• Alyssa Rogan

15 Inspiring Quotes from Booker T. Washington's Autobiography

A few weeks ago, I finished reading Up from Slavery, the autobiography of educator and former slave, Booker T. Washington. He was about six or seven when the slaves were emancipated, and from then on his work ethic, perseverance, and compassion opened up to him a world of opportunities. He left the incredible legacy of having educated a whole generation of black people at the turn of the twentieth century and even earned an honorary degree from Harvard in 1896. He is irrevocably one of the most remarkable men to ever walk this earth, and I wanted to share with you his invaluable wisdom.

On helping the white South, despite past transgressions:

"... I learned the lesson that men cultivate love, and that only little men a spirit of hatred. I learned that assistance given to the weak makes the one who gives it strong, and that oppression of the unfortunate makes one weak.... I would permit no man, no matter what his color might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him. With God's help, I believe that I have completely rid myself of any ill-feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that he may have inflicted upon my race. I am made to feel just as happy now when I am rendering service to Southern white men as when the service is rendered to a member of my own race. I pity from the bottom of my heart any individual who is so unfortunate as to get into the habit of holding race prejudice."

On the value of worth ethic:

"Nothing ever comes to one that is worth having except as a result of hard work."

On earning your right to formal education:

"Anyone who is willing to work ten hours a day at the brickyard, or in the laundry, through one or two years, in order that he or she may have the privilege of studying academic branches for two hours in the evening, has enough bottom to warrant being further educated."

This is just what Washington required of students coming to Tuskegee, the school he founded in Alabama. Any child who couldn't pay for their tuition would work for ten hours a day at a trade or industry and go to school for two hours at night. This is how Washington would "test the backbone of the student."

On addressing wrongdoings of the South to a white audience:

"I early learned that it is a hard matter to convert an individual by abusing him, and that this is more often accomplished by giving credit for all the praiseworthy actions performed than by calling attention alone to all the evil done. While pursuing this policy I have not failed, at the proper time and in the proper manner, to call attention, in no uncertain terms, to the wrongs which any part of the South has been guilty of. I have found that there is a large element in the South that is quick to respond to straightforward, honest criticism of any wrong policy. As a rule, the place to criticize the South, when criticism is necessary, is in the South--not in Boston."

On publically expressing controversial and unpopular opinions:

"...the thing to do, when one feels sure that he has said or done the right thing and is condemned, is to stand still and keep quiet. If he is right, time will show it."

On mending race relations amidst cultural differences:

"In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."

On his daily work routine:

"As far as I can, I make it a rule to plan for each day's work--not merely to go through the same routine of daily duties, but to get rid of the routine work as early in the day as possible, and then to enter upon some new or advanced work."

On being in control of work:

"I make it a rule never to let my work drive me, but to so master it, and keep it in such control, and to keep so far ahead of it, that I will be the master instead of the servant."

On learning to love work:

"I believe that when one can grow to the point where he loves his work, this gives him a kind of strength that is most valuable."

On how the black race can get ahead:

"Any man, regardless of color, will be recognized and rewarded just in proportion as he learns to do something well--learns to do it better than someone else--however humble the thing may be. As I have said, I believe that my race will succeed in proportion as it learns to do a common thing in an uncommon manner; learns to do a thing so thoroughly that no one can improve upon what it has done; learns to make its service of indispensable value."

On judging artwork by talent, not ethnicity or skin color:

"Few people ever stopped, I found, when looking at his pictures, to inquire whether Mr. Tanner was a Negro painter, a French painter, or a Germain painter. They simply knew that he was able to produce something which the world wanted--a great painting--and the matter of his color did not enter into their minds."

On the differences between British and American culture:

"The Englishmen, I found, took plenty of time for eating, as for everything else. I am not sure if, in the long run, they do not accomplish as much or more than rushing, nervous Americans do."

We haven't really changed in a hundred years, have we?

On fame:

"I have never sought or cared for what the world calls fame. I have always looked upon fame as something to be used in accomplishing good. I have often said to my friends that if I can use whatever prominence may have come to me as an instrument with which to do good, I am content to have it."

On fostering a relationship between the rich and poor:

"...it seems to be that one of the most vital questions that touch our American life is how to bring the strong, wealthy, and learned into helpful touch with the poorest, most ignorant, and humblest, and at the same time make one appreciate the vitalizing, strengthening influence of the other."

On how future black Americans can succeed:

"During the next half-century and more, my race must continue passing through the severe American crucible. We are to be tested in our patience, our forbearance, our perseverance, our power to endure wrong, to withstand temptations, to economize, to acquire and use skill; in our ability to compete, to succeed in commerce, to disregard the superficial for the real, the appearance for the substance, to be great and yet small, learned and yet simple, high and yet the servant of all."

There are several other quotes I could have added to this list, but I don't want to rob from you the joy of reading this book because seriously, I strongly urge you to. My mornings spent with Booker and a cup of coffee were so good for my soul, especially in 2020.

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