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 and the Tuskegee Institute (Upper Intermediate)
In 1881, Booker T. Washington was asked to direct a small school in Tuskegee, Alabama. When Washington first went to Tuskegee, the task before him seemed impossible. The school had no property. Classes met in an old, rented church building. The school had almost no money. Its first year, only $2,000 had been allowed to pay all expenses--purchase materials, pay rent, and pay teachers. Its students were poor and could not afford high tuition. And few teachers were willing or able to work for the low salaries Tuskegee could pay.

But Washington was not easily discouraged. First, he started raising money. Within a few weeks, he got a loan that allowed him to purchase an old plantation. The first students at Tuskegee learned valuable trade skills by turning the plantation into a school campus. They learned carpentry skills by building classrooms, dormitories, and a chapel. They learned painting by painting the newly-built structures. They learned farming skills by growing most of the food eaten at the school. They learned landscaping by caring for the school grounds. In just a few short years, the plantation turned into a beautiful campus.

Washington also worked hard to recruit qualified teachers. Less than two years after the school began, he had increased the faculty from four members to nine. The student body also grew rapidly. Soon after its beginning, Tuskegee enrolled not only African-American, but also Native American students. As the school's reputation grew, students came from the West Indies, South America, African, and Asia.

Washington and Tuskegee were not unopposed. Washington urged students at Tuskegee to work hard and gain the respect of the white community because of their work. He also said that African-Americans should not demand to be given the same rights as white citizens. Some critics said that African-Americans would never gain respect only by working. W. E. B. Du Bois was one of Washington's most vocal critics. Du Bois referred to the school as the "Tuskegee Machine." He said that Washington was turning African-Americans into a servant class.

In spite of the criticism the institution received, Tuskegee Institute became known around the world as one of the best trade schools for African-American students in the United States. Washington also earned the respect of both black and white Americans. One writer has said that Washington "spent his life preaching hard work and perseverance. By practicing what he preached, he turned Tuskegee into a model for other black schools and had a major impact on future black education."1
1
 Altman, Susan. Extraordinary Black Americans. Chicago: Children's Press, 1989.


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

campus
carpentry
critics
discourage
enroll
impossible
landscaping

perseverance
plantation
property
recruit
servant
tuition


Comprehension Questions

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