Sunday, February 10, 2013

BLACK HISTORY MONTH No. 10: 12 Things to Know About Booker T. Washington

     So, of course I'd heard about Booker Tliaferro Washington. In school. Along the way. But I'd never really read about him until I was working, first, on a book about Theodore Roosevelt, and then on my book about Geo. Washington Carver a few years ago.  Booker T. W. is something of anachronism these days, even categorized, I'd say most unfairly, as an Uncle Tom.

"I have learned that success
 is to be measured not so much 
by the position that one has reached in life 
as by the obstacles which he has had to overcome 
while trying to succeed."

:Character is power."

"Few things can help an individual 
more than to place responsibility on him, 
and to let him know that you trust him."

Booker T. Washington

1.  Why should Americans know about him?  Because Mr. Washington, who began his life in slavery, became an educator, speaker, and author of great significance at a critical time in our nation's history, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Decades after the Civil War, racism was still rampant in America. Plenty of white citizens, particularly in what had been the Old south were doing their best, i.e. worst to keep former slaves and their children ground underfoot. How? With violence and intimidation. Keeping poor people down. Written and unwritten laws, together known as Jim Crow.

2. As was the case with Frederick Douglass and many another African American of this era, BTW's mother was enslaved. His father was a white man, a wealthy farmer or "planter" as such was known in Virginia, where BTW was born. April 5, 1856.

3. Every sort of hard, rotten sort of physical labor was the way BTW was able to work his way through African American schools, present-day Hampton University. and Virginia Union University.

4. Armed with this education, 25-year-old BTW became head of a leaky, shabby set of buildings near Tuskegee, Alabama.  It would be his job, his and his determined African American students, to turn those worn out buildings into a SCHOOL.     Which they did. 

5. One of BTW's  best known hires?  That'd be Geo. W. Carver, the "Peanut Wizard," the "Sage of Tuskegee." In 1896.  A year after the big speech BTW made in Atlanta, the speech that won him so much praise and scorn.

6. It was known as the Atlanta Exposition Speech or, by some, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, as the 'Atlanta Compromise.  Booker T. Washington delivered this address to a mostly white audience in Sept 1895.  Here is BTW's recounting of it, from his 1901 memoir, Up From Slavery.  It's a hard listen from a modern p.o.v.  In 1895, the speech made him a national popular sensation.  

He called for African Americans to be hired [rather than the immigrants who were pouring into the U.S. just then] as the humble, loyal, and hard-working people they were - who should passively accept segregation. Blacks & whites could exist together, as separate fingers on one hand.

7. BTW's pragmatic p.o.v. was highly necessary, considering all of the money he was constantly trying to raise, considering all of the favor he was actively courting from influential people, particularly white ones, ever leery of being asked to move too far or too fast from the status quo.

8. BTW was so popular that President Theodore Roosevelt invited him to dine with him at the White House. I mean, think of it: In the entire history of the slave-built place, black people were the ones who cooked and served meals and washed up afterwards.  Only fitting that a significant educator should be asked to visit with the President - but the response from the outraged South was so foul, filthy, backwards, racist. Disgusting and shocking even now to read....

9. He continued his heavy workload at the Tuskegee Institute. 

10.  Booker T. Washington lies buried there, since his death, Nov 14, 1915, when he was only 59.

11. A visit to Tuskegee University is well worth the visit: There's a handsome museum/ National Historic Site there, detailing the work of Booker T. Washington and his employee/sometime nemesis Geo. Wash. Carver.

12. There is also, in Franklin Co., VA, the Booker T. Washington National Monument.

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