Moving forward a few centuries or so, I would be born a few miles down the road in the same state, now known as West Virginia -- because the White-controlling class had no further use for the brutal, overt enslavement of Black Africans because West Virginia withdrew from the White confederate states and no longer needed Black slaves to drive its economy which was never dependent on the cotton industry. Booker T’s home still stands a few miles from where I was born in Charleston, West Virginia and his childhood history was written in my neighborhood. Young Booker T. walked 600 miles deeper into the South to attend a college, established by Whites, for colored people and Native Americans, Hampton Institute, in 1861.
Ironically, in 2004, I would leave New York City to become the first dean, and subsequently Dean Emeritus and professor, of the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University.
Names of great people are keywords symbolizing astounding human behavior. They can also be used to help us understand ourselves and by comparing our contemporary experiences with theirs, learn the same lessons anew. Jackie Robinson -- the first of his race to play major league baseball. Martin Luther King -- the first Black American to have a national holiday named in his honor.
Booker T. Washington, educator and statesman, is Hampton University's most famous graduate and founder of Tuskegee Institute in 1881 (now known as Tuskegee University). In many ways, he embodies the spirit of all of Black higher education.
Booker T. Washington, represented the core of the Black quest for education. Stressing the practical, but at no time ignoring the need to educate the whole person, he emphasized education as a tool to move people away from the crippling effects of slavery: the dependency, the social disorganization, the poverty, the ignorance. Washington's political views were as controversial as his approach to education, but his achievements made him the most powerful Black American who ever lived. And today, the seeds of his unshakable belief in character and self-help have blossomed into one of the major forces in higher education. There is plenty of room for debate over Washington's methods, but none over the results. What he did with his life was monumental. He influenced higher education in general—not just at Black institutions. He demonstrated that strength of character, self-help and racial pride can defeat discrimination and with an iron will, built the most famous Black school of its time from a dilapidated shanty and a run-down abandoned Black church in rural Alabama.
In human terms, Washington wasn't everything he could have been; none of us are. But he was more than enough. In one way, he animates the entire experience of a people. He overcame poverty and ignorance; African-Americans must overcome poverty and ignorance. Washington sacrificed and suffered in his quest for success. Blacks will not be excused from sacrifice or suffering either against today's obstacles. Washington recognized that knowledge was indispensable to being the equal of another. And that character was the only true form of power we will ever realize. "Character is power," he once said. Add a spice of self-determination and group unity here and there and you'll get the formula for pushing back the barriers of racism and discrimination well beyond the horizon of their historic origins.
Booker T. Washington is best known for his line: "Cast down your bucket where you are." For a people to move forward, however, they must be guided by a larger model -- something that represents the spirit or essence of themselves. That's the role of the major life forces of history. Booker T. Washington was such a spirit in the African-American quest for an education. So, in the 4-part series on Booker T. Washington, Tony Brown's Journal set out upon a freedom trail to learn how he did it and to find out what's on his trail of iron-willed determination that can be useful to us today view a documentary I produced called "The Booker T. Washington Freedom Trail: The Spirit Of Black Higher Education" at https://www.tonybrownsjournal.com/booker-t-washington-freedom-trail.