Happy Birthday, Booker T. Washington!

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Today is the birthday of our founding president, Dr. Booker T. Washington. To learn more about his legacy, visit http://ow.ly/10jfyp

A photo posted by Tuskegee University (@tuskegeeuniversity) on

Washington was born on April 5, 1856. “My earliest recollection is of a small one-room log hut on a large slave plantation in Virginia,” he wrote nearly 120 years ago, for the September 1896 issue of our magazine. Here’s a long excerpt from that piece—“The Awakening of the Negro”:

After the close of the war, while working in the coal-mines of West Virginia for the support of my mother, I heard in some accidental way of the Hampton Institute. When I learned that it was an institution where a black boy could study, could have a chance to work for his board, and at the same time be taught how to work and to realize the dignity of labor, I resolved to go there.

Bidding my mother good-by, I started out one morning to find my way to Hampton, though I was almost penniless and had no definite idea where Hampton was. By walking, begging rides, and paying for a portion of the journey on the steam-cars, I finally succeeded in reaching the city of Richmond, Virginia. I was without money or friends. I slept under a sidewalk, and by working on a vessel next day I earned money to continue my way to the institute, where I arrived with a surplus of fifty cents.

At Hampton I found the opportunity -- in the way of buildings, teachers, and industries provided by the generous -- to get training in the class-room and by practical touch with industrial life, to learn thrift, economy, and push. I was surrounded by an atmosphere of business, Christian influence, and a spirit of self-help that seemed to have awakened every faculty in me, and caused me for the first time to realize what it meant to be a man instead of a piece of property.

While there I resolved that when I had finished the course of training I would go into the far South, into the Black Belt of the South, and give my life to providing the same kind of opportunity for self-reliance and self-awakening that I had found provided for me at Hampton. My work began at Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1881, in a small shanty and church, with one teacher and thirty students, without a dollar’s worth of property. The spirit of work and of industrial thrift, with aid from the State and generosity from the North, has enabled us to develop an institution of eight hundred students gathered from nineteen States, with seventy-nine instructors, fourteen hundred acres of land, and thirty buildings, including large and small; in all, property valued at $280,000.

Washington goes on to describe the work of the Tuskegee Institute, which he led for 34 years: “It would be easy for me to fill many pages describing the influence of the Tuskegee graduates in every part of the South,” he writes, advocating for a broader “Tuskegee system”:

Friction between the races will pass away in proportion as the black man, by reason of his skill, intelligence, and character, can produce something that the white man wants or respects in the commercial world. This is another reason why at Tuskegee we push the industrial training.

But his reluctance to push for political enfranchisement put him at intellectual odds with W.E.B. Du Bois, the other leading African American thinker of that time. Here’s a glimpse of that rivalry:

A rundown of Atlantic writings by Du Bois can be found here. And here are the other pieces from Washington published in our magazine:

Washington, who died in 1915, would’ve been 160 today. He is buried on the campus of Tuskegee University.