Booker Taliaferro Washington was born as a slave in 1856 on the Burroughs tobacco farm in Hale's Ford, Virginia. He was the son of a cook, Jane, and a white man. After the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, Washington and his family had to wait until it was finally enforced in 1865. They then moved to Malden, West Virginia, where Washington worked packing salt. At the age of sixteen, Washington left home to attend Hampton Institute in Virginia. He went to night school and worked as a janitor to support himself. He then attended Wayland Seminary. After considering both law and theology as careers, he instead took a teaching position at Hampton. In 1881, when he was twenty-five years old, he moved to Tuskegee, Alabama. There he founded the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, which opened on July 4th, 1881 in a small church house with only thirty students. Washington spent the rest of life improving the school.
"No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem." (Booker T. Washington)
Washington was not without his critics, most notably W.E.B. DuBois, who said, "Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission; but adjustment at such a peculiar time as to make his programme uniqueâ€¦ In other periods of intensified prejudice all the Negroâ€™s tendency to self-assertion has been called forth; at this period a policy of submission is advocated. In the history of nearly all other races and peoples the doctrine preached at such crises has been that manly self-respect is worth more than lands and houses, and that a people who voluntarily surrender such respect, or cease striving for it, are not worth civilizing. In answer to this, it has been claimed that the Negro can survive only through submissionâ€¦ The question then comes: Is it possible, and probable, that nine millions of men can make effective progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile caste, and allowed only the most meager chance for developing their exceptional men? If history and reason give any distinct answer to these questions, it is an emphatic No." (The Souls of Black Folk 1903)
Washington died in 1915 at the age of fifty-nine. His works include: The Awakening of the Negro (1896), The Future of the American Negro (1899), Up From Slavery (1901), The Education of the Negro (1904), Tuskegee and its People (1905), and The Negro in Business (1907).