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Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington Portrait
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Where did Booker T. Washington grow up?

Booker T. Washington was born into slavery sometime in 1856. His mother, Jane, and stepfather, Washington, worked on a plantation in Virginia. He had a brother and a sister. They all lived in a small wooden one-room shack where the children slept on the dirt floor. Booker had to start working for his master when he was around five years old.

No Longer Enslaved

Booker grew up during the time of the Civil War. Although President Lincoln had freed the enslaved with the Emancipation Proclamation, most of the enslaved weren't really free until the war was over. In 1865, when Booker was around nine years old, Union Soldiers arrived at the plantation and told his family that they were free.

Being free was great, but that was only half the battle for African-Americans in the South. Around 4 million enslaved people were set free and the South was torn apart from the Civil War. There weren't a lot of jobs and the formerly enslaved struggled to survive.

It was tough on Booker and his family. Booker's stepfather finally found a job in West Virginia working in the salt mines. The family moved there and Booker and his brother worked in the salt mines, too.

Going to School

Booker worked hard growing up. He learned to read and write at the local grade school for black children, but he had to work too. Booker had heard of a college for black students in Hampton, Virginia called the Hampton Institute. He wanted to attend. In 1872, Booker decided to leave home and travel to Hampton.

The Hampton Institute was 500 miles away, but that didn't stop Booker. He walked much of the 500 miles, working odd jobs along the way and hitching rides when he could. When he arrived, Booker convinced them to let him enroll in the school. He also took on the job as janitor to help pay his way.

Booker was smart and soon graduated from the Hampton Institute. Booker enjoyed school and took a job as a teacher at the Institute. He soon gained the reputation as an excellent teacher.

The Tuskegee Institute

Booker was recruited to open a new school for black students in Tuskegee, Alabama called the Tuskegee Institute. When he arrived in 1881 the school didn't have any buildings or school supplies, but it did have plenty of eager students. At first Booker was the only teacher and he taught class in a church.

Booker spent the rest of his life building the Tuskegee Institute into a major university. At first the school focused on teaching students a trade so they could make a living. This included farming, agriculture, construction, and sewing. The students did a lot of the initial work to get the school going including building the school buildings and growing their own food. Booker was proud of all that he and his students had accomplished.

Booker T. making a speech to a crowd
Booker T. Washington in New Orleans
by Arthur P. Bedou

Civil Rights Leader

As his school grew, Booker would travel around the South to raise funds and gain support for the school. He became famous. Booker also became skilled in speaking and politics. Soon Booker T. Washington became one of the leaders of the civil rights movement.


Booker worked hard to improve the lives of African-Americans in the United States. He believed that education, black owned businesses, and hard work were the keys to African-American success. Booker died from heart failure in 1915.

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