West Virginia State Capitol Complex Walking Tour

Booker T. Washington Memorial, West Virginia State Capitol

Historic Sites, Monuments, Landmarks, and Public Art (State Historical Landmark)

Overview Listen

This memorial on the grounds of the West Virginia State Capital grounds pays tribute to Booker T. Washington, one of the most influential educators in American history. Washington was born into bondage just prior to the end of slavery and later moved to West Virginia with his father who worked in the salt mines around Malden, a small community near Charleston. Washington accompanied his father into the mines where he also labored as a young child. Upon learning of a nearby school, young Washington secured a deal with his father whereby he could work mornings and nights and attend school in the daytime. This ambition and thirst for knowledge became the hallmarks of Washington's life.


Photo Booker T. Washington Memorial at WV Capitol Complex
Photo Undated black and white photo of boyhood cabin in WV.
Photo A photo of young Booker T. Washington
Photo ten-cent Booker T. Washington stamp
Photo Booker T Washington commemorative half dollar issued in 1946
Photo Booker T. Washington Memorial at WV Capitol Complex

Backstory Listen

Booker T. Washington was born a slave in Franklin County, Virginia on April 5, 1856. After the Civil War, his family resettled in West Virginia and joined his stepfather, who had escaped slavery, in Malden. He worked his way through his early school years by working at the salt mines in Malden during the morning and evening while attending school during the day between his shifts. He attended the Tinkersville school, which operated out of Rev. Lewis Rice's home, who was Washington's childhood pastor in Malden. William Davis, a light-skinned black man from Ohio, was the teacher at the Tinkersville school in Malden. During the first few years Washington was in Malden with his family, he moved out from their home to become the Ruffner family's houseboy. The Ruffner family was a prominent family in Malden, and he eventually worked in Ruffner Salt Works and assisted Mrs. Viola Ruffner. 

He went on to support himself during his years at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia. After graduation in 1875, Washington returned to West Virginia to begin his teaching career. In 1879, he went back to the Hampton Institute to work as a teacher. He would return to West Virginia while school was out to work in the coal mines. He also attended college at Wayland Seminary. In 1881, he opened a one-room school in Tuskegee, Alabama for black students. Washington labored to turn his school into the Tuskegee Institute and later a fully-accredited university. To do so, he convinced white leaders to provide funding for his organization. In the Age of Jim Crow, the often compromises such as accepting segregation and building programs that prepared African Americans for jobs rather than careers.  

By 1895, Washington was the most well-known African American educator and many, including later critics, saw his philosophy of self-help and tactical accommodation of the racial status quo as a practical strategy. Washington's message to African Americans to work hard and prove themselves to white people, as well as his emphasis on preparing African Americans for jobs in factories and as farmers won him support among many white Southern leaders. At the same time, many African American leaders saw potential in his gradualist approach to civil rights, believing that the first step was to secure basic education and jobs for millions of African Americans who were working as tenant farmers. Washington promoted the values of patience, enterprise, and perseverance. By taking small steps and securing economic security first, Washington hoped that African Americans would win the respect of whites who would then see the value of allowing African Americans to be full citizens within an integrated into society.

Black leaders in the North later turned against Washington's gradual approach to breaking down racial barriers, but Washington was hailed by white leaders. He was invited to consult with the President at the White House and succeeded in creating numerous charitable funds that led to the creation of schools throughout the South. Washington was the first black person to be depicted on currency, and his image was also printed on stamps. 

Washington secured financial support from benefactors such as the Carnegie and Rockefeller families, as well as the vice president of Sears. In an age when Southern legislatures were reluctant to fund public schools for African Americans, these funds along with matching donations from black communities led to the creation of nearly one-third of the public schools in the South in the early decades of the 20th century.    

Booker T. Washington was raised in present-day West Virginia and a replica of his boyhood cabin may be seen at Malden, a few miles east of Charleston. Washington died on November 14, 1915, at the Tuskegee Institute campus. He nurtured his West Virginia ties throughout his life by occasionally returning to speak at the West Virginia Colored Institute, which is now West Virginia State University. Washington is also memorialized by the Booker T. Washington State Park in Institute, West Virginia.

The bust displayed in the Booker T. Washington Memorial at the West Virginia State Capitol was sculpted by William D. Hopen. The bust is a replacement for the original bust that was moved to the capitol from Malden. The Booker T. Washington Memorial was re-dedicated in 1985. 

Washington's legacy is complicated. He turned a one-room school in Alabama into a university and spent his life campaigning for better conditions and educational opportunities for African Americans in the South. In his quest to secure funds for this school and others, however, he made many compromises with Southern whites such as the tacit acceptance of segregation and the assumption that African American schools would focus on job preparation rather than the liberal arts and other fields that might prepare African Americans for professional careers. 

Washington's tactics and his personal ambition led to conflicts with W.E.B. DuBois, William Monroe Trotter, and other black leaders in the North. From the perspective of these Northern leaders, Washington's tactics were tantamount to accommodating the agenda of segregationists. From Washington's perspective, however, his tactical negotiations with white Souther leaders were necessary both for survival and as a way to secure funding for black schools. While Washington raised funds that led to the construction of hundreds of schools, his legacy is marked by his personal ambition to speak for all African Americans rather than accept the perspectives of those who hoped to confront segregation more directly. 

1900 Kanawha Blvd. E.
Charleston, WV 25301

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State Capitol grounds open to the public

Harlan, Louis R.. Booker T. Washington Volume 2: The Wizard Of Tuskegee, 1901-1915. New York. Oxford University Press, 1986.

Mariner, Master. Booker T. Washington - Charleston, WV. WayMarking. August 21, 2011. Accessed July 08, 2019. http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMCC81_Booker_T_Washington_Charleston_WV.

Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington's West Virginia Boyhood. West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture, and History. Accessed July 07, 2019. http://www.wvculture.org/history/journal_wvh/wvh32-1.html.

Bundy, Joseph. Booker T. Washington. The West Virginia Encyclopedia. December 09, 2015. Accessed July 07, 2019. https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/890.

Miller, Richard E. Booker Taliaferro Washington. The Historical Marker Database. June 16, 2016. Accessed July 07, 2019. https://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=23024.

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