People can be so skilled at deceiving themselves. But every now and then, reality intervenes to force us to face the truth about ourselves or something we’re doing. When this happens, especially when it’s hard to take, how do you answer? The willingness and ability to hear and then powerfully respond to the truth, regardless of how inconvenient it may be, is a sign of wisdom. And it was the code by which Booker T. Washington lived and taught.
Washington would eventually make his living by speaking practical (and often hard) truths to both those of his own race and those whom society had long favored. But before he could do that, he started out as a poor and ignorant boy who had not much more than a loving mother, a first name and deep desire to read. In order to succeed, this boy would have to nurture the qualities inherent to every great person: Courage, Endurance, Enthusiasm and Integrity.
The mid-19th century wasn’t a friendly or easy time for blacks in America, whether enslaved or free. Faced with varying levels of prejudice and the threat of being kidnapped and sold into bondage in the South, many free blacks lived in fear. And of course in the worst of cases, people faced the toils of never-ending, backbreaking work; contempt from owners or foremen; abuses of all kinds; the constant threat of separation from family; and even death.
This was Washington’s world. Born in 1856, Washington spent his first years as a slave. After the American Civil War, he found himself put to work by his stepfather in a salt furnace and then a coal mine for long, hard hours. The main difference between his situation before freedom and immediately after, Washington later recalled, was that at least in the slave quarters he was always assured of “pure air”. With “no sanitary regulations” in his new West Virginia home where cabins were built right next to one another, “the filth about the cabins was often intolerable.”
Despite the harsh reality of this life, inside Washington burned the simple but intense desire to read. If only someday he could learn to read the newspaper…
Washington’s first “formal” education came when he learned “18”—the number by which his stepfather’s barrels of salt were marked and then counted toward 18’s pay at the salt furnace. Not long after, a school opened in his town, but Washington couldn’t attend as he longed to do: Washington’s stepfather considered him too useful and productive at the salt furnace. Reduced production, after all, meant reduced pay.
This was Washington’s reality, but he neither denied it, nor gave up. He redoubled his efforts to teach himself to read from a “blue-back speller” he had, and he convinced the new teacher to tutor him at night. Finally he struck a deal with his stepfather: He would get to work at four in the morning and leave for school at nine o’clock when school started. When school closed in the afternoon, Washington would come back and work two more hours.
Even at a young age, Washington was displaying the mettle of a great man: Enthusiasm for his goal, Courage to do the hard thing, Endurance in his effort over time and Integrity (the authentic application of his self-knowledge). Many dream of being this kind of person, some study the life of this kind of person, few do what it takes to be this person. The one who does do what it takes, becomes one of The Uncompromised.
The maturity to see the totality of his situation for what it was, to dream beyond what was reasonable for him to expect and to do something to achieve that dream (even when it seemed inconceivable to others) was Washington’s blueprint for success in life. It was in these desperately challenging early years that Washington began to live the legacy he’d eventually become famous for. It’s no different for us: Who we choose to be today will create our legacies for tomorrow.
Washington’s aptitude and passion led him to make the long trip, much of it on foot, to what seemed more attractive “than heaven itself”: Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. This was a school that, as Washington remarked, was not only, “established for the members of my race but [provided] opportunities by which poor but worthy students could work out all or part of the cost of board, and at the same time be taught some trade or industry.” Heaven…
After demonstrating his quality as a student and, later, as a teacher at Hampton, Washington caught the attention of Hampton’s founder and first principal, General Armstrong. Two businessmen had asked Armstrong to find a white teacher who could bring some educational structure and funding to a destitute institute that, similar to Hampton, would educate black teachers. Washington, who was neither white nor experienced in such a capacity, was highly recommended by Armstrong, and he took the assignment with his usual sobriety and hearty Enthusiasm.
With nothing more than 30 students in a dilapidated shanty and a run-down church, Washington began Tuskegee Institute. He was in dire need of money and buildings suitable for teaching and student housing, so he canvassed the country to raise funds by giving speeches about the merit of Tuskegee’s efforts and results. The students, meanwhile, got down to building the actual school. They handled everything, including all excavation, brick-making, brick-laying, carpentry and other jobs necessary to build the school.
Washington was about taking action rather than talking about what could be or ought to be. In spending the better part of his life building the Tuskegee Institute, Washington demonstrated the dignity inherent to manual labor. It was a lesson he’d pass on to students: Anyone attending Tuskegee would learn several trades as s/he experienced the dignity of hard physical and mental labor. Washington was determined not to nurture any of the elitist attitudes that sometimes appeared in ex-slaves who tried to downplay their experiences and intimacy with manual labor. Washington believed that though slavery was unacceptable, there was indeed dignity in any honest labor, and he was committed to teaching this and the accompanying humility to his students who would be teachers themselves someday.
Traveling hundreds of miles and giving hundreds of speeches only to return to oversee the general welfare and care of the students, Washington never stopped. Never directly asking his audiences for money, Washington believed that if people were interested, they’d help; if not, on he would walk. All the while, his reputation and influence as “the great negro educator” was growing.
After decades of tireless efforts and faithful service to society, Washington became quite clear on the importance of as well as the means toward reconciliation between the races. Though he advocated for equality without exception, Washington reminded both races that equality comes with responsibility. It was his bold, reasonable and practical methodology that endeared him to two U.S. Presidents, wealthy industrialists, national and international leaders and people of prominence the world over.
Washington’s herculean foundational work would eventually become the Civil Rights Movement. His efforts would sire a great and sprawling Tuskegee University. His practical philosophy of self-help, which required “industry, thrift, [and] intelligence,” still inspires people today. His autobiography Up From Slavery still sells millions of copies worldwide--because people want what he had!
Most won’t do anything close to what they are capable of. Most will excuse themselves from their potential for comparatively minor reasons. But Booker T. Washington’s example stands to inspire the woman or man who would be and do great, whether as a parent, chemist, police officer, architect or something else. What do you dare to dream? Do something, now!
“Years ago I resolved that because I had no ancestry myself I would leave a record of which my children would be proud, and which might encourage them to still higher effort.” What Washington wanted and did for his children is his legacy today. What legacy do you choose to leave?