Booker Washington, the man Dube called his ‘patron saint’

2012-01-07 10:32

Booker Washington was born into slavery in the late 1850s on a plantation in Virginia. His early childhood was spent in great poverty.

His early childhood was spent in great poverty.

After the Civil War (1861-1865), he became a coal miner. By chance, he heard about Hampton Institute, a college that had been founded exclusively for African Americans.

He set out to find it, walking, hitching rides and sleeping rough, and was admitted. He said later that ‘the atmosphere of business, Christian influence, and a spirit of self-help seemed to have awakened every faculty in me’.

Soon after graduating, he became head of a tiny shack school at Tuskegee in Alabama, which he steadily turned into a model black-run industrial institution.

By the mid-1890s, with state aid and donations from well-wishers, Tuskegee boasted an impressive campus and farm, with 79 staff members and 800 students.

Washington used his own life story to shape his work, which he described as ‘education of mind, skill of hand, Christian character, ideas of thrift, economy, push and a spirit of independence’.

Many Africans on both sides of the Atlantic disagreed with Washington’s political position that segregation was to some extent tolerable and that African Americans should focus on economic and social progress and not campaign for the vote.

Yet Tuskegee universally became an iconic symbol of what Africans everywhere could achieve through self-help and determination.

For this reason, the ‘Wizard of Tuskegee’, as he became known, was a revered figure until his death in 1915.

Many key leaders from South Africa visited the college to gain inspiration, John Dube, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, Solomon Plaatje and D.D.T. Jabavu among them.

Knowledge of Tuskegee was widely disseminated in the 1920s, when Solomon Plaatje toured South Africa with a film, ‘Life at Tuskegee Institute’.

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