April 19, 2011

Booker T. Washington’s Grace and Determination an Inspiration

April 5 recently marked the birthday of Booker T. Washington, acclaimed African-American educator, author, political leader and civil rights pioneer. On this day, I’m reminded of his inspirational 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery, in which he recounts his rise from early adversity to success later in life, driven by his commitment to a singular goal: getting an education.

Born into slavery in 1856, Washington spent his early years after the Emancipation in poverty working in the salt furnaces and coal mines. Determined to get an education, a 16-year old Washington arrived at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) in 1872 with little more than the clothes on his back. The assistant principal was suspicious of his ragged appearance and asked him to sweep the recitation room as a condition of enrollment. Desiring to prove himself, Washington swept and dusted the room until it was spotless. The assistant principal was so impressed with the results that she admitted him to the Institute, where he worked his way through school and later became an instructor. He then moved on to greater distinction, culminating in his founding of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in 1881.

Washington’s story demonstrates the importance of embracing every challenge, no matter how difficult, to achieve our goals. With ego in check, he kept his eye on the ultimate prize to excel at each task placed before him. He carried this attitude throughout his life and became the foremost black educator and leader, working with the era’s most powerful businessmen and politicians to advance the cause of education.

Many times we must endure hardship and perform humbling tasks, but we must remember that they may be short lived in the scheme of things. Booker T. Washington’s example reminds us to focus on the big picture in pursuit of our goals. In doing so, we adopt the determination and grace needed to fulfill our greatest dreams—and potential.