As I am reading through books by William Edward Burghardt DuBois and Booker Taliaferro Washington, I am struck by the earnestness with which both men value and pursue education as a main avenue to improve their own lives and the lives of their fellow citizens. Washington’s pursuit in a day and age when formerly enslaved Americans were denied the most basic rights, is particularly inspiring.
In his book “Up From Slavery” he tells how he traveled from his home in West Virginia to Hampton Institute on the east coast of Virginia. About half way across he realizes he has run out of money. He has no place to spend the night. He has run out of food. Hotels will not take him in simply because of the color of his skin. Yet, he presses on and find odd jobs to earn money here and there. Because there was no place to spend the night, he just walked the streets of one little town in order to stay away. On another occasion he slept under a wooden side walk! I would probably feel pretty bitter about all this, yet I do not detect a single note of anger or bitterness in Washington (though he does certainly denounce such treatment).
When he arrived at Hampton Institute he presented himself to the head teacher for admission. He admitted he did not look very “promising”, so she gave him a broom and told him to sweep a room and clean it up. Apparently this was his admissions test. He went after it and cleaned the room from top to bottom, making it shine. The teacher was satisfied and said, “I guess you will do to enter this institution.” Washington then writes:
“I was one of the happiest souls on earth. The sweeping of that room was my college examination, and never did any youth pass an
examination for entrance into Harvard or Yale that gave him more genuine satisfaction. I have passed several examinations since then, but I have always felt this was the best one I ever passed…
The sweeping of the recitation room in the manner that I did it seems to have paved the way for me to get through Hampton. Miss Mary F. Mackie, the head teacher, offered me a position as janitor. This of course I gladly accepted, because it was a place where I could work out nearly all the cost of my board. The work was hard and taxing, but I stuck to it. I had a large number of rooms to care for, and had to work late into the night, while at the same time I had to rise at four o’clock in the morning, in order to build the fires and have a little more time in which to prepare my lessons. In all my career at Hampton, and ever since I have been out in the world, Miss Mary F. Mackie, the head teacher to whom I have referred, proved one of my strongest and most helpful friends. Here advice and encouragement were always helpful and strengthening to me in the darkest hour.”
Would we all have the same grateful, encouraging, hard-working, and persistent character of Booker T. Washington.