Booker T. Washington – Perserverence
Perseverance—literally a thousand well-known people could have been selected to exemplify this character trait. The ability to overcome obstacles and achieve success is so quintessentially American. The American dream is to take an idea, work hard, and persevere to overcome all obstacles in order to earn a comfortable living. Our system of capitalism embraces this entrepreneurial spirit that says anybody—no matter their gender, race, or religion—can achieve the American dream.
Booker T. Washington was selected to illustrate perseverance because no one else in the history of America overcame more in a given lifetime. He was born a slave, the most degrading condition imaginable. Yet near the end of his life he was an advisor to the President of the United States. His is the real- life story of a slave boy who overcame all odds to become recognized as the most powerful leader of black America from 1895 to 1915. Washington did more to improve black and white relations in the post-Civil War era than anyone else of that time. How did he accomplish so much when countless others failed? The simple answer is that he set a goal for himself and did not rest until that goal was achieved. Of course, it is more complicated than that, and the story of his life illustrates the hard work, sacrifice, and perseverance he exhibited during his lifetime to achieve his goals.
Booker T. Washington’s mother was a cook at a small plantation in Virginia and, like most slaves, worked from sunup to sundown, seven days a week. Washington never met his father and did not even know his name. According to his autobiography, he also did not know the year or month that he was born. At the time little attention was paid to family records of slaves. Nonetheless, Booker was likely born in the spring of 1856. By definition, a black person born before the end of the Civil War was a slave. He was regarded as property, having no legal rights. He was owned in the same manner that a farm animal might be owned today. For the first nine years of his life, Booker lived in a one-room cabin where he slept on the dirt floor with his mother, brother, and sister, using rags as blankets. In our times these living conditions would be considered unthinkable, but they were common among slaves in the rural South.
At that time, it was illegal to educate a black person in the South. The punishment for such an infraction was severe. The only time Booker went to school was to carry the books of the slave master’s daughter. He often dreamed of the day that he could learn to read and write. He later wrote, “I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise.” Can you imagine a young child of today having those same thoughts—equating school with paradise?
Booker spent most of his days working. He was not old enough to do hard labor, but his chores included cleaning the yard, carrying water, and fanning the flies away from the slave master’s family during mealtime. Booker later recalled, “From the time that I can remember anything, almost every day of my life has been occupied in some kind of labor.” After the Civil War ended in April 1865, the slaves were freed. It’s hard to imagine the magnitude the Emancipation Proclamation had for people of color. The thought of freedom brought tears of jubilation and joyous cheers from millions of black people. Of course, many had spent their entire life on plantations and were too old to start a productive life on their own. But this was not the case for Booker. He was only nine years old and had his whole life ahead of him.
However, life was hard in the 1800s for most black people, children included. Booker’s family was free, but they were penniless, jobless, and homeless—not a good situation for a mother with three young children. Booker’s mother was married to a former slave who lived at another plantation. During slavery they were permitted to see each other only once a year, usually at Christmas. Now that freedom had been declared, Booker’s mother could join her husband in West Virginia. The family packed up what little belongings they had and made the 200-mile trek. The automobile had not yet been invented, and the family did not own a horse, so they covered the great distance on foot. To make this trip today by car would take a mere three and a half hours. Yet in 1865, this trip took several weeks. Along the way, the family slept on open ground and cooked what little food they had over log fires.
Upon their arrival, Booker was introduced to his new living quarters. He later wrote, “Our new house was no better than the one we had left on the old plantation in Virginia.” Despite Booker’s young age, his stepfather had already secured him a job working in the salt mines. He put in 10 to 12 hours of physical labor every day in some of the worst working conditions imaginable. Not long after Booker arrived in West Virginia, one of the first schools for black children opened up close to his home. Remembering his vision of “paradise,” Booker was eager to learn to read and write. However, his stepfather would not allow him to leave his job and attend school. Booker was determined to not let this decision deter him from his goal. He successfully pleaded with the teacher to give him lessons at night, after he finished his long shift in the mines. After some time under this arrangement, Booker negotiated a deal with his stepfather that would allow him to attend school during the day. Booker was to rise before dawn and work in the mine from 4:00 to 9:00 a.m. He was then allowed to attend school during the day, only to return to the mines for another two hours in the evening. He was determined to get an education—no matter how hard he had to work or what he had to overcome.
Booker was a quick study and did well in school. He wanted to soak up all the knowledge he could, but it was not long before he knew just as much as the teachers at his local school. He soon heard about a well-respected school for black students in his home state of Virginia. The school was called Hampton Institute, and to Booker, it sounded like heaven. With his natural spirit of determination, he made the decision that he would one day attend Hampton Institute. “I resolved at once to go to that school,” he later wrote, “although I had no idea where it was, or how many miles away, or how I was going to reach it… That thought was with me day and night.”
At the age of 16, Booker set off for Hampton Institute, leaving his family behind. With not much more than the clothes on his back, he began the long journey that stood between him and his future. Even with very little food to eat and no shoes on his feet, he persevered to reach his goal. After many days of travel, Booker reached Hampton with a mere 50 cents in his pocket. He had not bathed in quite some time, his clothes were torn, and he had not eaten anything substantial in days. Still, he did not care. Years later his recollection of the moment he first saw Hampton was as fresh as the day it happened. “The sight of it seemed to give me new life. I felt that a new kind of existence had now begun—that life would now have a new meaning.”
The young man’s disheveled appearance did not give the sort of impression one wants to make in an interview. The head teacher of the school was not enthusiastic about admitting someone with such an untidy look. She decided to test Booker’s resolve and his worth by asking him to clean a room in the school. Booker instinctively knew this was a test and that the outcome of this test would mightily influence his future at Hampton. Needless to say, he cleaned the room as if his life depended on it. He swept the floor three times and dusted the room four times. He moved furniture and removed dust from every nook and cranny in the room. When he was confident that he had done a thorough job, the head teacher began her inspection. She looked everywhere for dirt, but when she was unable to find any, she declared, “I guess you will do to enter this institution.”
With no money to pay for his education, Booker took a job as a janitor for the school. To accomplish his job and tend to his studies, he was usually up by 4:00 a.m. and finished late in the evening with an hour or two of study. His job only paid for part of his tuition, but as he put it, “I was determined from the first to make my work as a janitor so valuable that my services would be indispensable.” Once again, his hard work and dedication paid off. Despite his inability to cover the cost of his tuition, the school’s administrators allowed him to stay for four years to complete his degree.
Even after graduating in 1875, Booker did not consider himself above other people nor did he believe that certain jobs were beneath him. He came away from Hampton Institute with an observation that guided him throughout the rest of his life. “The happiest individuals are those who do the most to make others useful and happy.” His life ambition was to help others succeed. He determined that the best way to help others was to become a teacher.
Booker T. Washington took his first teaching position near his former home in West Virginia. He taught during the day, but also opened up a night school for those who had to work during the day. If that weren’t enough, Washington taught two Sunday school classes and tutored promising students who had ambitions of attending Hampton Institute. As he had done nearly all his life, he worked 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. and earned very little pay. However, his good work was recognized. Because his students were so highly prepared once they reached Hampton, Washington was soon asked to return to his alma mater, this time as a teacher. Administrators asked him to start a night school at Hampton. His efforts were met with astonishing success and once again people took notice. In 1881, the president of Hampton Institute, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, received a letter from a man in Alabama, stating that he wanted to start a college for blacks and was looking for a white person who was qualified to become the first principal of the school, which would be called Tuskegee Institute. General Armstrong, a white man, indicated that he did not know of a white individual with those qualifications, but could recommend Washington to lead this school. Based solely on General Armstrong’s recommendation, Washington was hired, sight unseen.
Washington had established a solid reputation by that time. He could be relied upon and was respected by all. Regardless of the size of the task, Washington could be trusted to get the job done. He exercised personal initiative, worked long hours and persevered through many obstacles. At the age of 25, this former slave had become the first black principal of an all-black school in the United States. But Washington was a humble man. His goal was not to become rich or famous, but rather to help people who needed it. He later wrote, “In order to be successful…the main thing is for one to grow to the point where he completely forgets himself; that is, to lose himself in a great cause.” For Washington, Tuskegee was that great cause.
Upon arriving at Tuskegee, Washington realized that he had his work cut out for him. He had expected to find a school equipped with books, desks, and other essential teaching materials. He found nothing of the sort. Not only did he not have the necessary tools, he did not have a building in which to teach. During the early days of Tuskegee Institute, Washington taught the first 30 students in an old, run-down church. He had to start with the basics, both in and out of the classroom. As the only instructor, Washington had to teach students how to brush their teeth, wash their clothes, and clean their rooms. He wanted all students to know how to present themselves and make a favorable impression. He also wanted students to learn a trade that would allow them to earn a living once they left Tuskegee. Students learned these trades not by reading about them in books, but by actually doing them. Some students constructed buildings and furniture for the school, while others planted crops and sewed clothing. This physical labor served three purposes. The school desperately needed the resources produced by the students; most of the students needed to trade work for tuition; and students who had learned a trade would add further value to their communities after graduation.
This approach of learning-by-doing continued during Washington’s tenure at Tuskegee. All students were required to take part in physical labor, even if they came from well-to-do families. As the school began to expand, Washington hired the best black professionals and educators. Together, the teachers and students designed and completed a variety of projects. Washington led the school by example. He spent portions of his day with an axe in his hands, clearing the property for the next buildings to be built. To raise money for this expansion, everyone participated in fundraising efforts. Teachers and students often sold the goods they produced on campus, but that only generated a small part of the revenue that was necessary for the school’s survival. Washington found himself traveling tirelessly around the United States to raise money toward his goal of providing an education to the black students who wanted it. There is no doubt that the driving force behind the success at Tuskegee was Booker T. Washington. He retained his title as principal until he died in 1915.
By the time of Washington’s death, Tuskegee had grown enormously. An endowment of $2 million had been established, and over 100 buildings had been built on the campus. The faculty numbered over 200, and they taught 40 different majors to the 1,500 students enrolled at Tuskegee. Over the next several years Tuskegee continued to grow in size and reputation. It became even more well known in the 1930s when the U.S. military began training African Americans to become fighter pilots. Tuskegee was selected as the site for this training due to its outstanding aeronautical program. The graduates of this program formed the 332d Fighter Group, thus becoming the first black pilots to fight in combat. During World War II, they fought with distinction. Many of their missions involved escorting U.S. bombers to their designated targets and back. According to war reports, no U.S. bomber was ever lost to enemy fire while being escorted by the Tuskegee Airmen. These pilots were credited with shooting down 251 enemy aircraft during WWII, while losing 66 of their own men in combat missions.
Tuskegee Institute has offered much more to the world than well-trained fighter pilots. The Tuskegee VA Hospital opened in 1923, the first hospital operated completely by black professionals. A school of veterinary medicine was also established, and today it produces nearly 75 percent of all black veterinarians in the United States. The United Negro College Fund, which has raised over $1 billion in student aid, was also founded at Tuskegee. In 1985, Tuskegee attained university status and now enrollsmorethan3,000 students. What an incredible transformation! The school opened in 1881 with one teacher, 30 students, and no buildings. It would be misleading to say that one man is solely responsible for the success of an entire institution, but it is clear that Washington’s hard work had an enormous impact on the success of Tuskegee Institute, which in turn has had a positive impact on the lives of millions of Americans.
The irony is that most young people hardly know Washington’s name, let alone what he accomplished in his lifetime. While at Tuskegee, Washington was a prominent role model for black Americans. He became an important spokesman for black people and gave speeches that many believe helped to start the healing process between blacks and whites after the Civil War. After providing a controversial speech at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895, he was widely referred to as “the most powerful black leader of his time.” He became an informal advisor to three U.S. presidents in his lifetime and influenced national policy on race relations. He wrote extensively and authored many books. His most famous is Up From Slavery, an autobiography that has been translated into many languages and has sold millions of copies.
Washington was an inspiration and not only to African Americans. He was a shining example of what is possible for all Americans who have initiative, work hard, and persevere through obstacles and setbacks. This is true for students as well as adults—even those students who do not particularly like school and do not see the value of what they are learning in the classroom. However, those who persevere and graduate are usually the ones who get rewarded with better jobs and more money, which allows them to acquire the material items that typically signify success.
It is safe to assume that young Washington did not enjoy getting up at dawn to work in the salt mines or clean classrooms as a janitor. It must have been difficult for him to attend night school after long hours of work. However, like most successful people, he did those things because they were necessary in order to accomplish his goals. Even in his personal life, Washington had a lot to overcome. He was widowed twice, both times after relatively short marriages. He could have turned bitter and lived out the rest of his life alone. Instead, he chose to marry again and loved his third wife until the day he died.
We could all learn a great deal from this man when it comes to perseverance. Washington simply refused to quit When we meet adversity and things don’t go our way, it is often easy to give up or blame others for our failures. That’s the easy way out. It might seem tempting, but those who persevere and overcome have much fuller lives. My hope is that you will persevere through the tough and challenging times in your life, only to become a better, stronger person. Perhaps you too will go on to lead a fife as full and meaningful as the one led by Booker T. Washington.
- List at least two ways that Booker demonstrated perseverance in his life?
- Booker was born as a slave and was “freed” when he was about 9. Explain what his life entailed as a slave for the first 9 years of his life?
- After being freed, he used what word to describe his feelings on education? “I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into ________.”
- When young Booker arrived at Hampton Institute, what did they make him do to gain acceptance?
- Students at Tuskegee Institute were required to do more than modern day students at college. List several of those requirements.
- What inspires you about Booker T. Washington and how can his life make you a better person?