“My first task was to find a place in which to open the school. After looking the town over with some care, the most suitable place that could be secured seemed to be a rather dilapidated shanty near the coloured Methodist church, together with the church itself as a sort of assembly-room. Both the church and the shanty were in about as bad condition as was possible. I recall that during the first months of school that I taught in this building it was in such poor repair that, whenever it rained, one of the older students would very kindly leave his lessons and hold an umbrella over me while I heard the recitations of the others. I remember, also, that on more than one occasion my landlady held an umbrella over me while I ate breakfast.” -Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery (1901)
Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson
One need look no further than this passage to understand that great endeavors often start with small beginnings. In June 1881, the founding principal of Tuskegee Normal School, which would subsequently become Tuskegee Institute (University), began making preparations for the school’s July 4, 1881 opening. Upon arrival, he did not find the immaculate, well kept, well-funded and beautiful campus that visitors the world over now recognize as Tuskegee University. Rather, he found a “rather dilapidated shanty.” If it is true what Frederick Douglass spoke first and others later revised that “success is not measured by the heights to which one ascends but from the depths from whence one comes,” then perhaps we have not fully appreciated the accomplishments of Booker T. Washington then or now. Hear again, this man began his life enslaved, and he started an institution of world renown in a shanty. While most would likely point to reaching his destination to become a great institutional builder and leader as success, Mr. Washington’s telling within his autobiography suggests that the real success was in his long and arduous journey to such success. And if this journey is to be properly measured from the “depths from whence [he came]” as opposed to the “heights” he attained, then there is still yet more for us to learn from Mr. Washington’s journey up from slavery.
Brian L. Johnson, Ph.D.
7th President, Tuskegee University