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When looking for American history books, there are many individuals of all races, cultures and ethnicities that will stand out for both good and bad reasons. It is important to learn to focus on the positive leaders of past, present and future, while still remembering to keep the negative in the back of your mind so poor moments in history are not repeated.

One of the most prominent historical black figures in history that stands out for many reasons is Booker T. Washington (1856-1915.) Washington was a very well-known educator and civil rights leader during the late 19th century and early 20th century and he is still highly regarded in present day. This was a time when race relations between black and white people were especially difficult.
He was actually born into slavery, making it difficult to create a life of any kind outside of the world he grew up in. However, not only did Washington persevere, he thrived as he grew into adulthood and became a teacher. In fact, he took education to the highest of levels, creating the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama (now known as Tuskegee University) in 1881.

Washington also focused on putting his ideas in print. He worked with ghost writers and took the time to pen 5 books by an African American author during the course of his life.

  • The Story of My Life and Work (1900)

  • Up from Slavery (1901)

  • The Story of the Negro: The Rise of the Race from Slavery (1909)

  • My Larger Education (1911)

  • The Man Farthest Down (1912)

Many of these are some of the top African American books of all time. This is significant not only due to the historical contribution to African American books, but it also speaks to us here at Melanin Origins. With a focus on creating black history books for children that truly speak to them, we appreciate powerful black historians. We truly believe that Booker T. would have enjoyed our own children’s book about him, as well as our 10 book series, 5 book bundle and extended curriculum. Education spans all races, ethnicities, cultures and religions -- and an importance on education in youth should always be respected. The Melanin Origins library is full of new African American books that are perfect for children of all ages. You will also find plenty of black history month books and books every black person should read.

Read on to learn more about Booker T. Washington, his educational endeavors and how to find the best African American books.

A Glimpse into Booker T. Washington’s Early Life

Booker Taliaferro Washington was born into slavery on April 5th, 1856. His mother was a slave who worked as a cook for a plantation owner named James Burroughs and his father was unknown. Many believed him to be a white man from another plantation.

His first experience with work was as a young boy carrying sacks of grain to the plantation’s mill. This was not easy work for Booker, but he was able to lose himself in dreams of pursuing his own education. He was able to see glimpses of young girls and boys in the nearby school reading, writing, learning… this drove him to hope for a better life. Sadly, at the time it was illegal to teach slaves how to read and write. He was not deterred. For Booker T. Washington school was everything.

Finally, the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished. Booker T. and his mother decided to move to Malden, West Virginia. It was there that his mother married Washington Ferguson. Their family remained very poor during those years, and Booker T. being only 9 years old at the time skipped out on school to work and help earn money for his family. He salted furnaces alongside his stepfather.

His thirst for knowledge still lingered though and his mother took notice. She got him a book, and he was able to teach himself the ABCs, as well as some basic writing skills. Since he was still working, he got up early every day (often as early as 4am!) to practice his reading and writing. By 1866, Booker T. was able to move onto another job as a houseboy for Viola Ruffner. She also noticed his love for education, and although she was actually known for being exceptionally strict, she allowed Booker to attend school for one hour every day. He was finally able to begin his formal education at 10 years of age.

Moving up in Life: Booker T. Washington’s Educational Journey

There are many interesting Booker T. Washington facts that will come to light throughout the telling of his life, and many of them pertain to his education. Now that Booker T. Washington had started his formal education, the sky was truly the limit. He was ready to take on all education challenges in front of him, and there would be many.

To start his college journey, he walked 500 miles from his home to get there. He was attending Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute in Virginia. He supported himself along the way by picking up odd jobs. Once he arrived at the school, he had to work with administrators to convince them to allow him to attend. He even took a job on campus as a janitor so he would be able to pay his tuition. Thankfully, the headmaster at the school recognized his determination and intelligence and rewarded that with a scholarship so he could truly focus on his education.

In 1875, Booker T. Washington graduated from college after excelling as a student there. From there, he chose to teach at his former grade school back in Virginia while attending Waylan Seminary.

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By 1881, Booker T. Washington was able to convince the legislature in Virginia to fund the Tuskeegee Normal and Industrial Institute (which eventually became Tuskegee University).

The University has thrived over the years, becoming one of the leading educational institutions in the country. When Booker T. Washington passed, he left a true legacy through the Tuskeegee University. It had more than 1,500 students, 38 trades being taught, 100-buildings that were ready to teach students of high levels. Best of all? It had garnered a $200 million dollar endowment.

All those that loved and knew Booker T. Washington were not only proud of his many educational accomplishments, but they were also not surprised, as he always showed a wealth of knowledge and dedication to learning that was unsurpassed.

Notable Moments: Other Valuable Mentions from Booker T. Washington’s Life

Although Booker T. Washington placed a high importance on education, there were a few other moments a bit outside this realm that stick out amongst his history. There are many Booker T. Washington accomplishments of note. Three of those were his Atlanta exposition address, his white house dinner with Theodore Roosevelt, and his feud with writer W.E.B. DuBois. It’s important to note how heavily Booker T. Washington beliefs fed into these moments in history.

Booker T. Washington Atlanta Exposition Address

On September 18th, 1895, Booker T. Washington delivered his Atlanta exposition address or Atlanta Compromise Speech at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. Many regard it as one of the most influential and important speeches in American history. You can view it in its entirety and judge for yourself here.

Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington’s White House Dinner

Never before Booker T. Washington had an African American been invited to the White House. In 1901, this all changed when Theodore Roosevelt, the democratic president at that time, invited Booker T. Washington to a White House dinner.

Unfortunately, this was not an event that overjoyed some of the white population in the United States. At this time, to invite someone to dine with you was basically letting them know that you saw them as your equal. There were some people that felt it was not possible for African Americans and whites to be equal. Theodore Roosevelt thankfully did not see it that way, and ignored the detractors.

Following the meal, Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington continued to meet as Roosevelt brought Washington on as an adviser on racial matters. President William H. Taft, Roosevelt’s successor, also utilized Booker T. Washington’s intelligence and skills during his administration.

While being a White House adviser, Booker T. Washington penned “Up From Slavery” which led to mixed feelings across the country. Many African Americans looked up to Washington and revered him as a legend, while others, like W.E.B. DuBois considered him a traitor.

Feuding Days with W.E.B. DuBois

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It’s never easy to be famous during your time -- whether it is for positive or negative reasons. It’s exceedingly difficult to feud with a peer that is supposed to be championing the same values that you are. However, this was the unfortunate case for Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, both authors and activists during the same time.

It was 1895 when Booker T. Washington made his personal views more public in his writing - making Booker T. Washington quotes quite controversial. He felt that African Americans needed to accept some of the limitations that were currently in place. He felt their disenfranchisement would inevitably be lessened if they accepted it while whites continued to allow them economic progress. His hope seemed to be that in time, the playing field would level out. Some people appreciated his realness, and understood that change takes time. Others, like W.E.B. DuBois were vehemently opposed to his views, as African Americans had been through enough and should not have to settle any longer.

W.E.B. DuBois felt African Americans should demand equality now that the 14th Amendment had passed, and he certainly wasn’t wrong about that. However, it was certainly a delicate line to straddle, and most believed that both men had valid, albeit conflicting arguments.

The Death and Legacy of Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington’s life ended when he was still the leader of Tuskeegee University. He unfortunately had congestive heart failure which led to his death at the age of 59 on November 14, 1915.

He left behind a true legacy as someone who made incredible strides in his life after being born into what seemed like a hopeless situation. There was even a Booker T. Washington half dollar in the 1946-1951 commemorative series.

He rode the line when it came to equal opportunities for African Americans, endorsing the idea that they continue to accept less if it meant that they could have more as time went on, while actually funding many civil court cases that challenged segregation. He was not public about the financing of these cases, while he was public about his views regarding the place of African Americans in that current society. Due to these conflicting views and actions, he had lost much of his clout and influence just a few years before his death.

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Overall, it’s impossible to ignore the importance of Booker. T. Washington as a historical figure and influencer in the African American community during a very racially charged and complicated time in the history of the United States.

To help your children learn more about and appreciate Booker T. Washington’s journey, we recommend checking out “Brick by Brick: A snippet of the life of Booker T. Washington.” This Melanin Origins’ published book was written by Louie T. McClain II and is perfect for children in first grade or younger. And as always, there are plenty of black books to read, full of hidden black history in the Melanin Origins library. Check it out and pick up some top black history books for children from Melanin Origins today!