October 13, 2021
Tuskegee University is a “private, historically black, land-grant university” in east central Alabama, with an endowment of $129 million, as of 2019. That same year 2,876 students were enrolled, and of those, 2,379 were black. Of the 560 degrees offered in 2019, women received 358, men 202.
The school began with an agreement made in 1880, between a former Confederate Colonel, W. F. Foster, who was running for Alabama’s Senate, and a local black leader, Lewis Adams.
Foster asked Adams to try to persuade black voters to vote for him, on a promise that he would urge the state to build a post-secondary school for black students in their county, Macon County.
It all happened. Foster was elected, and the state earmarked $2,000 for teachers’ salaries.
The board’s members wrote to officials at another historically black school, Hampton Institute, in Hampton, Virginia, and requested names of possible teachers. Samuel C. Armstrong, then Hampton’s principal, recommended one of his finest teachers there, Booker T. Washington.
In recent days, I re-read Washington’s 1901 biography, Up From Slavery, and I still find it an astonishing record of one man’s ambitious drive, first to educate himself, and also to train others of his race. With multiple excuses to give up or quit, he never surrendered to doubt or hesitation.
Booker was born a slave on a tobacco plantation near Westlake Corner, Virginia, most likely in 1856. He never knew his father, but he wrote, “I have heard reports that he was a white man on a near-by plantation,” and that his father, “was simply another unfortunate victim” of slavery.
Jane, his mother, was the plantation’s cook, and their 14’ x 16’ log cabin was its kitchen. Jane, Booker, half-brother John, and half-sister Amanda lived in a cabin without doors or windows. Booker said, “we slept on a bundle of filthy rags laid upon the dirt floor.”
As for their own food, the family did not ever sit on chairs before a table. “It was a piece of bread here, a scrap of meat there. It was a cup of milk at one time, some potatoes at another.”
Their white owners expected all slaves, no matter their age, to work, and he said,
“I had no schooling whatever while I was a slave, though I remember on several occasions I went as far as the schoolhouse door with one of my young mistresses to carry her books. The picture of several dozen boys and girls in a school room engaged in study made a deep impression upon me”
“I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise.” His desire to read, write, and learn from books was a fuel that drove him on.
In 1865, when Booker was nine years old, he, his mother, and his siblings heard the welcome news that they were now emancipated, free of slavery’s grip. Jane packed up and moved to Malden, a town in West Virginia, to join her husband, Washington Ferguson, who had escaped slavery during the war.
Booker wanted to enroll in a new school for colored children in Malden, but his step-father insisted that he work ten or more hours a day before a hot and miserable salt-furnace. His mother somehow found for Booker a Webster “blue-black” spelling book that listed the English alphabet.
Booker tried to learn, but he said, “I could find no one to teach me. At that time there was not a single member of my race anywhere near us who could read, and I was too timid to approach any of the white people.” Day and night, Booker made a case to his parents that he should attend school.
He asked a teacher to teach him nights. Finally, his father allowed Booker to attend school for a few hours each day, but he still must work early morning and evenings at the salt furnace.
One day he overheard two other workers talking about a college on the coast that taught black students. He crept closer and listened. He learned that it was called Hampton Institute, at Hampton, Virginia. Booker decided he would travel to Hampton Institute, 325 miles away.
He almost starved on the journey, but when he arrived, he had no money for tuition. Officials though gave him a janitor’s job to pay his way. He said,
“Life at Hampton was a constant revelation: having meals at regular hours, eating on a tablecloth, using a napkin, the use of a bathtub, of a tooth-brush, of sheets upon the bed, were all new to me.”
He stayed, learned his lessons, and years later taught other Hampton students.
Booker T. Washington’s life work though began when he arrived in Tuskegee, Alabama. It was a startup school. Not only did he teach, but he had to travel often, speaking of his college, and letting crowds of people know of his chronic need for funds to build and maintain a first-class university.
In 1915, when 59, Booker T. Washington died of high blood pressure. On his tombstone were inscribed the words, “He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry.”
Next time in these pages: Milton Hershey School, in Hershey, Pennsylvania.