Booker Talliaferro Washington (Born: April 5, 1856, Died: November 14, 1915)

Writer’s Note: This is a follow-up to a good article by Dr. PB Nepali of Kathmandu University on Booker T Washington that was published by Spotlight on August 6, 2021. In an age raging with George Floyd, Black Lives Matter and in our own Nepal despite the abolishment of Kamalaris/Kamaiyas system the recent sad inter-caste clashes in the districts, the writer felt a short summary of Booker Washington’s remarkable life will be of interest to Spotlight readers. The following is a summary of Booker’s life from an excellent book George Washington Carver – The Man Who Overcame by Lawrence Elliott about Carver, another great Black American of that period.

Sept. 16, 2021, 9:55 p.m.

Measure me not by the Heights to which I have climbed But the Depths from which I have come!’ – Frederick Douglass, the first great spokesman of the Negro people, after the 1863 abolition of slavery in USA, who died in 1895 and the mantle of leadership fell on Booker T Washington.

Boker T.png

Booker T. Washington, circa 1903(Courtesy Library of Congress, American Memory Project)

Booker was born into slavery in 1856 on the Burroughs plantation in Franklin County, Virginia. His mother, Jane, was a cook in a ‘big house’ and of his father he only knew that he was a white man from some neighbouring plantation. Sometimes Booker was called up to the mansion to shoo away flies from the dining room. Even as a boy he was highly valued - assessed by a court at $400! Each Sunday his mother was permitted to take home some molasses for her three children. Home was a fourteen by sixteen cabin in the slave quarter with earthen floor and no windows. For Booker, raised on corn bread and fat pork daily, that piece of molasses was heart-stopping treat. He was not yet ten when the Civil War ended in 1865 and the slaves were freed. He remembers an army officer, standing on the verandah of the colonnaded white house, reading to the assembled Negroes US President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation[i]. ‘You are free’ the officer said and Booker felt his mother’s tears as she stooped to kiss him. There were tumult, songs and great shouts of rejoicing long into the night. Only later were they to realize and ponder: where to go, how to live, where would their food come from, and who would take care of their old folks? Washington later wrote ‘In a few hours, the great questions with which the Anglo-Saxon race had been grappling for centuries had been thrown upon these people to be solved.’ Four million souls had been flung into a strange and alien liberty without money, homes, jobs or votes. Free for what? Washington clearly saw, ‘To vie with their one time white masters! To them Booker T Washington devoted his life, struggling to make meaningful this new-found freedom, to put into unskilled black hands the tools of learning and enterprise and opportunity. His incredible journey from slavery to the Hall of Fame began in 1865. In Malden, close to Charleston, his mother’s husband, Washington Ferguson (Booker’s stepfather), sent nine year old Booker and his brother to work in salt furnaces. For seven years Booker scooped and packed salt and hacked coal in the dark mine bottom. With hunger to read and write, he scrambled his way to a rudimentary education. Nearly everything he read and heard told him that the Negro race was the lowest and most hopeless of God’s creatures.

In 1872 having heard about a School for Negroes in a place called Hampton Institute near Norfolk, Booker travelled 500 miles across the civil war-torn Virginia – begging for rides and walking. Working as a janitor to pay his way, he graduated in 1875 and returned to Malden to teach the School there. Four years later, Booker went back to Hampton to take a teaching post. In May 1881 his school principal, General Samuel C Armstrong received an urgent request from a group of people in Tuskegee, deep in the ‘black belt’ of Alabama but home also of the staunch racist Confederates, for a white teacher for a School for Negroes that the Legislature had authorized. Tuskegee was a little town of 1,000 whites and 1,000 Negroes. WF Foster, a former Confederate officer, an aspirant to the State Legislature asked Lewis Adams, once a slave, what his people wanted for their support. Adams, a skilled metal worker, asked for a Negro training School. Colonel Foster was elected[ii] to the State Senate and a bill authorized the establishment of a Normal School for coloured teachers. General Armstrong replied that he had no white teacher for that post but recommended an eminently suited coloured man. Three days later a telegram to General Armstrong said ‘Booker T Washington will suit us. Send him at once.’

Washington came to Tuskegee in June 1881. His School consisted of a leaky Methodist Church building about to collapse and a more worse nearby shanty. There were no books, no slates, no desks and no students. Though disillusioned, he was not baulked. Two days later he borrowed a mule and wagon and set out to learn what he could about the Tuskegee people and their needs. He met an old grizzled man who related him about being sold into slavery. To Washington’s query ‘How many of them were sold?‘Five’ was the reply. ‘Myself, brother and three mules!’ The School started at the dilapidated church on July 4, 1881. There were 30 pupils most of them older than the 25 year old teacher himself. Late that year, Washington heard of a 100 acres of abandoned plantation about a mile north of town that could be purchased for $500. The land was arid, bare with four ruined buildings. But Washington now had 50 students and he dreamt of 50 times that number. So he wrote to General Armstrong begging for a loan which he promised to pay back. The money came by return mail. Only days later, the teacher and students were swarming through the plantation cabin, kitchen, stable and hen house hammering, scrubbing, whitewashing. A new teacher, Miss Olivia A Davidson, who was to become Washington’s wife, undertook to raise money to pay back the awesome debt. She organized festivals, concerts and suppers among the community to raise money. People offered gifts according to their means. One day an old coloured lady hobbled up to Washington and putting six eggs on his desk said ‘I have no money. But I want you to take this toward the learning of the young ‘uns.’ Within five months, the entire $500 was repaid.

To most students, swinging an axe and ploughing the fields was not the education they had envisioned. They were all suffused[iii] with the idea that learning would free them from toil and hard physical labour. That Schooling would make them escape from such toils. But when Washington, the principal, strode out among them with an axe on his shoulder and wielded it with vigour, the students’ mutterings died away. It was a graphic lesson in the Dignity of Labourthe basic tenet Tuskegee Institute would grow and flourish on. Washington taught them to wash, plough and plant aiming to turn out not Scholars but teachers and technicians and competent farmers. In the next 15 years, 40 buildings were erected, all but four by student labour. Washington travelled widely for his School’s funds and at the same time addressing for a better understanding between the white and coloured races. When Frederick Douglass, the first great spokesman of the Negro people died in 1895, the mantle of leadership fell on the shoulders of the slave boy who had fought his way up from the deepest darkness.

That same year in 1895, Washington was invited to speak at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition. This Exposition was to demonstrate to all that the onetime Confederacy had come back from Civil War devastation. King Cotton was back on the throne ready to do business with the Northern merchants and foreign mills. But there still were diehards who cried To permit a Negro on the same platform with Southern leaders was to confess to the world that the blacks and whites were equal after all.’ At the International Exposition auditorium, Washington told them the parable of a ship lost at sea with its crew dying of thirst. Sighting another ship, the unfortunate crew hoisted a signal for water and the answer came back, ‘Cast down your bucket.’ Again and again they hoisted their pleas and the reply was the same, ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.’ The exasperated Captain finally ordered a bucket down over the side – and up came the sparkling fresh water! The distressed ship was at rest in the great mouth of the Amazon River. Washington continued ‘Cast down your bucket where you are, among the 8 million Negroes whose habits you know, whose fidelity and love you have tested. Cast down your bucket among these people who tilled your fields, cleared your forests, built your railroads and cities. In all things social we can be as separate[iv] as the fingers’ – so saying he indicated the fingers of his raised open brown hand and then dramatically closing them into a fist, he roared ‘Yet One as a Hand in all Things Essential – to Mutual Progress!’ The audience roared its approval and Washington’s speech turned out to be the high point of the Exposition and his speech there was later also known as the Atlanta Compromise. Overnight Washington became one of the most famous men of the land. The problems and yearnings of his people were understood as never before. But many of his own race jeered him as ‘Uncle Tom’ charging Washington with betrayal of the Negro’s social and political claims.

Somewhere he had heard that there was a noted agriculturist, a coloured man, working at the Agricultural School at Ames in Iowa. George Washington Carver had just received his master’s degree in agriculture and was working at that School. On April 1, 1896 Washington sat down to write him a letter:

I cannot offer you money, position or fame. The first two you have. The last, from the place that you now occupy, you will no doubt achieve. These things I now ask you to give up. I offer you in their place work – hard, hard work – the task of bringing a people from degradation, poverty and waste to full manhood.

Four days later George W Carver read the letter. In addition to accepting Tuskegee’s offer of an annual salary of $1500, Carver replied ‘To this end, I have been preparing myself for these many years ….. that this line of education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom to our people.’ And in October 1896, the Tuskegee Institute paper reported that the new Agricultural Department would be headed by a Mr. George Washington Carver[v], en route from Iowa.

In October 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker Washington for dinner at the White House. This aroused intense anger and uproar in the South. While Democratic Party politician from Mississippi James K Vardaman described the White House as being ‘saturated with the odour of the nigger’, South Carolina’s Senator Benjamin Tillman from the same Party made far harsher racist remarks ‘The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand nigger in the South before they will learn their place again.’ Washington never responded directly to such racist remarks of his critics, whether white or black. He was a true apostle of tolerance between the blacks and whites. For Washington, the burning question of the time, so well uttered by the two politicians of the South, was whether the black man was actually a human being or not.

Pressed and burdened with such an environment, Washington, unable to find rest, would sometimes in the middle of the night knock at George Carver’s door and apologetically say ‘I thought perhaps you would like to take a walk.’ Invariably Carver would quickly dress and hurry out to join the principal. Carver well knew the heavyweight that Washington alone was carrying. The two, though highly diverse in personality and talent, had the same vision – dedicated totally to the cause of uplifting their people.

On the evening of 25th October 1915, Washington spoke in New Haven – his favourite subject, as usual, was race tolerance – and almost immediately, he fell ill. Still, he insisted on going on to New York. But there were to be no more speeches for him. Days later, he collapsed and was rushed to a hospital where doctors told him he might live only a few hours. Gasping for voice, Washington told his friend, Robert Russa Moton, who succeeded him as President of Tuskegee: ’Take me home. I was born in the South. I have lived and laboured in the South and I wish to die and be buried in the South.’[vi] He was carried to the train and returned to his Tuskegee School in Alabama. On the morning of November 14th 1915, Washington breathed his last and his body was laid to rest on a little rise of ground at the School – now the Tuskegee University. When Booker Washington died in 1915, Tuskegee owned more than 100 well-equipped buildings with about 1,500 students learning 38 trades and professions and had an endowment of approximately $2 million.


[i] This Emancipation Proclamation was made on January 1, 1863. Three years earlier in 1860, Britain had already abolished slavery in India introducing the Indian Penal Code which not only abolished slavery but made enslavement of human beings a criminal offence. Slavery in Jung Bahadur Rana’s 1854 Mulki Ain contains interestingly detailed separate chapters dealing with: the punishment of slaves for having a sexual relationship, punishment to those who assist the slaves to run away, norms to be applied when selling off slaves, what to do when the mother slave is separated from her children during her owner’s family partition and even on keeping the female slave as wife bythe owner. As slavery had been abolished in India, it was but natural for many Nepalese slaves to run away to India for refuge. So in 1868 Jung conveniently clamped a bill that freed only those slaves, who ran away from their owners, to Naya Muluk (Kanchanpur, Kailali, Banke and Bardiya districts) and Morang/Jhapa – vast birtas owned by Jung families and his ruling coterie who required cheap labour to till them! We should also remember that though slavery was abolished as early as 1860 in India, the ingenious ruler coining the term ‘indented labour’ exported hundreds of thousands of poverty-ridden Indians to the colonial sugar farms of Mauritius, British Guyana, West Indies, Fiji and South Africa. Similarly in Nepal, after kamara/slavery was abolished in 1925, the ingenious rulers introduced the kamaiyas/kamalaris system to tend to their comforts. It is very strange that the kamaras/kamaiyas/kamalaris, that has haunted Nepal to this day, has failed to attract the attention of Nepalese researchers. The kamaras, Malati/Mangale, appeared on the musical drama only in BS 2042 after Madhav Prasad Ghimire wrote it in BS 2039.

[ii] Colonel Foster’s political career was brief. Goaded as a ‘nigger-lover’, he was swept away from the office in the next election.

[iii]Unfortunately, such concepts, totally bereft of the Dignity of Labour, continue to still pervade our Schools and Colleges of Nepal!

[iv] Sadly, even the 21st-century Nepalese leaders still fail to see this Strength in Nepal’s Diversity – diversity in ethnic races. Prithwi Narayan Shah in his Dibya Upadesh called Nepal Char Jat, Chhattis Varna ko Fulbari’! However, Jung’s 1854 Mulki Ain forgot the ‘chhattis varna’ and preferred to limit Nepal only to ‘Char Jat’!

[v]Carver taught at the Tuskegee Institute for 47 years till his death in 1943. Like Booker Washington, Carver became internationally known for his work at Tuskegee. Presidents, princes and even Mahatma Gandhi were in touch with him. Thomas Edison invited Carver to come and work in his Edison laboratories at Menlo Park, New Jersey at a minimum salary of $ 100,000/. Carver thanked Edison but did not accept the offer. He was still working at an annual salary of $1,500. Later when someone, having heard of Edison’s offer, queried ‘But if you had all that money, you could help your people.’ Carver replied ‘If I had all that money I might forget about my people!’

[vi] Not unlike what the cancer-ridden terminally ill Dr Upendra Devkota did. When his treatment in Britain failed, Dr. Devkota returned to Kathmandu as he wanted to die in Nepal. His last wish was to do what he used to do in his boyhood: drink the sparkling water from the ‘dhunge dhara’ of his native Boharagaon in Gorkha. Having fulfilled that wish, Dr. Devkota passed away on 18th June 2018.

More on Opinion

The Latest

Latest Magazine

VOL. 15, No. 06, Oct. 08, 2021 (Ashoj 22, 2078) Publisher and Editor: Keshab Prasad Poudel Online Register Number: DOI 584/074-75

VOL. 15, No. 05, Sep. 17, 2021 (Ashoj 01, 2078) Publisher and Editor: Keshab Prasad Poudel Online Register Number: DOI 584/074-75

VOL. 15, No. 04, Sep. 03, 2021 (Bhadra 18, 2078) Publisher and Editor: Keshab Prasad Poudel Online Register Number: DOI 584/074-75

VOL. 15, No. 03, Aug. 20, 2021 (Bhadra 04, 2078) Publisher and Editor: Keshab Prasad Poudel Online Register Number: DOI 584/074-75