“[To President Wilbur Patterson Thirkield] […] In a word, I feel that you as President of the University know more than anybody else what it needs, and it seems to me that this is a matter in which you will have to largely if not wholly decide for yourself. That would certainly be the attitude I would take if Tuskegee were placed in a similar position. In the conduct of any large organization I believe that the only way for success to be attained is to support the man at the head. In the last analysis he bears the burden and should have the credit or censure for success or failure.” -Booker T. Washington, August 15, 1909
Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson
In an earlier communique, we learn that the founding principal and president of Tuskegee (Institute) also held board appointments at other higher education institutions-including Howard University and Fisk University-and in the present communication to President Wilbur Patterson Thirkield, then president of Howard University, Mr. Washington conveys his sentiments to the president who sought his counsel on an important matter. Although this dynamic needs little additional commentary, once again we find that Mr. Washington’s counsel and influence is sought out. (His was an opinion that was valued and respected because he had documented, veritable and objective successes in his own personal and professional accomplishments that President Thirkield found helpful.) All the same, on the present matter, Mr. Washington had an especially keen and acute perception of President’s Thirkield’s position: He himself had served in the capacity of a president of a “large organization” such as “Tuskegee”. Relying upon his own successes, longevity and achievements as a president-in 1909 he would have been the president of Tuskegee for 29 years-he offered the following summative counsel for President Thirkield: “In the last analysis he bears the burden and should have the credit or censure for success or failure.” (And Booker T. Washington’s assessment echoed another powerful sentiment expressed by President Theodore Roosevelt who Mr. Washington not only advised but dined with, becoming the first African American to dine in the White House-albeit, not without controversy.) In a rather lengthy quotation that has reverberated throughout American history since first uttered, President Roosevelt suggests the same as Tuskegee University President Washington’s advice to Howard University President Thirkield: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”What we find in these two men, Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, are two men whose deeds and endeavors need not be recounted here. (Their works speak for them.) More importantly, these two men endured and withstood the very criticisms that President Thirkield would certainly face regardless of the decision he arrived at. As the founding principal and president of Tuskegee University indicated: “This is a matter in which you will have to largely if not wholly decide for yourself.” And given the long-term success of both institutions, Howard University and Tuskegee University, it is clear that the leaders of these institutions were both supported and surrounded by first-rate counselors. And in this the centennial year (1915-2015) since the passing of Booker T. Washington, we celebrate his successes as a presidential advisor, president, and even board member during his 34-year long tenure here at Tuskegee (Institute) University.