Booker T. Washington was born a slave on a Virginia plantation in 1856. From those humble beginnings, he became one of the most prominent African American leaders in the United States. Washington founded Tuskegee University in 1881 to help disadvantaged minorities learn marketable skills and the National Negro Business League to promote Black entrepreneurship. President Theodore Roosevelt invited Washington to dinner at the White House – a groundbreaking first – and sought his advice on race relations. Washington wrote 14 books, including his autobiography “Up from Slavery,” which details his rise from enslaved child to educated man. To understand how hard of a journey that was, visit the Booker T Washington National Monument in Franklin County, Virginia.
The Booker T. Washington National Monument preserves part of the original 207-acre tobacco farm where Washington was born. James and Elizabeth Burroughs owned the farm and approximately 10 slaves. Washington’s mother, Jane, was the plantation cook. He lived with his mother and two siblings in a log cabin that also served as the plantation kitchen. They slept on the cabin’s dirt floor, with only rags and the kitchen fire for warmth. Young Washington was forced to carry the Burroughs children’s books to school, but was forbidden from getting an education himself. Little is known about his father, who is thought to be a White man from a neighboring farm.
James and Elizabeth lived with their 14 children in the Big House next to the kitchen. During the American Civil War, five of the Burroughs’ sons fought for the Confederacy, and one was killed in battle. A small cemetery near the visitor center’s parking lot contains the graves of James and that one son. Elizabeth sold the farm in 1893 and all that remains of the Big House are its foundation stones.
Today the farm seems almost idyllic. There are sheep grazing in a field, pigs and horses nestled in their pens, and ducks swimming in a peaceful stream. Then you remember those 10 enslaved people who were treated no better than the chattel. I visited during a drenching storm and reflected on the miserable conditions in which they lived. How sweet their first steps toward freedom must have been.
The Booker T Washington National Monument is located around 25 miles from Roanoke, Virginia. For directions and opening hours, click here. If you are wondering what else there is to do in the area, check out my guide to Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
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