West Virginia
Historical Society

Membership Information

July 1999

Booker Taliaferro Washington

by Julie Minter

Booker Taliaferro Washington, one of the most famous and important representatives of the African-American race in America, once made West Virginia his home. He was an educator and statesman and believed that through education and hard work anything was possible (Doherty, 396).

Booker was born into slavery on a plantation at the town of Bale's Ford, Virginia, in 1856. Shortly after the Civil War ended in 1865 and freedom was declared, Booker's stepfather, who had made his way to West Virginia during the course of the War, sent word to his wife and children to come to Malden (Brawley 141).

Washington, only a child at the time, was sent with his brother to work in a salt furnace. His days began as early as four o'clock in the morning. He worked there for about two or three years and then he was placed at a coal mine which supplied fuel for the salt furnace.

Booker's mother, Jane, worked as a servant for some of the fine homes on the out skirts of Malden. One day while she was cleaning, the lady of the house told Jane to throw out some old school books that were cluttering up her house. Instead of throwing them out, Jane brought the books home to Booker so he could learn to read. One of the books was Webster's "Blue Back Spelling Book".

Later, a teacher named Coleman came to open a school for the children. Booker's mother went to the school to talk him about teaching Booker on Sunday's when he didn't have to go to work. Mr. Coleman agreed, and told her to send Booker by on Sunday and he would begin teaching him.

In September, when school began, Booker went to his foreman and asked if he could work half a day because he wanted to go to school. Booker worked from six until nine in the mornings and from three until six every afternoon.

Mr. Coleman was glad to see Booker in his class. When he asked him what his last name was, Booker thought for a second and replied, "Washington". Slaves usually took the surname of their masters, but many slaves did not have last names so when they got their freedom they picked out their own names. Booker just happened to pick the name of Washington because the salt marsh was named Washington's Marsh after George Washington. Unknown to Booker, he had just named himself after the Father of his Country (Graham 53). Later that year hard times hit. The salt works shut down, Booker's father was hurt in the mines and couldn't work. Booker dropped out of school to work full time in the coal mines.

Before Mr. Coleman left Malden, he had seen Booker. Mr. Coleman told Booker that he had not come to the end of his schooling and that bad times will pass. He made him promise that when his father recovered that Booker would leave the mines. Booker promised that he would. Coal mining was now the growing industry of West Virginia. Former salt makers turned their interest to the coal mining industry. Men came from other parts of the country and the mine owners brought miners in from Ireland.

Booker's mother got work as a cook for Mrs. Ruffner, who was the wife of General Lewis Ruffner, an owner of the coal mine. Their house was the biggest and finest in the area. Booker asked his mother if he could get a job there. Jane talked to Mrs. Ruffner and she agreed to let him work by doing repairs on the grounds. She also was willing to teach him one hour everyday.

Mrs. Ruffner was a stern employer. Booker was frightened every time she called to him. After a while he began to understand her demands, and learned that everything must be kept clean, orders carried out promptly and systematically. He also learned to answer her questions fully and frankly. Mrs. Ruffner taught Booker an important lesson. He learned to see what needed to be done and to do a job well (Williams 120).

Booker saved his money in hopes of going to Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. His savings had been reduced by the purchase of shoes and other things his mother could not obtain from cast offs. He had around twenty-three dollars and fifty cents when he left for Hampton in September 1872. When he reached the end of this five hundred mile journey to Hampton he had fifty cents left (73).

Miss Mackie, who was teacher of Mathematics and Enrollment Secretary at Hampton, took Booker to a room and told him to clean it. While Booker worked, he thought of Mrs. Ruffner and the work he had done for her: sweeping the floors, cleaning the windows and dusting. Booker did these things, not once, but three times before Miss Mackie came back to check on his work. She looked at the room and did a white glove inspection. She was impressed by the fact that there was no dirt or dust anywhere, so she gave Booker a job as janitor. This helped him pay for his education. After trying for several days to find a job in town, he finally found work in a restaurant at Fortress Monroe. His wages were little more than his board.

During his second year at Hampton, he was informed that he would be allowed the full cost of his board. The cost of tuition still remained, being seventy dollars a year. The head of the school, General Armstrong, got a friend of the institution, S. Griffitts Morgan of New Bedford, to be responsible for Booker's tuition throughout his course. Years later, at the height of his fame, he became known as Dr. Washington. He visited Mr. Morgan at his home and thanked him for the assistance he had received (Brawley 149-150).

Booker progressed rapidly during his second year. The teachers were quick to recognize his capabilities. A teacher, Miss Lord, heard about how good a student he was and gave him private lessons in breathing, articulation and emphasis. Not only did he have lessons with books, but also in farming, breeding and agriculture. He won prize money in the amount of ten dollars for a pig he bred and raised. This money would let him go home for the summer and see his family.

When he arrived home, he found his mother very ill. The salt furnaces were closed and miners were on strike. Booker set out looking for work to help his family; however, there was no work at Malden or anywhere close by. Booker was told by a Reverend Johnson that things were not as bad in Parkersburg. Later that week, Booker and the Reverend left for Parkersburg. There he found work as janitor. It was on a return trip home that he learned that his mother had died the night before. Booker never returned to Parkersburg (1 50).

In June, 1875, Booker Washington graduated from Hampton Institute. He graduated with honors and was chosen to speak at the commencement ceremony (Altman 87). His first summer out of school he found work at one of the big hotels in Newport, Rhode Island. There he worked as a waiter. While there, he received a letter from Reverend Johnson stating that Malden was again opening a school in the fall and he wanted Booker to come and be its teacher.

Booker opened the school that fall and worked there for three years. It was closed because of the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. The Reverend and others told Booker that his calling was to be a minister. Booker thought about this and decided to attend Wayland Seminary in Washington, DC.

While at Wayland Seminary, he met David Smalls whose uncle was Robert Smalls, a member of The House of Representatives from South Carolina. It was through David Smalls that Booker received an invitation for the President's reception. It was there he met Frederick Douglass and shook hands with President Hayes. He knew that he would like to be like Frederick Douglass, who was considered the greatest man that the black race had produced.

In March of that year, Booker received a letter from a committee of prominent white citizens in Charleston, West Virginia inviting him to canvas the state in the interest, in making Charleston the capital of the State. The campaign lasted three months. In June, Charleston won the distinction of becoming the capital of West Virginia.

Later that summer, while Booker was in Malden, he received letters from Hampton wanting him to come and teach. He was torn between staying in Malden to teach and help take care of his younger sister and adopted brother, or accept the position as teacher. Several correspondences passed between Hampton and Malden over the weeks. Hampton finally found a solution to Booker's problems: a graduate from Hampton was found to teach the school and Booker's sister Amanda and brother James would be admitted as students there at Hampton (Graham 118).

Booker taught two years at Hampton before he was asked to fill the position at Tuskegee as headmaster. He worked hard to find financing to make the school a success. Booker transformed Tuskegee from a small, poor and little known school into a world famous center for vocational training ( Conley 396).

"Early in the history of the Tuskegee Institute we began to combine industrial training with mental and moral culture. Our first efforts were in the direction of agriculture, and we began teaching this with no appliances except one hoe and a blind mule." (Washington 15).

He became friendly with many of America's leading white businessmen. Industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller donated money on a regular basis. In 1892, he established the National Negro Business League to encourage the development of black- owned businesses. Considered by many to be the most important black leader of the time, Booker Washington often advised presidents William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt on political issues. He was the first black man ever to receive an honorary degree from Harvard University (Altman 88).

Booker married three times. Ms first wife was Fannie N. Smith, of Maiden, a graduate of Hampton. She joined him at Tuskegee in the summer of 1882, one year after he began work at Tuskegee. She gave birth to Portia, their daughter, and died shortly after child birth. Two years later he married Olivia Davidson, of Ohio. She was a graduate of Hampton and also of the State Normal School in Framingham, Massachusetts. She gave him two sons Booker, Jr. and Ernest Davidson. She died 1889. In 1893, he married Margaret J. Murray from Mississippi, a graduate ofFisk University. She survived him ten years (Brawley 157).

At the time of his death on November 14,1915, his son Booker, Jr. was teaching at Tuskegee, Ernest was away studying medicine and daughter Portia was happily married. His brother John was teaching at Tuskegee and his adopted brother James was a postmaster.

Booker Taliaferro Washington was a great man. He not only advanced his race, but he also advanced all mankind in his efforts to bring all people together. He was a man truly ahead of his time. The ideals which Booker Washington embraced proved to be a springboard for future civil rights leaders.

Works Cited

Altman, Susan. Extraordinary Black Americans. Regensteiner Publishing Inc. Chicago, Illinois. 1989.

Brawley, Benjamin. Negro Builders and Heroes. The University of North Carolina Press.Chapel Hill, N. C. 1937.

Conley, Phil, and Doherty, William. West Virginia History. Education Foundation, Inc. Charleston, West Virginia. 1974.

Graham, Shirley. Booker T. Washington. Simon and Schuster, Inc., New York, N.Y. 1972.

Washington, Booker T. Industrial Education for the Negro. J. Pott and Company, New York, N.Y. September, 1903

Williams, Tony L. West Virginia Our State 2000 C.E. C. J. Krehbiel Company,Cincinnati, Ohio. 1997

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