“To [George Augustus Gates]…If you take the position of President of Fisk, and later on you feel that I can be of real service as a trustee, I shall be willing to think favorably in that direction. I do not think well to act, however, in the matter now. Serving as a trustee of Fisk will not take so much of my time as in the case of the other institutions for the reason that I am already pretty well acquainted with the Fisk plant and also with the methods and policy of the institution, and I take for granted that a large part of the meeting will be held in New York. As I stated to you in my verbal conversation, in case you take the position, in my humble way I will stand back of you and support you in every way possible, and Dr. Frissell I am sure will do for the same thing. Both of us feel that there ought to be at least one strong central institution in the South for the higher education of the Negro, and that all things considered, Fisk is by far the best institution to be strengthened and supported in a way as to make it serve this purpose. Yours very truly.”
– Booker T. Washington, “October 7, 1909”
Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson
Booker T. Washington, founding principal and president of Tuskegee (Institute) University, had not only ascended to the posts of both professor and president in his long and stellar academic career, but had also served as board of trustees member. (Among other institutions, he had served on the board of trustees at Howard University during the tenure of President Wilbur Patterson Thirkield.) All the same, Mr. Washington had not only been routinely and regularly approached to assume presidential posts at other institutions, requested to speak at other institutions and selected for awards and honors at other institutions, he was often conferred with to take on posts of “stewardship” in the capacity of a board of trustee member. President George Augusta Gates, who would eventually be named as president of Fisk University, was ultimately successful in securing the services of Booker T. Washington as a trustee member. (This would be the modern-day equivalent of securing the appointment of one of the most well-placed, wealthiest and most influential African Americans in the world.) Unsurprisingly, Booker T. Washington’s appointment to Fisk’s board of trustees during the Gates administration coincided with Fisk’s eventual $1M endowment, which was reached in 1920. To be clear, Fisk University was preeminent before Washington’s arrival to its board of trustees for it had produced stellar alumni-perhaps none so well regarded as W.E.B. Du Bois as well as his wife Margaret Murray Washington. Nevertheless, as he had done with respect to all of his professional achievements as a professor and president, a man of “integrity” and “knowledge”–the first and second greatest 9-letter words–the man Booker would not sit idly by in his capacity as a Fisk board of trustees member and not utilize his “influence,” the third greatest 9-letter word, to help make a great institution become still greater. And his able and “influential” service in the capacity of a board of trustee member is yet one of the many proud reasons why Tuskegee University celebrates in this the centennial year since his passing (1915-2015), Booker T. Washington-a man who did not just write words worth reading but lived a life full of works worth reading.