What America’s Youth Can Learn from Booker T. Washington

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Born in a slave hut April 5, 1856, was Booker T. Washington. In dire poverty after the Civil War, he moved to West Virginia to work in a salt furnace and coal mine. At age 16 he walked 500 miles to attend Hampton Institute in Virginia and later Wayland Baptist Seminary in Washington, DC. In his book, Up From Slavery (1901), Washington wrote:

“Perhaps the most valuable thing that I got out of my second year at the Hampton Institute was an understanding of the use and value of the Bible. Miss Nathalie Lord, one of the teachers, from Portland, Maine, taught me how to use and love the Bible…”

“I learned to love to read the Bible, not only for the spiritual help which it gives, but on account of it as literature. The lessons taught me in this respect took such a hold upon me that at the present time, when I am at home, no matter how busy I am, I always make it a rule to read a chapter or a portion of a chapter in the morning, before beginning the work of the day. Whatever ability I may have as a public speaker I owe in a measure to Miss Lord.”

In 1895, Washington gave an historic speech at the Atlanta Exposition, of which he wrote:

“The afternoon papers had forecasts of the next days’ proceedings in flaring headlines… I did not sleep much that night…The next morning… I also kneeled down and asked God’s blessing… I make it a rule never to go before an audience … without asking the blessing of God upon what I want to say.”

Washington taught in West Virginia until he founded Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. In the spring of 1896, Washington wrote to George W. Carver, who had just received his Masters Degree from Iowa State Agricultural Institute:

“Tuskegee Institute seeks to provide education — a means for survival to those who attend. Our students are poor, often starving. They travel miles of torn roads, across years of poverty. We teach them to read and write, but words cannot fill stomachs. They need to learn how to plant and harvest crops… I cannot offer you money, position or fame. The first two you have. The last, from the place you now occupy, you will no doubt achieve. These things I now ask you to give up. I offer you in their place-work-hard, hard work-the challenge of bringing people from degradation, poverty and waste to full manhood.”

Washington wrote:

“While a great deal of stress is laid upon the industrial side of the work at Tuskegee, we do not neglect or overlook in any degree the religious and spiritual side. The school is strictly undenominational, but it is thoroughly Christian, and the spiritual training of the students is not neglected. Our preaching service, prayer-meetings, Sunday-school, Christian Endeavour Society, Young Men’s Christian Association, and various missionary organizations, testify to this.”

Starting with 33 students, by the time Washington died, Tuskegee Institute had grown to 1,500 students and a faculty of 200 teaching 38 trades.

“If no other consideration had convinced me of the value of the Christian life, the Christlike work which the Church of all denominations in America has done during the last 35 years for the elevation of the black man would have made me a Christian. . . . As a rule a person should get into the habit of reading his Bible. You never read in history of any great man whose influence has been lasting, who has not been a reader of the Bible.”

On May 24, 1900, Washington delivered “The Place of the Bible in the Uplifting of the Negro Race,” at Memorial Hall in Columbus, Ohio:

“The men doing the vital things of life are those who read the Bible and are Christians and not ashamed to let the world know it… No man can read the Bible and be lazy.”

Washington became friends with the leading men of his day, including John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Presidents William Howard Taft and Calvin Coolidge, and was received by the Queen of England in Windsor Castle.

He was the first African American to have his image on a U.S. postage stamp, 1940, a U.S. Coin, 1946, and was the first African American elected to the Hall of Fame, 1945. Washington declared:

“In the sight of God there is no color line, and we want to cultivate a spirit that will make us forget that there is such a line anyway. I shall allow no man to belittle my soul by making me hate him.”

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