Educator Booker Taliaferro Washington (April 5, 1856-November 14, 1915) was born a slave in Franklin County, Virginia. He spent his formative years in the Kanawha Valley. Union victory in the Civil War had freed the family, and in 1865 they moved to Malden, Kanawha County, to join Washington Ferguson, Booker’s stepfather, who had escaped from slavery in Franklin County during the war.
Malden afforded young Washington the opportunity to attend a one-room school for colored people. While living in Malden he came under the influence of Viola Ruffner, the wife of a salt manufacturer, who instilled in him the virtues of cleanliness and hard work. In 1871, he enrolled at Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia. Graduating with honors in 1875, he returned to West Virginia to begin his career as a teacher. In 1879, Washington returned to Hampton Institute as a teacher, coming home to West Virginia to work in the coal mines while school was out.
In May 1881, Washington left West Virginia. In June 1881, he opened his own educational institution, a normal school for African-Americans in Tuskegee, Alabama. The school had a humble beginning, with 37 students meeting in Butler Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion, a log structure with an adjoining shanty. At the close of the May 1914 term, Principal Washington’s last full year as the head of the school, his Tuskegee Institute owned 110 buildings; 2,110 acres of land and more than 350 head of livestock; hundreds of wagons, carriages, farm implements, and other equipment valued at nearly $1.5 million; and a permanent endowment fund worth more than $2 million.
Tuskegee’s success established Washington’s reputation. On September 19, 1895, he delivered an address at the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition that thrust him into national prominence and made him the unofficial spokesman of the African-American people. Criticized by some as too readily accepting southern racial inequality, the speech outlined a plan for mutual cooperation among white northerners and southerners and African-Americans to bring economic prosperity to the South.
Booker T. Washington died on the Tuskegee Institute campus. He had kept up his West Virginia connections throughout his life. He was a lifelong member of African Zion Baptist Church at Malden, and returned occasionally to speak at West Virginia Colored Institute (now West Virginia State University). There is a monument to him on the grounds of the West Virginia state capitol.
This Article was written by Joseph Bundy
Last Revised on November 12, 2010
Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Making of A Black Leader, 1856-1901. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Lantz, Virginia. Booker T. Washington and the Adult Education Movement. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1993.