Booker T: Lifting the Veil of Ignorance

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Tuskegee University is known as one of the nation's most outstanding institutions of higher learning.

It was founded in 1881 by a former slave - a man who went on to become the most influential American educator of his time.

That man was Booker T. Washington.

He was born on April 5, 1856, in the hills of Virginia. His family was so poor that he had to work in salt mines by the time he was nine.

"One of the things Washington learned early in life was that if he was going to become anybody at anytime, he was going to have to overcome a lot of obstacles," said Robert Watson, an associate professor at Hampton University.

Always an intelligent child, Washington yearned for an education, and so at 16 his parents allowed him to quit work to go to school.

Determined, he walked 200 miles to attend a school called Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia.

Upon graduating from Hampton in 1875, Washington embraced the idea of economic independence for blacks through self-help, hard work, and a practical education.

In his book, Up from Slavery, Washington wrote:

"During the whole of the Reconstruction period our people throughout the South looked to the federal government for everything, very much as a child looks to its mother. This was not unnatural. The central government gave them freedom, and the whole nation had been enriched for more than two centuries by the labor of the Negro."

But Washington went on to say that the government had failed to assure the opportunity for education that would prepare former slaves for the full benefits of their freedom.

So providing that became the driving force of his life - a vision that led him to start Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, a trade school for blacks in Alabama.

It's doors opened July 4, 1881.

"He wanted it to be independence day for blacks," said Tuskegee University's Frank J. Toland.

The school's beginnings were humble, with classes being held in a dilapidated church and shanty.

As the presiding principal, Washington outlined several objectives for the new school.

He urged students to return to the plantation districts and show the people there how to put new energy and new ideas into farming.

He also insisted on high moral character for both students and faculty.

"Just as Dr. Washington did, we open faculty meetings with prayer," said Toland.

Christian faith was something Washington learned as a child in Sunday school and it helped shape his ideals and a character that just wouldn't give up.

As head of Tuskegee, Washington tirelessly traveled the country raising funds from both blacks and whites, and he soon he became a well-known speaker.

His famous Atlanta Compromise speech explained his major thesis that blacks could secure their constitutional rights through their own economic and moral advancement rather than through legal and political changes.

His conciliatory stand angered some blacks like W.E.B. Dubois. But many sympathetic whites approved of his views and helped in his cause.

"Washington was a Republican and was able to get a lot of support from Republican presidents and people who were Republicans who supported black advancement," said Watson.

But perhaps Washington's greatest accomplishment is summed up in the inscription found on this monument erected his honor in the center of Tuskegee's campus.

It reads, "He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry."


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Tuskegee University

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Charlene  Aaron

Charlene Aaron

CBN News Reporter

Charlene Aaron serves as a general assignment reporter and helps anchor for the CBN News Channel.  Follow her on Twitter @CharNews and "like" her at