As one of the first black teachers to promote formal education for the African-descendant community in the United States, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) made a significant contribution to American and African-American history. Due to his activism, he was able to finance schools for black children and youth and became an adviser to the White House. Learn more about him in this fascinating biography by Booker T. Washington.

Summary of Booker T. Washington’s life

The index

  • An uninspiring start

  • Get started with your education

  • Activist and teacher

  • Booker T. Washington’s Legacy

An uninspiring start

In his childhood, Booker T. Washington seemed destined to become a slave to a white man and work for him his whole life. Jane, his mother, was a slave who cooked for James Burroughs, a white farmer with a small farm. Jane already had an older son, both of unknown white parents, when Washington was born on April 5, 1856. She had a daughter with a slave named Washington Ferguson.

Due to his family’s extreme poverty, Washington worked on the farm of James Burroughs at the age of nine and did not receive any type of education. He enjoyed visiting the white children in the small town school. Slaves could not be taught to read, but he dreamed of learning to read.


The Modern Library ranked Booker T. Washington’s Rise from Slavery as the third best nonfiction book of the 20th century.

In 1865, the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished, so all slaves became free. The mother and children of Booker T. Washington soon left Franklin for Malden, both cities located in Virginia.

Their stepfather moved before them to seek better employment opportunities. After several attempts, he found work in a coal mine. Although Washington started working with him, her mother bought him a vowel book.

Get started with your education

The innate curiosity and intelligence of Booker T. Washington attracted the attention of Viola Ruffner, whose husband owned the coal mine. As an errand boy in this family’s home, he was allowed to attend school by Mrs. Ruffner. He graduated from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia at the age of 16 after obtaining the necessary education.


In his works, Booker T. Washington penned a number of famous quotes, including: “If you want to get up, get someone else up.”

In order to pay for his studies, Washington entered the institute as a janitor with no money. To study, he walked 400 miles from Malden to Hampton. It was there that he met his director, Samuel Chapman Armstrong, a white man who was committed to offering education to young black people in order to train them in various trades and strengthen their character.

An educator and activist

After graduating in 1875, he began teaching in Malden and Hampton. During his time in the latter city, he directed an educational program for American Indian youth. Five years later, Alabama established the Tuskegee Normal School to train black teachers. They were looking for a white man to lead the institution, but Director Armstrong suggested Booker T. Washington.


In 1896 and 1901, Booker T. Washington received honorary degrees from Harvard University and Dartmouth College.

They began teaching classes in a borrowed classroom on July 4, 1881. Four years later, the Tuskegee School served 400 students over a two-kilometer area. Along with learning various trades-such as shoemaking, carpentry, or printing-hygiene and manners were also stressed.

Legacy of Booker T. Washington

It was Booker T. Washington’s belief that if blacks improved their education, economy, and standard of living, they would soon be accepted by whites. Because of him, he was the first black to be welcomed at the White House with all the protocol. His position was criticized by African-American activists who had a more frontal fighting perspective and pushed for voting rights.

On November 14, 1915, Booker T. Washington died in New York, leaving behind his third wife and three children. The funeral for Tuskegee Normal School director was attended by about 8,000 people, and his body is buried today there.

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