I’m not just a Wellesley history junkie. I also love pretty much anything having to do with American history. So it’s especially fascinating to me when both subjects come together, as is the case in this post. It concerns Booker T. Washington, one of the foremost leaders of the African-American community during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Well, to be specific, this post actually focuses on two of his children who attended school in Wellesley. But it still sheds light on Washington, not just as a parent, but also as a proponent of education. He was, after all, one of the founders of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. So it shouldn’t be surprising that he took every effort to make sure that his children received the best possible education.
The first of his children to attend school in Wellesley was his daughter, Portia, who enrolled at Wellesley College in the fall of 1901. She had been attending the Tuskegee Institute, but felt unchallenged by its curriculum. So her father arranged for her to take three classes at Wellesley: music theory, piano, and German. Unfortunately, Portia struggled in these courses and also suffered from severe loneliness. As a special student, she wasn’t allowed to live on campus and roomed instead in a house on Howe Street and ate her meals with several college professors, including Katharine Lee Bates, Katharine Coman, and Emily Greene Balch. And although race was not the reason that Portia lived off campus — at the time, there were a few black students who lived in the dormitories — it is believed that she may have been subject to racism by some of the many southern white students at the school. Portia, therefore, found it difficult to make friends with her classmates. There is no doubt that this social discomfort was detrimental to her academic performance and resulted in the failure of one of her music classes, a subject at which she normally excelled.
The ordeal was only made worse for Portia when newspapers across the country reported that the college did not allow her to return the following year because of her failing grades. In addition, the media spread rumors that the faculty pressed for Portia’s dismissal in order to end the “race war” between the students. These reports, however, were untrue. In actuality, she had planned to spend only one year at Wellesley. Portia enrolled the following fall at Bradford Academy in Haverhill, where she would graduate three years later and go on to become a successful concert pianist and music teacher.
The second part of this post involves Portia’s brother, Booker Jr., who arrived in Wellesley in early 1902. Unlike his sister, Booker Jr. was a bit of a troublemaker and not at all interested in academics. So perhaps Washington sent his son to Wellesley not just to help alleviate Portia’s homesickness, but also to provide a change of scenery for Booker Jr. After briefly attending Rock Ridge Hall, a private school located on the current site of Rockridge Road in the Cliff Estates, Booker Jr. transferred to the Wellesley School for Boys at 24 Linden Street (the former parsonage of the Village Congregational Church). It was a small school run by Rev. Edward A. Benner and could provide the attention needed to help Booker Jr. succeed. Unfortunately, Benner was unsuccessful at first. Booker Jr. continued to neglect his studies, and was also caught smoking in his room, sneaking out after dark, and even ditching class to visit his sister. It was only after some stern parenting from his father that Booker Jr. improved both his behavior and his grades. He stayed at the school for two more years and then returned to Tuskegee to finish his education.
On a separate note, it was during the time that Booker Jr. was in Wellesley that his father gave a lecture in town. Speaking at the Maugus Club on Abbott Road in November 1903, Washington described the struggles that the black population faced nearly forty years after the end of slavery. One might wonder why he would give such a lecture to an almost exclusively white audience. But these speeches were an important component of the early Civil Rights movement: the speakers served as examples of the educational progress made by the African-American community. Washington, in particular, was a powerful orator, able to inspire and rally citizens behind his cause. The following excerpt from his Wellesley lecture, describing what African-Americans have already accomplished, shows this ability: “…they came to this country with chain on wrist and ankle — were freed with hoe and spade in hand: — they came pagans — were freed Christians with Bible and spelling book at command: — they came without a language — were freed speaking the proud Anglo-Saxon tongue.” Few speeches in the history of this town were as significant or eloquent.
Let me conclude by adding that even though this post is about Booker T. Washington and his family, I think it also says a lot about the town of Wellesley. Just as Washington believed that education was the gateway to success, the town has invested much of its resources into developing and maintaining a strong public school system. In addition, there has been a countless number of private schools in Wellesley over the last century and a half. It is no wonder that Booker T. Washington sent his children to school in a town that places such a heavy emphasis on education.
- Wellesley Historical Commission files – #24 Linden Street
- Tuskegee University Archives Online Repository
- New York Times: 2 November 1902; 15 November 1902
- Our Town: December 1903
- Glimpses of Wellesley by E.H. Benner (1904)
- The Booker T. Washington Papers, Volume 6: 1901-2 by Louis R. Harlan (1977)
- The Afro American: 11 March 1978
- Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915 by Louis R. Harlan (1983)
- Guest of Honor by Deborah Davis (2013)