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West Virginia's Historic People

Important People

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was an educator, speaker, author, and the son of a slave born on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia. Following the Civil War, his family moved to Malden, West Virginia, where he worked in a salt furnace and in coal mines. In his autobiography Up From Slavery, Washington wrote:

"At that time salt-mining was the great industry in that part of West Virginia, and the little town of Malden was right in the midst of the salt-furnaces. My stepfather had already secured a job at a salt-furnace and he had also secured a little cabin for us to live in. Our new house was no better than the one we had left on the old plantation in Virginia. In fact, in one respect it was worse. Notwithstanding the poor condition of our plantation cabin, we were at all times sure of pure air. Our new home was in the midst of a cluster of cabins crowded closely together, and as there were no sanitary regulations, the filth about the cabins was often intolerable. Some of our neighbours were coloured people, and some were the poorest and most ignorant and degraded white people. It was a motley mixture. Drinking, gambling, quarrels, fights, and shockingly immoral practices were frequent. All who lived in the little town were in one way or another connected with the salt business. Though I was a mere child, my stepfather put me and my brother at work in one of the furnaces. Often I began work as early as four o’clock in the morning."

Washington worked in the mines early in the morning and in the evenings so he could attend school during the day. He then moved east to attend the Hampton Institute, a school established to educate freed slaves, in Hampton, Virginia. In 1881, he was named the first leader of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). Washington made the institution into a major center for industrial and agricultural training and, in the process, became a well-known public speaker.

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