10 April 2007

Booker T. Washington: April 5, 1856 - November 14, 1915

(Last week marked the 151st birthday of one of my favorite Virginians: Booker T. Washington. The following is a piece I wrote several years ago for a Christian publication. I post it today in a belated celebration of Washington's birthday. Unfortunately, Washington is largely forgotten today, but his story is no less inspiring than it was 100 years ago.)


“My life had its beginning in the midst of the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surroundings.” So writes the great educator Booker T. Washington on the first page of his autobiography Up From Slavery (Williamstown, MA: Corner House Publishers, 1978). Not a promising start, but Washington’s life of discipline and sheer determination holds many lessons for us today. As a black man entering American society just after the Civil War, his accomplishments are all the more remarkable. Though Washington would eventually make Tuskegee Institute in Alabama one of the most successful schools in the South (in 1905, Tuskegee turned out more self-made millionaires than Yale, Harvard, and Princeton universities combined), his humble beginnings gave no indication of his future success.

Born a slave on a Virginia farm on April 5th, 1856, Booker’s formative years consisted of nothing but hard labor and a home deprived of even the most basic comforts, with bare openings for windows and dirt for the floor. Booker’s childhood was devoid of even the small “civilities” that most Christian readers take for granted. He writes, “I cannot remember a single instance during my childhood or early boyhood when our entire family sat down to the table together, and God’s blessing was asked, and the family ate a meal in a civilized manner.”

So how could a black man born and raised in such destitution ascend to be one of the most powerful and respected men in America in the early twentieth century? The same way any truly successful person does today: by possessing an intense desire to achieve something and better one’s self and his fellow man, being aware of one’s calling and life purpose, refusing to quit despite setbacks, and trusting in the care and good providence of God. Just what was this intense desire that consumed young Booker? The desire to learn: “From the time that I can remember having any thoughts about anything, I recall that I had an intense longing to learn to read. I determined, when quite a small child, that, if I accomplished nothing else in life, I would in some way get enough education to enable me to read common books and newspapers.”

But Washington’s desire to learn was not satisfied with just being able to “read common books and newspapers.” After the war, the Washington family ended up in West Virginia with Booker going to work in a coal mine. One day while at work, he overheard a conversation between two other miners as they were discussing the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, established especially for blacks. Booker immediately resolved to attend this school. He seemed to have an awareness of God’s leading; though the obstacles seemed insurmountable, he could not rid himself of the seemingly impossible notion that he could travel the five hundred plus miles to Hampton and be admitted. “I had no idea where it was, or how many miles away, or how I was going to reach it; I remembered only that I was on fire constantly with one ambition, and that was to go to Hampton.”

Every person ever involved in any successful endeavor knows from experience that it takes this kind of desire and determination to surmount the sometimes daunting challenges that come our way. Scoffers and skeptics, discouragement and debt, bureaucrats and bad advice—the obstacles and opposition we all face every day could fill volumes. But the desire that often keeps a person wide-eyed at three in the morning and will not let him quit until he succeeds is the same passion that drove Booker T. Washington to pursue his dreams. And his dreams would eventually come true.

Washington finally did reach Hampton Institute, just sixteen years old, dirty from the long trek and destitute, but still determined to be accepted. And accepted he was. He worked full time in addition to his heavy course load and graduated with honors in just three years. He eventually joined the faculty and was being groomed to take the helm of the growing school, but Providence intervened. An Alabama legislator by the name of Wilbur Foster, a former Confederate colonel, introduced a bill in the Alabama legislature to establish a school for black teachers for the benefit of former slaves and their children. The bill passed and General Samuel C. Armstrong, the headmaster of Hampton Institute, was contacted to recommend someone to lead the new school in Tuskegee, Alabama. Without hesitation, he suggested Booker T. Washington. Booker was offered the position, accepted it, and struck out for Alabama.

Starting with not much more than Alabama’s blessing and his own resolve, by 1915 Washington had built Tuskegee Institute into a school of 107 buildings on 2000 acres with over 1500 students and more than 200 teachers and professors. This was an especially astounding accomplishment; considering the times in which Washington lived.

Washington’s approach to higher education was somewhat unique and is another reason his philosophy is relevant for us to study today. He not only offered and emphasized the traditional academic courses, but industry and trade skills were also required. Students learned bricklaying, forestry, and timber skills, sewing, cooking, and practical agriculture, and every student was obligated to master at least two trades so he or she would always be able to contribute to the industry and betterment of society and be self-supporting after graduation. Louis Harlan explains that “Washington’s efforts as Tuskegee Institute were to train students to become independent small businessmen, farmers, and teachers rather than wage-earners or servants of white employers” (Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee [New York: Oxford, 1983], 142).

But there was more to Booker T. Washington than learning and industry. His spiritual side was well known and he expressed a sincere faith in Christ. Devotional exercises were held every morning at Tuskegee as well as evening prayers. He wrote of the support that Christians had given to his efforts to lift African-Americans out of poverty after the Civil War: “If no other consideration had convinced me of the value of the Christian life, the Christ-like work which the Church of all denominations in America has done during the last thirty-five years for the elevation of the black man would have made me a Christian.”

He readily acknowledged his dependence on God in all endeavors. Regarding his preparation for the now-famous “Atlanta Exposition Address,” he wrote: “The next morning, before day, I went carefully over what I intended to say. I also kneeled down and asked God’s blessing upon my effort. Right here, perhaps, I ought to add that I make it a rule never to go before an audience, on any occasion, without asking the blessing of God upon what I want to say.”

The life of Booker T. Washington should be required study for every school child in America. Of his humble beginnings as a slave and his “discouraging surroundings” he was later able to say, “It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.” And that is a simple, yet profound lesson that every one of us should master—and an eternal lesson of the gospel: “And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12).

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