A Boys' Life of Booker T. Washington/Chapter 15

CHAPTER XV

BOOKER T. WASHINGTON: THE MAN

Booker Washington at home, with his wife and children, his garden, his chickens, his pigs, his horses and cows, is far more interesting than Washington the orator, the writer, the teacher, the traveler, the college principal.

No man ever loved his home more than Washington. He had to be away from it much of the time. He was away at least half of each year. This was a great hardship to him, and just as often as was possible he got away from his exacting duties and returned to Tuskegee to find rest and quiet and comfort and joy with his own family.

He was an early riser, when at home, getting up always at 6 o'clock. His first morning task was to gather the fresh eggs. He was very fond of chickens and always kept a number of them. "I begin my day," he says, "by seeing how many eggs I can find, or how many little chicks there are that are just beginning to creep through the shells. . . . I like to find the new eggs myself, and I am selfish enough to permit no one else to do this. . . ."[1]

He was very fond of animals of all kinds, but the pig was his favorite. He always kept a number of the very finest breeds of Berkshires and Poland Chinas. After gathering the fresh eggs, his next job was feeding the pigs. After that came a visit to the cows. He always kept a good garden, too, and a part of the early morning was given to working in it. He had a very peculiar custom or idea about his garden work. He always worked barefooted. He said that there was something in the soil that gave one strength and health and power,—but you had to get it by direct contact with the soil.

After this early morning round of work was done, he mounted his horse for an hour's ride. He usually rode over the college farm and thoroughly inspected it; then to the dairy, and all over the college grounds, to see that everything was going as it should.

After breakfast, he went to his office and gave his attention to the day's mail, which averaged daily about 125 incoming and 800 outgoing letters. Later in the day he would visit classrooms, inspect the building that was going on, go to the great dining hall at dinner, go to the shops, talk to the students and to the members of the faculty as he met them. Just before supper he would call for his horse again and go off for an hour's ride or for a hunt. Sometimes he would walk rather than ride. While on these walks, he would often run for a couple of miles at top speed. After supper, there was usually a meeting of some kind,—a committee or faculty meeting, or conference with a delegation of visitors. Chapel exercises, devotional in character, came at 8:30. And after that, very frequently, there was an inspection of the dormitories.

He had three children, Portia, Booker, and Davidson. One of his greatest pleasures was to take the children for a long walk on Sunday afternoons. They would tramp for miles through the fields and woods, gathering flowers or nuts or berries. They studied the trees, the flowers, and the birds. They waded in the streams, ran footraces, and played games.

Every night after supper he would romp and play with the children. He would roll on the floor, let the children ride on his back, play all sorts of jolly games, or he would tell stories. He was an excellent story-teller, and it was always a treat to hear the wonderful tales he could tell.

Washington was married three times. His first wife, as stated in a previous chapter, was Fannie M. Smith, of Maiden, who died in 1884, leaving a daughter, Portia. The second marriage was to Olivia Davidson, who had been a teacher at Tuskegee from its beginning. She had been of wonderful assistance to Washington in the early days of Tuskegee. She was the mother of the two boys, Booker, Jr., and Davidson. His third marriage was to Margaret Murray, of Mississippi, a graduate of Fisk University and for several years a teacher at Tuskegee. This marriage occurred in 1892. Mrs. Washington has had a very useful and distinguished career. No woman of her race has helped her people so much in recent

Booker T. Washington and His Family


years. She will be remembered not merely as the wife of Booker Washington, but for her own remarkable service to her people.

Washington was a man of unusual personal appearance. From the description that James Creelman gave of him on the occasion of his famous speech in Atlanta, it can readily be seen that he was a man of commanding and striking personality. Wherever he went he attracted attention.

He was an untiring worker. He went at tremendous speed all the time. He could do as much, as a rule, as three or four ordinary men. He kept a stenographer with him all the time. As he went about the grounds he would dictate suggestions and ideas for changes and improvements. He would often awaken his stenographer at night to dictate a letter or a speech or a statement for the papers. In this way he never overlooked an important thought or idea that occurred to him, and his ideas were always taken down while fresh and vivid in his mind. He often confounded his faculty by his tremendous energy. He would call them in and lay out enough work for them to keep busy for a week and, then, almost before they could get started, demand results. He could work so fast himself and do so much, he never realized that it took other people longer to finish a task.

He had a very active mind. He could think quickly. He was also a good judge of men and knew the worth of a man almost at sight. When any subject was presented to him, he would arrive at conclusions quickly and accurately.

As he grew older, he exhibited a certain amount of absentmindedness, due, perhaps, to concentration of mind. He would meet his best friends on the street and not speak to them. He was so preoccupied by his thinking that he simply did not recognize folks when he met them.

Washington was a proud and independent man. Many people thought he was conceited. He was far too great a man for that. He was not vain and he was not ashamed of himself or his race. He held his head high. He could not be cowed. He had great self-confidence. He knew his abilities and powers and thought it his duty to appraise them properly. This he did in a very intelligent and sensible way. But he was not boastful; in fact, he was very humble. Many of the things which he said and did that were often taken for personal vanity and boastfulness were not personal at all but were evidences of his pride in his race.

Washington had great sympathy for the unfortunate. He was constantly bringing up in faculty meeting the case of some poor negro who was in distress,—who couldn't pay the rent, was without food or clothes, or was in hard luck in some way. He insisted that these people be helped regardless of how they came to be in their unfortunate condition. Scarcely a day passed that he did not give aid to some one who needed it.

There was an old, crack-brained preacher who would come to the Institute and speak by the hour right outside the office, but Washington would not let him be disturbed and always gave him a little contribution.

There was another old negro who had great ability in getting contributions from Washington. "One day, when Washington was driving down the main street of Tuskegee behind a pair of fast and spirited horses, this old man rushed out into the street and stopped him as though he had a matter of the greatest urgency to impart to him. When Mr. Washington had with difficulty reined his horses and asked him what he wanted, the old man said breathlessly, I'se got a tirkey for yo' Thanksgivin'!'

"'How much does it weigh?' inquired Mr. Washington.

"'Twelve to fifteen poun'.'

"After thanking the old man warmly, Mr. Washington started to drive on, when the old fellow added, 'I jest wants to borrow a dollar for to fatten yo' tirkey for you!'

"With a laugh, Mr. Washington handed the old man a dollar, and drove on. He never could be made to feel that by these spontaneous generosities he was encouraging thriftlessness and mendicancy. He was incorrigible in his unscientific open-handedness with the poor, begging older members of his race."[2]

"Old man Harry Varner was the night watchman of the school in its early days, and a man upon whom Mr. Washington very much depended. He lived in a cabin opposite the school grounds. After hearing many talks about the importance of living in a real house instead of a one or two room cabin, old Uncle Harry finally decided that he must have a real house. Accordingly he came to his employer, told him his feeling in the matter, and laid before him his meagre savings, which he had determined to spend for a real house. Mr. Washington went with him to select the lot and added enough out of his own pocket to the scant savings to enable the old man to buy a cow and a pig and a garden plot as well as the house. From then on, for weeks, he and old Uncle Harry would have long and mysterious conferences over the planning of that little four-room cottage. It is doubtful if Mr. Washington ever devoted more time or thought to planning any of the great buildings of the Institute. No potentate was ever half as proud of his palace as Uncle Harry of his four-room cottage, when it was finally finished and painted and stood forth in all its glory to be admired of all men. And Booker Washington was scarcely less proud than Uncle Harry.

"With Uncle Harry Varner, 'Old man' Brannum, the original cook of the school, and Lewis Adams, of the town of Tuskegee, whom Mr. Washington mentions in 'Up from Slavery,' as one of his chief advisers, all unlettered-before-the-war negroes, his relationship was always particularly intimate. These three old men enjoyed the confidence of the white people of the town of Tuskegee to an unusual extent and often acted as ambassadors of good will between the head of the school and his white neighbors, when from time to time the latter showed a disposition to look askance at the rapidly growing institution on the hill beyond the town.

"Another intimate friend of Mr. Washington's was Charles L. Diggs, known affectionately on the school grounds as 'Old man' Diggs. The old man had been body servant to a Union officer in the Civil War, and after the war had been carried to Boston, where he became the butler in a fashionable Back Bay family. When Mr. Washington first visited Boston, as an humble and obscure young negro school-teacher, pleading for his struggling school, he met Diggs, and Diggs succeeded in interesting his employers in the sincere and earnest young teacher. When, years afterward, the Institute had grown to the dignity of needing stewards, Mr. Washington employed his old friend as steward of the Teachers' Home. In all the years thereafter hardly a day passed when Mr. Washington was at the school without having some kind of powwow with 'O d man' Diggs regarding some matter affecting the interests of the school.

"To the despair of his family Booker Washington seemed to go out of his way to find forlorn old people whom he could befriend. He sent provisions weekly to an humble old black couple from whom he had bought a tract of land for the school. He did the same for old Aunt Harriet and her deaf, dumb, and lame son, except that to them he provided fuel as well. On any particularly cold day, he would send one or more students over to Aunt Harriet's to find out if she and her poor helpless son were comfortable. Also every Sunday afternoon, to the joy of this pathetic couple, a particularly appetizing Sunday dinner unfailingly made its appearance. And these were only a few of the pensioners and semipensioners whom Booker Washington accumulated as he went about his kindly way."[3]

Washington had the capacity of making friends. He had the gift of friendship. His white friends were as numerous and staunch as were those of his own race. His close friendship with such men as William H. Baldwin, Jr., H. H. Rogers, and others has already been mentioned. It would be unfair to him and to them to leave the impression that their relations were merely those of benefactor and beggar. They were friends as man to man. Washington and Roosevelt were friends in the same way.

It would be unfairer still to leave the impression that Washington's friends were rich men only and men in the North only. This was not the case. Perhaps his strongest friends were in the South, many of whom were not in the public eye. He himself records the fact that few men in his entire career were of such genuine help to him as Captain Howard, conductor on the W. & A. Railroad. He did not have an enemy in his own town of Tuskegee. All through the South were men whom Washington counted among his warmest personal friends.

Robert Russa Moton, Successor to Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee

Among his own people, he was no less fortunate in his friendships. He knew and loved Moton and Scott and Banks and Carver and Fortune and Scarborough, and a great host of others. All these were his most loyal and devoted friends. But none of these were really any closer to him than "Old man" Diggs or Rufus Herron or many a lowly man of Macon County. There was such sincerity, such a genuineness about this man that all true men were drawn to him.

Washington had a keen sense of humor. This is the reason he was always so even-tempered. He kept perfect control of himself at all times, and it was largely his sense of humor that enabled him to do so. He saw the ridiculous side of things. He could tell perfectly side-splitting stories, particularly about his own people. These stories were always clean and without a sting, and always had some point to them. He was thoroughly goodnatured, and every one in his presence felt refreshed and happy by reason of having come in contact with him.

He had a strong sense of justice. He believed the problems of the white race as well as those of the black race must be settled on a basis of justice, if they were ever to be settled right. The fact that he constantly spoke of justice and fair dealing toward the white race showed that there was no color boundary to this great attribute of his character. He was not quarrelsome; he did not hate; he did not lose his temper when he saw injustice being done to his people However, he never did condone such injustice; he was ever ready to denounce it. He labored unceasingly to bring about a mutual understanding between the two races and to inspire in his own race those principles which he saw with such clear vision. He said that the negro ought to put more time on improving his opportunities than crying over his disadvantages. He believed that the first and most important thing was for the negro to become well prepared for the ballot, and by and by he would get it. He argued that the negroes should work and save and study and conduct themselves in the proper way, and that in course of time recognition would come to them. Sooner or later, the right, the just thing, would prevail, and the important thing; for the negro was to know he was right.

Booker T. Washington and His Grandchildren

Washington had the courage to denounce those members of his own race, particularly some of the ministers, who did not live as they should. This was a bold thing to do and brought much criticism upon him, but, in the long run, it was a great service to his race and to the whole country.

In spite of the fact that Washington was a man of unusual health and strength, his hard work and the great responsibilities he carried began finally to tell on him. But he kept on. He had wonderful will power, and he would drive himself to his work from day to day, when other men would have taken to their beds. He could not admit to himself that he was losing strength. Right up to the last, he did an enormous amount of work.

In the early fall of 1915, he went North to deliver an address before the National Council of Congregational Churches, held in New Haven, Connecticut. Although he had not been entirely well for some time, no one had any idea that he was seriously ill. Shortly after the address in New Haven, he collapsed. His friends in New York City had him removed to St. Luke's Hospital there.

The physicians made a careful examination and frankly told him that he was critically ill and could live but a few hours. When he learned that he must die, he insisted on starting for home at once. The doctors told him that he could not go; that it would mean certain death; that he could not live through the journey. His reply was: "I was born in the South, I have lived and labored in the South, and I expect to die and be buried in the South."

Arrangements were hurriedly made for the journey to Tuskegee. No one believed that he would reach there alive. One of the doctors had said that it was "uncanny to see a man up and about who ought, by all the laws of nature, to be dead." When they reached the railway station in New York a rolling chair had been provided for Washington, but he refused to use it and walked to the train leaning on the arms of his friends.

As the train pulled out and headed for his beloved Southland, his spirits began to revive, and he seemed much stronger. He was determined to beat death in this race. As they journeyed on, he would ask the names of the stations. When he was told that they were passing Greensboro, a triumphant look came into his eyes. Charlotte, Greenville, Atlanta—he was winning! Finally they came to Chehaw, the little station five miles from Tuskegee, the junction point of the railroad from Tuskegee to the main line.

A few more minutes, and he saw the familiar and much loved scenes of his own Tuskegee.

He had won!

But his victory was a short one. For when the sun came up on the next morning, the fourteenth day of November, 1915, Booker Washington was dead.

  1. "Booker T. Washington: Builder of a Civilization," by Scott and Stowe, p. 307.
  2. "Booker T. Washington: Builder of a Civilization," by Scott and Stowe, p. 144.
  3. "Booker T. Washington: Builder of a Civilization," by Scott and Stowe, pp. 145–147.