Background and Boyhood
His paternity is similarly uncertain. Washington's mother was a slave named Jane, one of six slaves (including Washington himself) owned by tobacco farmer James Burroughs. His father is identified in Up from Slavery as simply "a white man who lived on one of the nearby plantations." If Washington knew the name of his father, he never revealed it publicly, and if the two ever crossed paths in Hale's Ford, the interaction was likely impersonal—the chance meeting of a white man and a black boy, not of a father willing to acknowledge his son.
Washington's relationship with his mother was considerably closer, though her duties as cook for the Burroughs family left her little time for her children. His strongest family ties were to his older half-brother, John, and younger half-sister, Amanda. He was less close to his stepfather, "Wash" Ferguson, a fellow slave whom his mother married after Washington was born. Ferguson fled his master in 1864, relocating to the new state of West Virginia and finding employment in a salt works in the town of Malden. Late in the summer of 1865, four months after the end of the American Civil War (1861–1865), Ferguson summoned his family to join him.
The story he tells in Up from Slavery hints at the latter explanation. Though it's doubtful that the nine-year-old boy had the presence of mind to begin fashioning so mythic a persona on his first day of organized school, the older Washington was willing to give the impression, however subtly, that even as a youth he had begun his pursuit of the power and influence that, in 1903, would see him dubbed "Father of His Race" by a New York City newspaper. Yet whatever lay behind the act of self-naming, Washington's acquisition of literacy and exposure to schooling during his years in West Virginia allowed him to envision a better life for himself and to foresee a career that might be devoted, as he describes it in Up from Slavery, to "the lifting up of my people."
Hampton and Tuskegee
Had he simply continued his career at Hampton, Washington could have viewed himself as an unqualified success. The chance to pursue something greater came quickly, however. In May 1881 Armstrong recommended him to head a new school for African Americans to be founded in Tuskegee, Alabama. The school opened two months later, on July 4. Its first class numbered only thirty students. Washington himself was the lone faculty member, and most of the teaching was done in a "little shanty" on loan from a Methodist church. By 1900 the student body numbered 1,100 and the faculty more than eighty. By the time of Washington's death in 1915, Tuskegee had enrolled 1,500 students for the year and its campus encompassed some 100 buildings and 3,500 acres.
Washington's personal life was difficult during these years, however, due to the poor health of his wives. He married his first wife, Fanny Norton Smith Washington, in 1882. She died two years later. His second wife, Olivia Davidson Washington, had been one of Tuskegee's most important fund-raisers prior to marrying Washington in 1885. She continued to perform that work until her death in 1889. Washington was survived by his third wife, Margaret Murray Washington, and by three children from his earlier marriages, all of whom did work for the institution.
"The Atlanta Exposition Address": Compromise and Controversy
Given his own biracial identity, Washington was perhaps aware at some level of the irony of the metaphor, which segregated the races along "social" lines while interlacing them on most others. It drew an ovation from the Atlanta audience, however, and was reproduced in newspapers around the country, transforming Washington almost overnight into national celebrity.
The increased visibility made it easier for Washington to raise funds, hence to expand Tuskegee. For Washington and his students, what followed was a period of optimism. Yet the speech also came just one year before the U.S. Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which asserted the constitutionality of the doctrine of "separate but equal" and allowed legalized segregation for the next half-century. Washington's pledge that he and other African Americans would pursue economic opportunities "in our humble way" was read by some as an example of Washington's realism—the strongest message he could send, given the dispiriting politics of the time. Others read it as a form of capitulation. Du Bois, writing eight years later, called the speech "the most notable thing in Mr. Washington's career," yet argued that Washington epitomized "in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission."
Debates about Washington's legacy continue. Yet whatever view of Washington one takes, the fact that he rose far above his beginnings is unquestionable. Washington, in fact, ends Up from Slavery by discussing a return to Virginia and measuring how far he had come. Invited to Richmond to speak to an audience of African Americans, he learns later that the entire state legislature had voted to attend the meeting, too. Speaking before an integrated audience that would have been inconceivable in 1860, Washington "thanked both races for this welcome back to the state that gave me birth." He even returned a few years later to Hale's Ford, a place he had once called "about as near to Nowhere as any locality gets to be." There he spoke once again to an audience of black and white Virginians, though the crowd this time was much smaller and of a more modest social standing than the one in Richmond. Hale's Ford had lost most of its residents during the late nineteenth century, and those who remained, according to a newspaper reporter who covered the event, were "mostly … old people, and others who were not able to get away." As always, however, Washington seemed to relish the chance to speak. His words were consistent with the things he had been saying for more than twenty years that had won him so many supporters as well as critics. Speaking to the descendants of the slaves and slave owners he had once known, including members of the Burroughs family, Washington urged his listeners to "preserve the old kindly relations" that had existed during slavery "because, if they are lost, they can never be replaced." Yet the speech was forward-looking and, in its way, integrationist, too, stressing that there was "opportunity … in this country for every man, whether he was white or black, if he had the heart and courage to work."
- The Story of My Life and Work 1900
- Up From Slavery 1901
- Working With the Hands 1904
- The Story of the Negro: The Rise of the Race From Slavery 1909
- My Larger Education: Being Chapters From My Experience 1911
- The Man Farthest Down: A Record of Observation and Study in Europe 1912
- The Story of Slavery 1913
1856 - Booker T. Washington is born in Hales Ford, Franklin County. The exact date of his birth is unknown (1856 is the year later listed on his gravestone).
1865 - Booker T. Washington leaves Virginia with his family to join his stepfather in West Virginia.
1872 - Booker T. Washington returns to Virginia to attend the Hampton Institute.
1875 - Booker T. Washington graduates from the Hampton Institute and returns to Malden, West Virginia, where he teaches for the next three years.
1878 to 1879 - Booker T. Washington spends the winter studying at the Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C.
1879 - Booker T. Washington returns to Hampton to work for two years as a night teacher and supervisor of the Kiowa and Cheyenne students Hampton had recently accepted.
July 4, 1881 - Booker T. Washington becomes Tuskegee's only teacher, with an incoming class of about thirty students.
August 12, 1882 - Booker T. Washington marries his first wife, Fanny Norton Smith Washington, who would die two years later.
August 11, 1886 - Booker T. Washington marries his second wife, Olivia Davidson Washington, who would die four years later.
September 18, 1895 - Booker T. Washington speaks at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, where he gives his famous and controversial "Atlanta Compromise" speech urging racial accommodation.
June 24, 1896 - Booker T. Washington becomes the first African American to receive an honorary degree from Harvard University.
1901 - Booker T. Washington becomes the first African American to dine at the White House, having been invited by President Theodore Roosevelt.
November 14, 1915 - Booker T. Washington dies at Tuskegee and is survived by his third wife.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Wells, J. Booker T. Washington (1856–1915). (2013, December 23). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Washington_Booker_T_1856-1915.
- MLA Citation:
Wells, Jeremy. "Booker T. Washington (1856–1915)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 23 Dec. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 1, 2009 | Last modified: December 23, 2013