The power of doing for self- Booker T. Washington

Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome to while trying to succeed’

(These are the immortal words of Mr Booker T. Washington)

Booker T. Washington – Who is he?

Although born into slavery Booker T. Washington’s was ordained to be great from birth. He was a man born with great determination not to let his past pre-determine his future. He was determined to build a better future for African Americans in the southern states post the reconstruction era in the South and he would not stop at any cost until he died at the young age of 59. It was his speech at the Atlanta cotton states and International Exposition on the 18 September 1895 that thrust him into the American conscience (both black and white) as the leader of African Americans during the period of segregation and Jim Crow laws in the southern states of America.

Speaking frankly about his birth and childhood as slave Booker T. Washington wrote ‘I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin county, Virginia. I was born near a cross roads post office called Hale’s ford and the year was 1858 or 1859. I do not know the month or the day… of my ancestry I know nothing … my ancestors on my mother’s side, suffered in the middle passage of the slave ship while being conveyed from Africa to America… Of my father I know even less than of my mother. I do not even know his name. I have heard reports to the effect that he was a white man who lived on one of the nearby plantations. Whoever he was I never heard of his taking the least interest in me or providing in any way for my rearing.’     

The Period in which he worked

Mr Washington was a child during the period emancipation of slavery in the southern states of the United States of America. America was stricken by civil war Mr Washington was aged about nine years old when news had arrived on his plantation that the North had defeated the South and that slaves were now truly free.  Booker T. Washington remembered that as emancipation day drew nearer there was much singing in the slave quarters, he wrote ‘there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom’.

I have no doubt that some of those songs included Negro spirituals that are still sung today in predominantly black churches across the world, songs like,

(song) ‘I am free, praise the Lord I’m free, no longer bound, no more chains holding me, my soul is resting it’s such a blessing, praise the Lord, Hallelujah I am free!’

However, it was post the reconstruction era after 1878 that Mr Washington began some of his most notable work right up until his death in 1915.

He left his home town (with very little money) and his job working in the coal mines to become a student at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural institute in Virginia, where he would go on to establish himself as an excellent educator in teaching other African American students. Writing about his ambitions to attend the Hampton institute, Mr Washington wrote

‘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’.

At age 25 in 1881 he was charged with the position to become the principal of a school in Tuskegee, Alabama. This job would become his most famous life time achievement of building the Tuskegee institute (which would later become Tuskegee University) for educating freed African America slaves in Alabama. When he arrived in Tuskegee Alabama in 1881, Washington found that there was no building to teach his students but as he put it ‘I did find, though, that which no costly building and apparatus can supply, – hundreds of hungry, earnest souls who wanted to secure knowledge’.

Booker T. Washington started teaching the local freed slaves in Tuskegee in a shanty run down church on the 4th July 1881 but from thereon both he and his students, with their own hands, sweat and labour would build a school from nothing on former planation land that was purchased the following year. He wrote in his autobiography that ‘I have always sympathized with the ‘Children of Israel’, in their task of “making bricks without straw”, but ours was the task of making bricks with no money and no experience.’

Part of his plan at Tuskegee was to make his students become more be self-reliant, for them to be not only literate in reading and writing (and also religious instruction) but to be skilled in the key essential areas of life such as agriculture, domestic work and erecting their own buildings. In his own words Mr Washington said that –

‘My plan was to have them, while performing this service, taught the latest and best methods of labour, so that the school would not only get the benefit of their efforts, but the students themselves would be taught to see not only utility in labour, but beauty and dignity; would be taught, in fact, how to lift labour up from mere drudgery and toil, and would learn to work for its own sake.’   

He also went onto say –

‘I told those who doubted the wisdom of the plan that I knew that our first buildings would not be so comfortable or so complete in their finish as buildings erected by the experienced hands of outside workmen, but that in teaching of civilization, self- help, and self-reliance, the erection of the buildings by the students themselves would more than compensate for any lack of comfort or fine finish’.  

His achievements in the face of adversity

Despite being a former slave Mr Washington’s achievements are the stuff of legends here are just a few of his achievements during his life time.

  • He created the Tuskegee institute, which is today known as Tuskegee University a historically private owned black university in Alabama. Today Tuskegee University is the only historically black college or university in America that is registered as a national historic landmark.
  • In his effort to inspire commercial, agricultural, educational and industrial advancement of African Americans Booker T. Washington founded the National Negro Business League in 1900.
  • He was the first African American to be invited by the United States President (by then US President Theodore Roosevelt) to dine with him at the White House. In fact it was that seminal moment in American history that American Senator John McCain referred to as laying the seed which had blossomed into the first African American President Barack Obama.
  • On the 24th June 1896 he was awarded by none other than Harvard University with an honorary degree for is tireless work. (Also receiving an honorary degree from Harvard University at the said ceremony was Dr Alexander Bell the inventor of the telephone).
  • Whilst travelling the United States (and Europe) to gain financial support for the Tuskegee institute he was befriended by several wealthy philanthropists who believed in his work and gave his school millions of dollars such philanthropists included Andrew Carnegie, Julius Rosenwald, and John D. Rockefeller (of the famous Rockefeller family).

Booker T. Washington’s lasting legacy

From my personal perspective there are invaluable lessons to be drawn from Booker T. Washington’s life and work at a time like this for all communities but particularly for our Caribbean community in Britain today.

  • Self – help and self- reliance is of utmost importance for any community that aspires to thrive, without these two principles a community will not survive.
  • A disciplined and united people equals strength – This is self- explanatory, because a community can achieve a lot through discipline and unity.
  • Hard work and persistence will be rewarded no matter what race you are from. Have a plan, ‘stick to it with patience and wisdom and earnest effort’ and you will succeed.
  • Talk is cheap, all talk and no action is fruitless in the process of building a better future.

As Mr Washington quite rightly said ‘my experience is that there is something in human nature which always makes an individual recognize and reward merit, no matter under what colour of skin merit is found… The actual sight of a first-class house that a Negro has built is ten times more potent than pages of discussion about a house that he ought to build, or perhaps could build.’

If you want to learn more about this great man please read his autobiography ‘Up from slavery’ which can be bought online. God bless you all.

This article was written and adapted by Anthony R. Mcken for the benefit of NSOCA, the quotes made by Booker T. Washington were taken from his autobiography ‘Up from slavery’.


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