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Birth, Parents and Family Life
The well known cliché, bad beginnings have good endings, resonates in one's mind when this name is mentioned. Booker T. Washington's life, undoubtedly encapsulate this well-known phrase as throughout his life evidence proves how he grew and became very successful.
Booker Taliaferro Washington's life began on April 5th, 1856 where he was born into slavery on the Burroughs Plantation in the rural, Hale's Ford, Virginia. He had three siblings, one of whom was adopted. His mother Jane was an enslaved African American woman who worked as a cook on the plantation. His father was a white man, whom he knew very little about. His mother later married another slave, Washington Ferguson, who left to for West Virginia.
Washington's early life was that of a slave where he lived in a small cabin and slept on a dirt floor with only a "pallet" that was put on the ground for his comfort. Survival was a struggle as his mother Jane from time to time would take a chicken or an egg from her masters and cook them during the night just to feed her children. From an early age, Booker knew what labour entailed and began working quite young. One of his duties was to carry sacks of corn to the mill on the back of a horse. Sometimes when a sack fell on the ground he had to wait for hours for someone to come and replace it on the horse's back.
Washington's discomfort of his living arrangement and hard labour as a child was mingled with the discomfort of his clothes and shoes. Until his shirt was worn for six weeks, Washington had to bear the pain from his flax material shirt which pricked his skin. The discomfort was so great that once his brother offered to wear his shirt until it got a bit softer. His shoes also were uncomfortable as his first pair of shoes had wood as its sole and coarse leather tops.
Although he went to school while he was a slave, Booker T. Washington's education only began when his family was freed of slavery. In Washington's time, it was illegal for slaves to go to school and be educated. However, Washington went to school with James Burrough's daughter in Franklin County, not as a student but to carry her books. It was only when the Emancipation Proclamation in April, 1865, Washington now nine, was read to the jubilant slaves that Booker was able to spread his wings a bit. Washington, his siblings and mother soon left the plantation with a wagon that his stepfather sent for them to join with him in Malden, West Virginia.
Because of the state of poverty that the family was faced with, Washington could not have had a normal schooling experience. Instead, at the tender age of nine, Washington was thrust into the world of work. His stepfather, who worked in the salt mines, found work for him and his brother at a salt mine that began at four in the morning and ended at nine. Sometimes they even worked at coal mines. One Mr. William Davis opened a school for coloured children. Booker's parents allowed him to go but on the condition that he maintain his job. As Booker worked in the morning period, he was now able to attend school later in the day but returned to the mine after school.
After a few years, Booker had to leave the school in order to work fulltime in the coal mine; but his mother found him another job. He was taken in as a houseboy by a wealthy family, General Lewis Ruffner. The wife was very strict on him but very encouraging. He proved his trustworthiness to her while he stayed with her for four years and saw her as one of his best friends.
It was at this point that Booker learned about a school, Hampton Institute, where black students can get an education, paying their way by working. He saved up some money from his labour at the mines and in 1872, at sixteen, when he had just about saved enough money, Booker left for Hampton. The road to Hampton was not an easy one. He walked the way but stopped for a few days, sleeping under a plank sidewalk during the night and loading a ship with food items during the day to raise more money to buy food.
When Booker finally arrived at Hampton; he was first denied entrance into the school because of his appearance, but soon impressed the head teacher with his janitorial skills and continued doing these services to pay for his school expenses. It was during one summer of his studies that his mother died while he was on his summer vacation. He still went on to spend three years there, graduating in 1875 at age nineteen.
Life as an Adult: His Marriages and Family
Booker was married three times. The first of the three came just after moving to Tuskegee in 1882, when he married his childhood sweetheart Fannie Smith. From this marriage one daughter, Portia, came in 1883. Unfortunately, one year following the birth of their daughter, Fannie died unexpectedly. Washington remarried in 1985 to Olivia Davidson who was also working at the Tuskegee Institute as an assistant principal. The new couple had two boys, Booker Jr. and Earnest; however, Olivia only remained with him for four years before she also died. Washington soon got married again for the third time to Margaret Murray, a teacher at Tuskegee, in 1893 but the couple had no children however she helped with her stepchildren. Margaret died ten years after Washington in 1925. Washington credited each of his wives for their contribution to the Tuskegee Institute.
Where he lived and worked
By now, Booker T. Washington was developing into an adult, being able to sustain himself. Washington was a strong advocate of education and believed that through education, the quality of his people could be improved. Due to the strong belief that he maintained, when he graduated, Booker moved back to his hometown, Malden, to teach, but spent only a short time there teaching eighty to ninety children in the day, adults in the night and two Sunday schools. However, during the short time at the school, Washington encouraged students to attend the Hampton Institute and sent his two brothers, John and James, to school. Washington's time at this school was soon up when he was hired by General Armstrong, the principal of Hampton, as a member of the faculty and a postgraduate student. Washington's now taught classes at nights for students who could not attend classes in the day, teaching also a group of seventy five Indian boys.
Now at twenty five, in 1881, Washington was recommended by General Armstrong to a prominent white man in Tuskegee who wanted to establish a school for black children in that town. Mr. Armstrong recommended Washington for the position to spearhead the establishment however when he arrived in Alabama Washington found out that no provisions were made for acquiring lands or buildings. He also found that the only funding for the school was two thousand five hundred for teachers' salary which was given by the state legislature as a favour to the black people who had supported a politician. Although throughout the early years, the institute was able to survive on gifts of individuals, Washington was still faced with the challenges maintaining the school even at the beginning where he had to locate an appropriate location for the school and building of the campus. However, Washington was soon able to purchase farmland that amounted to two thousand acres where he established the school. Two small buildings were converted; there were no equipment and hardly any money. All the students had to work in addition to their academic studies. Some of the activities the students engaged in were chopping of trees, making bricks, building furniture, clearing lands and constructing buildings. Classes were opened with thirty students and what was taught developed the students, teaching them both trades and professions.
Ten years later in 1891, now 35, the institution had matured into a campus which boasted of over five hundred and forty acres of land, many well equipped buildings, thousands of students, over two hundred faculty members teaching thirty eight trades and professions. Booker T. Washington was taught the skill of public speaking by one of his teachers during his years at Hampton. The lessons Ms. Nathalie Lord taught him made him a very eloquent speaker and he used this to propel his efforts bringing many benefits to the Tuskegee Institution.
To add to Booker T. Washington's accomplishment, in 1895, Washington was asked to speak at the opening of the Cotton State Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia which was a major accomplishment for an African American. In his speech, later referred to as the "Atlanta Compromise", Washington encouraged blacks and whites to work together and explained his idea that African Americans can secure their place in the society through their own economic and moral development and not by legal and political changes. Washington's belief was not accepted by all African Americans as some feared that some may fight against them for their want of equal rights. However, the whites approved of his views and helped to bring the programs he envisioned to fruit. He was later given an honorary degree by the Harvard University in 1896.
One year after his speech, in 1896, Washington was able to acquire funding for an extension of his institution. He opened an agriculture school with the help of the Slater Fund for Negro Education. At this extension school, George Washington Carver was entrusted to lead the school, many other people who were interested in the education of the blacks helped and the school flourished.
Contributions to Society
The Tuskegee Institute still educate people today, and in addition to this, Booker T. Washington also instituted a variety of programs for rural extension work. He also helped to set up the National Negro Business League. Although Booker was selected to be named to a cabinet post, he refused, stating that he preferred not to be involved in politics.
It was not until 1901 that Booker T. Washington published his autobiography, "Up from Slavery" of which the profits were given towards strengthening the economic stability of the Tuskegee Institute. It was in this same year that Washington was invited to the White House by the president at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, the first African American to be recognized in this magnitude. He was also privileged to have tea with Queen Victoria during a visit to Europe.
By1904 Washington was now forty eight and became very influential in many political decisions, becoming the advocate and key advisor to the African American community. Through the use of the black newspapers and other publications Washington was able to create good public relations for his causes. Washington however refused to be a part of a race relations conference that was the driving force for the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). Washington was sceptical of the motives behind the conference fearing that it may be of a combative nature; however, the elections of Woodrow Wilson in 1912 caused Washington to change the way he spoke. After assuring in his campaign that he will fight for equal rights of the African Americans, Wilson never follow through on his promises. This caused Washington to surprise everyone when he published an article whose tone was similar to the militant black leaders of the time. Even with this change, many still believed that Booker had done more than he was credited for or that was recognized by others.
How he was Renowned
The key contributing factor that distinguishes Booker T. Washington from all other African American advocates was his approach. Although he believed in equality, the method in which he used to achieve it was quite different from any other. Washington's approach was not confrontational, as was the approach of many at the time. He realized that being confrontational would only be to his disadvantage, and worked in a way to develop and maintain the support of the white people who were instrumental in fulfilling many of his ideas. He believed that success for blacks can only come through economic stability using mainly vocational training. Washington was unlike his critics such as Fredrick Douglass and W.E.B Du Bois who protested, challenged the political system and spoke up about the lack of equality. Instead he saw these militant actions as distractions to economic success and encouraged blacks to concentrate on developing industrial skills.
Booker was also known for his capability to raise funds for the Institution, which when coupled with his ability to speak made many individuals give generously to Tuskegee because of his clarity of expression for how the school can help blacks make a better life for themselves.
Through education, Washington, more than any other, helped to elevate his people. He is therefore best remembered for freeing African Americans from the economic slavery that kept them bondage even after they were physically and legally freed from slavery.
Even at the gates of his death, Washington remained a fighter as he continued to principal the Tuskegee Institute. Washington's body was deteriorating. He collapsed in New York where he was sent back to Tuskegee. On November 14th 1915 his body could bear no more and he passed on. Although at first it was assumed that he died of heart failure due to exhaustion, it was later confirmed when in March 2006, with the permission of the descendants, the examination of his medical records showed that he died of hypertension with a blood pressure more than twice the normal range. Washington was finally laid to rest on the grounds of the Tuskegee Institute near to the chapel.
Reason for my Choice
In a society where there is s thirst for good male role models, I found it a pleasure reading about Booker T. Washington and making him my choice for my biography. Washington was an individual whose life I can emulate and imbibe. First of all he was a black man who started life by measly means; however, he did not allow him to hinder his determination. Washington pressed forward and at his death he was financially secure, had a family and was well renowned. He was very intelligent and used this ability for good causes. The exceptional qualities that surrounded Washington are those that I would like to portray in my life; hence my ultimate reason for my choice or Mr. Booker T. Washington.
How he has affected my Life
The life of Booker T. Washington has greatly affected me in many positive ways. I now look at life differently since his life is truly a testimony that it is not about how your life begins but how you decide to end it. I am also encouraged to face any challenges that are put before me. Washington faced a number of challenges, but although at times he may have been disappointed, he did not allow that to keep him down but instead rose from the challenge to become an even greater person. From his life I was also encouraged to look out for others and to show more humanitarianism to my fellowmen. For me it can begin at home, just as it began at home for Washington. When he started working, he was able to send his two brothers to school which to me if very commendable.
Booker T. Washington has therefore proven to be a person worth emulating, and once this is done success would come my way.