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Booker T. Washington Biography

Booker T. Washington is best known as a prominent black educator and racial leader of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He founded Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1881 and oversaw its growth into a well-respected black university.

Born into slavery, Washington rose to a position of power and influence among both blacks and whites. Although he earned the respect of many for his role in promoting education for blacks, Washington has also been criticized for being too accommodating to whites and too complacent on the issue of equal rights.

Dates: April 5, 18561 – November 14, 1915

Also Known As: Booker Taliaferro Washington; "The Great Accommodator"

Famous Quote: "No race can prosper till [sic] it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."

Early Childhood

Booker T. Washington was born in April 1856 on a small farm in Hale"s Ford, Virginia. He was given the middle name "Taliaferro," but no last name. His mother, Jane, was a slave and worked as the plantation cook.  Based upon Booker"s medium complexion and light gray eyes, historians have assumed that his father — whom he never knew — was a white man, possibly from a neighboring plantation. Booker had an older brother, John, also fathered by a white man.

Jane and her sons occupied a tiny one-room cabin with a dirt floor. Their dreary home lacked proper windows and had no beds for its occupants. Booker"s family rarely had enough to eat and sometimes resorted to theft to supplement their meager provisions.

When Booker was about four years old, he was given small chores to do on the plantation. As he grew taller and stronger, his workload increased accordingly.

Around 1860, Jane married Washington Ferguson, a slave from a nearby plantation. Booker later took the first name of his stepfather as his last name.

During the Civil War, the slaves on Booker"s plantation, like many slaves in the South, continued to work for the owner even after the issuance of Lincoln"s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. By the end of the war,

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