Booker T. Washington was born on April 5, 1856 in Franklin County, Virginia. Because his parents were slaves owned by the Burroughs family, Booker was immediately born into slavery. At the age of 9, Booker, his mother, and siblings were freed and moved to Kanawha County, West Virginia. At an early age, he worked with other recently freed slaves a salt-packer in a coal mine. Because he was hard-working and intelligent, he was hired as a houseboy by the wife of the mine’s owner. Booker soon learned to read and write and was even allowed to attend school. At the age of sixteen, Booker enrolled at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia. The purpose of The Normal School was to train freed black men to become teachers. Washington excelled in his studies and soon came back to teach at Hampton. He was then recommended to become principal at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a new school organized by former slave Lewis Adams. Although he was only 25 years old, Washington became the first principal of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in 1881. The school would soon become known simply as Tuskegee Institute.
Much like the Normal School in Hampton, Tuskegee aimed to train black men to become teachers. It also provided instruction in the practical fields of masonry and carpentry. Washington believed that by teaching Black men such practical skills, they would be accepted by the White majority and eventually be granted full Civil Rights. Tuskegee thrived under Washington’s leadership, and he soon made rich and important friends who generously donated to the school including Andrew Carnegie, Henry Rogers, and William Howard Taft. He even hired the famed scientist and professor George Washington Carver, who taught poor, Black southern farmers techniques to keep their soil fertile to maximize production (crop rotation).
Washington soon gained a reputation as an excellent orator (speaker). In 1895, he delivered a speech known as The Atlanta Compromise in which he urged the White majority to begin hiring Black workers rather than immigrants and that the very future of the American South was tied to the fate of the Black population and their treatment by the Whites. It is generally considered one of the most important Civil Rights speeches in American history. Many prominent members of the Black community, however, such as W.E.B Dubois, believed Washington’s advocacy of the “industrial” education of Black Americans, and his seeming acceptance of segregation were more harmful than helpful. It was Dubois, in fact, who labeled him the “Great Accomodater,” a reference to his acceptance of segregation and Jim Crow Laws.
In 1901, Washington authored Up From Slavery, a famous autobiography that detailed the obstacles he encountered to obtain his education and outlined his philosophies of education. In his book he penned the famous quote
“I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”
Washington remained principal of Tuskegee Institute until his death in 1915. Today, he is remembered as one of the initial pioneers in the quest for Civil Rights.