The most terrorizing and oppressive form of slavery in recorded history was abolished on December 6, 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. For nearly four million Blacks, the joyous occasion of freedom from physical bondage was swiftly greeted by the enormous uncertainty of how one was to earn a living and provide for his family. Millions of illiterate, impoverished and unemployed, Blacks were thrust onto a foreign land and told to survive. One of these formerly enslaved individuals was Booker T. Washington, merely a child when he was granted freedom.
Washington, like the aforementioned former slaves, was unequipped for this new reality. Due to the obstacles, he could have simply accepted the conditions of his people and no one would have found fault with this judgment. Instead, Washington worked diligently for the betterment of himself, Black people and the citizens of the South. He displayed a level of resiliency and determination that was truly a rare commodity during this time.
He was able to make such unfathomable strides by sticking to the core principles that he developed in his early life. Washington’s life journey is one we all can, and should, learn from.
As a young boy, Washington wanted the opportunity to gain a meaningful education. These ambitions were met with the immediate need to work in the coal mines to help support his family. Despite these great responsibilities, Washington still pursued his education, which he so greatly sought after. He eventually worked out an agreement with his mother that allowed him to go to school in the afternoon if he worked in the mines in the morning and returned to work when school let out. Even as a child, Washington displayed a type of initiative foreign to many individuals. The immediate challenges he faced did not deter him from laying the foundation for his education, and he compounded these aspirations with the goal of attending the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute to greaten his future opportunities.
While preparing to attend Hampton, and while at the institute, he was the personification of hard work and the ability to endure difficult times. He was constantly without money, food and suitable clothing for the various seasons. He worked very diligently to earn his keep at the university as a custodian and never complained about his misfortune, but rather looked for ways to improve his condition.
Upon the completion of his studies at Hampton, Washington earned a teaching position at the university and proved to be a tremendous addition to the school. Due to his terrific performance as an educator, he was recommended by General Samuel C. Armstrong to become a head administrator at Tuskegee and was offered the position.
Washington was largely responsible for the establishment and continuance of Tuskegee University and made a strong commitment to help others of his race. He constantly referenced the fact that he wanted not to use his proficiencies for commercial use but rather for the advancement of people. He stayed committed to his work for decades and never strayed from the course. In this span, he rarely took time off for himself and had to be pressured from peers to take vacation. He documented that his work was very tiresome and often caused him great anxiety. He most effectively managed these complications by the efficient utilization of his time. He noted that he never wanted to carry over work from a previous day and worked meticulously to accomplish this.
Along with this impressive showcase of self-discipline, Washington is a prime example of integrity and class. He showed what it means to stand by your words and own up to your personal decisions. Despite receiving backlash on a multitude of occasions for statements at his various speaking engagements, he never recanted a single word. Considering the times in which he lived in, this was a true testament to the bravery and fearlessness that he must have possessed.
The qualities Washington developed are ones that would greatly benefit my life. I cannot imagine having to endure the trials he faced in order to become such a success, but I, too, have faced obstacles while working to obtain an education and become successful. Although our challenges are not comparable, my time in college has definitely been faced with many financial and personal difficulties. Though I have reaped much academic success, early in my collegiate career, I had considered dropping out of school multiple times. The pressure of weekly eviction notices, constantly having my meal plan cut off and family and relationship dysfunction kept me distressed. Luckily, through resiliency and the utilization of a strong academic foundation, I was able to pull through these tough times and reroute myself towards a brighter path. I am currently excelling in school academically; however, there are a couple of qualities I must develop that are vital to my educational and professional growth.
The first of these qualities is the ability to efficiently organize my time. Although I am very well-intended, I have poor time management skills and often find myself with not enough time to effectively work on things to which I have committed.
Secondly, I need to work on having the initiative to act on ideas and recommendations I have for professional and academic assignments, rather than deferring to someone else.
Similarly to Washington, I too am at a crossroad in my life. I am being faced with the decision of using my capabilities for personal gains or to make an impact in the lives of others.
As a finance major, I am constantly taught of the importance of money. A countless number of administrators at the university view the significance of career opportunities by the amount of money you have the potential to earn in that specific role...it is frowned upon if I consider anything that isn’t connected with the making of a dollar.
However, being a resident of Third Ward, I see the pain, suffering and anguish on the faces of those in the community. I see the grandmothers walking miles from the grocery store with arms full of bags because there are no quality stores within a reasonable walking distance. I hear the confusion of the youth because of the mis-education and under-education that is being taught at the local schools, compounded onto the lack of meaningful job opportunities being afforded to them. I feel the hopelessness of mothers and fathers when I see them break down crying while holding their children.
I understand the terrible predicament our people are in, even 100 years after the passing of Booker T. Washington.
With time running out in my collegiate career, I soon must own my destiny and stand firm in my beliefs regardless of where they take me. I sometimes wonder how useful it would be for me to try to improve the conditions of our people when so many have previously attempted to no avail. However, when I find these questions in my conscience, I think of Booker T. and the commitment he made to our people. The same commitment that ultimately helped pave the way for me and those I love.
Money, without a doubt, plays a huge role in all of our lives. I would be foolish to say that money has no significance. However, the primary goal of life is not about how much money a single person can obtain. I want my life to be valued by the number of lives I am able to positively influence, not by the amount of money I can gain at the expense of others. I truly believe God attributed me with this passion for the sake of building people’s lives.
Learning so much about a man who spent his life doing the same has definitely reaffirmed my belief in what my purpose is.
It is important for us to collectively uphold the legacy of Booker T. Washington. However, it is even more important for us to continue the work that he began over 100 years ago.
Editor’s Note: Derrick Smallwood is a student at Texas Southern University. His article is the winning entry in an essay contest on the legacy of Booker T. Washington. Caring Friends, Inc. was the sponsoring partner with the TSU Wesley Foundation Campus Ministry.