112. Who was Booker T. Washington?

Today, Connor and Brittany tell the story of a true American hero: Booker T. Washington.


Here’s a transcript of our conversation:

Connor: Hey, Brittany.

Brittany: Hi, Connor.

Connor: On past episodes couple of times, we’ve mentioned these guidebooks that we’ve done, including, I think it was our last episode maybe we talked about, heroes and cartoons, and we talked a little bit about how we have these guidebooks. so at Tuttletuletwins.com/guide. you can find those guidebooks, one of which is all about heroes. And so wanted to, take a little bit of time to talk about at least one of them, and maybe we can sprinkle more into future episodes, cuz history gives us just so many examples of people who tried to stand up for what was right, against a lot of opposition. And these stories are important because yes, these are flawed people. Like we talked on that cartoon episode about how having kind of the fictional cartoons, you’re not let down by these other areas of their life. I mean, we talked about Ayn Rand once, right? Like, here she is writing all these amazing things, and then you find out, oh, you lived off of welfare. Yeah. Like that, goes against everything you said, you know? And so, there is kind of a, maybe not danger, but some caution when you’re holding, you know, mortal, fallible people, meaning they can make mistakes up as heroes. Nevertheless, there are some people that are worth talking about, even with those qualifiers. And we share many of their stories in the TuttleTwins Guide to Courageous Heroes. So the one we wanna talk about today is Booker T. Washington. I never know, like, you know, some people love having their middle initial in their name and others. I could never be Connor S. Boyack. Anyway, Booker T. Washington, he’s got a fun story though, because, or a really unique one. So he was a slave as a child, and so he directly experienced just the horrors of what that era, what that period of time was like. And since he was born into slavery, he actually didn’t know his birthdate, which happened a lot, cuz it wasn’t recorded. and so you’d, have that, actually, a lot that, you know, many slaves didn’t know how to read, how to write. They didn’t kind of keep track of these things. But he was interesting because he did not let his past, hold him back from, in his case, becoming just one of the great figures of American history or history in general. Just so much, insight into him. So let’s kind of unpack a little bit, Britney, what are your thoughts on Booker T. Washington?

Brittany: Yeah. So when I was a teacher many moons ago, that up from slavery, one of his most important books, that’s what we had our students read. And it is a little bit more for grown-up kids. I think we had our fourth or fifth graders read it. but it is, and I’ll link to it in the show notes, but that is one of my all-time favorite books. I was reading it on the Metro on the train in DC a couple of years ago, and I remember like crying at some parts and people are looking at me like, what is this girl doing? But I think everybody should read it specifically because here you have a man who was born into nothing and he did everything in his power to overcome it. And I don’t know Connor, right? Can you give us a little bit, maybe details about his life?

Connor: Well, yeah, like the transition, you’re talking about someone from coming from like rags to riches or from nothing to something. Yep. He, you know, He was an educator. He was an author. He even advised multiple presidents of the United States. and so he was kind of on the tail end of, you know, black Americans being born into slavery. And he ended up becoming just like the leading voice of these former slaves and their descendants representing so many people who had gone through this and kind of advocating on their behalf, you know, even to presidents of the United States and other leaders at the time. He created this, coalition, this group of, you know, black people, business owners, church leaders, white business owners, politicians, this kind of mixed, coalition of people from different backgrounds with the goal of kind of building economic strength. In other words, helping grow businesses and helping people succeed. he wanted to really empower, not wanted. He did, in many ways was able to empower people, especially children through schooling and self-help, trying, to encourage, these former slaves who have, you know, had known nothing and were just, you know, impoverished because of their, enslavement and were illiterate and ignorant really trying to help them kind of pull themselves up from that past and say, you can be better people. It’s just really inspiring to see him kind of dive in and help people in those situations as much as he did.

Brittany: And it’s fun because he did it himself, right? So it’s not just as hypothetical, you know, you should do this. And, one of my favorite parts of his story is how passionate he was about education and how he was able to get educated. So it was so important to him. Obviously, he did not have the money to pay for it. So he worked his way through. At 16, he entered, I think it was called Hampton, like Normal and Agriculture Institute in Virginia. So his family ended up settling in West Virginia, and he had been a man there named Samuel Chapman Armstrong, who was a leader of a school, and he kind of became his mentor, and he really helped Washington break through to the mainstream. But one of my favorite parts about how he got there, he walked on foot, he couldn’t afford to ride the train, so he walked on foot from Malden, West Virginia to Hampton, Virginia. That is a 400-mile journey. I can’t even comprehend that. He didn’t have a penny when he, got to the school, his only entrance exam was he had to clean a room, which sounds silly, it kind of sounds like karate kid, which is not gonna mean anything to our younger kids with the wax on and wax off. So his teacher inspected his work with a white handkerchief to make sure it was spotless. And after that, he was admitted and he was given work as a janitor to pay for the cost of his, his, his room and board until eventually, Armstrong arranged, for a, I think it was kind of a wealthy white benefactor, somebody who can pay for him a patron to, pay for his tuition.

Connor: Well, and that like, hard work paid off. you know, he was, so he was studying agriculture at this school, but he had these other talents. He was really good at speaking, he was really good at debating. He ended up graduating with honors and gave the commencement speech at this school that he, you know, could not afford to attend and barely got in. And so he just loved education. He loved learning. And so, he eventually, you know, helped this, this college for black students in Alabama get set up. I mean, the guy’s only like 25 years old at the time. And this school, for example, was basically nothing. I mean, it was just, you know, an area of land. They didn’t really have buildings. But, Washington was able to recruit students. He raised money from some of the sympathetic white kind of business owners in the community who wanted to have more equality and fairness and so forth. He was able to purchase this old plantation and basically went to work to actually create this school to give back. He himself had kind of really gone through that and focused on getting educated and learning, and then didn’t go off and just try to make a bunch of money and, you know, enjoy his life and whatever. Like, he really was trying to help other people in his same circumstances or the circumstances he used to be in, to follow the same path and to demonstrate for them, like, you too can do this. You too can learn if you apply yourself, right, you can have a better life than your ancestors, and I want to help you. So just very inspiring to see him kind of putting his money where his mouth is and really trying hard to create this school and provide education for so many people who needed it.

Brittany: He was also very entrepreneurial, and obviously that’s a big theme for us. We’ve talked about that a lot. But I love this part of the story as well. So to raise money for the school, because remember it was just a plot of land. There were no buildings. They bought a kiln, which helps you build bricks. So the students, what are their first tasks? The first group of students was they learned to make bricks, and then they sold those bricks for money. And eventually, they used that money to build classroom buildings, a dining hall, a girls’ dormitory, and a chapel. So that’s pretty amazing to me that here they had no money. And he was like, all right, how can we do this? How can we be entrepreneurial? And just seven years after opening the school, there were 400 students, and the school offered training in, you know, your basic skills like carpentry, cabinet making, shoe making things that were really important. Back then, boys sometimes did farming and, and dairying, so like cows. and the girls learned domestic skills such as like cooking and sewing. But that’s what was so cool. It wasn’t just, you’re reading from a book, right? He was teaching them life skills.

Connor: And that I think is something that he was very focused on. He didn’t wanna just like teach people how to do things. He didn’t wanna just educate, like it was all of the above. He recognized that these former slaves had really missed out. And just them, you know, learning English or learning how to read might be insufficient. it was like, yeah, let’s teach you a trade. Let’s teach you how to do things. We want you to be successful. And that requires reading. It requires writing, it requires, you know, learning how to learn. But beyond just the book smarts, you need kind of the street smarts. You know, what’s a, what’s a trade or a skill that you can use to start making money, provide value to other people, be, you know, entrepreneurial. And so he wanted to make sure that the education that they were providing was connected to the real experience of, you know, these students. I mean, even teaching things like personal hygiene, right? And manners and character. Like how to have integrity and how to be a good person. How to stand up for yourself and have confidence. I mean, can you imagine what life was like when you and your parents and grandparents were slaves and just, you know, you’re always kind of put down and, you’re treated as property and that must, you know, do awful things to kind of your personal character. And so he is having, I mean, it is one of his famous quotes, and we use this in the Tuttletwins, a guide to courageous heroes. When we share his story in more detail there, this is one of the quotes he’s more well known for. He says, character, not circumstance, makes the person

Brittany: I love that so much.

Connor: What does he mean by that? Right? So circumstances is like, oh, I happen to be born into a wealthy family, or I happen to be born into an enslaved family. Like, those are your circumstances, just kind of what has happened to you? What environment you’re in, what your life is like, not cuz of anything you’ve done, that’s just, it is just what it is and what you experience. Those are circumstances. So he’s saying circumstances don’t make the person’s character does. What he’s saying is, even in bad circumstances, if you have good character, right, you’re gonna be a good person. You’re gonna succeed, you’re gonna be able to overcome, you know, those circumstances. and so I really like that because he recognized with all these former slaves that were coming out of these horrible circumstances, and many of them still lived in horrible, it’s not like snap our fingers and everything is great now for all black people in America, right? Like, it just wasn’t like that. But he recognized that if he could instill in people these virtues right, of good character and integrity and responsibility and hard work, right? That they were gonna be able to succeed. We talked, you’ll remember with, Larry Reid Yeah. in a previous episode about the importance of having, good character. And so this idea that he took of a school became, I think it had like over 80 buildings on campus, you know, a couple of decades as I think it was like 25 years later, over 80, you know, buildings and just this massive value that was created, training people in dozens of industries, right? Ultimately thousands of students. I mean, here’s, a guy who was so committed that he took this idea and found a way to build kind of a successful business around it. Like he had to raise money and he had to get people to pay just to be able to pay for all the, you know, the buildings and the land and the teachers. And he had to figure out to be an entrepreneur, not just to make money, but to provide value to help people’s lives. I just think it’s such, an inspiring story.

Brittany: It really is. And one thing we didn’t mess mention that I will just chime in with the school was Tuskegee. It’s hard to say. I never say it right. So I had to Google how to say it, but Tuskegee was the school he started, and it just, I mean, it changed people’s lives. And another really cool fact that is, especially for the time in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt, who was the president at the time, invited him to dine at the White House. And that might not seem like a big deal right now, but that made him the first black person to ever sit at the president’s table and have, you know, a meal. And it wasn’t even just, you know, I’ll have you over. It was, let me pick your brain, like, tell me what I should do. He was looking for advice, and that’s just crazy, you know, that wasn’t unheard of at the time.

Connor: Yeah. You know, there’s so many good quotes. We, don’t have time to share ’em. You guys can do your homework. We’ll link to a little bit about Booker on the show notes page, Tuttletwins.com/podcast. I really like one of these quotes he says. I’ve learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed. Some people can reach positions based on who their parents were, or by luck or excuse me, or by, you know, paying money or right, like the position, someone’s authority, you know, their title doesn’t really reveal much about them, but the obstacles that they’ve had overcome, even if they have no title right, they don’t have any fancy name or whatever. Those are the people worth kind of learning from and being connected to and, seeing their character. just such a good, you know, person that you can see has benefited so many people. And think of all the posterity of those people that he educated, right? The children and grandchildren and everyone today who have better lives because their ancestors were educated and empowered by, the efforts of this one person. It shows the good, right? That can be accomplished just by one person. So, fascinating story. Head to the show notes page. You know, take some time, into a story. If you don’t yet have the guidebook, Tuttletwins.com/guide. Pick up the guidebooks, read ’em as a family, learn more about these people. Go do your own homework. We can only share, you know, as much as we can share in a book, but there’s so much more in YouTube videos and, you know, make a project out of it and learn about these heroes. this is just one of others that we’ll be sharing, in the future. So, hope you guys have enjoyed, Brittany, as always, thanks. And until next time, we’ll talk to you later.

Brittany: Talk to you later.


Interested in more content?

Check out our latest email…

When did normal become bigoted?

Kinda funny being called hateful/bigoted/phobic/etc for expressing opinions that were emphatically mainstream just five years ago. And by funny, of course I mean it’s asinine. There was a time not too long ago when common sense ideas and opinions were pretty much the norm. Now, anyone who dares to express a perspective or a belief that goes against the new orthodoxy is met with accusations of bigotry or hate speech. What’s happening is nothing less than a concerted effort to silence dissent and control the narrative, and the folks doing it don’t seem to care about how antithetical it is to the principles of a free society. Maybe that’s the point. Prince Harry recently made headlines by calling the 1st Amendment “bonkers,” but he’s got it all wrong. What’s bonkers is the idea that politicians and bureaucrats should be the arbiter of what speech is appropriate. It’s not just the

Read More »

From the trusted team behind the Tuttle Twins books, join us as we tackle current events, hot topics, and fun ideas to help your family find clarity in a world full of confusion.

Want More?

The Tuttle Twins children’s book series is read by hundreds of thousands of families across the country, and nearly a million books (in a dozen languages!) are teaching children like yours about the ideas of a free society.

Textbooks don’t teach this; schools don’t mention it.

It’s up to you—and our books can help. Check out the Tuttle Twins books to see if they’re a fit for your family!