By John M. Thompson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 23, 2008
A half-hour southeast of Roanoke, in rural Franklin County, Va., an antebellum farmstead has been preserved for a singular reason: to honor a boy who was a slave there.
The only property in Virginia commemorating a slave, the Booker T. Washington National Monument holds 239 acres of farms and pastures, reconstructed buildings, the master's family cemetery and woodlands. Until he was 9 years old (at the end of the Civil War), Washington lived and worked here; he carried books for his master's daughter but was not allowed to attend school himself. Yet he would become one of the most influential black leaders and educators of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
On a late winter afternoon, farm animals chatter hungrily in their split-rail pens, a chill gray sky threatening. Tom Sinclair, a robust ranger in his mid-30s, tells me that when the place opened as a memorial in 1957, locals burned crosses and shot at highway signs in protest. A few years earlier, the old farmhouse had been destroyed by a fire of suspicious origin. Though most visitors spend a quiet couple of hours here, others question the site's importance. Some blacks disapprove of a monument to a man often seen as overly accommodating to white culture; some local whites dislike spending tax dollars memorializing a slave.
James Burroughs owned the small, peaceful property tucked in the lee of the Blue Ridge and farmed it with the help of 10 slaves, including young Washington, who was valued in an 1861 inventory at $400. Unlike on large plantations, there was no overseer: Owners and slaves worked side by side.
I take a look in the chilly, dirt-floor slave cabin and try to imagine what it was like to live here as a child, when the highlight of the week, according to a film shown in the visitors center, was a bit of molasses on Sunday morning. In a one-room cabin like this, shared with his mother and three sisters, young Booker slept on a pile of rags on the floor. He wore prickly shirts made of flax, and his first pair of shoes was wooden. Days were spent cleaning the yards, carrying water to the field workers and hauling corn to the mill.
Out past the smokehouse, privy and blacksmith shed stands a tobacco barn where tobacco leaves hang from rafters to cure, filling the air with the scent of times past. Beyond the barn lies a tract of woods where slaves could sometimes retreat to fish or forage, or simply get together to relax. "I think that I owe a great deal of my present strength and ability to work to my love of outdoor life," Washington would later write.
A 1 1/2 -mile trail winds along a trilling creek, then up past a few graves marked by fieldstones. Back out of the woods, I meander by the fields and horse barn. Cows and sheep are grazing; a large red hog comes snorting over to investigate. Ducks and other fowl complain -- it's close to feeding time.
After the Civil War, Washington went with his family to Malden, W.Va., walking most of the way. There he began to get an education but had to spend most of his time working in salt and coal mines. At 16 he made his way 500 miles east to Hampton, Va., to a school for blacks. The principal later recommended that he go to Tuskegee, Ala., to help establish a new black school.
His students literally laid the bricks of what would grow into the prestigious Tuskegee Institute, to which Washington devoted the rest of his life. Along the way he became a noted speaker, author and informal adviser to three presidents. Though black intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois (who was born in Massachusetts, after the war) would eventually criticize him for not pushing harder against the white establishment, Washington maintained a quiet dignity and eloquence. He defended his idea of teaching people to use their hands: "A first-class house that a Negro has built is ten times more potent than pages of discussion." And in the final years of his life, he did begin speaking out boldly against racism.
I end up back at the small visitors center, which was built in the 1950s as a black elementary school. "I had the feeling that to get into a school house," Washington wrote, "would be about the same as getting into paradise." Most of Virginia's heroes came from privileged backgrounds. Booker T. Washington defied the odds, living out his belief that success is measured less by what one accomplishes than by the obstacles one overcomes.