Tuskegee University: The Washington Word with Presidential Commentary

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“[…] After the man was shot his son brought him to my house for help and advise, (and you can easily understand that the people in and about Tuskegee come to me for help and advice in all their troubles). I got out of bed and went out and explained to the man and his son that personally I would do anything I could for them but I could not take the wounded man into the school and endanger the lives of students entrusted to my care to the fury of some drunken white men. Neither did I for the same reason feel that it was the right thing to take him into my own house. For as much as I love the colored people in that section, I can not feel that I am in duty bound to shelter them in all their personal troubles any more than you would feel called to do the same thing in Washington. I explained my position fully to the man and his son, and they agreed with me as to the wisdom of my course. And I now state what I have not to any one before. I helped them to a place of safety and paid the money out of my own pocket for the comfort and treatment of the man while he was sick. Today I have no warmer friends than this man and his son. They have nothing but the warmest feelings of gratitude for me and are continually in one way or another expressing this feeling. I do not care to publish to the world what I do and should not mention this except for this false representation. I simply chose to help and relieve this man in my own way rather than in the way some man a thousand miles away would have had me do it.” – Booker T. Washington, “To Francis James Grimke,” November 27, 1895

Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson     

A man of Booker T. Washington’s eminence, position and stature was often criticized on a great many matters from persons who perhaps had his interest-or their own-at heart, but were wholly removed from the facts. Often in the case of leadership-particularly in the leadership of a vast organization such as Tuskegee Institute (University)-one must exercise tremendous restraint in responding to erroneous opinions, ill-informed recommendations or ill-advised suggestions. However, Mr. Washington’s response to what he perceived was a “false representation” of his character was another matter altogether. During the difficult period of “Jim Crow,” many persons-white and black-held opinions about how the Tuskegee Principal should respond and react to racial atrocities as described in his letter to Grimke. In the present circumstance, Mr. Washington is responding to a letter from Grimke wherein the writer indicated that someone-“whose name [he had] forgotten”-relayed the circumstances of this event during a Bethel literary society meeting in Atlanta and that the founding Principal “refused to allow him to be brought in or the physician to attend him.” To Grimke’s credit, he went on to inform Mr. Washington that he felt it his “duty to apprise [him] of what was said.” All the same, aside from Mr. Washington’s detailed correspondence communicating the circumstances aright to Mr. Grimke, he went on to provide additional facts concerning his activities that were intentionally not designed for public consumption or publication. It would be remiss to think or believe that Mr. Washington’s advocacy of industrial education or internal uplift and reform, was free from sympathetic interest to the political matters of his day. Rather, Mr. Washington’s approach-as sound approaches often are-was marked by tact, sagacity and, most importantly, prudence. For Mr. Washington’s true audience was not political constituents who suggested what ought be done but the father and the son who were the beneficiaries of what needed to be done.

Brian L. Johnson, Ph.D.

7th President, Tuskegee University 
#TrustTheTuskegeeTrajectory #TrustTheTuskegeeTradition 


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