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Hampton University counters Columbus celebration with ‘Booker T. Washington Day’

Hampton staff and faculty protest the meaning of 'Columbus Day' and celebrate a historic Hampton student.

(Arriana McLymore)

(Arriana McLymore)

Arriana McLymore | Editor-in-chief

On October 11, students and faculty at Hampton University celebrated the second annual Booker T. Washington Day. Various people gathered at the Booker T. Washington monument located on Hampton University’s campus to commemorate the life and values of the one of the institution’s most notable alumni.

Booker T. Washington graduated from Hampton University, then known as Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, in 1875. Washington later served as an instructor at Hampton. In 1881, Washington founded Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, now known as Tuskegee University.

Booker T. Washington Day was established to counter Christopher Columbus Day. Throughout the United States, groups are criticizing the acknowledgement of Columbus Day as a national holiday. To some, Christopher Columbus Day is used to celebrate Italian-American heritage and Columbus’ landing in the New World. Others see the day as disrespectful, citing the Native American genocides that are associated with Columbus’ arrival to new land. Many groups have turned to celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Hampton University students and staff decided to observe Booker T. Washington Day in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

The event at the Booker T. Washington monument opened with a musical selection played by Mark Clarke, a sophomore, music education major from Chesapeake, Virginia. Clarke played “Deep River”, a popular Negro spiritual during the early 1900’s. “This day means a lot,” said Clarke after his performance. “It’s an inspiration. It’s a drive to keep going and to keep persevering.”

Leah Smith, a senior history major from Hampton, Virginia, hosted the event. Smith also serves as the vice president for Hampton University’s Phi Alpha Theta chapter. “This day means a new beginning in myself and others, to make an impact on society the leaves behind the legacy that Booker T. Washington did,” said Smith.

Professors from Hampton University’s history department spoke on Booker T. Washington’s legacy in education and the advancement of African Americans. Dr. Zachary McKiernan addressed the purposes of the Booker T. Washington Day.

The purpose of Booker T. Washington Day is two-fold. The first purpose of Booker T. Washington Day is to honor the educator’s life and legacy. “We decided in my History 106 class last year to counter the narrative of Christopher Columbus. We had learned what Columbus did in the making of the Atlantic world,” said McKiernan. “We decided instead of commemorating Christopher Columbus, to pick someone that was more important to us and a person of higher moral stock.”

The second purpose of Booker T. Washington Day is to begin a tradition at Hampton University that has the potential to spread nation-wide. “We wanted to show that we are active participants in history. [Students] can change the narrative of Columbus,” continued McKiernan. “You can imagine a national holiday for Booker T. Washington, so why not start that tradition here at Hampton University?”

Students were given the opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions during the event. Dr. Eric Claville closed the gathering by speaking about Booker T. Washington’s ideologies. Washington believed that in order for Black people to succeed and prosper, they needed adequate education, economic stability, and image awareness.

A greater sense of knowledge was felt after the event was over. “I used to be that person who thought Christopher Columbus Day was just about him discovering America, but after today I learned a lot more,” said Clarke. “The day should really be about Booker T. Washington because he had more prosperity, he had more education, he had more stuff to think about for everyone and not just himself.”

Hampton University history professors and members of Phi Alpha Theta are preparing to make next year’s Booker T. Washington Day larger than the last. “It’s in the students’ hands to make this day as big as they want,” said McKiernan about the preparations. McKiernan along with other history professors are hoping to reach new heights with Booker T. Washington Day one student at a time.

 

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