Celebrating Black History Month: Booker T. Washington


We shall prosper in proportion as we learn to
dignify and glorify labor and put brains and skill
into the common occupations of life.


Washington's Childhood (Early Intermediate)
Washington was born on April 5, 1856, near Hale's Ford, Virginia. His mother was a slave, so he was born a slave.

When Washington was born, it was illegal for anyone to teach slaves how to read or write. So Washington did not go to school like free children. Instead, he worked.

Sometimes the work was very hard. Once a week he had to take corn to the mill. He hated this job. Someone would throw a large bag of corn over a horse's back. Washington then had to lead the horse to the mill. Many times the bag of corn would fall off the horse's back. The bag was too heavy for Washington to lift. He could not put it back on the horse's back. He would have to wait until someone came down the road who could lift it for him. Some days he would have to wait many hours. But he also had to go on to the mill, even if it was night. And when he got home late from the trip, he would be beaten for taking so long.

One day while he was working, he saw inside a school. He saw books and maps. He saw children learning to read and write. He saw students studying math. More than anything else, Washington wanted to go to school. But he could not. So he went back to his work. But he did not forget his dream of getting an education.

When Washington was nine years old, the Civil War ended. All the slaves were set free. Washington, his mother, his step-father, and his brothers moved to Malden, West Virginia. Washington's step-father got a job there as a salt-packer. Because the family was poor, the boys also had to work in the salt mines.

Salt mines may not seem like a classroom. But Washington learned to recognize numbers while working in the mines. His mother saw his interest in learning. She got a book for him. And from the book, he learned the letters of the alphabet.

Then, a school for blacks opened in Malden. Washington still had to work. But he also went to school. One day, he heard two men talking about a school in Virginia for blacks, the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. Washington determined to attend the Hampton Institute. Yet he needed more education before he could be admitted to Hampton.

He heard of a job openings in the home of General Lewis Ruffner. Ruffner owned the salt furnace where Washington's father worked. He also owned mines in which Washington worked.

Mrs. Ruffner ran the household. She was known for being hard to please. In fact, many people did not want to work for her. They believed her expectations were too high.

But the job paid well. And Washington knew that household work would be easier than work in the mines. So he took the job.

Mrs. Ruffner made him work hard. She wanted the house very clean. She also wanted him to learn. So she gave him books. And she taught him good English, history, and some math. At last his academic skills were strong enough for him to gain admission to the Hampton Institute.

Do You Know These Words?
If you are not sure of the meanings of the following content words, click here to look them online.

academic
admission
admit
determine
expectations
household

interest
mine (noun)
recognize
slave
illegal
mill


Comprehension Questions

For Discussion . . .

For Further Study . . .
A Not-So-Simple Journey
Obtain a map of the United States (preferably the East coast only). On the map, locate Hale's Ford, Virginia, Washington's birth place. Next find Malden, West Virginia, Washington's later home. Find a distance scale on the map. Approximately how far apart are the two cities?

Remember that cars and airplanes did not exist during Washington's childhood. The family would have to make the move either on foot or by horse and carriage. How long do you think it would take to travel this far without a vehicle?

Has your family ever moved? What kinds of things to you have to do when you move? How do you think the absence of a car or truck would have affected your move? Obviously, space was limited, whether the family traveled on horse or by foot. What kinds of things would they have to take? What kinds of things would they probably not pack?

Imagine that your family is moving. You may take only the items you can fit in one small suitcase. Make a list of what you would pack. Be prepared to explain why you selected each item.


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