Booker T. Washington recalled his childhood in his autobiography, Up From Slavery. He was born in 1856 on the Burroughs tobacco farm which, despite its small size, he always referred to as a “plantation.” His mother was a cook, his father a white man from a nearby farm. “The early years of my life, which were spent in the little cabin,” he wrote, “were not very different from those of other slaves.”
He went to school in Franklin County – not as a student, but to carry books for one of James Burroughs’s daughters. It was illegal to educate slaves. “I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study would be about the same as getting into paradise,” he wrote. In April 1865 the Emancipation Proclamation was read to joyful slaves in front of the Burroughs home. Booker’s family soon left to join his stepfather in Malden, West Virginia. The young boy took a job in a salt mine that began at 4 a.m. so he could attend school later in the day. Within a few years, Booker was taken in as a houseboy by a wealthy towns-woman who further encouraged his longing to learn. At age 16, he walked much of the 500 miles back to Virginia to enroll in a new school for black students. He knew that even poor students could get an education at Hampton Institute, paying their way by working. The head teacher was suspicious of his country ways and ragged clothes. She admitted him only after he had cleaned a room to her satisfaction.
In one respect he had come full circle, back to earning his living by menial tasks. Yet his entrance to Hampton led him away from a life of forced labor for good. He became an instructor there. Later, as principal and guiding force behind Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which he founded in 1881, he became recognized as the nation’s foremost black educator.