Washington was the long-term (1881-1915) leader of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, which became a leading force in vocational training for blacks. Washington generally believed that the best way for blacks to advance in society was through practical training and business success; he believed in conciliation with whites rather than confrontation and political agitation. He became the most powerful black man of his time, influential not just in education but also in political appointments for blacks, philanthropic grants to black institutions, and black newspapers. Although outwardly conciliatory, Washington secretly encouraged and financed various attempts, including lawsuits, to block southern segregationists.
Washington was born into slavery in Virginia; his mother was the cook on a plantation, his father was a local white man who took no responsibility for him. His mother married another slave, who, after the Civil War, put his stepsons to work in the salt mines of West Virginia. Booker continued to work in the mines before and after school. Walking, hitching rides, and doing odd jobs along the way, he managed to get himself to Hampton Institute, a black college, in 1872 where he supported himself by working as a janitor.