Born April 5, 1856, in Franklin County, Virginia, Booker Taliaferro was the son of an unknown White man and Jane, an enslaved cook of James Burroughs, a small planter.
Jane named her son Booker Taliaferro but later dropped the second name. Booker gave himself the surname "Washington" when he first enrolled in school. Sometime after Booker's birth, his mother was married to Washington Ferguson, a slave. A daughter, Amanda, was born to this marriage. James, Booker's younger half-brother, was adopted. Booker's elder brother, John, was also the son of a White man.
Booker spent his first nine years as a slave on the Burroughs farm. In 1865, his mother took her children to Malden, West Virginia, to join her husband, who had gone there earlier and found work in the salt mines. At age nine, Booker was put to work packing salt. Between the ages of ten and twelve, he worked in a coal mine. He attended school while continuing to work in the mines. In 1871, he went to work as a houseboy for the wife of Gen. Lewis Ruffner, owner of the mines.
In 1872, at age sixteen, Booker T. Washington entered Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia. The dominant personality at the school, which had opened in 1868 under the auspices of the American Missionary Association, was the principal, Samuel Chapman Armstrong, the son of American missionaries in Hawaii.
Armstrong, who had commanded Black troops in the Civil War, believed that the progress of freedmen and their descendants depended on education of a special sort, which would be practical and utilitarian and would at the same time inculcate character and morality.
Washington traveled most of the distance from Malden to Hampton on foot, arriving penniless. His entrance examination to Hampton was to clean a room. The teacher inspected his work with a spotless, white handkerchief. Booker was admitted. He was given work as a janitor to pay the cost of his room and board, and Armstrong arranged for a White benefactor to pay his tuition.
At Hampton, Washington studied academic subjects and agriculture, which included work in the fields and pigsties. He also learned lessons in personal cleanliness and good manners. His special interest was public speaking and debate. He was jubilant when he was chosen to speak at his commencement.
The most important part of his experience at Hampton was his association with Armstrong, who he described in his autobiography as "a great man - the noblest, rarest human being it has ever been my privilege to meet." From Armstrong, Washington derived much of his educational philosophy.
After graduating from Hampton with honors in 1875, Washington returned to Malden to teach. For eight months he was a student at Wayland Seminary, an institution with a curriculum that was entirely academic. This experience reinforced his belief in an educational system that emphasized practical skills and self-help. In 1879, Washington returned to Hampton to teach in a program for American Indians.
In 1880, a bill that included a yearly appropriation of $2,000 was passed by the Alabama State Legislature to establish a school for Blacks in Macon County. This action was generated by two men - Lewis Adams, a former slave, and George W. Campbell, a former slave owner. On February 12, 1881, Governor Rufus Willis Cobb signed the bill into law, establishing the Tuskegee Normal School for the training of Black teachers.
Armstrong was invited to recommend a White teacher as principal of the school. Instead, he suggested Washington, who was accepted. When Washington arrived at Tuskegee, he found that no land or buildings had been acquired for the projected school, nor was there any money for these purposes since the appropriation was for salaries only. Undaunted, Washington began selling the idea of the school, recruiting students and seeking support of local Whites.
The school opened July 4, 1881, in a shanty loaned by a Black church, Butler A.M.E. Zion. With money borrowed from Hampton Institute's treasurer, Washington purchased an abandoned 100-acre plantation on the outskirts of Tuskegee. Students built a kiln, made bricks for buildings and sold bricks to raise money. Within a few years, they built a classroom building, a dining hall, a girl’s dormitory and a chapel.
By 1888, the 540-acre school had an enrollment of more than 400 and offered training in such skilled trades as carpentry, cabinetmaking, printing, shoemaking and tinsmithing. Boys also studied farming and dairying, while girls learned such domestic skills as cooking and sewing.
Through their own labor, students supplied a large part of the needs of the school. In the academic departments, Washington insisted that efforts be made to relate the subject matter to the actual experiences of the students. Strong emphasis was placed on personal hygiene, manners and character building.
Students followed a rigid schedule of study and work, arising at five in the morning and retiring at nine-thirty at night. Although Tuskegee was non-denominational, all students were required to attend chapel daily and a series of religious services on Sunday. Washington himself usually spoke to the students on Sunday evening.
Olivia Davidson, a graduate of Hampton and Framingham State Normal School in Massachusetts, became teacher and assistant principal at Tuskegee in 1881. In 1885, Washington's older brother John, also a Hampton graduate, came to Tuskegee to direct the vocational training program.
Other notable additions to the staff were acclaimed scientist Dr. George Washington Carver, who became director of the agriculture program in 1896; Emmett J. Scott, who became Washington 's private secretary in 1897; and Monroe Nathan Work, who became head of the Records and Research Department in 1908.
Washington was of the last generation of black American leaders born into slavery and became the leading voice of the former slaves and their descendants, who were newly oppressed by disfranchisement and the Jim Crow discriminatory laws enacted in the post-Reconstruction Southern states in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1895 his Atlanta compromise called for avoiding confrontation over segregation and instead putting more reliance on long-term educational and economic advancement in the black community.
His base was the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college in Alabama. As lynchings in the South reached a peak in 1895, Washington gave a speech in Atlanta that made him nationally famous. The speech called for black progress through education and entrepreneurship. His message was that it was not the time to challenge Jim Crow segregation and the disfranchisement of black voters in the South. Washington mobilized a nationwide coalition of middle-class blacks, church leaders, and white philanthropists and politicians, with a long-term goal of building the community's economic strength and pride by a focus on self-help and schooling. Secretly, he supported court challenges to segregation. Black militants in the North, led by W.E.B. DuBois, at first supported the Atlanta Compromise but after 1909 set up the NAACP and tried to challenge Washington's political machine for leadership in the black community. Decades after Washington's death in 1915, the Civil Rights movement generally moved away from his policies to take the more militant NAACP approach.
Booker T. Washington mastered the nuances of the political arena in the late 19th century which enabled him to manipulate the media, raise money, strategize, network, pressure, reward friends and distribute funds while punishing those who opposed his plans for uplifting blacks. His long-term goal was to end the disfranchisement of the vast majority of African Americans living in southern states, where most of the millions of black Americans still lived.