Lessons From Leaders of the Past: Booker T. Washington

April 5 marks the birthday of Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), founder of the Tuskegee Institute (presently known as Tuskegee University) and adviser to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Growing up and working toward an education during Reconstruction, Booker T. Washington embodied the idea that social uplift is best achieved through economic self-determination, a philosophy he advocated for throughout his career in education.

Born a slave in western Virginia, Washington was 9 years old when he gained his freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865. Washington and his family then moved to West Virginia, and shortly thereafter, at the age of 10, he began working in a salt furnace. It was at this time that the illiterate Washington began to understand the immeasurable value of education and taught himself to read. “Education is not a thing apart from life—not a ‘system,’ nor a philosophy; it is direct teaching how to live and how to work,” Washington wrote.

As he recalled in his 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery, this intellectual curiosity was stoked when he overheard two coal miners talking about the Hampton Institute, an educational institution for African Americans in Virginia. Washington saved money by working for the wife of the coal mine owner for a year and a half. He then walked the 500-mile route to the Hampton Institute.

Hampton Institute president Samuel C. Armstrong was impressed by Washington’s resolve and deep commitment to education. He believed Washington was a natural fit to be the first leader of a planned teacher’s college in Alabama. As principal of what became the Tuskegee Institute, Washington successfully solicited charitable donations from philanthropists across the country, using a message of free-market principles as a fundamental tool for realizing individual liberty. This was no small task during Reconstruction, and Washington understood that his pursuit of funding for Tuskegee impacted more than just the university: “I knew that, in a large degree, we were trying an experiment—that of testing whether or not it was possible for Negroes to build up and control the affairs of a large education institution. I knew that if we failed it would injure the whole race,” he wrote in Up from Slavery.

Washington succeeded in obtaining financial support from economic giants like Standard Oil’s Henry Rogers; Sears, Roebuck and Co. president Julius Rosenwald; and Kodak founder George Eastman—perhaps because he shared their worldview that economic freedom could improve the lives of all of society’s individuals. “It means a great deal, I think, to start off on a foundation which one has made for oneself,” he wrote in Up from Slavery. He continued:

Now, whenever I hear any one advocating measures that are meant to curtail the development of another, I pity the individual who would do this. I know that the one who makes this mistake does so because of his own lack of opportunity for the highest kind of growth. I pity him because I know that he is trying to stop the progress of the world, and because I know that in time the development and the ceaseless advance of humanity will make him ashamed of his weak and narrow position.

In the Charles Koch Institute’s offices, we have named our classrooms and conference rooms in honor of 28 men and women who spent their lives defending and promoting the ideas that improve people’s lives. Their names remind us of the fact that our work is only made possible by the men and women who came before us. Booker T. Washington is one such man, and his room displays an etching of this quote: “The most complete development of each human being can come only through his being permitted to exercise the most complete freedom compatible with the freedom of others.”

Booker T. Washington’s self-preservation and determination to rise above adversity is a testament to the unlimited opportunities afforded by individual freedom. Furthermore, Washington’s commitment to improving educational and economic opportunities for the African-American community after the Civil War has been instrumental in reducing barriers to opportunity. It’s fitting, then, to recall a statement Washington returned to throughout Up From Slavery: “The happiest people are those who do the most for others. The most miserable are those who do the least.”

More in this series:

“Lessons From Leaders of the Past: Viktor Frankl”

“Lessons From Leaders of the Past: Frederick Douglass”

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