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Booker T. Washington - Founder of Tuskegee Institute

Booker T. Washington

Education and a dedication to biblical principles brought this former slave out of the fields and toward the forefront of history’s greatest business educators.

“My life had its beginning in the midst of the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surroundings.”

So wrote the great black educator Booker T. Washington on the first page of his autobiography Up From Slavery. Not a promising start, but Washington’s life of discipline and sheer determination holds many lessons for Christians involved in any business endeavor today. As a black man entering American society just after the Civil War, his accomplishments are all the more remarkable. Though Washington would eventually make Tuskegee Institute in Alabama one of the most successful schools in the South (in 1905, Tuskegee turned out more self-made millionaires than Yale, Harvard, and Princeton universities combined), his humble beginnings gave no indication of his future success.

Born a slave on a Virginia farm in 1858, he reported that the formative years of his life consisted of nothing but hard labor and a home deprived of even the most basic comforts:

The cabin was without glass windows; it had only openings in the side which let in the light, and also the cold, chilly air of winter…There was no wooden floor in our cabin, the naked earth being used as a floor…While the poorly built cabin caused us to suffer with cold in the winter, the heat from the open fireplace in the summer was equally trying.

Furthermore, Booker’s childhood was devoid of even the small “civilities” that most Christians take for granted:

I cannot remember a single instance during my childhood or early boyhood when our entire family sat down to the table together, and God’s blessing was asked, and the family ate a meal in a civilized manner.

So how could a black boy born and raised in such destitution ascend to be one of the most powerful and respected men in America in the early 20th Century? The same way any truly successful businessperson does today: by possessing an intense desire to achieve something and better one’s self and his fellow man, being aware of one’s calling and life purpose, refusing to quit despite setbacks, and trusting in the care and good providence of God. Just what was this desire that consumed young Booker? The desire to learn. He writes, “From the time that I can remember having any thoughts about anything, I recall that I had an intense longing to learn to read. I determined, when quite a small child, that, if I accomplished nothing else in life, I would in some way get enough education to enable me to read common books and newspapers.”

But Washington’s desire to learn was not satisfied with just being able to “read common books and newspapers.” After the Civil War, the Washington family ended up in West Virginia with Booker going to work in a coal mine. One day while at work, he overheard a conversation between two other miners as they were discussing the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, established especially for blacks. Booker immediately resolved to attend this school. He seemed to have an awareness of God’s leading; though the obstacles seemed insurmountable, he could not rid himself of the seemingly impossible notion that he could travel the more than 500 miles to Hampton and be admitted. “I had no idea where it was,’ he writes, “or how many miles away, or how I was going to reach it; I remembered only that I was on fire constantly with one ambition, and that was to go to Hampton.”

Every person ever involved in a successful business knows from experience that it takes this kind of desire and determination to surmount the challenges that come our way. Scoffers and skeptics, discouragement and debt, bureaucrats and bad advice—the obstacles and opposition we face in business today could fill volumes. But the desire that often keeps a person wide-eyed at three in the morning and will not let him quit until he succeeds is the same passion that drove Booker T. Washington to pursue his dreams. And his dreams would eventually come true. Washington finally did reach Hampton Institute, just 16 years old, dirty and destitute, but still determined to be accepted. And accepted he was. He worked full time in addition to his heavy course load and graduated with honors in just three years. He eventually joined the faculty and was being groomed to take the helm of the growing school, but God’s providence intervened. An Alabama legislator by the name of Wilbur Foster, a former Confederate colonel, introduced a bill in the Alabama legislature to establish a school for black teachers for benefit of former slaves and their children. The bill passed and General Samuel C. Armstrong, the headmaster of Hampton Institute, was contacted to recommend someone to lead the new school in Tuskegee, Alabama. Without hesitation, he suggested Booker T. Washington. Booker was offered the position, he accepted it, and struck out for Alabama.

Starting with not much more than Alabama’s blessing and his own resolve, by 1915 Washington had built Tuskegee Institute into a school of 107 buildings on 2,000 acres with over 1,500 students and more than 200 teachers and professors. This accomplishment is astounding when you consider the times in which Washington lived. Washington’s unique approach to higher education is another reason his philosophy is relevant for entrepreneurs to study today. He not only offered and emphasized the traditional academic courses, but also required his students to learn industry and trade skills. Students learned brick laying, forestry and timber skills, sewing, cooking, and practical, agriculture; and every student was obligated to master at least two trades so he or she would always be able to contribute to the industry and betterment of society and be self-supporting after graduation. Biographer Louis Harlan explains that “Washington’s efforts at Tuskegee Institute were to train students to become independent small businessmen, farmers, and teachers rather than wage-earners or servants of white employers.”

But there was more to Booker T. Washington than learning and industry. The depth of his spiritual life was well known and he expressed a sincere faith in Christ. Devotional exercises were held every morning at Tuskegee as well as evening prayers. He wrote of the support that Christians had given to his efforts to lift African-American out of poverty after the Civil War: “If no other consideration had convinced me of the value of Christian life, the Christ-like 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.” He readily acknowledged his dependence on God in all endeavors. Regarding his preparation for the now-famous “Atlanta Exposition Address,” he wrote:

The next morning, before day, I went carefully over what I intended to say. I also kneeled down and asked God’s blessing upon my effort. Right here, perhaps, I ought to add that I make it a rule never to go before an audience, on any occasion, without asking the blessing of God upon what I want to say.

The life of Booker T. Washington should be required study for every school child in America. Of his humble beginnings as a slave and his “discouraging surroundings” he was later able to say, “It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.” And that is a lesson that everyone in business should master—and an eternal lesson of the gospel (Matthew 23:12).

(Published by and Selling Among Wolves)

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© 2007 Christian Business Daily

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