Booker T. Washington was born in a slave hut on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia, APRIL 5, 1856.
He taught himself to read and write, stating:
“In all my efforts to learn to read, my mother shared fully my ambition and sympathized with me and aided me in every way she could.”
He attended school after working all day.
At age 16, after the Civil War had ended, he walked nearly 500 miles to attend the Hampton Institute in Virginia, founded by Union General Samuel Chapman Armstrong.
Booker T. Washington stated:
“I have spoken of my admiration for General Armstrong, and yet he was but a type of that Christ-like body of men and women who went into the Negro schools at the close of the war by the hundreds to assist in lifting up my race.
The history of the world fails to show a higher, purer, and more unselfish class of men and women than those who found their way into those Negro schools.”
Graduating from the Hampton Institute in 1875, Booker T. Washington wrote in his book, Up From Slavery, 1901:
“Perhaps the most valuable thing that I got out of my second year at the Hampton Institute was an understanding of the use and value of the Bible.
Miss Nathalie Lord, one of the teachers, from Portland, Maine, taught me how to use and love the Bible…
I learned to love to read the Bible, not only for the spiritual help which it gives, but on account of it as literature.
The lessons taught me in this respect took such a hold upon me that at the present time, when I am at home, no matter how busy I am, I always make it a rule to read a chapter or a portion of a chapter in the morning, before beginning the work of the day.
Whatever ability I may have as a public speaker I owe in a measure to Miss Lord.”
Later, Booker T. Washington attended Wayland Baptist Seminary in Washington, DC.
He moved to West Virginia and worked in a salt furnace and coal mine.
In 1876, he taught school in Malden, West Virginia, where he also taught a Sunday School class at the African Zion Baptist Church.
Booker T. Washington returned to teach at the Hampton Institute.
In 1881, at the age of 25, he founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama with 33 students.
Students not only had to learn academics, but also trade skills. They grew their own crops and raised livestock.
Booker T. Washington observed that since slaves had been forced to work so hard on plantations, once freed, some held the expectation that they did not have to work as hard, even though they benefited from it.
Booker T. Washington countered this by teaching:
“No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.”
“I want to see you own land.”
“What is equally important, each one of the students works…each day at some industry, in order to get skill and the love of work, so that when he goes out from the institution he is prepared to set the people with whom he goes to labor a proper example in the matter of industry.”
“Few things can help an individual more than to place responsibility on him, and to let him know that you trust him.”
Booker T. Washington hired Robert Taylor, the first black architect from MIT, who graduated near the top of his class.
Students made the bricks and helped build over 100 campus building, constructing classrooms, barns, outbuildings, and in 1899, Tuskegee’s impressive chapel.
In the Spring of 1896, Booker T. Washington invited George Washington Carver to teach at Tuskegee, as he had just received his Master’s Degree from Iowa State Agricultural Institute.
Booker T. Washington became friends with the leading men of his day, including Steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie; Standard Oil’s John D. Rockefeller and Henry Huttleston Rogers; George Eastman, inventor and founder of Kodak; and Sears, Roebuck & Company President Julius Rosenwald.
Julius Rosenwald funded a pilot program of 100 elementary schools, designed and operated by Tuskegee. Rosenwald and Carnegie took a “matching fund” approach to expand to 4,977 schools, 217 teacher homes and 163 shop buildings in 15 States.
An Agricultural College on Wheels taught over 2,000 farmers in 28 States.
Booker T. Washington was thankful for rich people who supported his work at Tuskegee (Up From Slavery, 1901):
“The more I come into contact with wealthy people, the more I believe that they are growing in the direction of looking upon their money simply as an instrument which God has placed in their hand for doing good with.
I never go to the office of Mr. John D. Rockefeller, who more than once has been generous to Tuskegee, without being reminded of this.
The close, careful, and minute investigation that he always makes in order to be sure that every dollar that he gives will do the most good – an investigation that is just as searching as if he were investing money in a business enterprise – convinces me that the growth in this direction is most encouraging.”
“In the city of Boston I have rarely called upon an individual for funds that I have not been thanked for calling, usually before I could get an opportunity to thank the donor for the money…
The donors seem to feel, in a large degree, that an honor is being conferred upon them in their being permitted to give…
Nowhere else have I met with, in so large a measure, this fine and Christ-like spirit as in the city of Boston, although there are many notable instances of it outside that city. I repeat my belief that the world is growing in the direction of giving.”
Booker T. Washington was grateful for the generosity of Christian churches, as he wrote in Up From Slavery, 1901:
“In my efforts to get money (for Tuskegee Institute) I have often been surprised at the patience and deep interest of the ministers, who are besieged on every hand and at all hours of the day for help.
If no other consideration had convinced me of the value of the Christian life, the Christ-like work which the Church of all denominations in America has done during the last thirty-five years for the elevation of the black man would have made me a Christian.
In a large degree it has been the pennies, the nickels, and the dimes which have come from the Sunday-schools, the Christian Endeavor societies, and the missionary societies, as well as from the church proper, that have helped to elevate the Negro at so rapid a rate.”
As recorded in The Booker T. Washington Papers, Volume 3: 1889-1895, compiled by Louis R. Harlan, editor, (University of Illinois, 1974, page 93), he wrote:
“As a rule a person should get into the habit of reading his Bible. You never read in history of any great man whose influence has been lasting, who has not been a reader of the Bible.”
On May 24, 1900, Booker T. Washington delivered an address, “The Place of the Bible in the Uplifting of the Negro Race,” at Memorial Hall in Columbus, Ohio:
“The men doing the vital things of life are those who read the Bible and are Christians and not ashamed to let the world know it…No man can read the Bible and be lazy.”
Booker T. Washington wrote in Up From Slavery, 1901:
“When speaking directly in the interests of the Tuskegee Institute, I usually arrange, sometime in advance, a series of meetings in important centers.
This takes me before churches, Sunday-schools, Christian Endeavour Societies, and men’s and women’s clubs. When doing this I sometimes speak before as many as four organizations in a single day.”
In Up From Slavery (1901), Booker T. Washington wrote:
“While a great deal of stress is laid upon the industrial side of the work at Tuskegee, we do not neglect or overlook in any degree the religious and spiritual side.
The school is strictly undenominational, but it is thoroughly Christian, and the spiritual training of the students is not neglected. Our preaching service, prayer-meetings, Sunday-school, Christian Endeavor Society, Young Men’s Christian Association, and various missionary organizations, testify to this…”
“You may fill your heads with knowledge or skillfully train your hands, but unless it is based upon high upright character, upon a true heart, it will amount to nothing.”
One of these Bible classes was taught by Dr. George Washington Carver, who wrote to Booker T. Washington, on May 28, 1907:
“For your information only. Mr. B.T. Washington, About three months ago 6 or 7 persons met in my office one evening and organized a Bible class, and asked me to teach it.
I consented to start them off. Their idea was to put in the 20 or 25 minutes on Sunday evenings which intervene between supper and chapel service.
We began at the first of the Bible and attempted to explain the Creation story in the light of natural and revealed religion and geological truths. Maps, charts plants and geological specimens were used to illustrate the work.
We have had an average attendance of 80 and often as high as 114. Thought these facts would help you in speaking of the religious life of the school. Very truly. G.W. Carver.”
Though Tuskegee was non-sectarian, its daily life was permeated by active religion which included Sunday preaching services and Sunday school classes, daily evening chapel devotionals and a ‘Week of Prayer’ held for two weeks every January.
A Bible Training school was established in 1893 to prepare students for Christian ministry.
Students helped out at community churches on Sundays; ran a Y.M.C.A. that looked after the sick, needy, and elderly in the area; and staffed a Humane Society for the proper care of animals.
Booker T. Washington continued his description of Tuskegee Institute:
“While the institution is in no sense denominational, we have a department known as the Phelps Hall Bible Training School, in which a number of students are prepared for the ministry and other forms of Christian work, especially work in the country districts.”
“In the school we made a special effort to teach our students the meaning of Christmas, and to give them lessons in its proper observance.
In this we have been successful to a degree that makes me feel safe in saying that the season now has a new meaning, not only through all that immediate region, but, in a measure, wherever our graduates have gone.”
Self-Educated American contributing editor, William J. Federer, is the bestselling author of “Backfired: A Nation Born for Religious Tolerance no Longer Tolerates Religion,” and numerous other books. A frequent radio and television guest, his daily American Minute is broadcast nationally via radio, television, and Internet. Check out all of Bill’s books here.
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