Virginia is in the process of reclaiming the legacy of one of its most famous sons.
The fact that Virginia has heretofore declined to embrace Booker T. Washington as one of its own says much about the state’s past, both distant and recent. The distant past should not surprise anyone; the more recent past might.
We’ll get to both of those pasts soon enough but first here’s what’s happening now: The state Senate is aiming to commission a bust of Washington that will be placed in the state Capitol. Sometime this summer, the state is expected to issue a request for proposals from potential sculptors. It’s expected to cost about $75,000, paid for through private funds. That fundraising has now started, which is a fancy way of saying you can go online to make a contribution or you can mail an old-fashioned check to the Virginia Capitol Foundation, P.O. Box 396, Richmond, VA 23218 with the subject line “Booker T. Washington.”
Here’s an idea: Virginia has 623 high schools, both public and private. If history teachers at each one taught a one-period class on Booker T. Washington and assigned, as a class project, some fundraiser, each school would need to raise just $120.38 to meet the total.
The legislator who is behind the Washington bust might surprise some: He’s a white Republican. It doesn’t surprise me, because I know that state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, is a student of history and one whose district has included Washington’s homeplace, the Booker T. Washington National Monument in Franklin County. Redistricting will change that, but not Suetterlein’s interest in the great American educator who was born into slavery on a tobacco farm near Hale’s Ford one spring day in 1856, five years before the outbreak of the Civil War.
In popular imagination, Washington is linked to Tuskegee University, the Alabama school (then known as Tuskegee Institute) that he led for most of his adult life. It was there that Washington became a national figure, advocating passionately (and effectively) for education for newly freed slaves and their successive generations at a time when that was not always popular in the South. Before the Civil War, it was illegal to teach slaves to read or write; after Reconstruction, Washington oversaw the growth of an actual university for Black Americans. From there, he went on to become a national figure, eventually advising two presidents – Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. All this in an era when Black Americans in the South were targets of increasingly repressive Jim Crow laws, and often worse. It is in Alabama, at Tuskegee, where Washington has his final resting place.
It is in Virginia, though, where Washington was born, where he was emancipated, where he – well, let’s let Suetterlein speak for his own measure: “Booker T. Washington is widely recognized as a great American icon but Virginia has not done as much to recognize him. He was born and freed in Franklin County, educated in Hampton, began his professional career in Virginia, and Richmond features prominently in his work ‘Up From Slavery.’ Recognition in the Capitol would be very helpful in making more people realize that great American Booker T. Washington is a great Virginian.”
For those who don’t know Washington’s story, it goes like this: When he was 9 years old, a Union officer arrived at the Burroughs farm and, as Washington wrote in his autobiography, “made a little speech and then read a rather long paper – the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. After the reading we were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.” The “go when and where we pleased” meant Washington’s mother soon took her children to West Virginia to rejoin her husband. There, Booker T. Washington attended his first school and worked in the mines. When he was 16, he walked to Hampton to enroll in what is today Hampton University. When one of the founders of Tuskegee wrote to the Hampton Institute asking for advice on who should be hired to lead the school, Hampton recommended Washington. He was 25 and was considered so promising that he had been hired to teach at his alma mater.
The rest, as they say, is history – just not a history Virginia has chosen to recognize. West Virginia does. That state has a half-statue – from the chest up – of Washington at its state Capitol in Charleston. Washington lived longer in Virginia than he did in West Virginia – he was born here, he passed through there – but West Virginia recognized Washington in 1985. Virginia, as recently as 2020, did not.
That was the year that Suetterlein first introduced a resolution to erect a statue to Washington at the state Capitol. The measure passed the Senate unanimously; it was killed by a House committee. I remember watching that meeting: Democrats, who controlled the panel, were skeptical about approving new statues on a one-by-one basis. That’s understandable, but they never commissioned some larger study, either. I came away with the distinct sense that they didn’t like Suetterlein’s proposal simply because he had the wrong letter after his name.
Undeterred, Suetterlein came back in 2021 with a resolution that called for a likeness of Washington to be installed in the Old Senate Chamber – this being a room controlled by the state Senate so the concurrence of the inhospitable House was not required.
Government sometimes moves slowly: The commission that resolution set up had its first meeting last October in Richmond. In May, it had its second meeting – this time in Franklin County, so that the five-member panel (four senators were present) could tour the Washington birthplace. Just recently the fundraising link went live. The commission will meet for the third time this fall at Hampton, presumably to review the proposals that have been presented.
The goal is to have a bust made out of bronze. The resolution allows for a statue, but the space available does not. Much of the discussion at May’s commission meeting dealt with where, exactly, the bust should go once it’s produced and at what age Washington should be depicted (the former is still unclear but the latter will be Washington in the early 1900s when he was most prominent). “I just want maximum exposure for it,” Suetterlein told the commission. “One of the reasons I want it so much is people don’t know he was a Virginian. I want people to look at it and recognize it.”
After the meeting, the senators posed for photos at the Washington birthplace – beside a bust of the man. Within a year, maybe Richmond will have something Franklin County already has.