The Strange Case of Booker T. Washington’s Birthday

tags: African American history, Booker T. Washington, primary sources

Bill Black is a history teacher in Houston and an editor for Contingent. He holds a PhD in history from Rice University, where he studied religion, nationalism, and slavery in the 19th-century Ohio Valley.

I needed to reread Up from Slavery for the ninth-grade American history class I teach, but I got stuck on the first page. The first paragraph, actually—something I didn’t notice when I first read Booker T. Washington’s autobiography as an undergrad. I was faced with a question that took a few solid hours to answer, admittedly not a great example of time management on my part; but such excursions are the work of history.

Washington begins his memoir by admitting ignorance about what is usually a key piece of biographical information: when he was born. He writes:

I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia. I am not quite sure of the exact place or exact date of my birth, but at any rate I suspect I must have been born somewhere and at some time. As nearly as I have been able to learn, I was born near a cross-roads post-office called Hale’s Ford, and the year was 1858 or 1859. I do not know the month or the day.1

The passage is both droll (“I must have been born somewhere and at some time”) and sobering—he does not have this information because he was born as someone else’s legal property, not as a citizen. But my attention focused on this: “the year was 1858 or 1859.” I had just made a short slideshow on Washington’s life, highlighting his leadership at the Tuskegee Institute and his fundraising prowess, how he helped erect thousands of Black schools in the rural South. My slideshow recorded his lifespan as 1856 to 1915.

I checked the Wikipedia article on Booker T. Washington. It not only provided his birth year but the specific date: April 5, 1856. This was puzzling. In 1901, when he wrote Up from Slavery, Washington knew neither his birthday nor his birth year—and he guessed he was born two or three years after 1856.

Maybe Wikipedia had it wrong. I rather doubted this, given how prominent a figure Washington is and how dedicated Wikipedia’s editors are to ensuring accuracy. Still, it was time to check the citations.

Read entire article at Contingent

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