Booker T. Washington National Monument | BURROUGHS FARM TOUR

Burroughs Farm at Booker T. Washington National Monument

Burroughs Farm at Booker T. Washington National Monument

FARM TOURS

If you are not willing to tour the Burroughs Farm where Booker T. Washington was born into slavery, there is no reason to visit the Booker T. Washington National Monument, for the farm is essentially the park. There is no vehicle access, so a tour is done by walking the half-mile Plantation Trail, part of which is paved. Most of the main farm buildings are located along the paved sections, so even those in wheelchairs can see the farm (the path does have a slight slope, so it would be advisable to have some assistance). To see an original tobacco barn, however, requires hiking beyond the paved areas.

Park Rangers will give groups of at least ten people a walking tour of the farm by reservation only. Call the park at (540) 721-2094. All other guests must tour the farm on their own. For complete details on touring the farm, including photos of all the points of interest, read the Plantation Trail review here on National Park Planner.


FARM HISTORY

The Burroughs Farm was started in 1850 when James Burroughs purchased 177 acres of land from his brother, who owned the property since the 1830s. He later purchased 30 more acres, again from his brother, in 1854, bringing his total acreage to 207. Along with his ten slaves, he, his wife, and ten of their fifteen children farmed tobacco as their source of income and other vegetables as a means to feed the family, slaves, and livestock. Booker T. Washington wrote that Burroughs never had an overseer, for everyone, white and black, worked the land together.

When Burroughs died in 1861, his wife, Elizabeth, took over the farm. After the Civil War all of the slaves left, and by 1870 even her children had moved away. Unable to continue farming, she rented the land to tenant farmers for a few years, then sold the property outright in 1885 to Robert Crook. Crook was to make payments but defaulted on the agreement, so the land was returned to Mrs. Burroughs. It wasn’t until 1893 that she was finally able to sell the land to John Robertson, who farmed tobacco until shortly after World War II.

In 1945 the farm was purchased by Sidney Phillips, a former student of Washington’s at Tuskegee Institute. He purchased the property with the intention of establishing the Booker T. Washington Birthplace Memorial. Along with an actual memorial, he planned to create an industrial training campus for black students that was based on Washington’s education philosophy.

Unfortunately, the memorial grew too large, amassing over 550 acres, and Phillips’s business model was unsuccessful, thus forcing the Booker T. Washington Birthplace Memorial to declare bankruptcy in 1955 (Phillips had sold the property to the Memorial company and thus did not personally own it). The land was auctioned off, with many portions selling to adjacent landowners. Phillips and Portia Washington Pittman, Booker’s daughter, purchased the original Burroughs farm tract. They then formed the Booker T. Washington National Monument Foundation to hold the land while they tried to work a deal with the federal government to take over the property.

The National Park Service did not want the farm because it felt that it lacked historical integrity, had no scenic value, and was in the middle of nowhere in a state that didn’t want any memorials to black people. The general feeling was that a Booker T. Washington memorial was a sound idea, but it would be best to create one at a location that tied into his later successes, perhaps at Tuskegee Institute.

Rejected by the National Park Service, Phillips then petitioned Congressmen to join his cause. Faced with an image crisis for not having many parks dedicated to important black people (the George Washington Carver National Monument was the only one in existence at the time), Congress began considering a memorial to Washington since he was not a controversial figure and posed no threat to the white establishment. On April 2, 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower authorized the Booker T. Washington National Monument.

Phillips and Pittman still owed considerable back taxes on the property, so a deal was worked with the state of Virginia to cancel the debt in exchange for the farm. The state then donated the land—at the time 199 acres—to the National Park Service. The current park consists of 239 acres, most of which is the original Burroughs 207-acre farm. The additional acres were purchased by the government whenever they came up for sale in order to keep residential and commercial developments from springing up right next to the farm.

Once the National Park Service took over, all of the campus and administration buildings that Phillips had built were torn down, including a replica of a cabin similar to one Washington was born in. The kitchen cabin standing today was built in 1960 and is on the original site of the Burroughs’ kitchen. Washington was born in another nearby cabin on the farm. The family moved into the kitchen cabin a few years later because the old cabin was in poor condition and his mother was the cook.

Kitchen cabin at Booker T. Washington National Monument similar to the one in which Washington was raised

Kitchen cabin at Booker T. Washington National Monument similar to the one in which Washington was raised

The only authentic building in the park is a tobacco barn located at the start of the Jack-O-Lantern Branch Trail, though this was constructed after Washington’s time on the farm. The barn is noted in the National Register of Historic Places as built in 1894 by Robertson, but other sources state that it was built by Elizabeth Burroughs shortly before she sold the farm to Robertson. Regardless, the Robertsons moved it a hundred feet from its original location to put it on level ground. Surviving Robertson children claimed that about a third of the building materials are from the Burroughs era, which seems to support the claim that it was built by Elizabeth Burroughs.

Tobacco Barn at Booker T. Washington National Monument

Tobacco Barn at Booker T. Washington National Monument

The National Park Service’s original idea for a farm tour was simply to have interpretive signs placed along a trail that circled the main farm area. There was nothing physical to connect to, other than the kitchen cabin. With nothing much to see, the park didn’t draw much interest from tourists.

Starting in the 1960s, the concept of “living history” was utilized by various parks around the country. Living history entailed costumed interpreters acting as if they were actually living in a certain time period. They would carry out demonstrations of technology and crafts of the time and even answer questions as if they lived in the past. For parks like Booker T. Washington National Monument, living history might be the spark to stir up interest in visiting the park.

Of course to have a “living history farm” there had to be a farm, complete with actual crops, animals, and buildings. Between 1970 and 1974 the National Park Service constructed a smokehouse, blacksmith shed, corn crib, horse barn, chicken coop, and hog pen. However, because all of the structures were reproductions other than the tobacco barn, and because there was no hard evidence of the location of most buildings from the Burroughs era, it was decided not to promote the farm as a replica of the Burroughs Farm, but simply as a farm typical of one that Washington grew up on. This is why you will learn more about slavery and farm life in the mid-1850s than you will about Booker T. Washington when you visit the park.

Chicken at the Booker T. Washington National Monument

Chicken at the Booker T. Washington National Monument

Living history did help with visitation, but by the early 1990s the cooling of interest by the general public in the living history fad caused the National Park Service to discontinue the program. Today, living history events are only scheduled a few times each year, such as the Juneteenth Celebration held on the 3rd Saturday in June. Other than during one of these special events, visitors walk the trails around the farm on their own.

Harvest Time Festival at Booker T. Washington National Monument (photo by Donnie Nunley)

Harvest Time Festival at Booker T. Washington National Monument (photo by Donnie Nunley)

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Last updated on April 10, 2024
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