Booker T. Washington: A Man and His Ideals

Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in 1856, but managed to rise to be the President of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1881 and by the 1890’s became one of the most prominent black men in America, acting as an advisor to several Presidents as well as to some of America’s prominent business leaders. Starting with almost nothing, he built Tuskegee Institute into one of the country’s top educational facilities for blacks and used his political and economic influence to help blacks achieve a better freedom after the Civil War.1 How did Washington accomplish these astonishing feats starting from such meager beginnings and during the time when America was still reeling from the Civil War?

Meager Beginnings

In his autobiography, Booker T. Washington described what it was like to be born into slavery and the difficult struggle to attain an education and rise above poverty. From the beginning, he always made an effort to better himself. As a slave, he had only the barest of necessities, and education was not within his reach.

At the end of the Civil War, Washington and his family were freed, and his stepfather sent for them to live in Malden, West Virginia. His stepfather had a job at a salt-furnace, and though Washington was still a small child, he and his brother were put to work at one of the salt-furnaces.2 The following statements by Washington describe an exceptional intellect and desire for learning as a young child, and he demonstrated, even as a child, the ability to make the most of his station in life, no matter how menial:

The first thing I ever learned in the way of book knowledge was while working in this salt-furnace. Each salt-packer had his barrels marked with a certain number. The number allotted to my stepfather was “18.” At the close of the day’s work, the boss of the packers would come around and put “18” on each of our barrels, and I soon learned to recognize that figure wherever I saw it, and after a while got to the point where I could make the figure, though I knew nothing about any other figures or letters.3

Struggle for Education

While he was working in the salt mines in West Virginia, Washington heard about the Hampton Institute and decided that he would pursue his dream of attaining an education. To further this pursuit, he left his job at the salt-furnace to take a vacant position in the household of General Lewis Ruffner, who owned the salt-furnace and coalmine. While employed at this new position, he worked under the supervision of the General’s wife, Mrs. Viola Ruffner. Ms. Ruffner was indeed a perfectionist and a strict taskmaster.4 From Ms. Viola, Washington learned discipline, perseverance and pride in a job well done, which later served him well.

Mrs. Ruffner gave Washington his first opportunity to attend school for an hour a day, and he studied at night, sometimes with the direction of a tutor that he managed to hire from his small earnings. He even started to assemble his first library while working at the Ruffners by knocking out one side of a dry-goods box, inserting some shelves and gathering every kind of book he could find to put in it.5

Though Washington was receiving some education and enjoying a modicum of success while working for Mrs. Ruffner, he still dreamed of going to the Hampton Institute; and by the fall of 1872, he was determined to make some effort to get there. Washington sought help wherever he could find it to gather money to set off for school. He had a small amount of savings and his brother contributed a small amount, as did many of the older black people in the town (they had been former slaves and were excited by the prospect of Booker attending school). Booker left for school—getting there as best he could—walking and begging rides. By the time he reached Richmond, Virginia, he was broke, tired and hungry. 6 Again, his ingenuity, initiative and perseverance landed him a job, and he worked and saved until he had enough money to get to Hampton. When he reached the Hampton Institute, he was so ragged and destitute, the head teacher refused to admit him. Again Washington called on his inner strength and determination to overcome this obstacle. At the head teacher’s offer, he swept the recitation room, and true to his nature, he did it at least five times better than she had asked—dusting, sweeping and polishing, going over the room several times (his stint with Ms. Viola had paid off). After the head-teacher inspected the room, it was not a surprise that Washington was accepted into the institute.7

Though it was hard, Washington worked his way through school and completed his course of regular study in 18758. While at Hampton, he developed an important association with General Samuel Armstrong, which would later prove beneficial in his emergence as a prominent black educational leader. It was also at Hampton that he acquired the ability of public speaking and first realized the importance of education for himself and his people. After the civil war and freedom, the black race’s single-most pursuit for improvement was acquiring an education. Washington, himself, described the black race’s struggle for education as:

Few people who were not right in the midst of the scenes can form any exact idea of the intense desire which the people of my race showed for education. It was a whole race trying to go to school. Few were too young, and none too old, to make the attempt to learn. (Washington quoted in Anderson, 1988).9

The Tuskegee Years

Washington started teaching in 1875 and in 1879 became a teacher and assistant at Hampton Institute. In 1881, General Samuel Armstrong recommended Washington to a group of educational commissioners in Tuskegee, Alabama, to become principal of their new, tuition-free black school. Washington arrived in the town of Tuskegee on June 24, 1881, to find that there was no school building. However, the Alabama state legislature had passed a bill for annual funding, but it could only be used for payment of the instructors’ salaries; and no provisions had been made for acquiring land, buildings or school supplies and books.10 Though the task before him seemed daunting, Washington set about acquiring the necessities to open the school. He wrote Hampton Institute asking for whatever books and supplies could be spared, and he found ways to save and raise money to acquire a farm on which to build the school. He also went about the community making friends with the people, both black and white. By July 4, 1881, Washington opened his normal school.11

Washington was very ingenious in his methods of growing the new school. He received donations from blacks, as well as whites. He believed in being self reliant and working to achieve the important things in life. He and his students cleared land for vegetable crops, and as the campus continued to enlarge, he began to incorporate the fundamentals of industrial education into the curriculum. By the fall of 1882, the first permanent building was added to the Tuskegee Institute. As the school continued to grow in size, it was preceded by its academic reputation, which helped Washington raise more money. In 1883, the Alabama state legislature allocated an additional $1,000 a year for the instructors’ salaries. It was also around 1883, that Washington started to add industrial education to the curriculum (farming, brick-making, carpentering, printing, blacksmithing for men, and housekeeping and sewing for women); and whenever possible, the academic courses were given a practical slant.12 This aided young black men and women of the day to learn a trade that would ensure that they could make valuable contributions to society.

During the early nineties, Tuskegee continued to prosper under Washington’s leadership. By 1895, enrollment had reached 800; there were 55 staff members and the school owned debt-free property worth more than $200,000. More importantly, 165 graduates of Tuskegee were in the field, most of them teachers, with some graduates founding schools of their own.13

Educational and Political Empowerment

As Tuskegee grew during the 1880’s and 90’s, Washington’s ideas also matured. He emerged as a national spokesman for blacks in race relations. In 1884, he spoke to 4,000 members of the National Education Association in Madison, Wisconsin. However, his speech at the Cotton States and International Exposition in 1985 launched his speaking career from the restricted field of Negro education to the broader aspects of Negro-white relationships. This one event, almost overnight, stamped Washington’s name into the minds of thousands of people who had never heard of him. This speech immediately widened his circle of influence.14

White America, tired of the topic of racism after the Civil War, was glad to have a prominent black leader like Washington to speak out on the subject. Washington, practical as usual, employed vocal accommodationism, hiding his secret efforts to work against Jim Crow policies. He often flattered white Americans and assured the world of their virtue, while championing a program for racial progress that posed no real challenge to segregation and white supremacy. Washington was a man who knew how to survive in a hostile white world, saying what he knew that whites wanted to hear. He tried to prevent whites from taking away what few possibilities blacks had for effective action and achievement by making black education appear unthreatening to whites.15

Washington’s accession to power and recognition was crowned in 1901 by dinner at the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt and his family. From his base at Tuskegee, he gradually built what became known as the Tuskegee Machine; and from 1901 to 1915, his personal career was at its best. Though during this same time, Alabama democrats were also convening to crown their political supremacy over blacks.16 Washington attempted in his usual practical and passive style to halt the Democrats’ taking apart of the black public school system. Schools, based on his practical teachings, sprang up throughout the rural south, helping blacks improve and expand their school systems by establishing a common understanding with powerful whites. However, white public education steadily gained ground on black public education; and though Washington failed at this one attempt, it is suggested that his pragmatic philosophy worked at the local level to systematically improve public educational opportunities in black communities. His pragmatic approach, emphasis on the work ethic, traditional morality, and industrial education may have saved black education from total destruction.17

In summary, Washington accomplished many amazing feats in his lifetime because he employed his practical approach of problem solving to every aspect of his life. He did not know the meaning of defeat and he never gave up. No matter how insurmountable the odds, he proved again and again that “it could be done.” He started at the bottom, a slave, with no money—not even the usual everyday comforts a person could expect in America, yet before he died, he had dinner at the Whitehouse with President Roosevelt. He took a rundown old church and a raggedy shanty in Alabama and built them into the most famous black educational institution of its time. He acquired an education for himself and countless others of his race. He even spoke out against racial inequality, but did it in a way that white America approved of his tactics. He did these things because he believed in making the most of what he had and using what God gave him to succeed. He never made excuses or felt sorry for himself. He believed that every man was accountable for his own destiny, no matter how low his station, and no one owed him anything. He lived these beliefs every day and did his best to pass them on to his fellow man.


Anderson, James D. “Black Rural Communities and the Struggle for Education During the Age of Booker T. Washington, 1877-1915.” Peabody Journal of Education 67, no. 4 (1990): 46-62.

Bruce, Dickson D. “Booker T. Washington’s ‘The Man Farthest Down’ and the Transformation of Race.” The Mississippi Quarterly 48, no. 2 (1995): 239+. Database on-line. Available from Questia,

Schroeder, Alan. Booker T. Washington: Educator and Racial Spokesman. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1992.

Spencer, Samuel R., Jr. Booker T. Washington and the Negro’s Place in American Life. New York: Longman, 1955.

Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery: An Autobiography. New York: A.L. Burt, 1901.

“Booker T. Washington, 1856 to 1915.” Available from


1 “Booker T. Washington, 1856 to 1915.” Available from

2 Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery: An Autobiography. (New York: A.L. Burt, 1901), 25-26.

3 Ibid., 26-27.

4 Ibid., 43-44.

5 Ibid 45.

6 Ibid., 47-48

7 Ibid., 53

8 Ibid., 73

9 James D. Anderson, “Black Rural Communities and the Struggle for Education during the Age of Booker T. Washington, 1877-1915,” Peabody Journal of Education 67, no. 4 (1990): 47.

10 Alan Schroeder, Booker T. Washington: Educator and Racial Spokesman. (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1992), 49-51.

11 Ibid., 52-53.

12 Ibid., 60-61

13 Samuel R. Spencer, Jr. Booker T. Washington and the Negro’s Place in American Life. (New York: Longman, 1955), 86.

14 Ibid., 87-88.

15 Dickson D. Bruce, “Booker T. Washington’s ‘The Man Farthest Down’ and the Transformation of Race.” The Mississippi Quarterly 48, no. 2 (1995): 239+. Database on-line. Available from Questia,

16 James D. Anderson, “Black Rural Communities and the Struggle for Education during the Age of Booker T. Washington, 1877-1915,” Peabody Journal of Education 67, no. 4 (1990): 56.

17 Ibid., 57,61.

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