"I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed. Out of the hard and unusual struggle through which he is compelled to pass, he gets a strength, a confidence, that one misses whose pathway is comparatively smooth by reason of birth and race." - Booker T. Washington, "Up From Slavery"
Born April 5, 1856 in Virginia to a slave mother and a white father he never knew, Booker Taliaferro Washington would become one of the most powerful leaders of his time. An advocate of hard work and practical education, Washington believed the path he followed would raise African-Americans up to be able to excel in the American system.
After emancipation, he and his family moved to Malden, West Virginia. The young Washington started his days early working in the local salt mine before school. In a few years, he was hired by the Ruffner family, one of the most prominent white families in Malden, as a domestic.
As a young man of 16, Booker walked approximately 500 miles to the Hampton Institute in Virginia. He had learned poor students could educate themselves at Hampton by working their way through school.
When he arrived at Hampton in 1872, Booker's ragged clothes and country ways at first did not endear him to some of the teachers of the school. The head teacher wouldn't admit him to the school until after he cleaned a classroom to her satisfaction. Booker was used to hard work and his work at the school provided no obstacle.
In later years Washington often spoke of his belief in the dignity of work. "There was no period of my life that was devoted to play," Washington once wrote. "From the time that I can remember anything, almost everyday of my life has been occupied in some kind of labor." Self-reliance born of hard work was one of Washington's key philosophies of life."
Washington also said that getting an education was "about the same as getting into paradise." He took full advantage of his opportunities and graduated at the top of his class at Hampton.
Washington's efforts at Hampton and his lifelong love of learning would lead him to become one of the greatest educators in American history. Washington went back and taught in Malden and at Hampton. He left Hampton to found the Tuskegee Institute in 1881. He was only 25-years old.
His first class had 30 students, both male and female and met in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. It was another year before the first building for the school was constructed. Washington felt that former slaves could advance themselves through a combination of a practical education, economic independence, and hard work.
Washington was determined students would have a well rounded education. He combined practical knowledge with lifelong skills to ensure students "would be sure of knowing how to make a living after they had left us."
Washington traveled throughout the United States to solicit funds in efforts to bring the best and brightest teachers to the school. He oversaw every detail of the school from the grounds to the students. Washington was determined Tuskegee would build and maintain a standard of excellence.
In addition to academics, students learned building construction, brick making, woodworking, cooking, handicraft, agriculture, and the blacksmith trade. Female students learned home economics, dressmaking and weaving. They made brooms, rugs, hats, chairs, baskets, and soap.
All of the work students did in learning the trades at Tuskegee helped build and support the school. Initially not all trades were a success for the school. Many bricks had to be ruined before students could master the craft. Eventually, however, the students produced enough quality bricks to not only provide the school with income, but also to build many of the school's buildings. The clothes and furnishes made by female students clothed them and were used to furnish the buildings.
The school's first students graduated in 1885. In 1901, an elementary school for was built where student teachers could gain practical experience.
Washington was not a leader without critics. In 1895, he gave a speech called the Atlanta Compromise in which he said, "In all things purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet as one hand in all things essential to mutual progress." Many thought he was undermining the black community's search for racial equality and playing directly into the hands of the segregationists.
W.E.B. Du Bois, criticized the extent and use of Washington's power and influence. Nonetheless, Washington pressed forward informally acting at times as an advisor to both President Theodore Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft.
Washington authored and co-authored many books that reflected his ideas on education and society. None was more read than "Up From Slavery" his autobiography. The book was written in 1900 and translated for readers around the world.
He was the recipient of honorary degrees from Harvard and Dartmouth universities.
In the final years of his life Washington spoke out frankly about racism. He spoke out, along with other critics, at the way blacks were portrayed in the film "Birth of a Nation"