The Rediscovery of Booker T. Washington: Lessons for Black History Month

After Steve Mariotti received his M.B.A. degree from the University of Michigan School of Business in 1977, he joined the Ford Motor Company. But he yearned to be an entrepreneur, so he left Ford, moved to New York City and started an import-export business.

His life changed when he was mugged. He decided to confront the worst of inner city life directly and became a teacher. The effort verged on disaster as his students channeled their energies into challenging authority. But their attitudes changed when he taught them how to start their own businesses. Suddenly they had an incentive to learn. Their skills and demeanor improved, and their grades went up.

After multitudes of success stories, Mariotti left the classroom in 1987 to begin the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, Inc., whose mission is to bring basic business and entrepreneurial skills to disadvantaged young people, inner city blacks especially. It now has programs in cities across the country.

Minority entrepreneurship is gaining momentum. The National Urban League, building on earlier foundations, is expanding its emphasis on encouraging business ownership and wealth creation by blacks. Mariotti, in his book, The Young Entrepreneur’s Guide to Starting and Running a Business, cites film-maker and entrepreneur Spike Lee’s comment that African Americans have long been taught to work for somebody else instead of building their own businesses and that it’s time for a change.

Those attitudes are a revival of the message of one of American history’s most remarkable figures, Booker T. Washington. He was the guiding genius behind Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he trained thousands of young black people into the ways of success.

Mariotti trains his 800 entrepreneurship teachers to preach Washington’s simple formula: Character is paramount. Your most important product is yourself. Whatever the task, small or great, do it to the best of your ability. Competency counts. Save your money and buy property. Become entrepreneurial. Make yourself indispensable.

Washington applied the formula to himself in overcoming one obstacle after another. He was seven years old when the Emancipation Proclamation freed him and his family. After the Civil War his stepfather worked in a salt furnace in West Virginia, where Booker experienced hard toil while teaching himself to read and learning everything he could.

He heard about a school named Hampton Institute in Virginia, 500 miles away, and vowed to attend. At 16 he left home by stagecoach, was forced to spend a night in the cold when turned away by an innkeeper, hitched rides on wagons, walked endless miles but then ran out of money when he was still 82 miles from Hampton. He unloaded pig iron from a ship, sleeping each night under a raised sidewalk. He finally arrived at the school grubby, bedraggled, unwashed.

He would not be turned away and asked only for a chance. The starched New England schoolmistress gave him one. She said, "The adjoining recitation room needs sweeping. Take the broom and sweep it." Washington attacked the task as if his entire life course depended on it. He swept the room three times, then dusted it four times. The teacher ran her handkerchief over every object in the room, even the floor, and could not discern even a speck of dirt. He passed his entrance exam.

Washington worked his way through Hampton as a janitor, studied hard, and became a polished public speaker. At age 25, he was offered the assignment of organizing the Tuskegee Institute. The complex was built largely through the labors of students, who also operated its farm and other facilities. No task, he maintained, was too menial to be done right.

Graduates fanned out into positions of influence, many of them entrepreneurial. In 1900, Washington formed the National Negro Business League, which drew 300 attendees at its first annual meeting. Black entrepreneurship was alive and doing well early this century, but after Washington’s death in 1915, his "everybody can do it" message lost momentum. The 1930s produced a new preference for the welfare state, epitomized in the slogan, "Lincoln freed us, but Roosevelt fed us." As Steve Mariotti has learned, black entrepreneurship today is undergoing a revival, but in our inner cities, it needs substantial encouragement.

Entrepreneurship is a great motivator. It needs to be nurtured and respected, even taught. There is a huge pool of talent waiting to be tapped. Booker T. Washington’s example, and his emphasis on character, are helping people like Steve Mariotti point the way for black success a hundred years later.