Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

A Hunger for Learning: A Story about Booker T. Washington

A Hunger for Learning: A Story about Booker T. Washington

Gwenyth Swain
Illustrator:  Larry Johnson 
For ages 8 to 12
Millbrook Press, 1995   ISBN: 978-1575057545

Booker was born on a farm in Virginia in the spring of 1856. He was a slave, the son of a slave woman and a white man whom he never met. Booker's master was much like most of the slave owners in the south at that time. He gave his slaves only as much as they needed to be able to work for him. No less and no more. Thus Booker did not have any pants to wear for many years and had to make do with a long shirt made of rough fabric. He was not allowed to learn how to read or write and this was particularly painful for him because he longed to learn.

When the Civil War finally ended in 1865, Booker and his family were free. After staying on the farm for a while they went to West Virginia to join Booker's stepfather who had run away from Virginia in 1864. Booker still could not go to school because his family needed his wages and because they could not afford the school fees. Being a determined boy he found a way around the problem – he convinced the teacher to tutor him at night and he somehow found the money to pay for the lessons. It was at this time that Booker took on the name Booker T. Washington. The T stood for Taliaferro which used to be his little used last name.

At this time Booker did various jobs but the one which had a lasting impact on him was his job as a houseboy and gardener for an old lady called Mrs. Ruffner. She taught Booker to take pride in his work and to do it to always do the best that he could. She would not tolerate sloppiness. She also taught him that there was no shame in doing manual work. These were lessons which Booker would carry with him for the rest of his life.

In 1872, when he was sixteen, Booker made his way to the Hampton Institute, a school for African Americans in Virginia. Booker ran out of money before he got to Hampton and had to walk for a good portion of the journey. At the school Booker had to work hard to pay for his keep. He also studied hard and was an excellent student. The military style format used in the school suited him. He would later use the Hampton Institute as a model for the Tuskegee Institute which he helped build in Alabama.

After completing his education Booker became a teacher at the Hampton Institute and his skills as an educator impressed the founder of the school so much that he recommended Booker for a job in Alabama. They needed someone to build a school there which would train young African Americans to be teachers.

Booker threw himself into the job with a will and with the help of his students and the community he built the Tuskegee Institute from the ground up – literally. He expected everyone to help, and students who had never done construction work before found themselves making and laying bricks, putting on roofs, and planting trees.

The school was on its way. It received a great deal of support after Booker gave a speech in 1895 which came to be called the Atlanta Address. In the speech Booker did not attack the Jim Crow Laws and the other indignities that his people had to deal with. Instead he said that white and black people should work together even if they had to be otherwise separate. He felt that black people would get the freedoms they sought if they proved to the world that they were smart and hard working.

Booker's speech was not universally liked. There were many people who felt that he was selling out. They felt that he should support the efforts that were being made to get the Jim Crow laws removed and to give blacks the right to vote. To this day Booker T. Washington's speech is controversial.

This is a well written account of the life of Booker T. Washington. Young readers will come to understand what motivated Booker and why he came to adopt the philosophies which shaped his adult life. Readers will be amazed to discover how much hardship Booker went through, hardship which did not make him bitter or angry. Instead it made him determined to help his people by giving them the tools they needed to educate themselves.

This is one of the titles in the "Creative Minds Biography" series.