African-American Landmarks: Booker T. Washington National Monument

 

Part of our African American Landmarks & Desitnation Family Travel Series

By Kimberly Dijkstra

 

His Life

 

One of the most prominent Black figures in United States history, Booker T. Washington rose from oppressed beginnings to becoming a well-respected educator, author, orator, and adviser to several presidents.

Born into slavery in 1856, Washington spent the first nine years of his life working on the plantation of James Burroughs in Virginia. The Emancipation Proclamation freed his family from slavery, but did not free them from racism or lack of opportunity.

They moved to West Virginia where Washington and his brother worked in salt furnaces and coal mines. Young Washington had a strong desire to learn and attended a local school on the condition he would pack salt before and after school every day. 

He left home to become a house servant of a wealthy family in the area. The wife took an interest in Washington and taught him the Protestant work ethic, which emphasizes diligence, discipline, and frugality. 

In 1872, Washington was able to pursue higher education at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia. He worked as a janitor, alongside his studies, and found a father-figure in General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, the founder of the institute. 
Washington taught night classes while continuing his education at the Hampton Institute until Armstrong recommended Washington for the position of principal of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, a position that would typically have gone to a white man. Washington was accepted and began to work closely with the white commissioners as they set up the school. 

Washington soon moved the school from a church to a former plantation and had students build the school buildings, grow crops, and raise livestock in exchange for an education. His students, both men and women, learned trades and academics, and left the school with the tools to teach farming and other trades to other Black students across the South. 

Holding a racial philosophy of accommodation, Washington taught his students to behave respectably and work hard to earn the approval of white people. This ideology worked for him ー he spoke at several high-profile conventions and events and in 1895 gave a speech known as the “Atlanta compromise” to a national audience at the Atlanta Exposition. Washington argued for Blacks to slowly work their way up in society and through peace and cooperation slowly earn the respect of whites, a stance that was controversial at the time and today. 

W.E.B. Du Bois, a professor of sociology at Atlanta University, was one of Washington’s biggest critics. Washington valued hands-on, “industrial” education as a path for African Americans to have stability and a place in society, while Du Bois advocated for Blacks to have access to the same liberal arts education that white people were entitled to. 

Though he promoted a “go slow” approach to civil rights, Washington secretly contributed financially to activist causes, including court challenges to segregation and restrictions on voter registration.

In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Washington to a dinner at the White House, a sensational, unprecedented event. Washington became an advisor to Roosevelt on Southern politics, while continuing to expand Tuskegee and help develop other schools and colleges.

Washington passed away in 1915 from inflammation of the kidneys at the age of 59. His autobiography, Up From Slavery, was a best-seller for decades and is still widely read and studied today.

 

His Legacy

In the 1940s, Washington’s daughter Portia dedicated her efforts to memorializing her father. She succeeded in getting a bust of Washington placed at the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in New York and having the Booker T. Washington Memorial Half Dollar minted in his honor, the first coin to feature an African American. 

On the hundredth anniversary of his birth, the house where Washington was born in rural Franklin County, Virginia, was designated as a national monument. The commemorative half dollar funded the purchase of the site, which was added to the National Register of HIstoric Places in 1966. 

Situated under an hour from Roanoke, Virginia, and about an hour from Lynchburg, Virginia, the Booker T. Washington National Monument protects 239 acres of fields and woodlands, manages 3.5 miles of streams, and is home to hundreds of species of plants and animals.

Start your visit at the Visitor Center, where exhibits and an audio-visual presentation inform you about Washington’s life. Reservations are required for ranger-guided walking tours. 

Both walking trails on the property are suitable for families. The Plantation Trail, a ¼-mile loop, passes through reconstructions of 19th century farm buildings, which are open to explore. The Jack-O-Lantern Branch Heritage Trail, a 1 ½-mile route, offers a meandering walk through fields and forests. 

Furthermore, a farm area with sheep, pigs, horses, and chicken recreate the feel of an 1850s tobacco farm from Washington’s youth, and a garden area exemplifies a typical subsistence garden of the time period. A picnic area is available for visitors in a wooded setting and Junior Ranger booklets are available for inquisitive children, making the monument the perfect destination for families wishing to learn more about the life and legacy of Washington together.

Washington’s memory is also kept alive through Tuskegee University and its campus which is designated as the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site by the National Park Service.

In addition, several parks and state parks are named after Washington, as well as numerous schools, a World War II liberty ship, and even a mountain in Washington State ー Booker Mountain, an apt memorial to this mountain of a man. 

 

  


More Landmarks and Destinations

Selma to Montgomery Historic Trail

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

The Black Cowboy Museum

The Underground Railroad

Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site

Booker T. Washington National Monument

The DuSable Museum of African American History

 

 

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