On Saturday, April 5th, the Tuskegee University Alumni Association will hold its first Booker T. Washington National Day of Service. The newly appointed day commemorates not just Washington’s birthday, but his legacy as the founder of Tuskegee University. On this day, like the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Tuskegee Alumni and affiliates are asked to complete an act of community service in their own communities.
Born a slave, Washington rose to educational pioneer as founder of Tuskegee University in 1881. His inspirational story remains a blueprint for education in the black community. As a slave denied an education, Washington still found a way to learn as much as he could. After the Civil War, his employer allowed him to be taught for one hour a day in the winter. When he was old enough, Washington walked 500 miles to Hampton Institute where he worked as a janitor to pay his tuition.
Washington’s commitment to education made such an impression, he was asked to speak at a graduation ceremony, which led to a teaching position at Hampton. Washington ultimately founded the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute with $2000 in donations. As its founder, Washington became one of the most prominent and respected voices of Blacks who succeeded only a few years out of slavery.
A sought-after public speaker, Washington’s 1895 address entitled the “Atlanta Compromise,” stressed the importance of economic independence for blacks, despite segregation and disenfranchisement. He and noted author and activist of the time, W.E.B. Dubois, were at odds, as Dubois believed Blacks should have equal inclusion in society.
Despite opposition among his own people, Washington was the first black person to be invited to the White House. He was honored by the then President of the United States Theodore T. Roosevelt, and became an advisor on race relations. He remained so under the next President, William Howard Taft. Washington documented his amazing life in his 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery.