Who Was Booker T. Washington?
Booker T. Washington was born a slave in the Southern state of Virginia in 1856. He was one of millions of people of African descent forced to work in the fields of large farms, called plantations, without pay. They were considered property by white people who called themselves masters.
White children lived in and near the plantation, too. They were the sons and daughters of the masters and paid white workers. They studied together in a schoolhouse. As a young boy, Booker walked by the school building many times. He knew something amazing was happening inside, and he wanted very badly to be a part of it.
Sometimes, he would be told to carry the books of one of the plantation master’s daughters. He would walk her to the door of the schoolhouse, but no farther. He peered inside before the door closed in his face. He later wrote that “the picture of several dozen boys and girls engaged in study made a deep impression upon me, and I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise.”
Booker dreamed about the world of books, reading, and education. But it was a risky dream.
Enslaved children were not allowed to go to school. It was even illegal for a slave to learn to read! One of the main reasons white owners didn’t want slaves to be educated was so that they would not find out about the world outside their plantation.
“From the moment that [I was told] that it was dangerous for me to learn to read . . . I resolved that I should never be satisfied until I learned what this dangerous practice was like.” Booker knew that if he was caught with a book, he might be whipped as punishment.
But still he dreamed. And Booker made learning his life. He studied hard and eventually became a teacher. He helped thousands of African Americans and former slaves get an education. He also inspired the creation of dozens of schools and universities for black people.
Booker worked his whole life to give others the chance at learning that he had struggled to get. His devotion to education for African Americans made him famous around the world. He showed that with focus and determination, a person could come “up from slavery” to a better life.
Chapter 1: A Difficult Beginning
When Booker T. Washington was born on a farm in Virginia on April 5, 1856, he did not have a last name. He was just called Booker. He was born a slave. Booker’s mother, Jane, was also a slave. She cooked for everyone on the farm. Booker’s older brother, John, was a slave, too. “Who my father was, I have never been able to learn with any degree of certainty,” Booker wrote.
Dozens of other slaves lived and worked on the farm. They were forced to do whatever work their masters—the bosses on the farm—told them to do. They weren’t paid for their labor. All the slaves were owned by Mr. Burroughs. They had no rights of their own.
The slaves on the Burroughs farm were not alone. Throughout the Southern United States, millions of black people were enslaved. For more than one hundred years, they had been kidnapped and taken from Africa to the United States and islands throughout the Caribbean. Slaves were considered property, the same as a horse for riding or a plow to use in the fields.
Families were broken up and sold to other plantations. Children could be taken from their mothers and sold, too. If a slave ever dared to disobey his master, he could be punished by whipping or worse.
About his early life as a slave, Booker later wrote that it “had its beginning in the midst of the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surrounding.”
Booker’s home was a small shack. The floor was dirt and there were no windows—just the openings where windows should have been. The door was a thin plank of wood that did not shut completely. Cold wind blew in during the winter, and dust blew through in the summer. The children in Booker’s family slept on a pile of rags on the floor.
The first pair of shoes Booker wore had soles made of wood and were very uncomfortable. His clothes were made from a rough and scratchy fabric called flax. Booker said that putting on his new flax shirt was “torture.”
Jane was very busy cooking all day long and could not spend much time with her sons. Booker later wrote that his family never sat down to a meal together. He said that the children got their meals “much as the dumb animals [got] theirs.”
Most of the family’s shack was taken up with the cooking fire and pots and pans, leaving only a tiny space for Jane and her children. The center of the floor was dug into a pit where potatoes were stored.
Booker worked in the fields and around his home, helping Jane. He had no winter clothes. When he was sick, his mother took care of him. There were no doctors for slaves. In 1861, when Booker was about five, he was included on a list that showed the value of the Burroughs slaves as property. It read: “1 Negro Boy (Booker)—$400.”
The life of a slave was one of constant work. The white people who owned slaves did not let their “property” learn to read or go to school, or even hope for a better future. The plantation masters saw no value in educating slaves. But not everyone in America believed that owning slaves was right.
The Civil War, which began in 1861, was fought for several reasons, but the biggest was slavery. Most Northern states were against slavery. Most Southern states were for it. The Southern plantations relied on slaves to do the difficult field work for free. That meant more profit for the landowners. Many Southerners believed that black people were simply not human. The Southern states did not want to be told what to do by Northern states that did not rely on farming as much.
As Civil War battles raged throughout the South and even into some Northern states, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
For two years after President Lincoln’s proclamation, the war continued. Booker, along with nearly four million other people, remained enslaved. The Civil War became the deadliest in the nation’s history. More than 620,000 American soldiers were killed. In April 1865, the Union Army of the North won the Civil War. Lincoln’s proclamation could now be enforced in the South.
Booker remembered the day a Union Army officer visited the Burroughs farm. The officer gathered the slaves together and read the Proclamation. Jane, Booker, and their family realized with amazement that they were no longer slaves.
“There was great rejoicing, and thanksgiving,” Booker later wrote. At the time, he was nine years old. And he was free.
Copyright © 2018 by James Buckley Jr. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.