The Race Question

“ONE of the first questions that I had to answer for myself after beginning my work at Tuskegee was how I was to deal with public opinion on the race question.It may seem strange that a man who had started out with the humble purpose of establishing a little Negro industrial school in a small Southern country town should find himself, to any great extent, either helped or hindered in his work by what the general public was thinking and saying about any of the large social or educational problems of the day. But such was the case at that time in Alabama; and so it was that I had not gone very far in my work before I found myself trying to formulate clear and definite answers to some very fundamental questions.” – Booker T. Washington, My Larger Education(1911)

Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson 

As a prelude to the second chapter, “Building A School Around A Problem,” contained within his book, My Larger Education (1911), the founding principal and president of Tuskegee (Institute) University discussed his need to not only build a school but to do so “around a problem.” And like similar undertakings when starting something anew, it was never a question of Booker T. Washington’s professional preparation, training or skill set; nor was it ever a question of his personal “integrity” and “knowledge”. Rather, Mr. Washington found himself consumed with the “problems” of race that persons were more concerned with than the work of “building a school” designed to partly address these matters. And Mr. Washington makes it crystal clear how he would proceed to begin grappling with matters beyond the strict performance of his duties associated with being principal and president of Tuskegee: “ONE of the first questions that I had to answer for myself…” Note, no one was qualified nor experienced enough to assist the 25-year-old Booker newly arrived in Tuskegee, Alabama (Macon, County) in 1881, where the idea of starting an institution would be entirely foreign to a group of newly emancipated slaves who possessed no literacy nor life experiences beyond the rural locale. (He would also have to learn to communicate with former slave owners who had never encountered a gifted, visionary educational leader who could read, write and think beyond what they had probably expected.) To be sure, advisers similar to General Samuel Armstrong, founding principal and president of Hampton Institute (University) could certainly provide guidance on the actual work he was doing and on these matters in general; but on the day-to-day matters of living, learning and leading in Tuskegee, Alabama, this young founder had to find out “for myself.” And what is crystal clear is that he not only did so but he did so in exceedingly, demonstrative and effective ways for everyone to see in both Tuskegee and throughout the world for over 34 years at the helm of Tuskegee. Here again, this is why we celebrate his “vision”, his abilities as a “leader” and his extraordinary-not ordinary-“genius” in this the centennial year (1915-2015) since his passing. And in this writer’s opinion, “vision,” “leader” and “genius” are the greatest 6-letter words in succession.

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