Booker T. Washington: Author, Educator, Advocate


Booker T. Washington's Own Story of His Life and Work
(J. L. Nichols, 1915)

After the Civil War, newly freed slaves faced the struggle of integrating into white America. A century-long fight for equal rights began in the postbellum decades with black leaders such as Booker T. Washington, who worked as an educator, speaker, and writer for the gradual improvement of African American life.

Childhood and Education

Booker Taliaferro was born a slave in Hales Ford, Virginia, on 5 April 1856. His father was an unknown white man, and his mother Jane was the cook on the 207-acre tobacco farm of James Burroughs.

Emancipation freed Booker, his mother, his brother John and his sister Amanda. During the summer of 1865, the family moved to Malden, West Virginia, to live with Jane’s new husband, a former slave named Washington Ferguson. Booker took his step-father’s first name as his last name, officially becoming Booker T. Washington.

Up from Slavery
(J. L. Nichols and Co., 1901)

Poverty prevented the young Washington from attending school. Instead, he began working the local salt furnace and coal mines at the age of nine. Yet education was important to him, and he read all he could in his spare time, memorizing a worn copy of a spelling book. Washington soon became the houseboy of Viola Ruffner, wife of mine-owner Lewis Ruffner. Mrs. Ruffner had dismissed her previous, incompetent houseboys in a matter of days. Impressed with Washington’s diligence and attention to detail, she kept him on staff for several years. She also encouraged his education, allowing him to attend a local school at night.

By the age of 16, Washington had become frustrated with the inferiority of the local education and set out on foot for Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University), nearly 400 miles away. The principal of the institute was Gen. Samuel Armstrong, an opponent of slavery who had been commander of African American troops during the Civil War. Armstrong believed it was important for freed slaves to receive a practical education, and he became Washington’s mentor. Washington had to work as a janitor to pay his room and board, but Armstrong secured his tuition from a wealthy white benefactor. Washington graduated from Hampton with honors in 1875.


Tuskegee and Its People: Their Ideals and Achievements
(D. Appleton and Company, 1906)

The Founding of Tuskegee

After a short time teaching in Malden and a stint as a student at Washington, D.C.’s Wayland Seminary, Washington returned to Hampton to teach in a program for Native Americans. Meanwhile, Lewis Adams, a black political leader in Tuskegee, Alabama, helped two white politicians win a local election in return for the building of a Negro school in the area. Adams asked Armstrong to recommend a white teacher to take charge of the school, but Armstrong suggested Booker instead. Booker was 25 when he took over the Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers, which later became the Tuskegee Institute.

Tuskegee opened on 4 July 1881, with 30 students in a dilapidated church building. The school received funding of $2,000 a year, which was only enough to pay the staff. Washington borrowed money from Hampton Institute to purchase an abandoned plantation on the outskirts of Tuskegee. Hampton also provided books and supplies.

Working with the Hands: Being a Sequel to Up from Slavery, Covering the Author's Experiences in Industrial Training at Tuskegee
(Doubleday, Page and Co., 1904)

Although Tuskegee's program provided students with both academic and vocational training, Washington emphasized industrial work that would help students to become self-reliant. The students, under Washington's direction, built their own buildings, produced their own food, and provided for most of their own basic necessities. They also learned trades such as carpentry, brick making, shoemaking, printing and cabinetmaking. Washington believed that by providing these skills, African Americans would play their part in society, and this would lead to acceptance by white Americans. He believed that African Americans eventually would gain full Civil Rights by showing themselves to be responsible, reliable American citizens. Many southern whites previously opposed to the education of African Americans supported Washington's ideas, because they saw them as a means of encouraging blacks to accept an inferior economic and social status. This resulted in white businessmen such as Andrew Carnegie donating large sums of money to Tuskegee.

While Washington and his students worked to build their school, Washington also built a family. He married Fanny N. Smith, whom he had met in Malden, in the summer of 1882. They had a daughter, Portia, before Fanny’s death in 1884. A year later, Washington married Olivia Davidson, a teacher and later assistant principal at Tuskegee. The couple had two sons, Booker T. Washington, Jr., and Ernest Davidson Washington. Four years after Olivia’s death in 1889, Washington married Margaret James Murray.


A New Negro for a New Century
(American Publishing House, 1900)

Controversial Views

By the 1890s, Washington had become the most prominent black leader in America. He was invited to deliver an address at the opening of the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in September of 1895, marking the first opportunity for an African American to speak on the same platform as white men in the South. He stated his conviction that blacks could best gain equality in America by improving their economic situation through education—particularly industrial training—rather than by demanding their rights. He proclaimed that blacks could not expect too much, because they only recently had won emancipation, and that gradual change would be the most effective route.

The Negro in Business
(Hertel, Jenkins and Co., 1907)

He demonstrated these views again in 1900, when he helped establish the National Negro Business League, which encouraged blacks to become business owners, promoted the achievements of black businessmen, and protected them against fraud. Washington ensured that the organization concentrated on commercial issues, not questions of African American civil rights.

Washington’s views were unpopular with many blacks who advocated for classical education and immediate, full civil rights, particularly Washington’s former friend W.E.B. DuBois. Washington and DuBois eventually became involved in a public intellectual war, with each man attacking the others’ convictions.

Washington's conservative views made him popular with white politicians. President William McKinley visited the Tuskegee Institute and praised Washington's achievements. In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Washington to visit him in the White House, a move seen as scandalous at the time. Both Roosevelt and his successor, William H. Taft, consulted Washington on African American appointments.


Booker T. Washington, the Master Mind of a Child of Slavery
(National Publishing Company, 1915)

A Lasting Legacy

Washington spread his ideas nationwide, through his books and speaking tours. He was in New York for a speaking engagement when he collapsed on 5 November 1915. Doctors warned him that he did not have long to live. Rather than remaining in the hospital, he returned home to Tuskegee, where he died on November 14. More than 8,000 people attended his funeral at the Tuskegee Institute Chapel. He was buried on the campus, which by then had more than 1500 students, almost 200 teachers, more than 100 buildings, and thousands of loyal alumni.

Washington remained one of the most influential and respected blacks in American history long after his death. In 1940, he became the first African American to be depicted on a U.S. postage stamp. He also was the first African American to appear on a coin: the Booker T. Washington Memorial Half Dollar, minted by the United States from 1946 to 1951. In addition, numerous schools across the United States and a state park in Tennessee are named for him.


Booker T. Washington penned a number of books (many of them autobiographical) that advanced his purposes of encouraging black self-reliance and demonstrating African Americans’ worth in the post-Civil War social and economic world. Following is a chronological bibliography. Hyperlinked articles are available full-text.

Daily Resolves (1896)
Progress of a Race (1898)
Black-belt Diamonds (1898)
The Future of the American Negro (1899)
Education of the Negro (1900)
The Negro and the "Solid South" (1900)
A New Negro for a New Century (1900)
Sowing and Reaping (1900)
The Story of My Life and Work (1900)
Up From Slavery (1901)
Shadow and Light: An Autobiography (1902)
Character Building (1903)
The Education and Industrial Emancipation of the Negro (1903)
The Negro Problem
(contributor; 1903)
The Rights and Duties of the Negro (1903)
The Successful Training of the Negro (1903)
Working with the Hands (1904)
The Colored American, from Slavery to Honorable Citizenship (1905)
Tuskegee and Its People (1905)
Putting the Most into Life (1906)
The Life of Frederick Douglass (1907)
The Negro in Business (1907)
The Story of the Negro (1909)
The New South (1910)
My Larger Education (1911)
The Man Farthest Down: A Record of Observation and Study in Europe (1912)
The Story of Slavery (1913)
Booker T. Washington’s Own Story of His Life and Work (1915)

Search the PBO database for books by and about Booker T. Washington

Suggested Readings

Denton, Virginia Lantz. Booker T. Washington and the Adult Education Movement. Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 1993.

Drinker, Frederick E. Booker T. Washington, the Master Mind of a Child of Slavery: A Human Interest Story Depicting the Life Achievements of a Great Leader of a Rising Race. Philadelphia: National Publishing Co., 1915.

Franklin, John Hope, and August Meier. Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Gates, Jr., Henry Louis, and Cornel West. The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country. New York: Free Press, 2000.

Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

____________. Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Hawkins, Hugh. Booker T. Washington and His Critics: The Problem of Negro Leadership. Boston: Heath, 1962.

Meier, August. Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915: Racial Ideologies in the Age of Booker T. Washington. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1963.

Moore, Jacqueline M. Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the Struggle for Racial Uplift. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2003.

Spencer, Samuel R. Booker T. Washington and the Negro's Place in American Life. Boston: Little, Brown, 1955.

Related Online Resources

Alabama Hall of Fame: Booker Taliaferro Washington

Booker T. Washington Biography, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina

Booker T. Washington Biography, Progress of a People, Library of Congress

Booker T. Washington Era, African American Odyssey, Library of Congress

Booker T. Washington Papers, The History Cooperative, University of Illinois

Booker T. Washington Virtual Museum and Storybook (for children)

C-SPAN American Writers: Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois

“Democracy and Education,” Address Before the Institute of Arts and Sciences Brooklyn, New York, September 30, 1896, on 1896: The Presidential Campaign, Vassar College

Legends of Tuskegee, American Visionaries Exhibit, National Park Service

Two Nations of Black America: Booker T. and W.E.B, PBS Frontline

White House Dream Team: Booker T. Washington (for children)

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