Booker T. Washington on the Value of Hard Work and Persistence

In the tenth chapter of Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington recalls a story about how he thought it would be a good idea to build a kiln to make bricks at Tuskegee, the college he was president of.

Here’s what he has to say:

Booker T. Washington

From the very beginning, at Tuskegee, I was determined to have the students do not only the agricultural and domestic work, but to have them erect their own buildings. My plan was to have them, while performing this service, taught the latest and best methods of labour, so that the school would not only get the benefit of their efforts, but the students themselves would be taught to see not only utility in labour, but beauty and dignity, would be taught, in fact, how to lift labour up from mere drudgery and toil, and would learn to love work for its own sake.

But here’s the thing: Booker T. fails at building the kiln. He fails miserably, and he doesn’t just fail the first time. He says of the experience that:

I had always supposed that brickmaking was very simple, but I soon found out by bitter experience that it required special skill and knowledge, particularly in the burning of the bricks. After a good deal of effort we moulded about twenty-five thousand bricks, and put them into a kiln to be burned. This kiln turned out to be a failure because it was not properly constructed or properly burned. We began at once, however, on a second kiln. This, for some reason, also proved a failure.

So he tried a second one-and a third. The third one failed as well. Now, as you can imagine, people began getting pretty discouraged. Everyone said, “Booker you can’t do it, just give up!” But he didn’t. With no money and no one sure as heck funding the project, he had to get creative.

He ended up having to sell his watch. He went down to the market and pawned it off for fifteen bucks just so he could build this kiln which he had no experience with whatsoever other than those few tries.

Washington succeeded the fourth time. The making of the bricks eventually caused camaraderie in the community. It not only taught the students the importance of hard work but, also, the value of resilience in the face of adversity.

Tuskegee Institute, 1916. A year after Washington died.


This is one small tale from the immensely inspiring life of Booker T. Washington. It provides the courage never to give up on what you believe. Whenever you’re afraid of something not working or wonder “can I do it?” remember this story, and realize that no matter what struggle you’re facing,  there’s nothing greater than the value of hard work and persistence.