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I recently had the honor of visiting Washington's boyhood home in Malden, West Virginia. It was in this modest cabin he took the first steps that led him on the path of leadership of his people. A visit to this complex where Booker T. Washington spent his formative years will give you a deeper understanding of the man he became.

Booker T Washington's home in Malden, West Virginia
A replica of the boyhood cabin of Booker T. Washington

The complex is composed of a reconstruction of the cabin young Booker lived in from age nine to sixteen and the first school he attended. There is also the actual church he worshiped in while living there. According to Larry L. Rowe, local historian and our guide to the complex, "The cabin was build based on photographs… The original cabin had two rooms across the front and one room to the back. The reconstruction has the two rooms across the front but not the back room."

Interior of Booker T Washington's home in Malden, West Virginia
Interior of the cabin

Booker was born a slave on the Burroughs Plantation in Franklin county, Virginia. He was nine in 1865 when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. He along with his mother , Jane, his half-sister and brother, walked approximately 225 miles from the plantation to Malden where his stepfather Washington Ferguson lived.

Young Booker worked there in salt furnaces and coal mines but the most influential job he had was a s houseboy and gardener for the wealthy Ruffner family. The Ruffners owned the extensive salt works in Malden and surrounding areas. Lewis and Viola Ruffner were firm believers in equal pay for equal work and were supportive of the freedmen. Early on  there was a small African American Baptist congregation.  Gen. Lewis Ruffner financed  construction of a the present church in 1865, the first African American church in the state In 1872, it was moved to its present location. When you enter you have to think "if only these walls could talk."

Booker T Washington's church in Malden, West Virginia
Booker T. Washington's church

Viola Ruffner was demanding and expected hard work from her employers but a bond was formed between the matron and the young Black houseboy. He understood and respect her ideals of honesty, cleanliness, order and hard work and adopted the same standards for his entire life. Another incident may have shaped his somewhat more cautious method of advancement for African Americans in the Jim Crowe era of lynchings and violence against t the freed slaves in the post reconstruction South.  It occurred while he was working for the Ruffners. Lewis Ruffner was struck in the back of the head by a brick thrown by a party of violent night riders attempting to terrorize some of the Ruffner's Black employees. Lewis went to their defense and suffered permanent brain damage due to the injury.

In his spare time, Booker attended school taught by Reverend Rice, the church's  founder. . It was at this point that Booker adopted his stepfather's name of Washington as a surname. Viola gave him time off to attend and encouraged his quest for an education. She gave him free use of the Ruffner's extensive library. In later years, he referred to Viola Ruffner  as "one of the best friends I ever had."

At sixteen he left Malden to attend Hampton Institute in Virginia, a school founded to educate freedmen.  The enthusiastic student caught the eye of Hampton Institute president Samuel C. Armstrong and in 1881, he recommended Washington to become the first principal  of a new teachers Collage at Tuskegee Alabama. Tuskegee Institute was Booker T. Washington's life work. It was the base from which he worked for the advancement of his people.

At first he was befriended by W.E. B. DuBois, who would go on to found the NAACP. They later split over Washington's less aggressive methods to achieve equality.  Washington's methods allowed compromise but he worked tirelessly to promote good race relations while helping his people become educated and financially stable.  His autobiography, "Up From Slavery" published in 1901 is still widely read today.

BBooker T. Washington won the respect not only of his Black followers but some of the wealthiest and highest ranking Whites in the country. He received support from men such as Andrew Carnegie, President William Howard Taft, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Huttleston Rogers who was president of Standard Oil and one of the richest men in the country, George Eastman, Julius Rosenwald, the founder of Sears and Roebuck. In 1901, he was invited to dine with President Theodore Roosevelt and his family at the White House. He was the first African American so honored. Who can deny that Booker T. Washington was a Civil Rights Leader who influenced events long after his death in 1915.

Booker T Washington's home, the Oaks in Tuskeegee
The Oaks, Washington's home at Tuskegee Institute

In Senator John McCain's concession speech to President Obama, he cited this history making event "A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt's invitation of Booker T. Washington to visit — to dine at the White House — was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States."


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