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 Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute had an enrollment of more than 400 and offered training in such skilled trades as carpentry, cabinet-omaking, 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.
On Tuskegee's 25th anniversary, Washington had transformed an idea into a 2,000-acre, eighty-three building campus that, combined with such personal property as equipment, live stock and stock in trade, was valued at $831,895. Tuskegee's endowment fund was $1,275,644 and training in thirty-seven industries was available for the more than 1,500 students enrolled that year.
Through progress at Tuskegee, Washington showed that an oppressed people could advance. His concept of practical education was a contribution to the general field of education. His writings, which included 40 books, were widely read and highly regarded. Among his works was an autobiography titled "Up From Slavery" (1901), "Character Building" (1902), "My Larger Education" (1911), and "The Man Farthest Down" (1912).
Washington settled into the national scene on opening day of the Atlanta Exposition in 1895 when he spoke about "The New Negro," one with "the knowledge of how to live ... how to cultivate the soil, to husband their resources, and make the most of their opportunities."
Eyebrows raised again on Oct. 16, 1901, when Washington became the first Black person to dine at the White House. Counsel to many U.S. presidents, he was there at the invitation of President Theodore Roosevelt.
Washington was married three times. In 1882, he married his Malden sweetheart, Fannie Norton Smith. She died two years later, leaving an infant daughter, Portia (who married William Sidney Pittman, an architect, in 1907).
In 1885, Washington married Hampton graduate Olivia Davidson, the assistant principal of Tuskegee, who died in 1889. Two sons were born to this marriage: Booker Taliaferro, Jr. and Ernest Davidson.
In 1893, Washington married Fisk University graduate Margaret James Murray, who had come to Tuskegee as lady principal in 1889 and directed the programs for female students and initiated the Women's Meetings. Margaret Murray Washington died in 1925.
Margaret and her husband's three children and four grandchildren survived Washington, who died November 14, 1915, at age fifty-nine of arteriosclerosis and exhaustion. He died after an illness in St. Luke's hospital, New York City, where he had been admitted on November 5. Aware that the end was near, he left with his wife and his physician, Dr. John A. Kennedy, Sr., on November 12, so that he could die in Tuskegee.
Booker T. Washington's funeral on November 17, 1915 was held in the Tuskegee Institute Chapel, and was attended by nearly 8,000 people. He was buried on campus in a brick tomb, made by students, on a hill commanding a view of the entire campus.