Booker T. Washington and the Importance of Character

04/01/2012  |  Ronald Court
Character Education

(Editor’s note: This is part one of a two part series on the Importance of Character.)

Ben Franklin and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. both got it right.

“You may fill your heads with knowledge or skillfully train your hands, but unless it is based upon high, upright character, upon a true heart, it will amount to nothing.”
— Booker T. Washington

In the 1700s Boston-born Franklin, champion of independence, said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

In the 1900s, Atlanta-born King, champion of freedom said, “We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.”

And smack dab in the middle of these two giants, stands a third great American of history, an 1800s Virginia-born champion of both independence and freedom: Booker T. Washington.

Yet today, the man Andrew Carnegie referred to as history’s other Washington, is barely remembered, if at all, merely as the founder of what we know today as Tuskegee University.

However, there is much more.

A look into his life and educational philosophy just might provide answers to some of today’s most vexing questions: “Why do over a million kids each year — 7,000 each school day — drop out of school? How do we motivate students to behave better? Where are the role models we need today to help young people envision a better future for themselves?”

A Bridge

Booker T. Washington’s first nine — some say most formative — years were spent as a slave. Yet he rose up from slavery to achieve such great heights. Perhaps Booker T.’s story can serve as a starting point to convey the truth to millions of youths who are continually exposed to negative messages from peers, pop-culture or neighbors: that — regardless of obstacles — character matters.

He was 29 when he was selected as 1st Principal of a new Negro school in Tuskegee, Alabama. He arrived only to discover no land, buildings, teachers or students. Yet, from that unpromising beginning, he built Tuskegee into the largest educational institution in the South.

Over half of Tuskegee’s 5,000 acre campus was a working farm. Students learned agriculture, soil conservation, animal husbandry, dairying, crop management and the like in morning classes, then applied their knowledge in the afternoon to operating the farm. He introduced training in 45 trades, from carpentry and masonry to electrical and mechanical engineering, shoemaking, printing, publishing, nursing and yes, domestic skills.

He built a 150-teacher faculty, hiring the best he could find: people like George Washington Carver to head the Agricultural Department and Robert Taylor, the first black architect to graduate from MIT.

Under his leadership, Tuskegee’s enrollment grew to 2,000 plus and its endowment to $45 million (adjusted for inflation).

He wrote 14 books, countless news and magazine articles and delivered thousands of speeches coast to coast and in Europe.

He advised three United States presidents (McKinley, Roosevelt and Taft), was an internationally respected statesman, helped maintain Liberia’s freedom from France, and 10 years before President Taft suggested a U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he founded the National Negro Business League (NNBL) and grew it to 650 chapters in 34 states.

He persuaded Julius Rosenwald, builder of Sears, Roebuck, to fund Tuskegee-designed and staffed elementary schools. The Rosenwald schools eventually numbered almost 5,000 in 15 states.

Through it all, Washington survived an assassination attempt, endured multiple tragedies that would have broken the will of lesser men and withstood the vilest of insults hurled against anyone.

Yet, with every reason to be bitter, he chose to be better.

He sought to reconcile differences through teaching and preaching forgiveness, and so, turned adversity into advantage.

His own words give us the key take-away from this look into Booker T.’s life:

“You may fill your heads with knowledge or skillfully train your hands, but unless it is based upon high, upright character, upon a true heart, it will amount to nothing.”

A Culture of Character

Could it be that Booker T.’s legacy of inspiring a culture of character is the key to improving school performance, student behaviors and reducing dropout rates today?

Though many schools perform well for many students, the numbers clearly tell us something is missing.

There has to be a way to motivate more young Americans to live right in positive ways before the twin negatives of peer-pressures and pop-culture influence them to conform to wrongful ways.

Perhaps history has answers, but learning from history isn’t about the who, what, when, where and why of people or places. It’s about getting to the “how” to live better by making better choices.

There once was a time when three key community institutions of school, faith, and family, worked in concert, albeit independently, to develop men and women of good character.

However, the mutually supporting apparatus has broken down. More youths struggle in broken families. Pop-culture seems to repudiate, rather than reinforce, character virtues and values.

Thus, more teachers today find themselves struggling to repair young lives as well as prepare them for an uncertain world.

Most — if not all — high schools and student activity, vocational and honor clubs incorporate ‘standards of good character’ in their mission statements. However, in meetings with community leaders, school administrators and counselors throughout the country last year, I was informed time and again that introducing character education in high school can be ‘almost too late.’

Character is not so much a class to be taught as it is a way of life to be chosen. Each student defines and refines their own character daily by the decisions he or she makes.

In the final analysis, students who observe, absorb, and embrace positive values become students of good character. However, those who witness mostly dysfunctional behavior, whether at home, among peers, or on TV, have difficulty in grasping the value in the hard work and self-discipline it takes to live a constructive, productive life.

Booker T. Clubs reinforce good character habits by introducing middle schoolers to positive role models from the past and present through famous quotations and words of wisdom – from Albert Einstein to Yogi Berra, including, of course, our favorite, Booker T. Washington.

At the same time, the Club motto, “I CHOOSE,” speaks to the universal desire of young people for more freedom in the decisions they make. However, that’s only half of the character equation.

Seven motivating principles, expressed as, ‘The Booker T. Way,’ encourage and equip students to take responsibility for their own Character, Education, and Opportunity. In effect, to become their own ‘CEO’.

  • Initiative
  • Commitment
  • Hard work
  • Ownership
  • Organization
  • Service
  • Endurance

“I Choose to use my Initiative to Commit to Hard work, to Own my actions, to Organize my time, to Serve others, and to Endure tough times with energy, enterprise and enthusiasm.”

Whether implemented as an after-school program or incorporated into a school’s curriculum, Booker T. Clubs, in conjunction with student-run high school chapters of BTW Society, provide continuity over the eight critical adolescent years from 5th grade through high school and beyond.

(Part two of this series, “The Importance of Building Character,” will appear in our August issue.)

Ronald Court is the Founder and President of the Booker T. Washington Society, and author of “Booker T. Washington – American Hero.” To learn more about the Society’s Booker T. Clubs visit
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