Her thoughts — Booker T. Washington: Pioneering visionary in contrast

Published 12:27 pm Saturday, April 16, 2022

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When one gains freedom from the bondage of slavery the quest for all the possibilities that await you can be an arduous journey in the pursuit. Booker T. Washington knew that all too well.

On April 5, 1856 Booker T. Washington was born into slavery on a farm owned by James Burroughs near Hale’s Ford, Virginia. Booker T’s mother was the Burrough family’s cook and his father, whom he didn’t know, was possibly white since Booker T. had light skin.

In 1865 after the Civil War ended at age nine Booker T. and his family earned their freedom. However, they soon found out that physical freedom didn’t secure freedom from racism, inequality and inopportunity.

The Washington family, which included his stepfather, moved to Malden, West Virginia where Booker T. and his brother worked as salt packers. Throughout his youth Booker T. desired an education so when a school opened up in the area he attended there working before and after school in the salt wells every day.

Shortly afterward Booker T. left home moving into one of the wealthiest homes in Malden to work as a servant for General Lewis and Viola Ruffner and all of his earnings went to his parents. Ruffner assisted Booker T. in his education and that experience influenced him greatly because he learned the Puritan work ethic, cleanliness and thrift.

In 1872 with his family’s support Booker T. attended Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) a school of higher learning for African Americans in Virginia. While there he worked as a janitor allowing him contact with the whites running the school. Its founder General Samuel Chapman Armstrong had a profound influence on him as an educator, father figure and mentor. Booker T. had extensive training as a teacher, Bible scholar and orator. For him, this experience propelled him from boyhood to manhood.

After graduating at age 20, Booker T. opened a night school with an enrollment of 80 students which became a strong presence in the community. After attending Wayland Seminary in Washington, D. C. in 1873 he got a teaching position in 1879 at Hampton Institute teaching night school as well as taking additional classes.

In 1881 General Armstrong recommended M Booker T. for principal at a normal school for blacks in Tuskegee, Alabama in which he was accepted. Booker T. acquired skills in interracial diplomacy working with the white commissioner to establish a higher learning school in Tuskegee. Consequently, the first school opened in the African Methodist Church with 37 students. The objective was to get the school on a labor basis so tuition would not be charged because most blacks were poor and enrollment could be very limited. Subsequently, a farm was bought and the school was moved there with Booker T. raising funds for buildings and equipment for Tuskegee Institute with enrollment in the hundreds.

In addition, Booker T. encouraged his students to behave respectfully and work hard so whites could see that blacks could conduct themselves properly as well as staying out of politics and being courteous without airs. He felt their focus should be on practical skills not higher education. His oratory expertise served him well and in 1893 his Atlanta Compromise address which he gave to a national audience in Atlanta, Georgia proposed African Americans working in low level jobs slowly working their way to white respectability discouraging Blacks from vigorously fighting for civil rights and pursuing liberal education. Booker T.’s biggest critic was W. E. B. DuBois who proposed the opposite. It is ironic that Booker T. would tell his students to stay away from politics, yet, was embroiled in it himself. In 1896 he hired George Washington Carver as an agricultural teacher who became famous for his innovation with the peanut.

Amidst his academic pursuits he obtained happiness peppered within sorrow. In 1882 he married Fanne Smith having a daughter Potria. However, Fannie died two years later. In 1885 Olivia Davidson became his wife and bore him two sons Booker T., Jr. and Ernest; she died in 1889. Booker T.’s third wife Margaret Murray was an English teacher and the head of women’s industries at Tuskegee and stepmom to his children.

Booker T. was a tireless fundraiser making connections with wealthy self-made individuals such as Julian Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Company in Chicago and a member of the Board of Trustee of Tuskegee Institute, who donated funds in 1912 for six small rural schools in Alabama which opened in 1914. The Rosenwald Funds assisted in the building of 4,977 schools in 883 counties in 15 states from Maryland to Texas which served the African American communities as well as Tuskegee Institute.

Booker T. differed from others in how to achieve civil rights. The Booker T. Washington National Monument in Hardy, Franklin County details his life and what is was like for him as a child. You can go there and see living history depicting his life on a tobacco and animal farm. His book Up From Slavery is another crowning achievement. His life shows how one can move up from slavery.

On Nov. 14, 1915 Booker T. Washington died of nephritis-kidney inflammation at Tuskegee and is buried at Tuskegee University Campus Cemetery.

Judy Moore is a tour guide at The Central High Museum living in Wylliesburg. She can be reached at v5agabond2@gmnail.com.