Booker T. Washington



Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in 1856 to his mother Jane. His father was an unknown white man like many other slaves. As he describes it best, “My life had its beginnings in the midst of the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surroundings.”[1] He was required to endure grueling labor, even as a very young boy. Despite his hardships, his experience as a slave led to the discovery of his passion: education.

As the Civil War ended, Booker was freed from slavery and walked hundreds of miles with his family to Virginia. In Virginia he worked in the salt mines to support his family until he got wind of a school for blacks called the Hampton Institute. Eventually determined to pursue his passion, Washington left home and headed for the Institute. After getting accepted, he became one of the best students ever to graduate. His accomplishments afforded him the opportunity to start his own school in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Washington grew Tuskegee Institute from the ground up, fighting the whole way for funding to provide the basic necessities for his students. In doing so, he improved his standing in the community and the nation to such a high degree that he was invited to address the National Education Association. In the time he was given, he made a big enough impact to secure invitations to speak at other places and introduce his stance on racial inequality. In 1895, Washington made his most influential and important speech at the Atlanta Exposition Address. With this speech, he gained national fame and was able to explain his take on race relations on a national level.

Near the end of his life he lost influence with changing racial equality philosophies, but his contributions were not forgotten. In 1915, he died at the age of 59 of congestive heart failure.

Personal and Institutional Challenge

Luckily for Washington, he achieved freedom after the Civil War at the young age of nine. Although he could finally begin learning, his family was still very poor which required him to find employment to support them. Starting at four in the morning, he would go to the salt mines and then come home begging his mother for some sort of book to learn from. Eventually she was able to obtain one and he spent all of his time apart from work studying it without the help of a teacher. Even when the first school for blacks opened, he was not able to attend because he still had to work. The work he describes, “clouded every ambition”[2] as he watched children his age go back and forth to school.

After some time, when his family was slightly better off financially, Booker was allowed to go to school, but he still worked. From 4am to 9am he would work, then go to school and then work two hours after. For some time, he quit school only when his family needed him to go back to work full time again. He did though attend his saving grace, night school. Walking miles after work and then home late at night, he received the education he truly desired.

He first heard whispers of Hampton Institute as he worked. Attending Hampton was his ultimate goal, a school where he could get the very best education he could possibly obtain. He saved up some extra money and made the tough decision to leave his poor family to suffer without his income. Before he ever got there he had lost all of his money. Despite his hardships, Booker never quit in pursuit of his educational goals. He, “resolved to let no obstacle prevent me from putting forth the highest effort to fit myself to accomplish the most good in the world.[3]

Washington worked his way throughout attending Hampton and became a star pupil. He made himself indispensable so that even though he was in debt the school never wanted to let him go. His biggest obstacle came when his mother died. It was the first time that he actually doubted his ability to continue on with his dream, especially with his family suffering as they were. He only was able to continue when he realized that his mother would wish for him to continue his education.[4]

Washington graduated at the top of his class and made deep connections with many people who would help him throughout his difficult life. In the end, he overcame everything that put him down and he achieved his goal of receiving an education. Education not only allowed him the ability to open his own school, but gave him a platform to fight racial inequality with his own philosophy and his practice through public speaking.


At Hampton Institute Booker first learned public speaking through debate, and shortly after it led to his first public recognition in the community. He used his newly acquired skill to tell other black families who lived around the salt mine of his experiences at Hampton. After graduating, he increased his reputation as a speaker by campaigning across the state to make West Virginia’s capital Charleston. He furthered this skill even more when he became principal of his own school, Tuskegee Institute. He traveled around the nation searching for funds to build his school. Although he constantly thought his mission to raise money would fail, he always seemed to procure what he needed to keep the school running.

The only problem that Booker had with public speaking was that it was all talk, as opposed to his goal of direct action. He never planned to become as famous for his public speaking as he did after a five minute speech in Atlanta. In Atlanta he was asked to address the National Education Association. Not only did he bring up his school, but it was the first time he used his platform to talk about general race problems. He was very well received and even received the invitation to make his most famous speech ever, the Atlanta Exposition Address, as a result. Through this speech on racial inequality and how blacks can improve their standing in society, he gained his national fame. Throughout the nation papers wrote about Booker and he received even more invitations to speak.

Although he mastered his practice, he never felt comfortable speaking. He suffered from nervousness, but never failed. A standard of excellence in his practice is to make an impact on every single person who hears him speak. This was Washington’s goal every single time he went up to talk. He wanted to create a feeling of sympathy from every single person in his audience. As a result, people walked away utterly amazed and actually influenced by what he said. Reviews from the time said, “Booker convinces his listeners that he was ‘not thinking about his own glory but of the cause for which he pleads for.’”[5] Even William Howells, a prominent white man in the late 1800’s, is quoted saying “… Washington made him forget all the distinguished white speakers that he had heard.”[6]

Choice-worthy Good

As evidenced, Booker T. Washington’s choice-worthy good was education, particularly an industrial education. This type of education was marked by practical knowledge and manual labor. Students were asked to construct physical buildings from scratch along with basic literacy. This was what Washington believed to be the basic foundation for life, along with an actual skill that they could contribute to their community.[7]


If there was one word to describe Booker T. Washington’s life and his greatest virtue, it would be perseverance. Perseverance defined is the steady persistence in a course of action, especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, and discouragement. Starting from the absolute bottom, in America as a slave, Washington fought through racism and poverty to become the most famous black man in the nation. Only after achieving these goals did he take what he considered a “break” from work.

Cultural Ill

Through his practice of public speaking Booker T. Washington strived to cure the ill of racial inequality. From the speech at National Education Association to the Atlanta Exposition Address, Booker preached his unique view on slowly breaking down this problem. He believed that since blacks were at the bottom of society according to most, they must work their way up to receive more equal treatment. The start was with an industrial education, which Tuskegee Institute prided themselves in. The future depended on what blacks made of themselves in regards to skill, intelligence, and character. This way blacks would be indispensable in their communities and would gain respect from all others. He also encouraged other races especially white people to encourage this development. With their encouragement blacks will eventually give back. He was criticized for this view, but never strayed from this philosophy. His determination led to great strides for the blacks in their respective community and was a catalyst for the eventual civil rights movement.

Written by: Patrick Hilley

Works Cited

  • Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery, an Autobiography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963. PDF.
  • Norrell, Robert J. Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2009.
  • "Booker T. Washington Biography." Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.
  • Wormser, Robert. "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow." PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.
  • Booker T Washington, Industrial Education is the Solution, 1896.

  1. ^

    (Washington 11)
  2. ^

    (Washington 28)
  3. ^

    (Washington 39)
  4. ^

    (Washington 50)
  5. ^

    (Norrell 134)
  6. ^ (Norrell 134)
  7. ^

    (Industrial Education is the Solution)