[Original script may vary slightly from video.]
SCOTT OTT: I’m Scott Ott, and here’s a thought.
He was born a slave with no last name, to a woman known only as Jane.
Emancipated when he was nine, he moved to West Virginia and worked at salt furnaces and coal mines.
Between shifts, he taught himself the alphabet, and then how to read. He scrubbed his way through college on his hands and his knees. He started a school for poor, Black people in the deep South, and it grew as he worked it, and prayed it, all out.
He taught them with books and taught them with toil. They built their own college, making bricks from the soil.
Although he died at just 59 he became a friend of presidents, and generals and the wealthiest then alive. Yet, he never forgot the value of working the dirt, and by the virtue of your labor, earning the praise of your neighbor.
He left, in his wake, nearly 5,000 schools, hundreds of teachers’ homes and shops full of tools.
And so, if anyone knows how to navigate in a society plagued with racial hate, it’s this boy with no last name, who grew to be a man of accomplishment, honor and fame.
His step-father’s first name was Washington, and young Booker adopted it as his own.
The man’s last name was Ferguson, but Booker took instead the name of the father of this nation — the former slave boy binding himself forever to the lifelong slave owner.
Somehow through poverty and bigotry, Booker kept his eyes on the future, and drew strength from the past.
He built the schools from sharecroppers nickels and the fat checks of millionaires, from former Confederate warriors, and retired Union officers. He earned trust and love and respect from, and for, all of them.
I just read his book, Up from Slavery. I wish I had read it 40 years ago. I wish my school had taught it.
This is what Booker T. Washington wrote in 1901, after 35 years of living in the post-Civil War South:
If no other consideration had convinced me of the value of the Christian life, the Christlike work which the Church of all denominations in America has done during the last thirty-five years for the elevation of the black man would have made me a Christian.
Here’s what Booker T. Washington said about white Southern men:
With God’s help, I believe that I have completely rid myself of any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that he may have inflicted upon my race…I pity from the bottom of my heart any individual who is so unfortunate as to get into the habit of holding race prejudice.
And here’s what Booker T. Washington said about how to change hearts and minds:
I early learned that it is a hard matter to convert an individual by abusing him...
These United States of America were built by men like Booker T. Washington — at first by their muscles, under compulsion, then later by their minds and hearts, freely given.
His legacy of learning transformed the South. His legendary love, faith and hard work, transformed a nation.
“I have learned,” he said, “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 had to overcome while trying to succeed.”
The smoldering ember of our God-given potential should fan into flame at the mere mention of the name: Booker T. Washington.
I’m Scott Ott, and there’s a thought.