Booker T. Washington was born a slave in 1856 in Franklin County, Virginia on the 207-acre tobacco farm of James Burroughs. We recently visited his birthplace. Since it was during the covid-19 pandemic the visitor center was closed but the park ranger was very helpful and the trails and historic buildings were open. Hiking the Plantation Trail Loop provided a nice overview of the layout of the plantation and the buildings.
The buildings at this monument are reconstructions of the buildings on the Burroughs’ plantation. This apparently was a fairly typical small tobacco plantation of the period. The emphasis here at the birth-site of Booker T. Washington is on his early life and the cultural and geographical landscape of the period.
Born into slavery in 1856, Booker T. Washington lived here until being freed in 1865. His mother named him Booker Taliaferro. There is no record of who his father was. Always having been called only Booker, when he first attended school and realized during roll call that everyone else had two names he called himself Booker Washington. Later learning that he did have a second name, he adopted it as his middle name – hence becoming Booker T. Washington.
Even though his mother, Jane, was the plantation cook, food for the enslaved people was rationed and they were often hungry. The kitchen cabin served as the cookhouse and as the living quarters for Jane and her three children, John Henry, Booker, and Amanda. With a dirt floor and very little furniture there was no real comfort. Even as small children, they worked daily cleaning yards, carrying water and taking corn to the mill.
Following the election of Abraham Lincoln in November of 1860, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union. Four more states including Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, seceded in quick succession. James Burroughs died in 1861, leaving Mrs. Burroughs to manage the farm. Five of the Burroughs sons fought in the American Civil War. Billy died in 1863 in the Battle of Kelly’s Ford and Frank was captured at the Battle of Gettysburg and died of dysentery in captivity in 1864.
When the war ended in 1865, Booker remembered being called to the “big house” where a stranger made a speech and read a rather long paper which he thought was the Emancipation Proclamation. After the reading they were told they were free.
In 1865, Booker’s family moved to Malden, West Virginia, to join his stepfather who had escaped slavery. During the time there, Booker worked in the local salt furnace and coal mines. At this point, he started attending school at night. He heard about The Hampton Institute, a school for African Americans in Virginia and in 1872 set out to get there and get admitted. He arrived completely destitute but worked his way through as the school’s janitor. He graduated in 1875, taught school there and in 1881 was hired to start a school in Tuskegee, Alabama. The curriculum focused on trades and academic subjects related to students’ experiences. Booker T. Washington fought for advancement and taught self-reliance and self-determination.
Booker T. Washington was the first African American to receive an honorary degree from Harvard University (1896), the first on a US postage stamp (1940), the first to have a US ship named after him (1942), the first on a US coin (1946-51) and the first to have a national monument in his name (1956).
For more information: https://www.nps.gov/bowa/index.htm