“My dear friend Mr. Briggs: I will open school the 1st Monday in July. Judging from present prospects I shall have about thirty students the first day and a steady increase…” – Booker T. Washington, June 28, 1881
Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson
On June 28, 1881, a 25-year old Booker T. Washington had enrolled 30 students before Tuskegee Institute (University) was officially founded on July 4, 1881. While this was clearly a noteworthy moment at the onset of his presidency, this is not what is most startling about the first of many achievements that this young president would accomplish during his subsequent 34-years at the helm of Tuskegee (Institute) University. This young man’s single most signal historic achievement-in this writer’s opinion-occurred on June 24,1888, which is the date that this student and teacher who had been trained by General Samuel Armstrong, arrived in Tuskegee, Alabama. (We know this because on June 25, 1881 Mr. Washington wrote to James Fowled Baldwin Marshall the following: “Dear friend: Arrived here yesterday.”) And it was on that day that a “Copernican Revolution” in the landscape of higher education occurred, not only in Tuskegee but in the history of the world. For this young man’s arrival (to start an institution of higher learning for newly freed African Americans) reverberated and transcended not simply the city of Tuskegee and the county of Macon, but the entire world. These 30 men and women who were likely still using skill sets acquired during enslavement would now be afforded the opportunity to use these skills to gain their own economic and intellectual independence. They need not work for their former masters with little distinction in pay from the time of physical bondage. After the training of their hearts, heads and hands within this new institution of higher learning called Tuskegee Normal School (Institute) University, they could now use their own skill sets to start their own businesses and offer their services in a much more economically viable exchange between formerly enslaved men and women and their former masters. And this perhaps ranks atop of the many other significant reasons why we celebrate Booker T. Washington in this the centennial year (1915-2015) since his passing.