T. Washington recalled his childhood in his autobiography, Up
From Slavery. He was born in 1856 on the Burroughs tobacco
farm which, despite its small size, he always referred to as a
"plantation." His mother was a cook, his father a
white man from a nearby farm. "The early years of my
life, which were spent in the little cabin," he wrote,
"were not very different from those of other slaves."
went to school in Franklin County--not as a student, but to carry
books for one of James Burroughs's daughters. It was illegal
to educate slaves. "I had the feeling that to get into a
schoolhouse and study would be about the same as getting into
paradise," he wrote. In April, 1865, the Emancipation
Proclamation was read to joyful slaves in front of the Burroughs
home. Booker's family soon left to join his stepfather in
Malden, West Virginia. The young boy took a job in a salt mine
that began at 4 a.m. so he could attend school later in the
day. Within a few years, Booker was taken in as a houseboy by
a wealthy towns-woman who further encouraged his longing to
learn. At age 16, he walked much of the 500 miles back to
Virginia to enroll in a new school for black students. He knew
that even poor students could get an education at Hampton Institute,
paying their way by working. The head teacher was suspicious
of his country ways and ragged clothes. She admitted him only
after he had cleaned a room to her satisfaction.
one respect he had come full circle, back to earning his living by
menial tasks. Yet his entrance to Hampton led him away from a
life of forced labor for good. He became an instructor
there. Later, as principal and guiding force behind Tuskegee
Institute in Alabama, which he founded in 1881, he became recognized
as the nation's foremost black educator.
the public figure often invoked his own past to illustrate his
belief in the dignity of work. "There was no period of my
life that was devoted to play," Washington once wrote.
"From the time that I can remember anything, almost every day
of my life has been occupied in some kind of labor." This
concept of self-reliance born of hard work was the cornerstone of
Washington's social philosophy.
one of the most influential black men of his time, Washington was
not without his critics. Many charged that his conservative
approach undermined the quest for racial equality. "In
all things purely social we can be as separate as the fingers,"
he proposed to a biracial audience in his 1895 Atlanta Compromise
address, "yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual
progress." In part, his methods arose for his need
for support from powerful whites, some of them former slave
owners. It is now known, however, that Washington secretly
funded antisegregationist activities. He never wavered in his
belief in freedom: "From some things that I have said one may
get the idea that some of the slaves did not want freedom.
This is not true. I have never seen one who did not want to be
free, or one who would return to slavery."
the last years of his life, Washington had moved away from many of
his accommodationist policies. Speaking out with a new
frankness, Washington attacked racism. In 1915 he joined ranks
with former critics to protest the stereotypical portrayal of blacks
in a new movie, "Birth of a Nation." Some months
later he died at age 59. A man who overcame near-impossible
odds himself, Booker T. Washington is best remembered for helping
black Americans rise up from the economic slavery that held them
down long after they were legally free citizens.