, Research Paper
Booker T. Washington was a Black man living during the later half of the Nineteenth Century when Black men were thought to be inferior and not in any way educated or influential. Through incredible persistence he changed attitudes towards southern Blacks. His achievements helped uplift a poor race into prominence and forever changed relations between the Black and White races. The very fact that he started from a life of slavery and poverty and accomplished so much, makes his efforts that much more important.
Born on April 5, 1856 in Franklin County Virginia, Washington developed a taste for education and knowledge early on in his life. Because of slavery his mother was very poor. He could not go to school and could not afford any books to learn from. His father lived on another plantation and did not visit at all, so he did not help Booker in any way.
Through most of his childhood, Washington and his brother John, and sister Amanda could barely get enough food to survive. Their mother would get molasses from the ?Big House? and cook this meager meal in a pot. They still needed more food and their mother would sneak out when they were all asleep and ?steal? a chicken, cook it and give to her family. Washington did not know where it came from, but he did know that if she got it from the plantation, it was not ?stealing?, because they needed the food to live.
?I remember that at one time I saw two of my young mistresses and some lady visitors eating ginger-cakes, in the yard. At the time those cakes seemed to me to be absolutely the most tempting and desirable things that I had ever seen. (10, Up from Slavery, by B. T. Washington)
At this time it is evident that he had very low aspirations.
One time he carried books for his mistress to and from school. He saw all of the other children in the schoolhouse and wished that someday he too could learn in such a way as that.
Around this time a man from a Northern Army battalion came to the plantation and read the Emancipation Proclamation to a gathering of slaves. Washington did not understand the significance of the document, but knew that it must be something good because his mother had been praying for it a long time. After their freedom was announced, many of the slaves left the plantation to test if they could actually leave. However, after a few months most would return worse off, mentally and financially, than before they left. These unfortunate slaves realized that, besides picking cotton or other meager trades, they had no other way of supporting themselves. Washington saw this and resolved that he must in some way get an education so that he could support himself, and not end up like these wayward ex-slaves.
Shortly after his experience with the Emancipation Proclamation, Washington?s mother got a letter from his stepfather, instructing the family to journey to Malden, West Virginia. With what little belongings they had, the family picked up and made the long journey. After residing in Malden for a while, Washington began attending a local Negro school. The family needed money, so he could not attend this school regularly, and he had to start working in the coal mines nearby. When he was in the mines he found out about a boarding school called the Hampton Institute.
Washington was extremely exited about this potential opportunity to gain knowledge. His mother only gave him a half-hearted consent calling it a ?wild goose chase?. During the next year and a half he worked at the home of General Lewis Ruffner. Under the constant supervision of Mrs. Ruffner, Washington gained valuable experience for life, work, and the importance of a job well done. After making enough money working for Mrs. Ruffner, he began the journey to Hampton — full of promise.
The journey to the Hampton institute back then was partly by train and mostly by stagecoach. Washington had to stop overnight during the stage coach ride. The clerk of the hotel would not admit him, purely on the basis of his skin color, saying that the incident would be bad for business. So, Washington is forced to sleep in an old freezing shack near the hotel. After this unfortunate experience Washington arrived in Richmond Virginia with no money, nor hope. Although he could have a hotel room, he did not have the money to pay for a night?s logging. He is forced to sleep like a forlorn dog with no home, nor hope, under a plank that raised over a sidewalk. He woke up in the morning and found that the owner of the plank was the captain of the ship to which the plank is attached. Washington asks that he be allowed to help unload. This is how he makes the rest of his money to get to Hampton.
When Washington finally reached the Hampton Institute he had a hard time getting admitted, and was forced to sweep a room for the Headmistress as part of an entrance examination. Using the skills he learned from Mrs. Ruffner, Washington passed with flying colors. During the first few months Washington was enthralled with the atmosphere of Hampton. He said that life at Hampton was a constant revelation; a New World. Having meals at regular hours, eating on a tablecloth, and using a napkin were all new to him. The use of a bathtub and toothbrush were novel and he later incorporated these practices into his own teaching methods. He met General S. C. Armstrong and revered him as superhuman and perfect. He kept up good relations that helped him later in life.
During the next two years at Hampton Washington learned the value of both an industrial and a book education. He graduated after three years at Hampton. At this time there was a significant need for a night teacher, and Washington was chosen for this position. This class grew from 12 participants to 25 participants within a few weeks.
By now it was May of 1881 and a group of white residents in Tuskegee Alabama wanted to start a Negro school. A member of the group, George W. Campbell, sent General S. C. Armstrong of the Hampton Institute a letter requesting a teacher. Armstrong picked Washington. He did this because he knew that Washington would be able to do a good job.
When Washington arrived at Tuskegee, Alabama he realized that this school was in the heart of the Black Belt of the South. This was where the Blacks out numbered the Whites 3 to 1. Washington started out with nothing. He was lent a small run down church and a leaking shack. Even though he had many eager black men and women, these people could not provide money to furnish a new school. Therefore, Washington went looking for land to buy on which to build a school. He found that a White resident was selling farmland, with a run down house and stables, for five hundred dollars. He sent a letter to the Treasurer of Hampton, General J. F. B. Marshall, requesting Two-hundred and fifty dollars. The General said that he could not give him the money straight from the school, but that he would give him a personal loan. Washington then raised the rest of the money by soliciting the White and Black residents of Tuskegee.
From the very beginning at Tuskegee, Washington wanted the students to not only do industrial and domestic work, but to erect their own buildings. By doing this the students were able to call these buildings their own, and they had much more respect for the school than had they not done this. He made everyone do industrial work and erect buildings, even the most wealthy.
At this time the school began to turn out many finely educated black people. Using the trades and experience they gained at Tuskegee these men and women influence the communities in which they resided and became essential members of society.
Washington solidified the Tuskegee Institute?s place in southern society. He took this meager farmland and built it to international fame. Through fund raising around the country and speeches that Washington made, Tuskegee became a widely known school. He was invited on behalf of Tuskegee Institute and the Black members of the South to talk at the Atlanta Exposition. The Atlanta Exposition was a convention held to show good race relations between the Blacks and Whites of the South. His opening speech there impressed so many people that Washington was shot into national stardom and was revered as a leader to the Black people of America. The following excerpt from his speech was one of the most influential and controversial things he said that day.
?In all things purely social we can be as separate as the finger, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.? (221-222, Up From Slavery by B. T. Washington)
This single sentence raised a lot of criticism, mostly by W. E. B. Dubois, because it entails making compromises. Washington said that we can make compromises on the issue of segregation, but that when it comes to progress, that the Blacks and Whites must be as one as the hand, or in agreement.
From here on he is praised as a leader and a scholar. He visits Europe and speaks in Belgium on behalf of the Tuskegee Institute. On his return from Europe he collapses in New York from over exhaustion, but is able to return to Tuskegee after a few days, where he dies on November 14th 1915.
Throughout his life Booker Taliaferro Washington kept education for himself and education for other Blacks foremost in his mind. His unique orating talents helped him provide support for his endeavors and eventually cemented him as arguably the most prominent Black leader in history. Many of his students went on to be prominent. The school, now called Tuskegee University, is one of the leading Black education institutions in America. This man who started in slavery and poverty rose from desolate conditions and set an example for every Black man to follow. His commitment to education is envious and his commitment to Black America is astounding in all respects.
Even though many of Washington?s ideas did not prevail after his death, his school is following his example by teaching Black students both book knowledge and a trade so that they can better themselves and their race.
?No race can prosper till it learns there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.? (220, Up from Slavery by B. T. Washington)