Learning to Be Free: Booker T. Washington
Learning to Be Free: Booker T. Washington

Learning to Be Free: Booker T. Washington

What someone who was enslaved can teach us about a liberal education.

December 1 st 2017
Appears in Winter 2017

I first "met" Booker T. Washington in the spring of 2005 as I was pulling together the curriculum for a preschool-to-eighth grade charter school, Hope Community, which would open in August. The title of his book Up from Slavery caught my attention. Washington's story resonated with what I was hoping our school could do: provide a means of uplift for African Americans who were still suffering because of that heritage.

Booker T. Washington was born in 1856 in Franklin County, Virginia, where he spent his earliest years as a slave. When emancipation came, Washington's mother, Jane, moved the family to Malden, West Virginia, where his stepfather worked in a salt furnace. While Washington had to work in the salt mine, he persuaded his parents to let him go to school after work so he could learn how to read. Washington eventually left the salt mine to work as a servant for Viola Ruffner. During his time with her he learned how to take pride in working hard and doing a job well. Washington's desire to get an education soon led him to leave Malden with a few dollars in his pocket. He walked five hundred miles to the Hampton Institute, a school that sought to equip former slaves with the skills and knowledge to serve as leaders of the race in their communities in the South. Washington was admitted to Hampton based on his ability to meticulously clean a room.

Many whites felt that an educated Negro wouldn’t work, while many blacks protested against making manual labour a part of the iInstitute program. Washington responded to these criticisms by showing that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.

While at Hampton, Washington came into contact with the president of Hampton, Samuel T. Armstrong. Washington was such a stellar student during his time at Hampton that the administration and trustees hired him to be an instructor. Soon after Washington became an instructor, General Armstrong became a mentor and confidant to Washington for the remainder of his life. Shortly after that General Armstrong recommended Washington to take the position of principal of a training school for blacks in Tuskegee, Alabama. From 1881 to Washington's death in 1915, he was the headmaster of the Tuskegee Institute, a school for blacks where students learned skills that would equip them to truly be free through engaging with books and working with their hands.

During the institute's formative years, Washington confronted deep-seated prejudice and misconceptions from both blacks and whites. Many whites felt that an educated Negro wouldn't work, while many blacks protested against making manual labour a part of the institute program. Washington responded to these criticisms by showing that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.

In 1895 Washington was invited to speak at the Atlanta Exposition, the first time a black leader had been invited to address a large group of whites in the Deep South. In this speech he articulated his educational philosophy, urging blacks to "cast down your bucket where you are" in agriculture, mechanics, and other fields, "and get to work." He then told the white audience: "In all things that are social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential for mutual purposes."

Washington came under attack from other black leaders, who found his speech patronizing. But he was only speaking to how the market works: He who serves the best generally will be successful. Following the speech, upon the death of Frederick Douglass, Washington assumed a role of national leadership for African Americans. Courted by Theodore Roosevelt for advice, he was presented by Charles Elliot of Harvard with the first degree awarded by that university to a Negro.

Washington's constant travelling and speaking added to an already overburdened schedule. In November 1915, Booker T. Washington died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-nine.

This is a vision for a liberal education, an education that liberates and empowers.

In Washington I found someone who helped me make sense of my own experience. While my childhood in no way compares with the challenges Washington faced in his, I did grow up in a very impoverished community in Washington, DC. The key person in my life during my childhood was my mom. She was a devout Christian who fought hard to seek opportunities for me to rise above the unhealthy culture that pervaded our neighbourhood. Her opportunity came when I was five years old and she took a job in Bethesda, Maryland, caring for the children and cleaning the house of a Jewish family. My mother's boldness and the family's generosity enabled me to attend elementary school in a predominantly white neighbourhood. I was the only black student in the school up until an African American girl came to the school during my sixthgrade year. This experience opened my eyes to a totally different world. I still maintained relationships with kids in my neighbourhood, but my world was gradually changing.

The wheels came off the bus when the family my mom worked for informed her that they were moving to California and that she was thus losing her job. My mom was subsequently able to find part-time work, but it wasn't enough to cover our bills, so I had to pick up a job delivering the Washington Post in my area, which required me to get up at 3:45 a.m. every day to deliver 350 papers. My mom got up every morning to help me get the papers ready. I also had to attend the local junior high school, Shaw Junior High, whose culture reflected the brokenness of my neighbourhood.

During my eighth-grade year I met Gregg Gannon. Mr. Gannon founded an organization called HAP (Higher Achievement Program), which sought to find bright minority students to participate in an intense academic program during the summer. I was ecstatic when I found out that my hard work in the program that summer enabled me to get a scholarship to attend Gonzaga College High school, an all-boys' school in the city. I truly thrived at Gonzaga over the next four years. My love for this school has remained over the past thirtyone years as I have maintained deep relationships with a number of my classmates.

Finally, I have to acknowledge Coach Joe Jackson, who probably had the greatest impact on me during one of my most challenging seasons. Coach Jackson served as the ninth-grade PE teacher, the freshman football coach, and shot put and discus coach at Gonzaga. During my first year I developed a close relationship with Coach Jackson, and his comforting words and encouragement were especially meaningful to me during the spring of my sophomore year, when our family was evicted from our home and we lost many of our treasured items. After I graduated Gonzaga to attend Colgate University, I continued to reach out to Coach Jackson to help me think through issues or questions that I had while in college. After college, when I started working, my connection to Coach Jackson became more sporadic, but I continued to hear story after story of other young men he touched.

These mentors played a crucial role in my moral formation as they guided me through a number of challenging seasons in my life. Throughout my time at Westbrook Elementary, I complained a lot about how hard the work was, and how unfair it was that I couldn't just go to school with my friends. My mom would smile and say, "You are smart, and all I want you to do is give me your best." After breezing through seventh and eighth grade at the DC public school, I hit a wall again, and Gregg Gannon did a wonderful job of frequently showing me how I was growing little by little every few weeks throughout the summer. Finally, Coach Jackson showed tough love as I struggled with the instability that my family faced after we were evicted from our home.

In my time as a school leader, I sense that the messages I received from the adults around me are becoming pretty rare, and this makes me realize that the wisdom of Booker T. Washington is needed today. It is his vision that animates me as an educator and headmaster today.

Foundational to Washington's work was his goal of equipping blacks during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century with the skills to become fully free human beings. He knew that if they were not formed well they would end up malformed, like the former slave owners. This view of education needs to be recovered in our schools today.

Today we are immersed in a culture that is subtly enslaving the next generation as it encourages students to adopt an instrumental or consumer approach to understanding the world. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has been studying the effects this worldview is having on emerging adults (eighteen- to twentythree- year-olds) as they seek to live a fulfilling life. A few of the key areas negatively affecting emerging adults include the following:

  • Young adults today struggle with the idea that there might be an objective reality that exists apart from their subjective self-experience and with which their own desires and wishes and assumptions might have to contend.
  • For most emerging adults, the value of their education lies primarily in its instrumental function, the extent to which it allows them to acquire material goods. Few see the value of a broad education in making them more responsible citizens or in equipping them to work effectively with others to foster the common good of their communities. Fewer still would advocate for the vital role a liberal arts education plays in helping them to answer such fundamental life questions as, What kind of person do I want to be, and what kind of life do I want to live?

Smith notes the consequences of all this: "Having freed people from the formative influences and obligations of town, church, extended family, and conventional morality, American individualism has exposed those people to the more powerful influences and manipulations of mass consumer capitalism. Stripped down to mere autonomous individuality, people stand naked before the onslaught of commercial media, all-pervasive advertising, shopping malls, big-box stores, credit-card buying, and the dominant narrative of a materially defined vision of the good life."

Washington's educational vision serves as a much needed counter-remedy to Smith's problematic observations regarding today's youth. His emphasis on the head, heart, and hand creates a different kind of human being who is rooted in the order of God's creation; it also demands that you connect with other people in particular places; and finally it challenges you to find your true calling, which is not driven solely by material considerations.

This is a vision for a liberal education, an education that liberates and empowers. But Washington's life experience gave him a keen awareness of the difference between false and true freedom—a distinction we have lost. That's why we need to listen to Washington to remind us:

What is freedom, and how is it obtained? The child who wants to spend time in play, rather than in study, mistakes play for freedom. The spendthrift who parts with his money as soon as it is received mistakes spending for freedom. The young man who craves the right to drink and gamble mistakes debauchery for freedom. The man who claims the right to idle away his days upon the street, rather than to spend them in set hours of labor, mistakes loafing for freedom. And so, all through human experience, we find that the highest and most complete freedom comes slowly, and is purchased only at a tremendous cost. Freedom comes through seeming restriction. Those are most truly free today who have passed through great discipline. Those persons in the United States who are most truly free in body, mind, morals, are those who have passed through the most severe training—are those who have exercised the most patience and, at the same time, the most dogged persistence and determination.

The student who follows this way of life is on the road to discovering true freedom and to realizing the liberating vision of Booker T. Washington. And the teacher devoted to this will find in him a teacher and friend.

George Sanker
George Sanker

George Sanker serves as Headmaster of The Covenant School in Charlottesville, VA, a Pre-Kindergarten to 12th grade Christian Liberal Arts and Sciences school. George graduated from Colgate University with a BA in political science and he also received a MA in Religion from Reformed Theological Seminary. George and his wife have seven kids ranging from four to twenty-three.


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