Booker T. Washington’s West Virginia Roots

Black History Month

MALDEN, W.Va. (WOWK) – One of the most influential educators and orators of his time called the Mountain State home, but not before a perilous journey to freedom during his youth.

Booker Taliaferro Washington’s success was an uphill battle from the very beginning. Born into slavery April 5, 1856, in Hardy, Virginia, Washington lived on a plantation with his siblings and mother, Jane Ferguson, until the Union victory in the Civil War.

“When the war was over, a soldier came and read the emancipation proclamation to them, and they knew that they were free,” said author Larry L. Rowe.

Rowe has written extensively on Washington’s formative years in West Virginia. At the culmination of the war, Jane Ferguson began the journey west to reunite the family with her husband, Washington Ferguson.

“It was a march to the promised land,” said Rowe. “The idea that they would be free. And she was very interested in Booker’s education and the education of her other children.”

Booker’s stepfather had escaped slavery and found work at the salt furnaces of the Kanawha Salines in Malden. At 9-years-old, Booker T. worked alongside his stepfather in the salt furnaces, where brine was boiled down to make commercial salt.

Rowe credits the help of a local family for creating an environment for Booker to thrive. He became the houseboy of General Lewis Ruffner and his wife Viola.

“When he arrived he was employed and lived with the Ruffner’s as their house and garden boy. He sold produce for Mrs. Ruffner and she was quite taken with how diligent and honest he was, even as a young fellow,” Rowe said.

The Ruffners moved into the Shenandoah Valley in the eighteenth century, discovering and owning the Luray Caverns as well as the farmland around it. It was their unique relationship which led to Booker developing close relationships with upper-class whites.

While in Malden, Booker was also able to get an education and worship at the African Zion Baptist Church, the first Negro church in the Kanawha Valley. The church in Malden is still standing to this day. While the church has stood the test of time, the site of Booker’s West Virginia home, is now an interstate highway. Behind the church stands a replica of a salt furnace and a recreation of his home, school and a chicken coup.

African Zion Baptist Church, Malden, WV
Courtesy: https://wvhistoryonview.org/catalog/050967

Booker T. attended Hampton Institute from 1872 until 1875. He would later return as an instructor. In 1881, he founded Tuskegee Institute, a secondary school for blacks in Tuskegee, Alabama. At Tuskegee, Washington received recognition as the nation’s foremost black educator. Basing the curriculum on his experiences at Hampton.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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