The years after the Civil War were hard ones for freed slaves. Just because a law said they were free did not mean people instantly embraced or accepted them. They couldn’t get jobs or an education and worse, their very safety was often in danger. Booker T. Washington had been a slave and he understood the challenges. He believed education and opportunity were important for African-Americans to become prosperous and independent.
- Booker T. Washington was born in 1856 in Virginia. His mother Jane was a slave. He remembered how hard slavery was for his family. He said he could never remember a moment when the family was able to all sit down together for a meal. Instead, he’d get a bit of milk here and a piece of bread there.
- Booker was nine years old when a government man came to the plantation and read a long letter to the slaves telling them they were free. It was the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865. He wrote that his mother kissed all her children, tears of joy streaming down her face. She said it was the day she’d been praying for, for so long, but thought she might never see.
- Jane took her family to West Virginia where her husband, who had escaped slavery, lived. There, Booker taught himself to read.
- Booker worked in coal mines for several years to save money to go to college.
- After the Civil War, he helped found the Tuskegee Institute, a college for black people. Every student had to contribute work to the college. Some helped build buildings. Others helped work the college farm, caring for crops or animals.
- He worked hard to build support from the black community, as well as white people. He believed that the best way for African-Americans to gain acceptance was to show “industry, thrift, intelligence, and property.” He gave speeches all over the country with all kinds of people.
- He partnered with philanthropist Julius Rosenwald to build 5,000 schools for black children in rural parts of the South.
- He participated in politics and consulted with Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
- Booker T. Washington believed in working within the social system of the day. He cooperated and built partnerships with white people. He knew change would take time. But other black leaders wanted change more quickly. They thought Washington was too slow.
- He became good friends with many important businessmen who gave men to his college and schools. He also gave lectures to raise money, speaking with people like Mark Twain.
- Washington was married three times and had three children.
- Philanthropist: someone, usually with money, who gives his or her wealth to good causes
- Industry: good work ethic
- Thrift: using resources and money wisely
Watch a video about Booker T. Washington.