Biography of Booker T. Washington

African-American Educator and Leader

Portrait of Booker T. Washington
Seated portrait of American educator, economist, and industrialist Booker T. Washington (1856-1915). nterim Archives / Contributor/ Archive Photos/ Getty Images

Booker Taliaferro Washington grew up the child of a slave in the South during the Civil War. Following emancipation, he moved with his mother and stepfather to West Virginia, where he worked in salt furnaces and a coal mine but also learned to read. At age 16, he made his way to Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, where he excelled as a student and later took on an administrative role. His belief in the power of education, strong personal morals, and economic self-reliance earned him to a position of influence among both black and white Americans of the time.

He launched Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, now Tuskegee University, in a one-room shanty in 1881, serving as the school's principal until his death in 1915.

Dates: April 5, 1856 (undocumented) - November 14, 1915

His Childhood

Booker Taliaferro was born to Jane, a slave who cooked on a Franklin County, Virginia plantation owned by James Burroughs, and an unknown white man. The surname Washington came from his stepfather, Washington Ferguson. Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, the blended family, which included step-siblings, moved to West Virginia, where Booker worked in salt furnaces and a coal mine. He later secured a job as a houseboy for the mine owner's wife, an experience he credited with his respect for cleanliness, thrift, and hard work.

His illiterate mother encouraged his interest in learning, and Washington managed to attend an elementary school for black children.

Around the age of 14, after traveling on foot 500 miles to get there, he enrolled in Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute.

His Continuing Education and Early Career

Washington attended Hampton Institute from 1872 to 1875. He distinguished himself as a student, but he did not have a clear ambition upon graduation.

He taught both children and adults back in his West Virgina hometown, and he briefly attended the Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C.

He went back to Hampton as an administrator and teacher, and while there, received the recommendation that led him to the principalship of a new "Negro Normal School" approved by the Alabama state legislature for Tuskegee.

He later earned honorable degrees from both Harvard University and Dartmouth College.

His Personal Life

Washington's first wife, Fannie N. Smith, died after just two years of marriage. They had one child together. He remarried and had two children with his second wife, Olivia Davidson, but she too died just four years later. He met his third wife, Margaret J. Murray, at Tuskegee; she helped raise his children and remained with him until his death.

His Major Accomplishments

Washington was chosen in 1881 to head the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. During his tenure until his death in 1915, he built Tuskegee Institute into one of the world's leading centers of education, with a historically black student body. Though Tuskegee remained his primary undertaking, Washington also put his energy towards expanding educational opportunities for black students throughout the South.

He founded the National Negro Business League in 1900. He also sought to help impoverished black farmers with agricultural education and promoted health initiatives for blacks.

He became a sought-after speaker and advocate for blacks, though some were angered at his seeming acceptance of segregation. Washington advised two American presidents on racial matters, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Among numerous articles and books, Washington published his autobiography, Up From Slavery, in 1901.

His Legacy

Throughout his life, Washington stressed the importance of education and employment for black Americans. He advocated cooperation between the races but was at times criticized for accepting segregation. Some other prominent leaders of the time, especially W.E.B. Dubois, felt his views promoting vocational education for blacks curtailed their civil rights and social advancement.

In his later years, Washington began to agree with his more liberal contemporaries on the best methods for achieving equality.

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Kelly, Melissa. "Biography of Booker T. Washington." ThoughtCo, Aug. 13, 2017, thoughtco.com/booker-taliaferro-washington-6424. Kelly, Melissa. (2017, August 13). Biography of Booker T. Washington. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/booker-taliaferro-washington-6424 Kelly, Melissa. "Biography of Booker T. Washington." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/booker-taliaferro-washington-6424 (accessed May 23, 2018).