Booker T. Washington was a man beyond words. He rose up from slavery, delivering speech after speech expressing his views on how to help raise America’s view of the African American. He felt that knowledge was power, not just knowledge of “books”, but knowledge of agricultural and industrial trades. He felt that the African American would rise to be an equal in American society through hard work.
Washington founded a school on these principles, and it became the world’s leader in agricultural and industrial education for the Negro. He put his heart and soul into his school, Tuskegee Institute, and gained great respect from both the white and black communities. Many of the country’s white leaders agreed with his principals, and so he had a great deal of support. Booker T. Washington cleared the way for the black community too fully enter the American society.
Washington was born into slavery on April 5, 1856, in Franklin County, Virginia, on a small tobacco plantation. His only true relative was his mother, Jane, who was the plantation’s cook. His father was thought to have been the white son of one of their neighbors. Washington spent his early years on the plantation. He did the small jobs, such as carrying water to the field hands and taking corn to the local mill for grinding. This hard work at an early age filled him the values he would teach for the rest of his life.
Washington and his mom were freed after the civil war. His stepfather had escaped earlier, and had gotten a job in Malden, West Virginia, at a salt furnace, so Washington and his mother went to live with him. Life was tough in Malden. “Drinking, gambling, quarrels, fights, and shockingly immoral practices were frequent.” Washington himself got a job in the salt furnace and often had to go to work at four in the morning.
Washington really wanted an education. A school for African Americans opened in Malden, but his stepfather would not let him leave work to attend. Washington wanted an education so bad that he arranged with the teachers to give him classes at night. Booker did not have a last name until he went to school. When he realized that all of the other children at the school had a ‘second’ name, and the teacher asked him his, he invented the name Washington.
Booker heard of a big school for African Americans in Hampton, Virginia, and he decided to go there. In 1872, he set out on the 500-mile journey to Hampton, traveling most of the way by foot. He was only 16 at this time too. When he finally arrived, he had to take an entrance exam that consisted of him sweeping the floor.
He graduated with honors and returned to Malden. He then was asked to come back to Hampton to be an instructor. Then, soon after, the principal of Hampton received a letter from a group in Tuskegee, Alabama, asking for help in starting a school for African Americans there. They were expecting a white man, but when they got Washington, they were quite pleased with him.
Washington founded The Tuskegee Institute in 1885. The school opened with 30 students. Tuskegee Institute and its facilities grew, and so did its courses in agricultural and engineering subjects. The Institute survived its early years only through the perseverance of Washington. Washington believed in the “dignity of labor.” He emphasized the teaching of “practical skills,” like brick making, carpentry and dairying for the boys, and cooking and sewing for the girls. He believed that African Americans must make economic progress, and learn how to make a living first.
Booker is remembered and admired for his accomplishments. Of course his most famous being the Tuskegee Institute. Booker T. Washington is a perfect example that even if you came from nothing, you can accomplish great things if you try hard enough and are willing to make the sacrifice.
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