroughly that Miss Mackie pronounced him fit for admission. In his memoir "Up From Slavery," Washington later referred to that experience as his "college examination."

Hampton Institute

To pay his room and board, Washington worked as a janitor at Hampton Institute. Rising early in the morning to build the fires in the school rooms, Washington also stayed up late every night to complete his chores and work on his studies.

Washington greatly admired the headmaster at Hampton, General Samuel C. Armstrong, and considered him his mentor and role model. Armstrong, a veteran of the Civil War, ran the institute like a military academy, conducting daily drills and inspections.

Although academic studies were offered at Hampton, Armstrong placed emphasis on teaching trades. Washington embraced all that Hampton Institute offered him, but he was drawn to a teaching career rather than a trade. He worked on his oratory skills, becoming a valued member of the school's debate society.

At his 1875 commencement, Washington was among those called upon to speak. A reporter from The New York Times was present at the commencement and praised the speech given by 19-year-old Washington in his column the following day.

First Teaching Job

Booker T. Washington returned to Malden after his graduation with his newly acquired teaching certificate. He was hired to teach at the school in Tinkersville, the same school he had himself attended before Hampton Institute. By 1876, Washington was teaching hundreds of students—children during the day and adults at night.

During his early years of teaching, Washington developed a philosophy toward the advancement of Black Americans. He believed in achieving the betterment of his race by strengthening the character of his students and teaching them a useful trade or occupation. By doing so, Washington believed Black Americans would assimilate more easily into white society, proving themselves an essential part of that society.

After three years of teaching, Washington appears to have gone through a period of uncertainty in his early 20s. He abruptly and inexplicably quit his post, enrolling in a Baptist theological school in Washington, D.C. Washington quit after only six months and rarely ever mentioned this period of his life.

Tuskegee Institute

In February 1879, Washington was invited by General Armstrong to give the spring commencement speech at Hampton Institute that year. His speech was so impressive and so well received that Armstrong offered him a teaching position at his alma mater. Washington began teaching night classes in the fall of 1879. Within months of his arrival at Hampton, night enrollment tripled.

In 1881, General Armstrong was asked by a group of educational commissioners from Tuskegee, Alabama for the name of a qualified white man to run their new school for Black Americans. The general instead suggested Washington for the job.

At only 25 years old, formerly enslaved Booker T. Washington became the principal of what would become Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. When he arrived at Tuskegee in June 1881, however, Washington found that the school had not yet been built. State funding was earmarked only for teachers' salaries, not for supplies or the building of the facility.

Washington quickly found a suitable plot of farmland for his school and raised enough money for a down payment. Until he could secure the deed to that land, he held classes in an old shack adjacent to a Black Methodist church. The first classes began an astonishing 10 days after Washington's arrival. Gradually, once the farm was paid for, the students enrolled at the school helped repair the buildings, clear the land, and plant vegetable gardens. Washington received books and supplies donated by his friends at Hampton.

As word spread of the great strides made by Washington at Tuskegee, donations began to come in, mainly from people in the north who supported the education of formerly enslaved people. Washington went on a fundraising tour throughout the northern states, speaking to church groups and other organizations. By May 1882, he had collected enough money to construct a large new building on the Tuskegee campus. (During the school's first 20 years, 40 new buildings would be constructed on campus, most of them by student labor.)

Marriage, Fatherhood, and Loss

In August 1882, Washington married Fanny Smith, a young woman who had just graduated from Hampton. A great asset to her husband, Fanny became very successful at raising money for Tuskegee Institute and arranged many dinners and benefits. In 1883, Fanny gave birth to the couple's daughter Portia. Sadly, Washington's wife died the following year of unknown causes, leaving him a widower at only 28 years old.

In 1885, Washington married again. His new wife, 31-year-old Olivia Davidson, was the "lady principal" of Tuskegee at the time of their marriage. (Washington held the title "administrator.") They had two children together—Booker T. Jr. (born in 1885) and Ernest (born in 1889).

Olivia Washington developed health problems after the birth of their second child and she died of a respiratory ailment in 1889 at the age of 34. Washington had lost two wives within a period of only six years.

Washington married his third wife, Margaret Murray, in 1892. She, too, was the "lady principal" at Tuskegee. She helped Washington run the school and care for his children and accompanied him on his many fundraising tours. In later years, she was active in several Black women's organizations. Margaret and Washington were married until his death. They had no biological children together but adopted Margaret's orphaned niece in 1904.

The Growth of Tuskegee Institute

As Tuskegee Institute continued to grow both in enrollment and in reputation, Washington nonetheless found himself in the constant struggle of trying to raise money to keep the school afloat. Gradually, however, the school gained statewide recognition and became a source of pride for Alabamans, leading the Alabama legislature to allocate more funds toward the salaries of instructors. The school also received grants from philanthropic foundations that supported education for Black Americans.

Tuskegee Institute offered academic courses but placed the greatest emphasis on industrial education, focusing on practical skills that would be valued in the southern economy such as farming, carpentry, blacksmithing, and building construction. Young women were taught housekeeping, sewing, and mattress-making.

Always on the lookout for new money-making ventures, Washington conceived the idea that Tuskegee Institute could teach brick-making to its students, and eventually make money selling its bricks to the community. Despite several failures in the early stages of the project, Washington persisted—and eventually succeeded.

'The Atlanta Compromise' Speech

By the 1890s, Washington had become a well-known and popular speaker, although his speeches were considered controversial by some. For instance, he delivered a speech at Fisk University in Nashville in 1890 in which he criticized Black ministers as uneducated and morally unfit. His remarks generated a firestorm of criticism from the Black community, but he refused to retract any of his statements.

In 1895, Washington delivered the speech that brought him great fame. Speaking in Atlanta at the Cotton States and International Exposition, Washington addressed the issue of racial relations in the United States. The speech came to be known as "The Atlanta Compromise."

Washington expressed his firm belief that Black and White Americans should work together to achieve economic prosperity and racial harmony. He urged southern whites to give Black businessmen a chance to succeed in their endeavors.

What Washington did not support, however, was any form of legislation that would promote or mandate racial integration or equal rights. In a nod to segregation, Washington proclaimed: "In all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."

His speech was widely praised by southern White people, but many in the Black community were critical of his message and accused Washington of being too accommodating to whites, earning him the name "The Great Accommodator."

Tour of Europe and Autobiography

Washington gained international acclaim during a tour of Europe in 1899. Washington gave speeches to various organizations and socialized with leaders and celebrities, including Queen Victoria and Mark Twain.

Before leaving for the trip, Washington stirred up controversy when he was asked to comment on the murder of a Black man in Georgia who had been strung up and burned alive. He declined to comment on the horrific incident, adding that he believed that education would prove to be the cure for such actions. His tepid response was condemned by many Black Americans.

In 1900, Washington formed the National Negro Business League (NNBL), with the goal of promoting Black-owned businesses. The following year, Washington published his successful autobiography, "Up From Slavery." The popular book found its way into the hands of several philanthropists, resulting in many large donations to Tuskegee Institute. Washington's autobiography remains in print to this day and is considered by many historians to be one of the most inspirational books written by a Black American.

The stellar reputation of the institute brought in many notable speakers, including industrialist Andrew Carnegie and feminist Susan B. Anthony. Famed agricultural scientist George Washington Carver became a member of the faculty and taught at Tuskegee for nearly 50 years.

Dinner With President Roosevelt

Washington found himself at the center of controversy once again in October 1901, when he accepted an invitation from President Theodore Roosevelt to dine at the White House. Roosevelt had long admired Washington and had even sought his advice on a few occasions. Roosevelt felt it only fitting that he invite Washington to dinner.

But the very notion that the president had dined with a Black man at the White House created a furor among White people—both northerners and southerners. (Many Black Americans, however, took it as a sign of progress in the quest for racial equality.) Roosevelt, stung by the criticism, never again issued an invitation. Washington benefited from the experience, which seemed to seal his status as the most important Black man in America.

Later Years

Washington continued to draw criticism for his accommodationist policies. Two of his greatest critics were William Monroe Trotter, a prominent Black newspaper editor and activist, and W.E.B. Du Bois, a Black faculty member at Atlanta University. Du Bois criticized Washington for his narrow views on the race issue and for his reluctance to promote an academically strong education for Black Americans.

Washington saw his power and relevance dwindle in his later years. As he traveled around the globe giving speeches, Washington seemed to ignore glaring problems in America, such as race riots, lynchings, and the disenfranchisement of Black voters in many southern states.

Although Washington later spoke out more forcefully against discrimination, many Black Americans would not forgive him for his willingness to compromise with White people at the cost of racial equality. At best, he was viewed as a relic from another era; at worst, a hindrance to the advancement of his race.


Washington's frequent travel and busy lifestyle eventually took a toll on his health. He developed high blood pressure and kidney disease in his 50s and became seriously ill while on a trip to New York in November 1915. Insisting that he die at home, Washington boarded a train with his wife for Tuskegee. He was unconscious when they arrived and died a few hours later on November 14, 1915, at the age of 59. Booker T. Washington was buried on a hill overlooking the Tuskegee campus in a brick tomb built by students.


From an enslaved man to the founder of a Black university, Booker T. Washington's life traces the vast changes undergone and distances traversed by Black Americans after the Civil War and into the 20th century. He was an educator, prolific writer, orator, adviser to presidents, and considered the most prominent Black American at the height of his career. His "accommodationist" approach to advancing the economic lives and rights of Black people in America was controversial even in its own time and remains controversial to this day.


  • Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856–1901. Oxford, 1972.
  • Wells, Jeremy. “Booker T. Washington (1856–1915).” Encyclopedia Virginia.
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Daniels, Patricia E. "Biography of Booker T. Washington, Early Black Leader and Educator." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Daniels, Patricia E. (2023, April 5). Biography of Booker T. Washington, Early Black Leader and Educator. Retrieved from Daniels, Patricia E. "Biography of Booker T. Washington, Early Black Leader and Educator." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).