I had driven an hour out of my way through winding country roads not passing any other motorists and finally reached the National Park around 7am. The sign announced the park would open at 8 and the gate wore a thick chain with matching padlock. It took a little bit of effort to crawl under the gate but I did so and started the mile walk up the road to the historic site.
Booker T. Washington was born a slave in 1856. He knew nothing of his father other than that he was a white man, a slave master from somewhere else. The plantation he worked was not the genteel manor like Monticello, but rather a simple and lonely tobacco farm some miles outside of Roanoke. Roanoke is closer to West Virginia than D.C. but not near anything.
On these sorts of plantations the owner and his family labor alongside the slaves. Booker tells of the day he heard the Emancipation Proclamation read from the porch of the “big house”; the one the master lived in. Booker did not stay but left to work in West Virginia that same year.
It had snowed earlier in the week and it crunched under my feet as I guided myself around the farm. It was not crisp, it was cold. The recreated cabin built on the foundation of Booker’s actual birthplace was small. Not small as in quaint but small in that the doors were shorter than I am.
I looked around at my surroundings. I could see no one or nothing other than the small collection of slave cabins, a ramshackle barn, the foundation of the “big house”, and the visitor center at the op of the hill. It was miserable.
Booker T. Washington was no descendent of our first president. He impulsively gave himself that last name once he finally attended school and realized everyone else had two names. I have read his works, thought about his philosophy and even lightly participated in the still ongoing debate between his and Du Bois’s ideas. I have usually sided with Du Bois. I have read and listened as he was criticized for being on the payroll of large white organizations while preaching concessions. I have disagreed with his “let’s just do the best we can with how things are,” leaning. I have always been in the Du Bois camp.
Standing in front of the building he lived in I was ashamed that I even had an opinion. I was tired having driven from West Virginia in bad weather, Washington had walked it.
I was born the child of parents who both had masters’ degrees, I coasted through school, and find some pride in that I worked my own way through college. That pride is gone.
Sometimes you have an intellectual knowledge of something. You read. Listen, and learn about history and ideas. You think critically and strain to come up with new ideas, better ideas, and progress. You can gain all this knowledge and learning and still not know anything. Standing there alone in the snow I felt something. I looked at a place that was worse than humble even in its own time period, and yet I have studied his writings 200 years later. What have I, or anyone I know, done worth studying 200 years from now? What would be expected from me if raised in this place? What would we expect from anyone? What were others able to do who came up similarly?
Mr. Washington turned schools into Universities. Mr. Washington stood up and spoke when others were content to listen. He thought and taught, and better yet, he did.
It doesn’t matter what I think of his ideas because 200 years later my kids, like him, have a white father and a black mother. But in some way thanks to him, my children’s lives and the circumstances of their creation are absolutely nothing like his.
I drove away without the radio on. I was still feeling things. I came to that place because of proximity to where I was and a sense of historical responsibility. I went there not as a real fan of the man. I left there touched. I, a person largely in control of my own emotions, was moved unexpectedly. I went, looked around, and left with a little perspective. That is what is missing in the debates of today, perspective. Not just the kind of perspective where one looks at things from all angles, but the kind that comes from feeling something. The kind that comes from the chest and not from text.
Happy Black History Month.