12 Illuminating Facts About Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington at his writing desk, 1894
Booker T. Washington at his writing desk, 1894 / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Booker T. Washington was one of the most influential—and, at times, controversial—Black leaders of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Born enslaved, Washington went on to found and foster a prestigious university, advise presidents, and speak to audiences across the country. Here are a few facts about this innovative educator.

1. Booker T. Washington and his family were emancipated after the Civil War.

Washington was born on April 5, 1856, on a small tobacco plantation in Virginia. His mother, Jane, was an enslaved cook for the plantation owner. Washington didn’t know his father, who was white. The Civil War ended when Washington was 9, and he and his family, along with the other people enslaved on the plantation, were freed.

2. His middle name is Italian.

The T in Booker T. Washington stands for Taliaferro, which means “iron cutter” in Italian. Reports vary, but Washington’s mother apparently named her son Booker Taliaferro when he was born, and later dropped the second name. Washington chose his surname while in school, though it’s unclear whether went with it because it was his stepfather’s first name or because it was the name of the first U.S. president. He later used Taliaferro as his middle name.

3. He worked in salt furnaces and coal mines as a child.

Salt furnaces and coal mines in near Malden, West Virginia, around the turn of the 20th century
Salt furnaces and coal mines in near Malden, West Virginia, around the turn of the 20th century / George Perry Grimsley, Iron Ores, Salt and Sandstones, Flickr // Public Domain

Shortly after the war ended, Washington’s family moved to Malden, West Virginia, to join his stepfather, and he was put to work. The boy labored in the nearby Kanawha salt mines, shoveling and packing salt into barrels. He wanted to attend school and got permission to do so on the condition that he first worked from 4 a.m. to 9 a.m. in the salt mines, and again later in the day.

From ages 10 to 12, Washington worked in coal mines and continued to juggle hard physical toil with schoolwork. At 15, he was hired as a servant for the wife of the owner of the coal mines, Viola Ruffner. A year later, he left for the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia to continue his education.

4. For his Hampton entrance exam, Washington had to clean a room.

Because his stepfather took most of his wages for family expenses, Washington had little money to travel, and instead walked a good portion of the 400 miles to Hampton. He arrived disheveled and dirty, but determined to get in. It took some time for Washington to convince anyone at the school to give him a chance. His entrance exam consisted of cleaning a room; he passed, and credited his time with Ruffner for his ability to ace the white-glove inspection. He then took a job as a janitor to help pay his way.

While at Hampton, Washington got to know its principal and founder, Samuel Chapman Armstrong. The son of missionaries in Hawaii, Armstrong had commanded Black troops on the Union side in the Civil War, then turned his focus to educating Black students. Hampton opened in Virginia in 1868, starting out as a school to train Black educators and teach useful job skills. Washington wholeheartedly adopted its principles and held Armstrong in high esteem.

5. Booker T. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute.

In May 1881, Armstrong recommended Washington to lead a new school in Tuskegee, Alabama, that would follow the Hampton model. The Alabama state legislature had approved a $2000 yearly appropriation for the Tuskegee Normal School. But when Washington arrived, he found that the funding covered only salaries—there were no buildings and no land.

A local Black church loaned him a shanty, and he borrowed money from Hampton Institute’s treasurer to buy an abandoned 100-acre plantation. Washington recruited students and opened the school on July 4, 1881. In addition to learning trades like carpentry and printing, students helped make and sell bricks to raise money, and they helped construct school buildings as well.

6. Washington grew the Tuskegee Institute into a world-class center of learning.

Interior of the library at Tuskegee Institute
Interior of the library at Tuskegee Institute / Historical/GettyImages

Washington was exceptionally skilled at fundraising and networking, and he enjoyed public speaking. As he worked to build Tuskegee, his profile rose as he interacted with wealthy benefactors, politicians, and citizens.

By its 25th year, in 1906, Tuskegee had grown to an 83-building campus on 2000 acres with an endowment fund of $1.28 million (about $39.6 million today). Guests at the 25th anniversary celebration included Andrew Carnegie, Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot, and William H. Taft (then secretary of war) [PDF]. Today it’s known as Tuskegee University.

7. Washington appeared to publicly support segregation.

Washington believed that economic security and independence was the most pressing need for Black people, and that harmony among races would eventually follow. In that vein, he promoted vocational skills and labor over a liberal arts education and civil rights, and he argued against direct confrontation with white people.

In 1895, Washington spoke to a racially mixed crowd at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. The speech—which Black activist W.E.B. Du Bois would criticize and later refer to as “The Atlanta Compromise”—described Washington’s “accommodationist” philosophy and served as a lightning rod for controversy. One line in particular reverberated for years: “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”

Some, particularly in the Black press, strongly disagreed with this approach. Others felt he was being pragmatic, seeking to reduce anti-Black violence with a message that could appease southern whites.

A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” was constitutional, and legal segregation would stand until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that overturned it.

Washington might have been maneuvering behind the scenes more than he let on, however. He gave money to those who fought discrimination and was reportedly a part owner of the Black newspaper The New York Age, striking a conciliatory tone in public while potentially supporting activist causes in private.

8. Booker T. Washington married three times.

Washington was widowed twice. He married a Malden acquaintance named Fanny Norton Smith, who also attended Hampton, in 1882. They had a daughter before Smith died suddenly in 1884. Washington then married Olivia Davidson, assistant principal at Tuskegee, in 1885 and had two sons with her before Davidson passed away from tuberculosis in 1889. He wed Margaret James Murray, who served as the Tuskegee Institute’s “lady principal,” in 1892, and remained married to her until his death in 1915.

9. He was the first Black person invited to dine at the White House.

Booker T. Washington dines with President Roosevelt
A political cartoon showing Booker T. Washington dining with President Theodore Roosevelt / Library of Congress/GettyImages

On October 16, 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt hosted Washington for dinner—and it caused a stir, particularly in the South. Washington was the first Black person to dine at the White House, and sharing dinner was viewed as a sign of equality among the diners at that time. Additionally, Roosevelt’s wife and daughter were in attendance, which fueled opponents’ fury.

The Memphis Scimitar opined that “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States was committed yesterday by the president,” while its rival, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, wrote, “President Roosevelt has committed a blunder that is worse than a crime, and no atonement or future act of his can remove the self-imprinted stigma.”

The White House tried to walk back its announcement of the event and frame it as a lunch, a story it stuck to for several decades. In the 1930s, a reporter asked Mrs. Roosevelt whether the occasion was a lunch or dinner, and, after checking her calendar, she confirmed it had been a dinner.

10. Washington partnered with the CEO of Sears to create thousands of schools for Black students.

Late in his life, Washington met Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck & Co., and convinced him to join the board of directors at Tuskegee. Washington and Rosenwald kept in touch and soon started discussing ways of educating Black children.

Washington had already been enormously successful in fundraising efforts at Tuskegee, Rosenwald was an ardent philanthropist, and the two men both valued education. They embarked upon a mission of building schools for Black youth in the South.

Though Washington died before any schools were built, the foundation he helped create went on to build almost 5000 schools between 1917 and 1932, plus teachers’ homes, industrial buildings, and privies. Staff from Tuskegee Institute designed the buildings early on before the Rosenwald Foundation took over in 1920. The Rosenwald schools began to close and merge with white schools when segregation was deemed unconstitutional in 1954.

11. Washington is buried on the Tuskegee campus.

Booker T. Washington died on November 14, 1915, of “elevated hypertension.” He had been in New York and, upon learning that he had little time left, was able to board a train to Tuskegee to die at home near the Tuskegee Institute. He arrived home around midnight and died at 4:40 a.m.

Almost 8000 people attended Washington’s funeral on November 17 at the Tuskegee Institute Chapel. He is buried on a hill on the campus.

12. He was the first Black person featured on a U.S. postage stamp.

Booker T. Washington and wife Margaret Murray Washington
Booker T. Washington and wife Margaret Murray Washington / Library of Congress/GettyImages

The Post Office Department issued a stamp honoring Washington on April 7, 1940, the first postage to honor a Black man or woman. The stamp was a 10-cent denomination, higher than the everyday three-cent stamps of the time.

Tuskegee Institute hosted the first day of issue ceremony; the Smithsonian National Postal Museum wrote that the stamp was so popular it necessitated two “unprecedented” second day of issue ceremonies in two additional cities. In 1956, the Post Office Department honored Washington with another stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of his birth.

A version of this story ran in 2022; it has been updated for 2023.