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"In My Day, We Used to Have to. . ."

Have your parents ever told you about the long walks through the driving snow they used to have to do to get to school? Well nothing beats the walk that Booker T. Washington accomplished by hitchhiking and walking his way 500 miles to school. Washington had an endless thirst for learning, and his whole life was spent in pursuit of knowledge.

Booker T. Washington was a promoter of black education.
At the beginning of his life, Washington's options for education were very limited. Booker Taliaferro Washington was born a slave on a tobacco plantation in Virginia in 1856. Life was not easy for young Booker T. While the white children were allowed to attend school, Booker T. fetched water for the men in the fields and helped his mother prepare meals for the entire plantation.

Booker T's clothing consisted of a single shirtdress that was as rough as a potato sack, and looked like one too. He wore wooden shoes in the wintertime, and even though his mother was the cook he was always hungry.

a statue depicts Booker T. as a kid
The closest that Booker T. ever got to school as a child was accompanying the young Mistress to her school and carrying her books. Although he could not read, he said he knew that reading books and learning about the world would be like "entering paradise."


This big guy is just about the laziest pig I have seen on the trip.

When Booker T. was nine years old a major event happened that changed his life as well as the fates of millions of slaves like him. A copy of the Emancipation Proclamation was given to Booker T's master to read to all the slaves. The act, enacted by president Lincoln, freed all slaves from bondage and made them full citizens of the United States of America.

This piece of paper lists the value of one young slave named 'Booker' as $400.
After gaining her freedom, Booker T's mother took him and his siblings to live with his stepfather in West Virginia. Booker T's education really started here with a small booklet his mother got ahold of containing the alphabet. While working as a servant in the house of a very strict lady, he taught himself how to spell. Booker T was learning the value of hard work, but no matter how much energy he put into learning to read, he needed instruction to truly advance. There was no school for black children in the area where Booker T. was living.

When Booker T. heard about the Hampton Institute, an all black academy located 500 miles away, he knew he needed to go there to further his learning. With just a satchel of belonging to carry along, he started off on a path that would lead him to be one of the most influential men in America.

It was a tough road ahead. His main mode of transport was his own two feet. He bummed rides when he could on horse-drawn carriages. By the time he reached the port city of Richmond, Virginia, he was completely broke. He could not swim across the wide James River. He needed money to pay for transport the rest of the way to the Hampton Institute. He made a home for himself beneath the raised sidewalk of downtown Richmond. He then got a job at the docks unloading ships. Can you imagine sleeping beneath wooden planks and working an adult job just to afford to get to school?

Nick displays tremendous courage
Getting an education was all that was on Booker T's mind. He finally saved enough money to get himself to school and arrived at Hampton a smelly mess from weeks of working and sleeping outdoors with no bathing.

The first thing he was asked to do when he arrived was sweep the floor of the schoolroom. He thought that this was a test that would determine whether he stayed, so he swept and dusted the floor three times. He was allowed to stay and study.

With his education, Booker T. Washington went on to advise three US presidents and share tea with the queen of England. He helped to found the Tuskegee Secondary School, where he and the students built and maintained the campus themselves. Today it is a college and it continues to produce great thinkers.

Booker T. used to tend to Geese like these on the plantation.
Booker T. was a controversial figure in the progressive movement because he defended segregation of black and white people. In his later years, he began to secretly fund anti-segregationist movements and finally came out against segregation shortly before his death. Booker T. died relatively early at age 59, which is actually longer than the 42 years the average black man lives today. Even though Booker T began the fight for equal access to education over a century ago, today an African-American man is more likely to be arrested than given a college degree.

Do you think the United States has done enough to provide education to all Americans, black, white, or brown? Why do some so-called "model minorities" tend to excel in school while others consistently perform poorly? Does it make sense that one group of people exist on the bottom of an economic structure based on competition?


Please email me at: teddy@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - Visiting the houses that cotton - and slave labor - built
Rebecca -- Pass the gumbo and another sweet potato biscuit please
Stephanie -- Huckleberry Finn makes waves along the Mississippi
Making A Difference - Let's add some cyanide in this cigarette