If we want to understand the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, we cannot leave behind the man behind the Tuskegee Institute- Booker Taliaferro Washington. 

Booker T. Washington was born on April 5th, 1856, in Franklin County, Virginia, US. He was of a mixed race, born into slavery. His mother Jane, was a black cook for a plantation owner, and his father, a white man who was never known to him. 

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

A slave by birth, he was owned by James and Elizabeth Burroughs. Nine-year-old Booker, his siblings and mother were freed at the close of the Civil War, and they moved to Malden, West Virginia. Booker’s mother, Jane, married a free black man- Washington Ferguson. Hence  Booker’s surname, Washington.

He had to work as a young child and could only attend classes after work. Booker attended Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a school for formerly enslaved people in southeastern Virginia founded in 1868 by Brigadier General Samuel Chapman– currently, Hampton University. He attended Hampton in 1872, where he worked as a janitor to help pay his expenses and managed to be an excellent student who got high grades. 

Booker graduated in 1875 and returned to Malden, West Virginia, where for two years, he taught children in a day school and adults at night. He developed a philosophy toward the advancement of Black Americans. 

He believed in achieving the betterment of his race by strengthening the character of his students and teaching them a useful trade or occupation. Booker believed Black Americans would assimilate more easily into white society, proving themselves an essential part of that society, armed with the right skills. 

Booker urged his fellow Blacks, most of whom were impoverished and illiterate farm laborers, to temporarily abandon their efforts to win full civil rights and political power and instead to cultivate their industrial and farming skills so as to attain economic security.

In February 1879, Booker was invited by General Armstrong to give the spring commencement speech at Hampton Institute. He gave an impressive speech that  was so well received that Armstrong offered him a teaching position at Hampton. Washington began teaching night classes in the fall of 1879. Within months of his arrival at Hampton, night enrollment tripled.

In June 1881, General Armstrong was asked by a group of educational commissioners from Tuskegee, Alabama for a qualified white man to run their new school for Black Americans. He instead suggested Booker T. Washington for the job. The 25-year-old Booker became the principal of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. Booker found that the school had not yet been built. State funding was earmarked only for teachers’ salaries, not for supplies or the building of the facility.



Booker found a plot of farmland for the school and used his influence to fundraise for a down payment. Students enrolled at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute helped renovate the buildings, clear the land, and plant vegetable gardens. Booker also received books and supplies donated by his friends at Hampton. More donations came from people in the north who supported the education of formerly enslaved people. By May 1882, he had collected enough money to construct a large new building on the Tuskegee campus. (During the school’s first 20 years, 40 new buildings would be constructed on campus, most of them by student labor.)

Booker married three wives who were instrumental in his work at Tuskegee Institute. His first wife, Fanny Smith, died in 1884 after giving birth to their daughter. He remarried Olivia Davidson who died after giving birth to two children. Booker remarried his third wife, Margaret Murray with whom he stayed till his death.

He is famed for ‘The Atlanta Compromise’ speech in September 1895. Booker expressed his firm belief that Black and White Americans should work together to achieve economic prosperity and racial harmony. He urged southern whites to give Black businessmen a chance to succeed in their endeavors. His speech was widely praised by southern White people, but many in the Black community were critical of his message and accused Booker of being too accommodating to whites, earning him the name “The Great Accommodator.”

Booker died on November 14, 1915, at the age of 59, of high blood pressure and kidney disease complications. Booker T. Washington was buried on a hill overlooking the Tuskegee campus in a brick tomb built by students.

Tuskegee Institute later became a training center for the negro pilots- Tuskegee Airmen

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