Celebrating Black History Month, Booker T. Washington

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Marvina Jones
  • 92nd Medical Support Squadron
February is Black History Month and the Fairchild Air Force Base Black History Month committee is excited to highlight those who have made history in the African American community.

The observance of Black History Month was instituted by Public Law 99-244. This year’s theme is “The Crisis in Black Education.”

According to the Library of Congress, Black History Month “celebrates the contributions that African Americans have made to American history in their struggles for freedom and equality and deepens our understanding of our Nation’s history.”

There are several African Americans, currently and in years past, who have made contributions to our Nation’s history. This narrative will focus on the works of Booker T. Washington, an American educator and civil rights activist.

Washington was born a slave in Hale’s Ford, Virginia, in 1856. As a young slave, the outlook for his life was grim. He was first exposed to education by peeking into a plantation schoolhouse where white children his age were sitting at desks, reading books.

After the Civil War, Washington’s mother moved the family to West Virginia where she married and he went to work in salt furnaces and coal mines with his stepfather. His mother noticed that he had an interest in learning and obtained a book Washington would use to learn the alphabet each day before going to work.

Washington left home in 1872, walking a few hundred miles to Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute, Virginia, where he convinced school administrators to admit him. He worked as a janitor to pay tuition and his hard work was recognized. He was awarded a scholarship by the institution’s founder and headmaster.

Washington became an educator after graduating in 1875. He taught at his old school in West Virginia and was offered a job to teach at his alma mater. In 1881, he was recommended to run the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, now Tuskegee University, which was founded with $2,000 provided by the Alabama legislature for a “colored” school.

The educator traveled the countryside to raise money and bring awareness to the new institution of learning. The Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute started with classes being held in a local church. By the time Washington passed away in 1915, the school had over 100 buildings, 1,500 students, 200 faculty members, offered nearly 40 majors, and a $2 million endowment.

Throughout his career, Washington was not only a respected educator but also an influential orator, author and civil rights activist. He spoke at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1895 where he advocated for economic progress, opportunities for education and justice for black Americans. In 1900, he founded the National Negro Business League and published his autobiography, Up From Slavery, in 1901. But prestige does not come without controversy.

Washington was known to accept social segregation so long as black Americans had opportunities to progress in other areas. This did not sit well with other black leaders of the time who thought he was compromising. For this same reason, it is said Washington was allowed access to Presidents Roosevelt and Taft and he served as an advisor to both.

Washington has left a legacy of hard work and progress. Though there was some disagreement among his peers, he remains an African American who made history and impacted the Nation as a whole.