Obama on Booker T. Washington

In May of this year, President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee. At one point, he talked directly about the school’s namesake:

All of these qualities — empathy, discipline, the capacity to solve problems, the capacity to think critically — these skills don’t just change how the world sees us. They change how we see ourselves. They allow each of us to seek out new horizons and new opportunities with confidence — with the knowledge that we’re ready; that we can face obstacles and challenges and unexpected setbacks. That’s the power of your education. That’s the power of the diploma that you receive today.

And this is something that Booker T. Washington himself understood. Think about it. He entered this world a slave on a Southern plantation. But he would leave this world as the leader of a growing civil rights movement and the president of the world-famous Tuskegee Institute.

Booker T. Washington believed that change and equality would be won in the classroom. So he convinced folks to help him buy farmland. Once he had the land, he needed a school. So he assigned his first students to actually build the chairs and the desks and even a couple of the classrooms. You thought your teachers were tough.

Booker T. Washington ran a tight ship. He’d ride the train to Tuskegee and scare some of the new students. This is before YouTube and TMZ, so the kids didn’t recognize him. (Laughter.) He’d walk up to them and say, “Oh, you’re heading to Tuskegee. I heard the work there is hard. I heard they give the students too much to do. I hear the food is terrible. You probably won’t last three months.” But the students would reply they weren’t afraid of hard work. They were going to complete their studies no matter what Booker T. Washington threw at them. And in that way, he prepared them — because life will throw some things at you.


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