Born into slavery on this 207-acre former tobacco farm, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) rose to become a famous educator and African American spokesman during the trying period following the end of Reconstruction in the South. From 1895 to 1915, he was the most famous and influential African American in the United States. Visitors to this living historical farm learn about Washington’s early life as a slave through exhibits, living history demonstrations, audiovisual programs, and historic trails.
Booker T. Washington National Monument
12130 Booker T. Washington Highway
Hardy, VA 24101-9997
ph.: (540) 721-2094
Web sites: www.nps.gov/bowa/; www.nationalparks .org/guide/parks/booker-t-was-1957.htm
James Boroughs’s tobacco plantation was typical of the small plantations in the area. Boroughs owned ten slaves to produce his labor-intensive cash crop on 5 of his 207 acres and to help make the plantation as self-sufficient as possible, supporting his wife and fourteen children. The “big house” on the plantation had five rooms, luxurious compared to the one-room log cabin in which Booker T. Washington grew up but still rather basic.
Booker, his older brother, and his sister lived in their dirt-floor and windowless one-room cabin, which also served as a kitchen for the “big house.” Today one can see re-creations of many of the plantation’s buildings, Booker’s kitchen-cabin, the tobacco and horse barns, the corn crib, the smokehouse, the blacksmith shed, and the chicken lot. One can walk the grounds, absorbing the upbringing of self-sufficiency and manual labor that provided a background for Washington to later found the famous Tuskegee Institute of Alabama (1881), which stressed education in agriculture and industry as a first step toward African American economic viability. The sights, sounds, and smells of Boroughs’s plantation as experienced by Booker await the visitor, along with crops, wild plants, and farm animals similar to those of Booker’s youth.
Booker T. Washington’s first nine years of life were spent in abject poverty as a slave on the Boroughs Plantation. His bed was a few old rags spread out on the dirt floor of a one-room cabin measuring fourteen by sixteen feet. His mother served as cook for the Boroughs family, and the one room served also as a kitchen for the plantation. Since there was no stove, food had to be cooked over an open fireplace. In his memoirs, Washington could not recall a single time that the family sat down to eat together in a civilized manner and viewed his early life in the Piedmont region of Virginia as taking place “in the midst of the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surroundings.” He did recall his mother cooking a chicken for the family in the middle of the night and rationalized the covert action. In general food was parceled out at various times, whenever it was available. Washington’s only shoes during slavery were wooden ones that were uncomfortable and clumsy to wear. The height of discomfort was the homegrown flax, turned into shirts for slaves, which felt like thorns and bristles when new.
Washington’s father, a white man from a nearby farm, played absolutely no role in his life. Washington claimed, in fact, that he did not even know his father’s name. Washington’s early education came from working in various capacities on the farm, helping to maintain the few livestock, vegetable gardens, and industries which served to make the plantation largely self-sufficient. He recalls in his autobiography, Up from Slavery (1901), that his early life was completely occupied by labor, leaving little time for play. What he learned was that hard work and self-reliance were primary ideals. Formal education was not permitted for slaves. The closest Washington got to a schoolhouse was carrying the books for one of his master’s daughters.
While uneducated, Washington recalls that slaves were remarkably well informed about national developments as the Civil War began. While intensely loyal to their masters and sincerely mourning the death or wounding of the masters’ sons in battle, slaves also followed the progress of battles through word of mouth and were very much aware that slavery was a major issue. Frequent conversations were held at night, in whispers, about the latest developments in the Civil War, picked up from the post office or from family conversations in the “big houses.” Washington recalls that he never met a slave who did not want freedom, nor would he ever meet an African American who wanted a return to slavery. He also recalls that while living conditions seriously declined for the masters as the war progressed, the already low quality of life for slaves did not seriously decline. Finally, in April, 1865, a proclamation was read on the Boroughs Plantation announcing that slavery was at an end. Soon Washington left with his family for Malden, West Virginia, to join his stepfather. The family moved into another rundown shack. As deprived as Washington’s life under slavery may have been, he points out that it was not much different from that of many thousands of other slaves. He was also thankful that slaves learned how to do many things on the plantation, and he pitied the poor slave owners and their families left behind who had mastered no special industry necessary for survival.
Life in Malden for the nine-year-old Washington meant work in the salt furnace and coal mines, often in shifts beginning at 4:00
Graduating with honors in 1875, Washington taught school in Malden for two years, then attended Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C. He returned to Hampton in 1879 as an instructor, where he organized a night program to train seventy-five American Indian students. This program was used as a model for his founding of Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1881, with help from northern philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller as well as southern philanthropic organizations.
The school reflected the Booker T. Washington credo of self-reliance born of hard work. His students made the brick and built most of the buildings on the original campus. The school, which stressed industrial training rather than traditional academic learning, also embodied Washington’s willingness to accommodate contemporary segregationist policies and lack of voting rights. For Washington, freedom from economic slavery was the first step before later civil rights could be achieved. His position was stated in his Atlanta Compromise Address of 1895, which accepted temporary segregation and voting rights restrictions if whites would support African American economic and educational advancement. As he said, “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” Washington was a handsome individual and a dynamic speaker, and this speech at an exposition in Atlanta catapulted him into the national spotlight and gained for him fame as the leading spokesperson for African Americans.
Few whites were threatened by Washington’s accommodationist attitudes, and most African Americans were highly respectful of his rising national prestige. He helped found the National Negro Business League in 1900. Washington was a celebrated dinner guest of Theodore Roosevelt at the White House in 1901, the same year that his autobiography Up from Slavery became a widely read work. Soon he became a political adviser to Roosevelt and William H. Taft, influencing a multitude of political patronage positions. He also served on the board of trustees for both Fisk and Howard Universities. In the meantime the Tuskegee Institute, under his guidance, emerged as a national center for industrial and agricultural training as well as a center for training black teachers.
As new African American leadership came to the fore in the Niagara Movement (1905-1909) and under the auspices of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), beginning in 1909, Washington’s ideas were openly challenged. A chief critic was the Harvard sociologist and writer W. E. B. Du Bois, who found Washington’s silence on racial oppression and disenfranchisement to be reprehensible. The Washington-Du Bois clash of ideas became one of the great debates in American political life. In his later years Washington denounced the increasing number of lynchings in the South and advocated making “separate but equal” facilities more equal. He also wrote under code names to denounce Jim Crow laws and racial violence directed toward blacks.
Booker T. Washington died at Tuskegee on November 14, 1915, at the beginning of both the Great Migration from the rural South to the urban North and World War I, two events that would transform the remainder of the twentieth century. He rose from slavery to become the nation’s most influential African American and remains a pioneer on the long journey toward racial equality. In the American epic he was one of the great self-made men who rose from the lowest of circumstances to achieve positions of national stature. His theme of self-reliance would be repeated for many succeeding generations.
The scenic Blue Ridge Parkway is only twenty-five miles west of the Booker T. Washington National Monument. Appomattox Court House National Historical Park is 75 miles east. The Virginia Museum of American Frontier Culture is seventy-five miles northwest, and the Guilford Court House National Military Park is sixty miles south.
Visitors to the Booker T. Washington National Monument should plan two hours to view exhibits and audiovisual programs in the visitors’ center and to see the re-creation of historic buildings on the Plantation Trail–a one-quarter-mile loop. An additional hour is needed to walk the Jack-O-Lantern Branch Trail, a half-mile loop through woods and fields. Visitors are advised to keep their distance from animals and not to enter pastures or pens. The site is open daily from 9:00
Bontemps, Arna W. Young Booker: Booker T. Washington’s Early Days. New York: Dodd and Mead, 1972. Traces the events of Washington’s youth and early career that were a driving force behind his emergence as a famous educator. Drinker, Frederick E. Booker T. Washington: The Master Mind of a Child of Slavery. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1970. This work, first published in 1915, is splendidly illustrated and describes Washington’s life in a somewhat romanticized manner. Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. A scholarly study of Washington’s life and the development of his career to a position of national leadership. Thornbrough, Emma. Booker T. Washington. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1969. A standard biography of Washington. Washington, Booker T. My Larger Education: Being Chapters from My Experience. Miami: Mnemosyne, 1969. The author’s account and reflections on the formative influences in his life. _______. Up from Slavery: An Autobiography. Reprint. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1951. The landmark autobiography of Booker T. Washington, first published in 1901. _______. Working with the Hands. New York: Arno Press, 1969. This sequel to Up from Slavery describes the author’s experiences in industrial training at Tuskegee Institute.