As founder and president of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University), Booker T. Washington valued education and instilled in his students of African heritage values of hard work, creativity, and entrepreneurship. These values have touched my family members and me throughout our family’s history.
Booker Taliaferro Washington, born in approximately 1856, was enslaved in Virginia on a plantation. The young Booker yearned to learn to read and to serve. After slavery was abolished, Washington went to school and became an educator. In 1881, as the principal of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama, he transformed the campus from a rundown building to an educational institution offering thirty-eight trades. His first book, Up From Slavery, tells his story and is highly acknowledged today. Washington also authored thirteen other books.
In addition to being an author and educator, Washington founded the National Negro Business League. He contended that through hard work and owning businesses in agriculture, bricklaying, carpentry, and design, Americans of African heritage would become financially independent and empowered, yielding “indispensable” members of society.
My great-grandfather Harry taught my grandfather George to persevere and to walk in Mr. Washington’s footprints. Like Washington, my great-grandfather had been born a slave; he was sold twice. Due to his father’s encouragement and expectations, Grandpa George attained a college education and became a teacher of young male students, training them in trades and industry skills. He also built a school and designed homes. I wish I had learned to design his unusual topiaries.
Grandpa George’s wife—my grandmother, Ethel—desired to attend Tuskegee and applied. She received a letter of acceptance that Principal Washington had signed. My grandmother Ethel, however, changed her plans and decided to attend a college in Arkansas. After graduation, she became an elementary school teacher.
Grandmother Ethel’s daughter—my mother, Lois Anita—graduated from Tuskegee in 1949. Afterward, she moved to Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she married James, my father: They’re still married today, fifty-eight years later.
My mom used our family’s values and work ethic as a registered nurse, evening supervisor, and director of health education for twenty-five years at the original Children’s Hospital of Saint Paul that was located at 311 Pleasant Avenue. She continued her education, after retiring and raising four civically engaged children. In 1973 my mom became the first African American graduate of Metropolitan State University. In addition, she has published articles about healthcare and has founded L’Nita Designs, creating beautiful jewelry.
Our home library always held books of prized authors, many obtained from Tuskegee when Mom was a student. I read the works of Benjamin Franklin, Victor Frankl, Richard Wright, Louisa May Alcott, Lorraine Hansberry, and Booker T. Washington, among others. Reading opened doors to a new world for me.
On April 29, 1969, when I was seventeen years old, I stood in the Oval Office of the White House, with the late President Richard Milhous Nixon. I felt as if I were standing in Mr. Washington’s footsteps, because in 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited him to the White House. Mr. Washington became the first African American to have this honor. In a similar light, I was the first of two high school seniors to represent Junior Achievement at the White House. As we stood in the Oval Office, President Nixon said to me, “I congratulate you on your good management. Now come on down here and fix up our budget.”
After graduating high school, I attended a technical college and earned a degree in accounting. Subsequently, I found employment, using my business skills. Booker T. Washington’s values were woven into the backbones of my great-grandfather, grandfather, grandmother, and mother, and then passed down to me.
Patricia Anita Young was born in Saint Paul and now resides in Minneapolis. She is an accounting technician who enjoys writing freelance articles.
At top: Booker T. Washington. (Photo: Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress)