It’s now a National Monument, but the Franklin County, Virginia, plantation where Washington was born on April 5, 1856, was hardscrabble at best. Washington himself would later call the place “about as near to Nowhere as any locality can be.” Washington’s mother was an enslaved woman named Jane; his father was a white man whose identity Washington said he never knew. His owners were James and Elizabeth Burroughs, who had moved to the 207-acre tobacco farm in 1850. James and his sons worked in the fields alongside their slaves, and the farm was not particularly profitable. At the end of the Civil War, a Union soldier announced all the slaves on the Burroughs plantation were free. Jane, with 9-year-old Booker and his siblings, immediately moved her family to West Virginia.
The T. in Booker T. Washington stands for Taliaferro (locally pronounced “Tolliver”), a relatively common surname in Maryland and Virginia. The Taliaferro name itself can be traced to one Bartholomew Taliaferro, who immigrated to London from Venice in the 1560s. Its meaning in Italian is “iron-cutter.” Washington chose his own last name when he enrolled in his first school in Malden, West Virginia. His mother only allowed him to go to school after much begging and a commitment that he would work in a local salt works from 4:00-9:00 a.m. each morning before class.
Washington also worked in a local coalmine, where one day he heard two black workers talking about the Hampton Institute, a newly established school for former slaves in southeastern Virginia. Washington resolved to attend the school, and in 1872 set out on the 500-mile journey for Hampton. The Hampton Institute was established in 1868 by Brigadier General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, who had commanded an African-American unit during the Civil War. Chapman was born on Maui in the Kingdom of Hawaii, the son of New England missionaries, and graduated from the Punahou School (famously attended 120 years later by Barack Obama). Chapman was impressed by Washington’s work as a student at Hampton, and invited him to return as a teacher in 1879. When a group of Alabamans sent him an inquiry asking for “a well qualified white man” to become principal of a new school in Tuskegee, Armstrong replied recommending Washington as “the best man we ever had here,” saying “I know of no white man who could do better.” The 25-year-old Washington got the job and led the Tuskegee Institute from 1881 until his death in 1915.
Booker T. Washington threw himself and his students into forming the fledgling Tuskeegee—working to build the physical campus while studying a curriculum that mixed academic and vocational education. As the college grew, more and more of Washington’s energy went into travel and fundraising to keep Tuskegee solvent and growing. Washington became well known as a powerful public speaker to both black and white audiences, putting people prone to disagree with him at ease through humor. Washington’s contemporary James Hardy Dillard reported that he could “not only tell a good joke well, but tell what was only the shadow of a joke so well that his audience would be shaken with laughter.” Many of Washington’s recorded one-liners utilize—sometimes ironically—racial stereotypes and dialect that would be seen as inappropriate today. A milder example of this came at the ceremony in which Washington became the first African American to receive an honorary masters’ degree from Harvard, when he quipped, “I feel like a huckleberry in a bowl of milk.”
On September 18, 1895, Washington addressed a mostly-white audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. In his speech, Washington laid out a vision for African-American progress that emphasized self-improvement and encouraged blacks to “dignify and glorify common labor” while remaining separate from—and with different rights than—white Americans. Washington’s sentiment placated the crowd, and at the time was shared by many in the African-American community, who believed that directly fighting for equality would only lead to more anti-black violence. The most important critic of this view was sociologist and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, who devoted a full chapter in his 1903 book “The Souls of Black Folk” to repudiating Washington (whose speech he dubbed the “Atlanta Compromise.”) He wrote, “the way for a people to gain their reasonable rights is not by voluntarily throwing them away and insisting that they do not want them.” Du Bois’ dissatisfaction with Washington’s de facto leadership of the African-American community led him to help found the NAACP in 1909.
On October 16, 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt extended a last-minute invitation to Booker T. Washington to join him that night for a simple family supper. After casually announcing the dinner in a press release, members of Roosevelt’s administration were shocked by the vociferously negative response from many white Southerners. The Memphis Scimitar declared Washington’s invitation “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States.” Black citizens sometimes visited the president there on official business, but Washington’s invitation to dinner as the presumed equal of a white leader hit a nerve. (Few of the visit’s critics recalled that John Adams had dined with a Haitian diplomat and his wife at the White House in 1798.) Seeking to put out the fire, Roosevelt’s staff backpedaled, suggesting the dinner hadn’t taken place, or that it had been a lunch, and that in any case Roosevelt’s wife and daughters were not present. In the African-American community, if the dinner was seen as a mark of progress, the reaction was a reminder of how much progress was still needed. In 1903 ragtime composer Scott Joplin produced an opera about the incident (now lost), titled “A Guest of Honor.”
As is common with many busy public figures, Booker T. Washington collaborated with a hired writer, Edgar Webber, on his first autobiography, “The Story of My Life and Work”, published in 1900. The book sold well but Washington soon became convinced that it was flatly written and poorly edited. So a year later, in conjunction with another hired writer, Max Thrasher, Washington produced a second autobiography, “Up from Slavery,” which was even more successful, and remains one of the classics of African-American literature.
When traveling from Tuskegee, Washington frequented places where he could advise and receive aid from men with power and money, spending many summers among the wealthy in Bar Harbor, Maine and Saratoga Springs, New York. He counted famous people among his friends and acquaintances, from Mark Twain to William Howard Taft to Queen Victoria, and successfully solicited personal contributions from tycoons like J.P. Morgan, Collis P. Huntington and John D. Rockefeller. In 1911 he met Julius Rosenwald, the philanthropy-minded president of Sears, Roebuck & Company. The two shared a passion for the education of poor blacks in the rural South, and put together a scheme to offer matching funds for the construction of rural schools. Washington died of hypertension in 1915 at age 59, but Rosenwald continued the program, eventually contributing $4 million towards the construction of more than 5,000 schools, shops and teacher’s homes throughout the South.