Booker T. Washington

Leader, Teacher, Hero


“It is important that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be ready for these privileges.” said Booker. This was one famous line that he said in his Atlanta Compromise speech, a speech that won him many white people’s help, and set a way of thinking for all whites in general. Booker T. Washington, an african american hero, made his life’s work trying to educate his race. He believed that the only way to gain equality was by economic progress. His goals and accomplishments made his life one of the most important in gaining civil rights.

Early Life

Born into slavery on April 5, 1856, Booker lived on a plantation in Hart’s Ford, Virginia. He liked it there; very few jobs were hard for him, and he and all the other slaves weren’t mistreated. Their owner even worked in the fields alongside them, and shared most of the food. Later in life, Booker said that it was like one big family, everyone was happy and got along. After the civil war was fought, he and his family were freed, but not to the freedom Booker had been looking forward to. Being free now meant working harder than he ever had as a slave. He had to get up at 4 in the morning and had to go to work at a salt furnace all day, and then go home at 9 at night. When he saw school children each day, he envied them, wishing he could go to school. Eventually, he was let to school, but he soon stopped for two reasons. One, he was getting as smart as the teachers and he was way past the other kids, and two, his schedule was too hard for him to keep going there. But when he heard of a great school called Hampton, he went there without delay. He grew to be the very best student they had ever had, The school said later.

Adult Life

After 3 years there, he got a letter from the government, telling him that they wanted him to set up and teach at many new schools that they were setting up. Booker was overjoyed, and helped build over 20 new schools. He spent most his life teaching at one called Tuskegee, the biggest institute that he had constructed. He wanted his race to not be able to be tricked, and be able to understand the rights they got, so to use them to the best extent. He also was one of the first african americans to share a stage with a white at a debate, and gave a very famous speech called the “Atlanta Compromise Speech.” He had many challenges along the way, like W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois was another african american leader at the time, but his attentions were turned towards using force, which Booker did not believe in. Many people at that time were leaning towards violence to gain equality, but Booker knew that that would be unsuccessful and useless. If we demanded rights, whites would only be nice to us because of fear, not from the heart. Eventually they would grow to hate us, worse than before, a bitter hate. We would be worse off than we are now, Booker thought. But if we get them to enjoy equality, and if we show them it works out better for them in the end, they will be willing and welcoming.

Unfortunately, when people saw that Booker’s way was much slower and did not seem to have as much assurity to succeed as Du Bois’ did, Booker started to lose opinions, and many people stopped wanting to listen to him. During a speech on November 12, 1915, Booker T. Washington fell ill. He told the people that he wanted to die in his own Tuskegee. The people took him there, and he died and was buried in his old school that meant so much to him.


Imagine trying to gain equality to a rich white man, when you cannot even spell your own name, or read a book meant for small children! This is what Booker was thinking of when he decided to dedicate his life to educating his race, so as that they would be able to gain every extent of the law when they earned it. Instead of changing the way of whites, he wanted to change the way of blacks. More than 5000 schools for blacks were erected by his efforts, and thousands of blacks now had schools to go to. Many of those grew to be teachers or scientists or mathematicians, and they made many great discoveries. Booker was also responsible for thousands of whites turning towards equality, and getting a thought spread around that it was better for the economy, even ( with a little exaggeration ) necessary! After Booker, most important, official whites were thinking about, if not already trying to, gain equality for blacks. Thinking about all these successes, can you imagine how much longer it would have taken to get equality if Booker never existed?


During a speech on November 12, 1915, Booker T. Washington fell ill. He told the people that he wanted to die in his own Tuskegee. The people took him there, and he died and was buried near his old school that meant so much to him.

“Success has to be measured not by ones positions in life, but by the obstacles he overcame to succeed,” Booker T. Washington always said. If one follows this line, how would you measure his success? Booker got past slavery, hard work, mistreatment, opposition, and other leaders to get to his position. He spent the whole of his life helping others, and I think that confirms that he was one of the greatest African american leaders.


Video: "Booker T. Washington - Mini Biography." YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2013.

Website: "Booker T. Washington." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Mar. 2013. Web. 18 Mar. 2013.

Book: Lois P. Nicholson, Booker T. Washington, Chelsea House Publishers, 1997