I read “Up From Slavery” by Booker T Washington as a child, but didn’t remember it well. Having recently reread it, I realized it had nonetheless impacted me. Sometimes important concepts percolate in our hearts and souls with a slow-cooker kind of process. They slowly coalesce and the flavor becomes part of our being, in a subconscious way. Strangely enough, it was, in part, the voice of a former slave that helped mold my conservative bent.
Booker T Washington was born a slave. When he was a young boy, the Civil War was fought, and the slaves were freed. Like most freed slaves, he could not read or write. He described the opportunity one day to be able to do so as “paradise.” When he had the opportunity to go away to school, he went with almost no money, no coat, and no idea how he would cover the costs. He worked en route, saving what he could. The night that he arrived, he had no money for lodging and slept in a hole under the sidewalk. When he reached the school, he asked for a job, any job, to be able to earn his tuition. He was given the task of sweeping a room. Booker swept the room so thoroughly and so meticulously that he was offered a job then and there. He never wanted anything given to him that he had not earned, and he never wanted to do anything, not even sweeping a room, with less than his best effort. He understood that excellent work was essential to honor and self-respect. He felt if he did not work for what he was given, he would never appreciate what he had, and the spirit suffered. It was an attitude he carried throughout his life, and applied in his eventual founding of Tuskegee Institute. All students, even those who were wealthy, were required to be involved in useful labor. The hearts of even very bigoted southerners who lived near the school were won over by the industrious and useful labor of the Tuskegee students.
Booker did not entertain bitterness towards white people. In fact, he expressed great affection for many of the white people he had known as a slave. He did not want anyone to think he didn’t want to be free- he did. Slavery was an abomination, and a blight on the country. But he felt that bitterness would only enslave his character even more than physical slavery had, and would not serve the purpose of becoming all he now was determined to become.
He taught himself to read using an old Webster’s dictionary. From his earliest days he remembers longing to read. He felt there was nothing more important he could accomplish in life. That life-long dedication to education propelled him to ultimately reach out to his people in establishing Tuskegee Institute. He was not satisfied that he alone become literate- but recognized that literacy and education was key to the economic advancement of his people.
When he went to his first day of school, he discovered all the students wore hats. His family was poor and he didn’t have a hat! His mother used old pieces of jeans to manufacture a hat which Booker wore proudly. He said, ““I have always felt proud, whenever I think of the incident, that my mother had strength of character enough not to be led into the temptation of seeming to be that which she was not—of trying to impress my schoolmates and others with the fact that she was able to buy me a “store hat” when she was not. I have always felt proud that she refused to go into debt for that which she did not have the money to pay for.”
(Excerpt From: Booker T. Washington. “Up from Slavery: an autobiography.”)
Booker recognized that debt was in itself a type of slavery. When he formed Tuskegee, he always did so by earning the money necessary. The one loan he took out as seed money, he promptly repaid. He was always proud of the fact that he expanded the school only as able to pay for it. Every brick was hard won, and therefore cherished. Indeed, one of the useful trades taught to the students was brick making. He knew that if they were responsible for building their own school, they would take pride in attending there. He taught them brick by brick that the reward of honest labor was satisfaction and self-worth.
He faced many obstacles as a black man, with all the baggage of the slave years. He admitted as a young boy to envying white people who had so much less to overcome in gaining success. Yet, in the end, he decided that he felt a little sorry for the white people, who had never had to struggle as he had. In his own words, “In later years, I confess that I do not envy the white boy as I once did. I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed. Looked at from this standpoint, I almost reached the conclusion that often the Negro boy’s birth and connection with an unpopular race is an advantage, so far as real life is concerned.”
Ultimately, he believed that ““Every persecuted individual and race should get much consolation out of the great human law, which is universal and eternal, that merit, no matter under what skin found, is, in the long run, recognized and rewarded.”
Out of a childhood in slavery, this inspirational man came to many hard fought conclusions. Struggles and obstacles strengthen those who persevere. Education is key to advancement and a cherished privilege. Hard work is critical for self-reliance and self-worth. Those who are handed anything they have not worked for will never appreciate or understand the true value of their humanity and worth. Debt imprisons those in its grip. Ultimately, one is responsible for what one makes of life. Government was never meant to replace family, God, or self-reliance. Merit would be and should be rewarded. No one takes pride in what they have not earned. Love of God, and each other compels us to care for those who are less fortunate, and by far the best way to help them, whenever possible, is to teach them to help themselves. One person can make a difference.
If that is not a conservative creed, I don’t know what is.
By: Vicky Kaseorg
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