Self-Reliance and Building Bridges: Lessons Learned From Booker T. Washington

June 26, 2020 Updated: June 26, 2020

Sometimes looking backward can show us the way forward.

Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) was born into slavery in Virginia. After emancipation, his mother took her family to West Virginia, where Washington learned to read, received a rudimentary education, and worked for several years in salt furnaces and coal mines. Ambitious and eager to learn more, he left home to attend the Hampton Institute, a school in eastern Virginia established to educate African Americans.

Epoch Times Photo
Portrait of Booker T. Washington, circa 1895, by Frances Benjamin Johnston. United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. (Public Domain)

Like most of the other students, Washington worked his way through Hampton. He became a star pupil, and won the respect and admiration of Samuel Armstrong, president of the institute.

The Tuskegee Institute

When contacted by citizens in Alabama interested in founding a similar institute in Tuskegee, Armstrong strongly recommended Washington. Though the committee was searching for a white man to lead the school, on Armstrong’s recommendation they offered the post to the 25-year-old Washington.

Booker T. Washington and family
Booker T. Washington and family. (Photographs of Tuskegee Institute: An Illustrated Inventory of the American Antiquarian Society)

And so was born one of the most remarkable colleges in American history.

The original mission of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, now Tuskegee University, was to educate African Americans and send them back to their communities as teachers, ministers, and industrial and agricultural workers trained in modern techniques, such as those developed by agricultural scientist George Washington Carver, who taught at Tuskegee. In his autobiography “Up From Slavery,” Washington wrote: “Every student who graduates from the school shall have enough skill, coupled with intelligence and moral character, to enable him to make a living for himself and others.”

Teachers of Industries at Tuskegee
Teachers of industries at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. (Photographs of Tuskegee Institute: An Illustrated Inventory of the American Antiquarian Society)

These same students literally built most of the school with their own hands, tended crops and farm animals, and lived by a strict schedule to instill in them the discipline Washington thought necessary for success.

original Tuskegee buildings
Original buildings at Tuskegee Institute in 1882. (Photographs of Tuskegee Institute: An Illustrated Inventory of the American Antiquarian Society)

Accomplishments and Attacks

Washington’s reputation grew along with that of the school. He traveled extensively and often, raising money for his beloved institute and giving so many speeches that he was soon regarded as a leading spokesman for African Americans. In 1895, he delivered his most famous address to the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta, in which he urged blacks to develop their working skills, gain an education, and put aside dreams of political equality for the present time.

As historian Robert J. Norrell tells us in “Up From History: The Life of Booker T. Washington,” black critics, most of whom lived in the North, condemned Washington for this speech, calling him “the Benedict Arnold of the Negro race,” “the Great Traitor,” and a “miserable toady.” Even today, many historians consider Washington’s advocacy for cooperation and slow change a capitulation to the Jim Crow laws of the South. In answering these charges, Norrell points out that Washington made these proposals when in the South “white hatred of blacks was intensifying, manifested in an epidemic of lynchings.”

Booker T. Washington at desk
Booker T. Washington at his desk. His autobiography, “Up From Slavery,” 1901, was a bestseller. (Everett Collection / Shutterstock)

Despite these criticisms, by the end of his life, Washington had firmly established Tuskegee Institute, sent thousands of its graduates to small towns and cities across the South, and helped restore a sense of pride among black Southerners, many of whom named schools, parks, and libraries in honor of him.

So what lessons can we learn from this man? What might we, in this summer of discontent, protests, and riots, take from his example?

Grit and Self-Reliance

Determination

Booker T. Washington was a fighter. In “Up From Slavery,” Washington recounts in detail the hardships he suffered on his journey to the Hampton Institute. By the time he reached Richmond, he was broke, hungry, and without a friend in the world in that city. He eventually earned money for food by unloading cargo ships, cut expenses by sleeping at night under an elevated sidewalk, set out again for the institute, and arrived at the school with 50 cents in his pockets.

He was equally strong-willed in his creation of the Tuskegee Institute. Within 20 years of his arrival, he transformed an empty piece of land into a thriving campus. Believing in the potential of his students as a force for change in the segregated South, he constantly sought donors whose money would help improve the institute and stuck to his dream of not just a better South but also a better America.

Self-Help and Work

Unlike today, when so many of us seek government solutions to our problems, Washington stressed individual effort, willpower, and hard work as key forces for positive change. He instilled these principles in his young people, urging them again and again to rise above the poverty and bigotry oppressing them, to develop their gifts and share them with the communities where they lived.

In his Atlanta Exposition Address, Washington shared an anecdote still associated with his name. He described a ship in desperate need of water signaling another vessel for help. That ship responded several times, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” Finally, the captain of the distressed ship ordered a bucket dropped over the side and found it filled with fresh water from the Amazon River.

Printing College
A student at Tuskegee University in Alabama, circa 1955, learns to print a newspaper page in the institute’s printing works. (Bernd Lohse/Three Lions/Getty Images)

In his speech, Washington urged both blacks and whites to cast down their buckets where they are, cooperate with one another, and rebuild a region ruined by war and slavery.

Building Bridges

Interracial Engagement

In addition to his Atlanta speech, Washington delivered other addresses, sometimes to audiences composed of Southern whites and blacks. In the concluding paragraph of “Up From Slavery,” he writes of speaking in Richmond, Virginia, at the Academy of Music:

“This was the first time the coloured people had ever been permitted to use this hall. The day before I came, the City Council passed a vote to attend the meeting in a body to hear me speak. The state Legislature, including the House of Delegates and the Senate, also passed a unanimous vote to attend in a body. In the presence of hundreds of coloured people, many distinguished white citizens, the City Council, the state Legislature, and state officials, I delivered my message, which was one of hope and cheer, and from the bottom of my heart I thanked both races for this welcome back to the state that gave me birth.”

Booker T. Washington in Mound Bayou, Miss
Booker T. Washington making a speech in Mound Bayou, Miss., in 1912. (Everett Collection /Shutterstock)

Because of his ability to reason and to compromise, Washington reached larger audiences, undoubtedly including some segregationists, than his critics.

Patient for Change

More than many of his contemporaries, and much more than the people of our own time when our digital technology brings us instant news and, as a consequence, loud demands for instant change, Booker T. Washington looked at the whites and blacks of the American South and realized that both groups needed time to recalibrate their vision of the future. This recalibration, this hope that the two races would cooperate and eventually regard one another without prejudice, is a theme that runs throughout “Up From Slavery.”

Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington
Theodore Roosevelt speaking at the National Negro Business League in 1910. Seated to his left is Booker T. Washington. (Everett Collection /Shutterstock)

Unlike other revolutionaries—Robespierre, Lenin and Stalin, Mao Zedong, and the dozens of other dictators who have demanded instant changes to the societies they controlled—Washington was an adherent of gradualism, a black man in the Deep South who concluded that decades would pass before blacks and whites could together forge a future. And unlike some of his African American contemporaries, especially those from Northern states, he was intimate with Southern whites, knew and recognized their fears and prejudices, and was willing to seek a compromise so that his own people might become more learned and more prosperous.

A Man Is More Than the Color of His Skin

The Blame Game Rejected

In his biography of Washington, Robert Norrell writes: “Blacks needed a reputation for being hard-working, intelligent, and patriotic, Washington taught, and not for being aggrieved.” Given his own time as a slave, his struggles to educate himself, and his fight to maintain Tuskegee Institute in segregated Alabama, Washington could easily have given way to finger-pointing and self-pity, blaming Southern whites and the system of oppression they had created for the condition of his people.

That he continued to move forward, to pursue his dreams of African American education and advancement, without falling into self-pity provides a remarkable example of a man battling overwhelming odds and never surrendering to bitterness or discouragement.

Character

Washington promoted the importance of character. He believed that “character, not circumstances, makes the man” and that “I shall allow no man to belittle my soul by making me hate him.”

Like Martin Luther King Jr., who echoed some of Washington’s sentiments in his own speeches—“Let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him”—Washington was more interested in what lay under the skin than the color of the skin itself. In his dealings with blacks and whites, he respected and treated them as individual human beings rather than as stereotypes.

Booker T. Washington statue
“Lifting the Veil of Ignorance,” a statue of Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee University. (Jeffrey M. Frank/ Shutterstock)

Near the end of “Up From Slavery,” Washington noted: “The great human law that in the end recognizes and rewards merit is everlasting and universal.” As he demonstrates time and again in this autobiography, Washington believed that merit and character were intertwined—that regardless of their circumstances, men and women of character who were willing to work hard would find their just reward.

In this same passage, Washington wrote of “the struggle that is constantly going on in the hearts of both the Southern white people and their former slaves to free themselves from racial prejudices,” and of his hope that someday they would do so. That hope, that belief in progress and a higher living standard for blacks, was the standard he followed his entire life.

As Norrell tells us in “Up From History,” Washington’s “effort to sustain blacks’ morale at a terrible time must be counted among the most heroic efforts in American history.”

In our age of rhetoric, rage, riot, and rebellion, we could use more men and women with the values, virtues, dreams, and hopes of Booker T. Washington.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.