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Booker T. Washington in 1894
Associated Press/Library of Congress
Booker T. Washington in 1894

Building a practical and productive future

Black History Month | Booker T. Washington taught his students at Tuskegee to love hard work for its own sake

Booker T. Washington wrote one of America’s greatest autobiographies, a story of how he rose from slavery to leadership. Washington did not minimize the hardship along the way, but he, like Nelson Mandela after release from prison, put aside bitterness and worked for the progress that could come, if blacks and whites emphasized productive work and effective compassion.

Washington believed in economic empowerment that would leave ex-slaves no longer poor and lead to political empowerment. Here are excerpts from chapters eight and ten of Up from Slavery: An Autobiography, first published in 1901. They detail Washington’s attitude toward African-Alabamans he met while starting his famous Tuskegee Institute, and the battles he waged to teach practical matters—the equivalent then of today’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). He did not want students to concentrate on self-gratifying subjects that would leave them financially dependent on the pity of strangers. —Marvin Olasky

Teaching school in a stable and a hen-house

I confess that what I saw during my month of travel and investigation left me with a very heavy heart. The work to be done in order to lift these people up seemed almost beyond accomplishing. I was only one person, and it seemed to me that the little effort which I could put forth could go such a short distance toward bringing about results. I wondered if I could accomplish anything, and if it were worth while for me to try.

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To take the children of such people as I had been among for a month, and each day give them a few hours of mere book education, I felt would be almost a waste of time. After consultation with the citizens of Tuskegee, I set July 4, 1881, as the day for the opening of the school in the little shanty and church which had been secured for its accommodation. …

On the morning that the school opened, thirty students reported for admission. I was the only teacher. … The greater part of the thirty were public-school teachers, and some of them were nearly forty years of age. With the teachers came some of their former pupils, and when they were examined it was amusing to note that in several cases the pupil entered a higher class than did his former teacher. It was also interesting to note how many big books some of them had studied, and how many high-sounding subjects some of them claimed to have mastered. The bigger the book and the longer the name of the subject, the prouder they felt of their accomplishment. Some had studied Latin, and one or two Greek. This they thought entitled them to special distinction.

In fact, one of the saddest things I saw during the month of travel which I have described was a young man, who had attended some high school, sitting down in a one-room cabin, with grease on his clothing, filth all around him, and weeds in the yard and garden, engaged in studying a French grammar.

The students who came first seemed to be fond of memorizing long and complicated “rules” in grammar and mathematics, but had little thought or knowledge of applying these rules to the everyday affairs of their life. One subject which they liked to talk about, and tell me that they had mastered, in arithmetic, was “banking and discount,” but I soon found out that neither they nor almost any one in the neighbourhood in which they lived had ever had a bank account. In registering the names of the students, I found that almost every one of them had one or more middle initials. When I asked what the “J” stood for, in the name of John J. Jones, it was explained to me that this was a part of his “entitles.” Most of the students wanted to get an education because they thought it would enable them to earn more money as school-teachers.

Notwithstanding what I have said about them in these respects, I have never seen a more earnest and willing company of young men and women than these students were. They were all willing to learn the right thing as soon as it was shown them what was right. I was determined to start them off on a solid and thorough foundation, so far as their books were concerned. I soon learned that most of them had the merest smattering of the high-sounding things that they had studied. While they could locate the Desert of Sahara or the capital of China on an artificial globe, I found out that the girls could not locate the proper places for the knives and forks on an actual dinner-table, or the places on which the bread and meat should be set.


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