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Washington’s Early Struggles

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By Dr. Joseph Bailey
The most significant event in the history of African American education came from the pattern fashioned by Booker Taliaferro.  His last name, Washington, was added o­n the spur of the moment when he went to a little elementary school and found he needed a surname. 

Born o­n the James Burroughs plantation in Franklin County, near Hales Ford, Virginia o­n April 5, 1856, he went o­n to become o­ne of the greatest of America's educators, reformers, and writers.  His mother, Jane Ferguson, was a mulatto slave cook in the master's house.  Accepting and brushing off the idea of his father, a White man from a nearby plantation, never taking any interest in him, Booker stated that his father was "simply another unfortunate victim of the institution which the nation unhappily had engrafted upon it at that time."  Nevertheless, he and two siblings lived in a tiny o­ne-room cabin with an earthen floor and no windows. Booker's mother constantly prayed for the day her children would be free.

Then, in 1863 all three children were clinging to the skirts of their mother as the Emancipation Proclamation (the document of President Abraham Lincoln declaring that all slaves under the Confederacy were from then o­n "forever free") was read aloud by a government official from the steps of the "big house."  That experience caused him to later name his autobiography, "Up from Slavery." In 1864, the American Civil War ended with a victory for the Northern States.  As a result, Booker's mother, stepfather, brother, and sister moved to Malden, West Virginia. 

At age 9, to help support his family, Booker worked all day in the coal mines and salt furnaces.  From small wages he saved enough money to pay for a tutor so as to learn to read and write at night.  In the process, he took o­n the "cause" to help other Black youth get an education. Hungry for more education, Booker left home at age 16 and walked most of the 500 miles -- a very difficult journey -- to Hampton Institute School for Negro Boys, in Hampton, Virginia. Known then as Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, it had opened in April 1868 under the auspices of the American Missionary Association's General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, a former slave holder. 

The school's aims, which laid the foundation for Booker's future teaching approach, were "to train selected youth who shall go out and teach their people, first by example by getting land and homes; to give them not a dollar that they can earn for themselves; to teach respect for labor; to replace stupid drudgery with skilled hands; and to these ends to build up an industrial system, for the sake of character."

Once at Hampton Booker, working as a janitor, and the other Black students supported themselves while pursuing studies under Armstrong's direction.  Armstrong had obtained his teaching philosophy from Hilo Labor School in Hawaii which, at Hampton, was directed toward Negro students being given "moral as well as mental strength."  He wanted his students to become "first rate mechanical laborers" but at the same time he felt the purpose of education was also to make them "first class men and women."  Booker, a good student, responded well to Armstrong's teachings that labor was "a spiritual force, that physical work not o­nly increased earning capacity but promoted fidelity, accuracy, honesty, persistence and intelligence." 

Washington learned the fundamentals -- reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar -- and gathered a fair knowledge of good books.  But interwoven with these studies he absorbed and accepted Armstrong's teachings that the greatest values -- therefore rewards -- lay in acquiring land, homes, vacations, and skills.  These became the essence of his philosophy for maneuvering Blacks through their maze of life that was checkered with "alligators" ready to attack at every turn.

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