Booker T. Washington lived the first nine years of his life as a slave on a small farm in Virginia. Some of the farm buildings, including the cabin where he lived, have been reconstructed and form the Booker T. Washington National Monument of the National Park Service.
Washington’s early life.
Washington’s mother was the cook on the farm, and his father is thought to be a neighboring white farmer. He worked all his life, later saying, “There was no period of my life that was devoted to play…From the time that I can remember anything, almost every day of my life has been occupied in some kind of labor.” This work ethic formed in a slave boy on the small farm, where the farmer and his children worked along side their slaves, influenced his leadership as an educator. The story of his childhood can be found in his book, Up From Slavery: An Autobiography.
The partially rebuilt Burroughs farm is an example of a small farm of about 207 acres, which was quite different from large plantations. The cash crop was tobacco, but the farm raised animals and grew vegetables and fruit for the family, and food for the slaves. The slave cabin where Washington was born had a dirt floor and windows without glass which let in heat and cold, even if covered. There were no stairs, so entrance to the loft upstairs was by a ladder propped against the side of the cabin.
The education of Booker T. Washington.
All his life, the dream of getting an education was his goal, but it was illegal to educate slaves. When they were freed, the family moved to join his step-father in West Virginia, where Booker had to work, but was finally allowed to go to school as well. At age 16 he went to Hampton Institute where he could get an education in exchange for work. He became a teacher at Hampton.
In 1881 Washington was asked to start a secondary school for black students in Tuskegee, Alabama, where he had the students build the school themselves. His stress on industrial vocational education, training his students for work and manual labor in addition to academic learning, was considered by some to be holding blacks back from economic and social success. Washington considered it a necessary and practical way to assure his students could be self reliant and earn a living.
A controversial figure in social and political circles.
Booker T. Washington became a successful educator and one of the most important black men in the country. He was criticized, however, for undermining the progress of blacks towards racial equality. In what is called the Atlanta Compromise Address to a biracial audience in 1895 he said, “In all things purely social we can be as separate as the fingers yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”
His accommodation and willingness to work with whites in power angered many black leaders. Washington later spoke out against racism. Did he change his mind as he listened to other black leaders, or was he misunderstood when he was accused of accommodation? Was he a pragmatist making the best of the situation and using white contacts to support progress for his programs? Did he hold back progress towards full civil rights? A thoughtful person will have much to think about and consider while walking around this historic farm.
Visiting the Virginia farm birthplace.
Even without the connection to a famous man, it would be worth a visit to see how a typical Virginia farm operated before the Civil War. The setting is lovely, with rolling hills and stands of trees. Ducks and chickens quack and squawk from their enclosure and pond, and the animals wander over to see if these people by the fence are related to food for them. The farm had sheep for meat and wool, cattle and milk cows, and hogs for pork and famous Virginia ham.
When touring the National Monument of the Birthplace of Booker T. Washington, start at the small visitor center and watch the excellent short film, then read the story of Washington’s life told in the displays. The slave cabins and barn are an easy walk. The setting is lovely, but remember to see it from the point of view of that small slave boy who had little time to look around and think as he worked all day.
Source: Personal experience. National Park Service.