Today, we are taking a break from our usual Wednesday posts and are excited for the opportunity to share a special post with you from our friends over at Illuminating History! We know you’ll enjoy it as much as we did! It has been said that a nation which forgets its past has no future. At Illuminating History, they’re helping to keep history alive. Please take a moment to head over to illuminatinghistory.com and follow them via email and Twitter – you won’t be disappointed
The bloodiest war in American history was over. The war between the States left many scarred, bitter, and crushed Americans in it’s wake. For some, the end of the war meant the end of a way of life, the end of America’s aspirations, ethics, and dreams. For the last 4 years, the American Dream, the great and free ‘Shining City on a Hill’ had been obscured by the blood of 650,000 Americans, and many doubted that the dream still existed. Now that the conflict was suddenly over, the world held it’s breath to see if a torn America could return to the ideals that had once made it great.
During the ensuing decade, the economy recovered, especially in the North and West, as the post-war innovators, inventors, and dreamers began to shape the next 50 years. The robber barons, whose rags to riches stories inspired others to dream, became the most powerful men in the world. Rockefeller, Morgan, Ford, Gould, Vanderbilt, and Edison became household names, as they rebuilt America, redefined the American dream, and ushered in what would be known as the Gilded Era. These men were changing the world through business, innovation, and science. To the world’s surprise, America was back on the up and up, leading the world in technological advancements. Immigrants were flocking to the country in droves, the factories doubled in size and production, the railways shot west, and the skyscrapers shot up. It had only been ten years since the war, and it seemed the American Dream was back. Or was it? There was certainly economic success, but was that truly the American dream? Among the commotion of the boom, a lone young man walked through the fields of Virginia. His name, Booker. His one goal, to live the true American Dream.
400 dollars, mere pocket change to men like Rockefeller or Vanderbilt, was Booker’s price. Not the price of shares in his company, or of an investment. No, that was for successful men, and Booker was not the least bit successful. Not yet anyway. Four hundred dollars had been what Booker was worth as merchandise, because Booker had been born into slavery. For the first 15 years of his life, Booker knew only work. Work without any reward at the end of the day. No reward other than the satisfaction of a job well done. When his freedom came in 1865 with the fall of the south, Booker did not know what to do with a concept totally new to him: his own time. Never before had he been able to do what he wanted. He dreamed of becoming wealthy and successful, like the great businessmen of the east. So he did what he had always wanted to do. He learned to read. When he wasn’t working at his new job at the coal mines, he attended a school for former slaves. He began to look to great men of history for inspiration. Most importantly, Booker attended a church under the leadership of Lewis Rice, the evangelist, where he was saved after hearing a sermon reminding believers that we are all given the gift of success in some way, and what we do with that success defines us. Rice quoted from Mark chapter 8 verse 36, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” It was a call not to hoard wealth, or to use it for personal power, but to be a humble witness to the world, to be culture shifters, to lead by example, in order to change the world.
Booker always remembered that sermon. He remembered it as he continued to learn, until he had learned everything the schools could teach him. He remembered it as he worked, almost as hard as when he was a slave. He remembered it when he read, every book he could borrow, and he remembered it when he heard the news of a college for colored men. This was his chance. His chance to break out of the mold and become someone great! It was his chance to partake in the American dream.
There was only one problem: the college, in Hampton Roads, Virginia, was 500 miles away. Booker was determined to go. So he gathered all of his possessions into a handkerchief, and set out on his own. He caught a train until his money quickly diminished. He hitchhiked when he could, which was not often in the south. He walked along the roads, along the railway, sleeping in the open, ever moving towards his dream. When he arrived on the steps of the college, some weeks later, he was reminded that he had no way of being admitted. He had no money, and no family history. Determined, he walked in anyway. He asked to see the admittance officer, a peculiar request from a dirty boy in tattered clothes. For his entrance interview, he simply told the officer how much he wanted to attend. His only reference vouching for him was the 500 miles he had crossed to pursue his dream. Without a word, the officer stood, handed Booker a broom, and led him to a classroom. She told him to clean the room, and without explanation, left. She waited in the next room, wondering what Booker’s response would be. Booker didn’t waste any time deciding what to do, he just did it. He cleaned that room as it had never been cleaned before. Knowing that the best reward for any job was the satisfaction of excellence. The admittance officer returned. The room was spotless, and booker was given the job of janitor, with free tuition to the school.
During roll call, when asked for his name, Booker was told that people have two names, and that he must have a last name to register. “Washington” Booker said as he gazed at the portrait of the first president. Booker T. Washington. It had a nice ring.
Booker, with new last name in tow, graduated with flying colors, and seemed destined for greatness. He was on the path to living the American dream; from slave to scholar. Perhaps he would join the great men changing the business world, or perhaps he would find success as an investor in some great company that was changing the culture. But the successful young scholar understood one thing: living the American dream, being successful, changing the world, and shifting the cultural paradigm, did not come only through wealth or success.
Booker took all of his knowledge, money, and prestige, and poured it into his first and only job. He became a teacher. He taught and tutored students who, like his younger self, had overcome immense obstacles to learn. He put all his money into scholarships, he started debate clubs for young students, and night schools for older people who worked 12 hour days, he poured heart and soul into his American dream; to be the one to help others achieve theirs. As the years stretched out, Booker taught hundreds of students, from reading to mathematics, raising their pay grade, restoring their dignity, and giving them a new lease on life.
Booker would go on to create the Tuskegee Institute, building the entire school from nothing, into what became an institution of higher learning, designed to help others achieve their dreams.
Photo Credit: Illuminating History