“I remember one young man in particular who graduated from Yale University and afterward took a post-graduate course at Harvard, and who began his career by delivering a series of lectures on “The Mistakes of Booker T. Washington.” It was not long, however, before he found that he could not live continuously on my mistakes. Then he discovered that in all his long schooling he had not fitted himself to perform any kind of useful and productive labour. After he had failed in several other directions he appealed to me, and I tried to find something for him to do. It is pretty hard, however, to help a young man who has started wrong.” -Booker T. Washington, (1911) My Larger Education
Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. offers the following concerning men and women whose actions are similar to the young man described in Booker T. Washington’s aforementioned passage: “Controversy equalizes fools and wise men in the same way – and the fools know it.” And the founding principal and president of Tuskegee (Institute) University provides several important lessons about both the young man-as well as all men and women of his ilk-who seek to establish their name and reputation on the basis of disparaging the name and reputation of others-particularly those whose accomplishments they will only be brought in close proximity to only upon the basis of “controversy.” First, Mr. Washington never ever mentions this young man’s name. While this unidentified young man knew full well that persons might give him a hearing-not upon the basis of his own person and accomplishments-but based upon the person and accomplishments of his topic, “The Mistakes of Booker T. Washington,” identifying or responding to this young man provided not a single, solitary benefit to Mr. Washington and Tuskegee. Second, Mr. Washington understood that the young man’s premises were flawed from the onset, and it is the clearest telltale example of Mr. Washington’s oft-repeated phrase, “Let examples answer.” To be sure, the actions of no man or woman are all “good” or all “bad.” (This is naïve, simplistic and child-like thinking.) Yet, in the face of the clear, overwhelming and documentable evidence that testify to the good that Mr. Washington had done locally, regionally and nationally, this young man titled his lecture series according to what he perceived were the mistakes of Mr. Washington. Here again, what one consistently reads and hears, one will consistently become. And this young man ought to have taken heed to how and to what he was hearing for it ultimately led to what he had become. (For this young man’s attempt to categorize and confine a man of Booker T. Washington eminence and accomplishments to a series of perceived mistakes that his limited training, limited knowledge and limited life experience identified did nothing but demonstrate his failure to understand the significance of the (2) greatest 9-letter words and the single, most dangerous 9-letter word: 1. “Integrity” 2. “Knowledge” 3. “Ignorance;”) Finally, we should consider Mr. Washington’s demonstration of another one of his famous aphorisms: “I let no man drag me down so low as to make me hate him.” The very same young man who sought to disparage and defame Mr. Washington later sought him for assistance, and Mr. Washington “tried to find something for him to do.” (This dynamic needs no additional commentary.) Yet what is deserving of additional commentary is that this young man might have spent his time and work writing, lecturing and building his own legacy and life worth reading as opposed to seeking to denigrate another’s whose legacy and life of building Tuskegee (Institute) University spanned 34 years (1881-1915) and remains and is read to this very day.
Brian L. Johnson, Ph.D.
7th President, Tuskegee University