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Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

by William H. Benson

February 23, 2017

     Booker T. Washington says he was born in either 1858 or 1859. In his book Up from Slavery, 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.” He describes his home as a fourteen-by-sixteen cabin, that he shared with his mother, brother, and sister. The family “slept in and on a bundle of filthy rags laid upon the dirt floor.” In the cabin, his mother cooked meals for the plantation’s owners.

     Although Booker did not know the identify of his father, he harbored no ill will towards him. He said, “But I do not find especial fault with him. He was simply another unfortunate victim of the institution which the Nation unhappily had engrafted upon it at that time.”

     Booker wanted to pursue an education, but he admitted, “I had no schooling whatever while I was a slave.” After the Civil War ended and his white owners declared him free, his stepfather expected him to work in the salt and coal mines in West Virginia rather than permit him to attend school. He said, “This decision seemed to cloud my every ambition.”

     When still in his teens, he learned of a school in Virginia established for black students, the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. Alone, with very little money, Booker walked and rode wagons and coaches the five hundred miles to Hampton. There, he worked as a janitor, attended classes, studied books, and learned certain basic life skills.

     Of his days there, he writes, “Life at Hampton was a constant revelation to me; it was constantly taking me into a new world. The matter of having meals at regular hours, of eating on a tablecloth, using a napkin, the use of the bathtub and of the tooth-brush, as well as the use of sheets upon the bed, were all new to me.” Booker stuck with it, learned his lessons well, adopted them, and graduated.

     In 1881, when still in his twenties, he accepted an offer to establish a normal college in Tuskegee, Alabama for the training of black teachers, and there Booker remained the rest of his life.

     At Tuskegee, he established the guiding principle that, “every student must learn some industry.” He expected the students to build the campus’s buildings, manufacture the bricks needed there, and also construct wagons and carts. The students’ parents objected. They wrote letters of protest. They showed up at Booker’s door and confronted him, but he says, “I gave little heed to these protests.”

     He reasoned, “The individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end make his way regardless of his race.” A community needs houses, bricks, wagons, and carts, but may not need someone who can provide “an analysis of Greek sentences.” He wanted his students to “lift labour up from mere drudgery and toil, and learn to love work for its own sake.”

     He insisted upon cleanliness. No grease stains or missing buttons or tears on their clothing.

     In addition, he writes, “The gospel of the tooth-brush is a part of our creed at Tuskegee. No student is permitted to remain who does not keep and use a tooth-brush. It has been interesting to note the effect that the use of the tooth-brush has had in bringing about a higher degree of civilization among the students.” He also taught his students “to bathe as regularly as to take their meals.”

     In his quiet way, Booker T. Washington led his students towards a better life. He wanted them to possess the skills that their respective communities needed, to appreciate and respect physical work, to develop lifetime hygienic habits, and to read and write the English language with skill.

     Booker’s methods contrast with those of another African-American leader. Frederick Douglass said, “The only way to guarantee true black freedom is to give blacks the vote,” and so he placed education second to the ballot. Booker though avoided political confrontations; he was too busy training students.

     Up from Slavery‘s style is forthright and candid, and void of all animosity. He writes, “I have long since ceased to cherish any spirit of bitterness against the Southern white people on account of the enslavement of my race. No one section of our country was wholly responsible for its introduction, and, besides, it was recognized and protected for years by the General Government.”

     Booker prizes skill first, above all else. “My experience is that there is something in human nature which always makes an individual recognize and reward merit.” “Every individual should get much consolation of the great human law, that merit is in the long run, recognized and rewarded.”

     Because Booker was born into a degraded and powerless position, he viewed his life’s direction as always up, towards a more civilized and pleasant life. He invited his students to follow him, and many did. Each February is designated as African-American History Month. Find a copy of Up from Slavery, and read for yourself Booker T. Washington’s quiet and disarming wisdom.