The centerpiece of the Tuskegee University campus in southern Alabama is the Booker T. Washington monument. Upon a grand classical pedestal stands a remarkable bronze statue sculpted by Charles Keck in 1922. Washington himself is portrayed—stately, dignified, and venerable—standing with his eyes set upon the horizon while one hand is extended toward the future. With the other hand he is resolutely pulling back a thick veil—presumably the smothering cloak of Strabo—from the brow of a young man seated at his side. The man, is obviously poor—he is only half-clothed, in stark contrast to the dapper presence of Washington—and is sitting upon the symbols of his labor, an anvil and a plow. But he too is gazing off into the distance while he grasps a massive academic textbook upon his knee. The inscription beneath this arresting image asserts, “He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry.
The monument is a perfect tribute to the man. While his life—the long and difficult journey up from the obscurity of slavery to the heights of national influence and renown—is a remarkable testimony of individual achievement and personal sacrifice, the greatest legacy of Booker T. Washington was not what he accomplished himself, but what he helped thousands of others accomplish—both black and white.
He was born on this day in 1856, on a small tobacco plantation in the back country of Franklin County, Virginia. His nine years in slavery were spent in abject poverty. And even after emancipation, his family faced a grim hardscrabble existence.
When he was sixteen, he gained admittance to the famed Hampton Institute—one of the first schools established for former slaves. Though he was worked full-time as a janitor in order to pay his tuition, he graduated with honors in a mere three years. Upon graduation, he returned to his family and taught in the local grammar school. Before long though, his mentor at Hampton beckoned him to return to that institution where he became an instructor and assistant to the president. Shortly afterward, the state of Alabama contacted the school about the possibility of establishing a similar college there. Washington was recommended for the job. Thus, on July 4, 1881, at the age of twenty-five, Washington founded Tuskegee.
The obstacles facing him were enormous. There was no money, no faculty, no campus, no land, and no student body. Indeed, there was nothing except the resolution of the state to launch the school and the determination of Booker T. Washington to raise up a whole new generation of leaders from the rubble of the South and the legacy of slavery. Nevertheless, before his death in 1915, Tuskegee had grown to encompass a 2,000 acre campus of 107 buildings with more than 1,500 students and nearly 200 faculty members. As a result of his efforts, Washington became a celebrity and the first great leader for civil rights for all Americans.