- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2005

The apple pies and chicken tempted the young Virginia boy. But Booker T. Washington refused to steal from the food stands in Richmond, even though he had spent his last cent to reach his dream — Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. Washington knew the education would take him up from slavery and into freedom.

He just had to walk 82 more miles.

Washington’s great-granddaughter Gloria Jackson told this story yesterday at the Heritage Foundation’s Lehrman Auditorium on the 149th anniversary of her ancestor’s birth to illustrate how a common slave boy became a national speaker, writer and teacher through his devotion to personal responsibility.

“Every so often, God will bless us with a personality of just monumental proportion,” Mrs. Jackson said. “It tells us what an ordinary person can do if they just apply the extraordinary gifts and talents that they have. … Who’s more ordinary than a little slave boy? But who’s accomplished more than somebody that set a platform for the foundation for the black-American race?”

Washington founded Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He also became the first black American to receive a doctorate degree from Harvard University, to be named to the National Hall of Fame, to dine at the White House and to share tea at Buckingham Palace with the queen of England.

But it didn’t start that way.

As recounted in his classic autobiography, “Up From Slavery,” Washington was born a slave in 1856 on a tobacco farm in Virginia. After the Civil War, Washington’s family moved to West Virginia, where young Booker took a job in the coal mines and taught himself to read with an old spelling book his mother gave him.

Desiring to enroll at the Hampton Institute, a new school for black people, Washington walked about 500 miles to Hampton, Va. Along the way, he slept on the streets.

When Washington arrived at the school — dirty and hungry — the head teacher almost sent him away. Hours passed, but finally she told him to sweep a room.

“He knew his whole future depended on sweeping the floor,” Mrs. Jackson said.

Washington took a broom to the ground three times and cleaned every wall, bench, table and desk. His diligence at that lowly task earned him admission.

“I was one of the happiest souls on earth,” Washington wrote. “The sweeping of that room was my college examination, and never did any youth pass an examination for entrance into Harvard or Yale that gave him more genuine satisfaction. I have passed several examinations since then, but I have always felt that this was the best one I ever passed.”

He observed: “I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life, as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”

Mrs. Jackson contrasted her great-grandfather’s attitude of responsibility to what she described as today’s culture of dependence. She said long before affirmative action and welfare programs, black people coped with Jim Crow and demonstrated how the ordinary can become extraordinary through responsibility.

“If we couldn’t go to a hotel, we just made our own,” Mrs. Jackson said.

Mrs. Jackson also pointed to Washington’s lack of bitterness toward whites over slavery.

“Hate paralyzes,” Mrs. Jackson said. “Washington did not focus on grievances. … He was not going to let a man make him stoop so low as to hate.”

Tanya Green, a 36-year-old Washington resident who attended the Heritage Foundation event, agreed with Mrs. Jackson.

“There’s a mentality that you can take the person out of the ‘hood or ghetto, but you can’t take that ghetto or ‘hood mentality out of the person, no matter how far they rise,” Miss Green said.

But Miss Green pointed to the secretary of state.

“Condoleezza Rice didn’t just make it there because she’s black,” she said.

Nor did Washington.

“He understood freedom is not just unshackling,” Mrs. Jackson said. “It must have a psychological and spiritual component. As a man thinketh, so is he.”

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