Telling the story of Tuskegee University and relegating Booker T. Washington to a single anecdotal reference is a little like giving a speech about Menlo Park but only mentioning Thomas Edison in passing.
Yet that’s essentially what Michelle Obama did during the 2015 commencement ceremony at the renowned historically black college.
In a 3,600-word address, Washington’s name was uttered but once, when the First Lady told how he pawned his watch to buy a kiln when the school needed a new building.
She made the Wizard of Tuskegee sound like a mere professor willing to pitch in personally at a time of institutional need.
It was a missed opportunity of immeasurable magnitude.
The amazing personal story of Booker Taliaferro Washington (in case you wondered what the “T” stood for)—from being born into slavery to becoming the first black man to dine in the White House—paralleled a professional career punctuated by remarkable vision, brilliance and achievement.
In reflecting on Tuskegee University’s history, the first lady focused on the airmen of World War II—a worthy subject, to be sure.
But in omitting Washington, Obama did history and the class of 2015 a dire disservice.
It’s entirely possible that the 500 Tuskegee graduates there were not well-schooled in the life and philosophies of their university’s founder. They may not know of Tuskegee’s Christian origins, or that Washington attended Wayland Seminary. (Did you?)
Since the first lady didn’t see fit to refresh our national memory about Washington’s erudite eloquence, and more importantly to re-introduce his way-ahead-of-their-time concepts concerning race to a 21st Century America yearning for solutions, I’ll oblige instead.
Washington’s main themes centered around the notion that there are rules of civilization that apply to any race seeking to distinguish itself in progress and commerce.
“No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized,” he said in an 1895 speech to the Atlanta Exposition.
Washington’s commitment to industry as a means of equality attracted support among many northern philanthropists, and with Andrew Carnegie’s help he founded the National Negro Business League in 1900, serving as its president till he died.
In surveying black opportunity, Washington saw its threats as well, and he recognized crime and lawlessness as mortal enemies of social and economic success.
“Our leaders should see to it that the criminal Negro is gotten rid of whenever possible,” he said in a speech in 1901. “Making all allowances for mistakes, injustice and the influence of racial prejudice, I have no hesitation in saying that one of the elements in our present situation that gives me most concern is the large number of crimes that are being committed by members of our race.”
Unless crimes are fewer in number, he warned, “the race will permanently suffer.”
Education eradicates ignorance, which is the seed of crime, and Washington constantly sought to rally blacks to realize therein lay the key to prosperity.
“There is no force on earth that can keep back a people continually getting education, light, intelligence, property and Christian character,” he said.
A few years later, he expanded on market forces as being non-discriminatory.
“If the Italians and Greeks can come into this country strangers to our language and civilization and within a few years gain wealth and independence by trading in fruits, the Negro can do the same thing,” he said.
Immigrants starting out in comparative poverty worked together naturally to grow.
“If the settlement is started by the Poles, a Polander becomes the depot agent, a Polander becomes a telegraph operator,” he said. “The first mayor is a Polander. The president of the school board is a Pole. The president of the first bank is a Pole. There is no segregation of the Poles in that city. There is no discrimination against the Poles here. There is freedom and a chance for unfettered and unlimited growth.”
Having adroitly observed that some blacks were making better livings out of airing grievances than by developing industry, Washington believed in letting success “thoroughly eclipse” shortcomings.
“We do our children a lasting injustice when we feed them constantly upon the miseries of the race,” he said in 1914.
“Let us, in the future, spend less time tallying about the part of the city we cannot live in, and more time making the part of the city that we can live in beautiful and attractive. … We call too many meetings to resent something, and not enough to construct something.”
Talking is easier than doing, he noted: “Explaining why we have not built up a business is easier than constructing a business.”
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Washington’s untimely death, and the main criticism of his ideas at the time was that they couldn’t overcome legalized racism via Jim Crow laws.
Those laws are long gone today, which makes Michelle Obama’s omission especially lamentable. She missed a unique chance to resurrect some incredibly pertinent and positive admonitions from one of the greatest black minds in America.
It’s a true shame: Even a century later, Booker T. Washington is still ahead of his time.