On our drive home from our recent Caribbean Cruise, my wife and I decided to skip I-95 and try a more inland route, closer to the Appalachian Mountains. As a result, our route took us through Rocky Mount, Virginia, and the nearby Booker T. Washington National Monument. We enjoyed a visit to this picturesque and informative memorial to one of the most noted African Americans in higher education.
Many people have heard of Booker T. Washington, but they may not know why he was significant. As the helpful guide at the Monument told us, a lot of people confuse Booker T. Washington with George Washington Carver. That’s not surprising, given that both were African Americans, both were born into slavery, both would grow up to become famous educators, both taught at the Tuskegee Institute, both worked to improve race relations in the years following the Civil War, both have National Monuments honoring their memories, and both had Washington in their names. But there were two very different people: Booker was from Virginia while George was from Missouri; Booker founded the Tuskegee Institute, and later invited George to join the faculty; Booker was the more controversial figure, called “The Great Accommodator” by W.E.B. DuBois because he favored cooperation over confrontation in the fight for civil rights; George was perhaps the more widely remembered figure among school children because of his numerous inventions and innovations centered around peanuts.
I’m hardly an expert on African American history, but I’m glad I spent some time learning more about the life of Booker T. Washington at the Monument’s Visitor Center. Not only was it an informative and interesting stop, the Monument is in a beautiful setting, with well-maintained grounds. There are farm animals and crops growing in the fields, a handful of recreated cabins and barns from the mid-1800s, and numerous interpretive signs helping illustrate the natural environment that Booker T. Washington experienced as a young boy growing up as a slave in Franklin County, Virginia.