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Sunday, February 26, 2023

Why Booker T. Washington Remains a Model for the Ages

More than a century after his death, Booker T. Washington’s eloquence still speaks to men and women of conscience.

Image Credit: Public Domain

A truly remarkable black American, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) believed that the way to build up and improve a country is for each person to build up and improve himself. That may sound revolutionary in an age of entitlement, victimology and cancel culture, but it’s still as true as truth gets. He was an enemy of what tears people and countries down: envy, hatred, idleness, arrogance, and disrespect for life and property.

The message of Washington, who was born a slave, was what he called “self-help” through education, employment, and starting a business. He also stressed personal integrity, distilled in this one astute and memorable sentence: “Character, not circumstances, make the man.” He was a model for men and women everywhere, regardless of race or creed.

Washington would recoil in horror at the slightest hint that the way to make things better is to burn something up or tear somebody down.

He founded the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama to educate blacks to develop their talents for America’s industrial society. Business enterprise should be the ticket to progress, he felt. “More and more thoughtful students of the race problem,” he said, “are beginning to see that business and industry constitute what we may call the strategic points in its solution.”

An interested reader will benefit enormously by reading Washington’s famous autobiography, Up From Slavery or reading this article about him by Robert A. Peterson.

Consider this well-known and cogent observation of Washington’s: “The world cares very little what you or I know, but it does care a great deal about what you or I do.” He had a bias for action, but it was not for politics. He wrote,

The temptations to enter political life were so alluring that I came very near yielding to them at one time, but I was kept from doing so by the feeling that I would be helping in a more substantial way by assisting in the laying of the foundation of the race through a generous education of the hand, head, and heart. I saw colored men who were members of the state legislature, and county officers, who, in some cases, could not read or write, and whose morals were as weak as their education.

Washington’s bias for action wasn’t simply to talk a lot about it, but to do it, and do it productively. He gave plenty of speeches in his life but he was most proud of his work to educate and inspire young black men and women. He worked closely with them, founded and managed a college for them, and helped untold thousands escape poverty by focusing on self-improvement and entrepreneurship.

More than a century after his death, Washington’s eloquence still speaks to men and women of conscience. Consider this sample of his wisdom and then think about what you can do to encourage similar attitudes in yourself and others:


I think I have learned that the best way to lift one’s self up is to help someone else.


There is no power on earth that can neutralize the influence of a high, pure, simple and useful life.


Of all forms of slavery there is none that is so harmful and degrading as that form of slavery which tempts one human being to hate another by reason of his race or color. One man cannot hold another man down in the ditch without remaining down in the ditch with him.


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…. But out of the hard and unusual struggle through which he is compelled to pass, he gets a strength, a confidence, that one misses whose pathway is comparatively smooth by reason of birth and race.


I have never had much patience with…[those] always ready to explain why one cannot succeed. I have always had high regard for the man who could tell me how to succeed.


I learned the lesson that great men cultivate love, and that only little men cherish a spirit of hatred. I learned that assistance given to the weak makes the one who gives it strong; and that oppression of the unfortunate makes one weak.


I would permit no man, no matter what his color might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.


Few things can help an individual more than to place responsibility on him, and to let him know that you trust him.


No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.


No man who continues to add something to the material, intellectual, and moral well-being of the place in which he lives is long left without proper reward.


My whole life has largely been one of surprises. I believe that any man’s life will be filled with constant, unexpected encouragements of this kind if he makes up his mind to do his level best each day of his life—that is, tries to make each day reach as nearly as possible the high-water mark of pure, unselfish, useful living.


There is another class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs—partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs.


(An earlier version of this essay appeared at

For Additional Information, See:

Marian Anderson, George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington: Inspiring Words by Lawrence W. Reed

The Silver Trumpet of Freedom: Black Emancipators and Entrepreneurs (free eBook) by Lawrence W. Reed

16 Booker T. Washington Quotes on Liberty and Personal Responsibility by Gary Galles

Individualism Versus Racism by Anne Wortham (1965)

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is