My extremely modest mother seldom spoke of our family's
lineage. Sometimes she innocently referred to our relationship to Booker
T. Washington as an accident of birth. In her
honest attempt to keep us humble, however, I was inadvertently deprived of very
important information about who I was.
My mother grew up in Alabama, across
the street from Tuskegee Institute, today
known as Tuskegee University. This was the
school founded by her grandfather, Booker
T. Washington, former slave turned famous
educator and advisor to presidents McKinley, Roosevelt and Taft— the greatest black
leader of his time, and best-selling author of
Up From Slavery. Yet, I knew little of him
growing up in Oakland, California.
By the time I was 11, my dad moved
away, leaving a great void in my life, and
my mother worked two full-time jobs to
make ends meet as a single parent. By the
time I was 16, I was a single teenage
mother. This came with the high cost of
shame that would follow me throughout my
adolescent and young adult years, further
diminishing my declining self-worth.
At 17, I lived on my own in a high-crime,
drug-infested housing project on the other
side of town from my high school. To get to
school each morning I had to catch two
buses, drop my son off at day care and
rush to class. With the overwhelming obstacles I faced, I managed to complete high
school six months ahead of my class, having the grades and more than enough
credits to do so. Although I did not realize
then where my drive and determination
came from, I realize now that the same
blood that ran through my great-grandfather’s veins also ran through mine.
Embracing Greatness Through an Extraordinary Legacy
My interest and enthusiasm in my great-grandfather was ignited in 1996 when I
attended our first family reunion on the
grounds of Tuskegee University. It was there
that my whole perspective of what it meant
to be in the direct lineage of Booker T.
Washington changed, and my life began
to transform dramatically. I marveled at the
buildings that still stand, and are in use
today, that he and former slaves built by
hand, with bricks that they made.
Students, faculty, reporters and writers welcomed us, and were awe-struck that direct
descendants were still alive. And I was awe-struck that they cared so much. I couldn’t
believe they were interested in me, the little
girl whose self-worth was almost non-existent
for most of my life. They were inspired simply
by our presence. They asked for autographs,
photos, interviews, and just to have a
chance to talk and get to know us.
Today, I help others discover their greatness, and create extraordinary legacies of
their own that will live on through the future
generations long after they are gone. And
I carry on my great-grandfather’s legacy
of uplifting others and helping them to
thrive—teaching them to embrace who
they are, and empowering them to lift the
veil of obstacles and rise above any circumstance.
Columnist Sarah O’Neal Rush, MA, has a
master’s degree in psychology. She’s
worked with at-risk youth and their families
providing counseling, crises intervention,
outreach and family reunification services.
She is the founder of Extraordinary Legacy,
Booker T. Washington Empowerment Network,
Inc., and co-author of Timeless Treasures—
Reflections of God’s Word in the Wisdom
of Booker T. Washington. For more information, visit www.extraordinarylegacy.net or
call (510) 278-1634.