His is a truly American story.
In 1881, Booker T. Washington founded the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama. From there he would rise to become the most powerful black man in America.
But Washington’s roots were humble. He was born a slave on a Virginia farm in 1856. Until freed nine years later, Washington lived in a small one-room log cabin with his mother.
“The cabin was without glass windows; it had only openings in the side which let in the light, and also the cold, chilly air of winter. … There was no wooden floor in our cabin, the naked earth being used as a floor,” Washington wrote in his autobiography, Up from Slavery.
After being freed, Washington went to work in a salt furnace in West Virginia. There, his mother somehow got him a child’s spelling book. The nine-year-old soon taught himself the alphabet.
When a school for blacks opened in Washington’s home town, he wanted to go. But his stepfather wouldn’t let him leave the salt furnace. So Washington convinced the teacher to teach him at night.
“These night lessons were so welcome that I think I learned more at night than the other children did during the day. My own experiences in the night school gave me faith in the night-school idea,” he wrote.
One day, Washington heard two coworkers talking of a new boarding school for blacks in Virginia, and he made up his mind to go there. In the fall of 1872, with little money, he left for the Hampton Institute. He was determined to be admitted.
He got in, but that was just the start of his education.
Washington worked as a janitor at the school to pay its $10-a-month boarding fee.
He was soon noticed by General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, a Union Army veteran, who headed the school.
Armstrong sought above all to teach his students self-reliance, hard work, and thrift. Washington became his top pupil.
“At Hampton, I not only learned that it was not a disgrace to labor, but learned to love labor, not alone for its financial value but for labor’s own sake and for the independence and self-reliance, which the ability to do something the world wants done brings,” Washington wrote.
In 1876, Washington left Hampton and returned to West Virginia. There he began teaching fellow blacks.
He eventually sent six of his pupils to Hampton. The school found them so well-prepared that it hired Washington as a teacher in 1879.
While teaching, Washington continued his own studies at Hampton.
He also started the school’s first night classes. His students were people who couldn’t afford to give up day jobs.
In 1881, the state of Alabama started a school for blacks in Tuskegee. Officials asked Armstrong to recommend someone to head the school. He advised them to take Washington. They did, and Washington left for Tuskegee.
The state gave him funds for staff but none for land or buildings. Washington coaxed friends to lend him money for land, and he got locals to donate building supplies. He had his students build the classrooms and dorms.
“My plan was to have them, while performing this service, taught the latest and best methods of labor, so that the school would not only get the benefit of their efforts, but the students themselves would be taught to see not only the utility in labor but beauty and dignity,” Washington wrote.
This, he admitted, was hard. Most of his students, he said, didn’t want to do manual labor. That’s why they came to him to learn to be teachers.
But he led by example, helping clear land and do other chores.
“When they saw that I was not afraid or ashamed to work, they began to assist with more enthusiasm,” he wrote.
Much of Tuskegee’s success was due to Washington’s ability to get funding from white businesspeople. But that money didn’t come quickly.
He recalled one man who gave him only two dollars. “I did not blame him for not giving me more, but made up my mind that I was going to convince him by tangible results that we were worthy of larger gifts,” he wrote.
Each year, the man gave larger sums to Tuskegee. When he died, he left the school $50,000.
Perhaps nothing did more to help Washington raise funds than the release of his autobiography in 1901. It inspired many across the world.
Washington quickly built Tuskegee into a major learning center. His alumni soon took leading positions in black firms throughout the South.
The “Tuskegee Machine” gave Washington great power, which he used to begin black institutions in education, religion, business, and charity.
Washington scoffed at those who said luck had played a part in his success.
“No, it was not luck. It was hard work. Nothing ever comes to one that is worth having, except as a result of hard work,” he wrote.
Washington died in 1915, but the school he built lives on. And his life and writings still inspire others.
Charles Oliver is a staff writer for Investor’s Business Daily. This article appeared in its July 25, 1995 edition.