There was never a time in my youth, no matter how dark and discouraging the days might be, when one resolve did not continually remain with me, and that was a determination to secure an education at any cost.
Booker T. Washington
No one could have predicted he would become famous when a brown baby boy with reddish hair was born atop a pile of rags in a slave quarter. On entering the world, that child got one name only. For a decade, he would be called Booker, just Booker.
Nothing about his arrival seemed promising. Booker would never know his date of birth. His slaveholders kept scant records on their western Virginia farm, a few miles from Hale's Ford, a crossroads town that Booker later said was "about as near to Nowhere as any locality gets to be." Family recollections narrowed the season of his birth to spring, and he later guessed the year was 1858 or 1859, though more likely it was 1856. He never knew his father's identity-"I only know he was a White man," Booker later wrote. His enslaved mother, Jane, would never confirm the rumor that Booker's father lived on a nearby farm.
Home was a log cabin, roughly fourteen feet by sixteen; a one-room structure that doubled as dwelling and cookhouse. Inside, Jane prepared meals for slaveholder James Burroughs and his family on an open fire. Together with his mother and older brother John, Booker slept on the floor, as did his half sister, Amanda, and Booker's stepfather, Washington ("Wash") Ferguson, an enslaved man from a nearby planation who came and went depending on the whims of his slaveholder. A crude wooden door hung on unreliable hinges. Two unglazed holes in the sidewalls provided limited natural light and ventilation when the weather was warm but were shuttered when it turned cold. A few boards on the shanty's dirt floor covered a deep hole in which sweet potatoes were stored. The cabin was witheringly hot in summer, cold and drafty in winter, and always cramped and smoky.
The stark difference in his family's status from those they served struck the child at unexpected moments. One day as he held the reins while the Burroughs ladies mounted for a pleasure ride, "just before the visitors rode away a tempting plate of ginger cakes was bought out and handed around to the visitors. This, I think, was the first time that I had ever seen any ginger cakes, and a very deep impression was made upon my childish mind. I remember I said to myself that if I could ever get to the point where I could eat ginger cakes as I saw those ladies eating them the height of my ambition would be reached."
For the 1860 census, James Burroughs listed ten enslaved people. Booker's sister, Amanda, still a small child, was worth the least at $200. Women of birthing age and sturdy men were valued higher. Jane, entering her forties, was assessed at just $250, and young Booker $400. In the eyes of the United States government, these people were legal property, along with Burroughs's 207 acres, five-room farmhouse, two cabins for the enslaved, and a miscellany of horses, cattle, pigs, and sheep.
Booker's childhood was without comforts. "[We got] our meals very much as dumb animals get theirs," he remembered. "It was a piece of bread here and a scrap of meat there." His family never ate at a table together, and he wore no shoes until he was eight. Brutalizing punishment was a fact of life; Booker once witnessed an uncle, naked and tied to a tree, whipped bloody with a strip of cowhide. The sight, Booker said, "made an impression upon my boyish heart that I shall carry with me to my grave."
One privation in particular frustrated the boy as he looked around him. He played with the Burroughs children; they fished and wrestled and enjoyed games together. When it came to education, however, the schoolhouse door was always closed in Booker's face. He asked his mother why.
"Learning from books in a schoolroom," she explained, "[is] forbidden to a Negro child." He was told reading was "dangerous," but that only upped his curiosity. "From that moment I resolved that I should never be satisfied until I learned what this dangerous practice was like." His lust for learning and, subsequently, his passion for teaching, would come to mean almost everything to the man who became Booker T. Washington.
Free at Last
Despite an ignorance of reading, writing, and arithmetic, the Black inhabitants of the Burroughs farm knew more of the world beyond its boundaries than their overseers realized. For years the "grape-vine telegraph" had brought the enslaved in the South stories about abolitionists in the North who were agitating to free those in bondage. By the time Booker heard whispered nighttime conversations about Abraham Lincoln and the secession of many states from the Union, freedom had begun to seem possible.
With the fall of Fort Sumter in the spring of 1861, the war became a family matter to the Burroughs. One after another, the sons volunteered to fight for the Confederacy, joining the ranks of the Virginia Cavalry to serve under J. E. B. Stuart, who would soon gain fame as one of Robert E. Lee's most effective fighters. The well-liked William died in battle, in 1863, and "Marse Billy" was much mourned not only by his family but by Black residents on the Burroughs farm, some of whom had nursed him or been his playmates in childhood. Two of his brothers returned wounded, one shot at the Battle of Gettysburg in Pickett's Charge. Another Burroughs son died in a Union prison.
The Black man charged with walking the three miles to the village to collect the mail-often, he was Booker's brother John-did double duty. His official task was to return with letters for the worried Burroughs women, but on behalf of his brothers and sisters, he would linger in Hale's Ford. He could not read the newspapers, but he listened, distilling the conversations around him. The enslaved on adjacent farms gathered bits of information, too, and because of the grapevine, "often the slaves got knowledge of the results of great battles before the white people received it."
By April 1865, Union soldiers were rumored to be in the neighborhood. As brother John escorted the Burroughs women to the nearby Baptist church one Sunday, he saw a company of Yankee soldiers approaching. That night, the voices raised in song in "the quarter," where those enslaved lived, grew louder and bolder, unafraid to sing out the word freedom. The arrival of the Yankee army could mean only the approach of "the day of jubilo," the long-awaited emancipation.
In the morning everyone on the farm assembled at the Big House. The Burroughs men and women, along with their children, stood or sat on the veranda looking down upon the rest of their little community. From the perspective of Booker, who was probably about nine years old, what came next was not entirely clear.
"Some man who seemed to be a stranger," he would write later, "made a little speech and then read a rather long paper." As he listened, Booker studied the faces of the Burroughs family. They looked sad but not bitter, he thought, but he himself didn't quite know what to feel.
He heard the words, and "after the reading we were told we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased." But to a child who had known nothing beyond the rigid structure of his home farm, this required translation. His mother, standing with Booker, John, and Amanda, bent to kiss each of them. When she did, Booker could see the tears-they were tears of joy, he realized-running down her cheeks. "She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing she would never live to see."
Young Booker's world had just undergone a radical shift. The document the soldier read was most likely the Emancipation Proclamation. Though issued more than two years before, on January 1, 1863, the order to free the slaves at first meant nothing in jurisdictions where the Confederate government retained control. But with General Robert E. Lee's surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, on April 9, 1865, just sixty miles east of Hale's Ford, Lincoln's proclamation came into full force and effect. With the Civil War at an end, freedom had finally come for Booker and every other enslaved person in the newly reunited nation.
Yet with freedom came uncertainty. Booker later recalled that at first, "there was great rejoicing, and thanksgiving, and wild scenes of ecstasy." But the simple joy of the moment did not last.
I noticed that by the time [the emancipated coloured people] returned to their cabins there was a change in their feelings. The great responsibility of being free, of having charge of themselves, of having to think and plan for themselves and their children, seemed to take possession of them. It was very much like suddenly turning a youth of ten or twelve years out into the world to provide for himself.
While many formerly enslaved people had no choice but to remain where they were, becoming sharecroppers on terms dictated by their former slaveholders, Booker's family went west. Jane took the reins of a wagon loaded with what few household goods and clothes they owned. Booker, John, and Amanda followed on foot. They walked some two hundred miles, crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains to reach their destination, a town called Kanawha Salines, West Virginia. There, Jane was reunited with her husband, Wash Ferguson, who had escaped during the war to the newly established state of West Virginia.
"Uncle Wash," as Booker called him, had found work in an industrial town along the Kanawha River that was one of the country's major sources of salt. Dozens of great furnaces boiled the briny water that bubbled to the surface at a natural salt lick nearby. The evaporation process produced salt crystals that were much in demand downstream in Cincinnati's pork-processing plants. Wash was among the unskilled laborers paid a small wage to compress the dried salt into barrels for shipment, and within days of their arrival, Booker and John were awakened before sunrise to trudge off with their stepfather for the 4:00 a.m. shift at the Snow Hill Furnace.
The family settled into a hovel only slightly better than their cabin in the quarter. This one, at least, had windows, but Booker thought little of the neighbors, whom he described as "the poorest and most ignorant and degraded white people." The boy was disgusted by their "drinking, gambling, quarrels, fights, and shockingly immoral practices."
Every cent the boys earned went into Wash's pocket, but Booker found an unexpected dividend in the work of shoveling and pounding salt. At the close of each shift, a supervisor came to inspect their day's work. Booker noticed that he marked the barrels with the same two symbols. He soon learned they were numerals-a 1 and an 8-and that 18 was the number assigned to Wash Ferguson. "After a while," Booker wrote much later, "[I] got to the point where I could make that figure, though I knew nothing about any other figures or letters."
The urge he had felt at the schoolhouse door in Hale's Ford returned. "If I accomplished nothing else in life," he resolved, "I would in some way get enough education to enable me to read common books and newspapers." After his mother managed to get him a worn copy of Noah Webster's The American Spelling Book, he pored over the little blue-bound volume for hours. In a matter of weeks, he mastered much of the alphabet, but he had no one to teach him how to use these new tools to help him decode words. Schools for the formerly enslaved existed in some places-but not in others, so education was still out of reach for many Black people. Yet the presence of a local school for Black children only added to Booker's frustration because Wash refused to give him time off from the furnaces to attend. Once again, though, Jane found a solution, arranging for a few hours of evening instruction. Finally, she reached an understanding with her husband: If Booker worked two half shifts, one each before and after school, the boy could go to class.
When the roll was called on his first day, he noticed that the rest of children replied with two names. But he had just one. He thought fast, and by the time his turn came, "I calmly told him 'Booker Washington,' as if I had been called by that name all my life." He was on his way to both literacy and becoming a self-made man.
The Demanding Mrs. Ruffner
Around the time of his twelfth birthday, Booker got a job working in the household of a former teacher, a Vermonter named Viola Knapp Ruffner. Miss Knapp had arrived in Kanawha Salines as a governess for Lewis Ruffner, a mill owner and one of the town's richest men. Eventually, the widower Ruffner had asked Viola to marry him, and she became the lady of the house, helping manage his sizeable estate.
At first, Washington admitted, the well-to-do and educated White woman intimidated him. "[I] trembled when I went into her presence." He knew that most of the other boys who previously worked for her lasted no more than two or three weeks and had grumbled that she was too strict and impossible to please. But as he struggled in the early days, determined to meet her rigid requirements, he recognized a simple fact: Yes, she had high standards, but that didn't make her mean. As he explained later,
I had not lived with her many weeks . . . before I began to understand her. I soon began to learn that, first of all, she wanted everything kept clean about her, that she wanted things done promptly and systematically, and that at the bottom of everything she wanted absolute honesty and frankness.
Before emancipation, the prevailing approach among slaveholders had been to discourage any sense of autonomy among the enslaved: Ignorance and dependence went hand in hand on the plantation. Teaching them to read and write had been forbidden in most Southern states-Virginia had passed one such law an 1831-and anything short of complete obedience was often met with whippings or other punishment. But when Mrs. Ruffner insisted Booker do things her way, he gradually recognized an open door. She didn't want him merely to obey her orders; she wanted him to share her standards and independence, and Booker, reaching deep within himself, found a new self-discipline. The result was a fresh sense of himself, of what he could do, that she reinforced. She trusted him with added responsibilities-but he knew he had earned them.
Copyright © 2023 by Brian Kilmeade. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.