By Anna Wenger
Sarah ONeil Rush, M.D., the great granddaughter of Booker T. Washington, spoke last Friday afternoon at the Mission Inn during his 150th Birthday Celebration. Sarah was introduced by Kenneth Morris, great-great grandson of Booker T. Washington and great great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass. Also in attendance were Gloria Washington Jackson-Baskin, his granddaughter and Bonnie Jackson his great-granddaughter. Sarah is the 16th of 16 great-grandchildren of Booker T. Washington.
A bust of Booker T. Washington sits outside the Mission Inn, commemorating his visits to the Inn, the last one in 1914. According to Cliff Day, CFO of the Mission Inn, “Booker T. Washington is a part of what makes the Mission Inn Historical and so many guest stop at his bust, read, and contemplate what he stood for.” He continued, “The Mission Inn is proud to honor Dr. Booker T. Washington and his legacy.”
Sarah is the founder of the Booker T. Washington Empowerment Network, Inc., (B.T.W.E.N.), and Lifting the Veil Empowerment Network. Both organizations were created to carry on the legacy of her great grandfather.
The welcome was given by Rickerby Hinds, UCR Professor and playwright. Greetings from the City of Riverside were extended by Don Betro, Riverside City councilmember and Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge. Other participants in the program were Robert Byrd, Riverside County Auditor, William “Bill” Howe, Retired Police Chief, and Jessie Wilson, Kansas Ave Seventh Day Adventist church who rendered prayer before lunch.
Dr. Barnett Grier, whose father was a slave, challenged anyone that was born in 1915 to stand. There were no takers but a lot of fun-laughter. He said he was 8 months old when Booker T. Washington was cremated. At 95 years old now, Dr. Grier was a reminder of the actual time-line of events.
Sarah painted a personal portrait of her great-grandfather and his life achievements. She said, “All of his life he fought hard for his belief, teaching Blacks and former-slaves. What would he think now as our youth fall away from education at an alarming rate?”
Sarah's mother, Agnes Louise Washington-O'Neil was the granddaughter of Booker T. Washington. Sarah described her mother as a modest and humble woman who never wanted to be the center of attention. In her modesty her mother would say their relationship to Booker T. Washington was merely an accident of birth. She did not hear much about the legacy while growing up in California. In 1999, when her mother passed away, Jet magazine published a story on her.
On the other hand, her father was very proud of her heritage and introduced her and brother as the descendants of Booker T. Washington to strangers.
Although Sarah and her brother were embarrassed, she will never forget a man that said, “It is an honor to know you.” Her father left the home when she was very young and so did the reminders of “the legacy.” She knew she was a descendant, but she only learned the significance of her great-grandfather just 10 years ago. In 1996, she went to Alabama for the first time to the first Booker T. Washington family reunion, held on the grounds of Tuskegee University, formerly Tuskegee Institute.
In the basement, she admired the superior quality of the bricks that had been made by Tuskegee students. According to Sarah, there are buildings still standing throughout the south that were built with these same bricks.
The first lesson she felt Booker T. Washington taught his students was to not only embrace excellence, but to take a skill that they already possessed and use it as a stepping stone for earning a living, entrepreneurship, and progress.
Sarah said when they first arrived on the Tuskegee campus, students, faculty and reporters were all there to welcome them; but, they were surprised that direct descendants of Booker T. Washington were still alive. She said she was surprised that they cared so much. She indicated that they were so well received that it inspired her to learn more about her great-grandfathers legacy.
At the reunion, Sarah was inspired to learn how important it was to be connected to him and she set out to learn as much as she could. She shared that her great-grand father believed that education would set him free. on July 4th at 25 years old, he started Tuskegee Institute in an old out-dated church with only 30 students. He incorporated into the culture of the school, a foundation of strong character, Christian values and hard work, organization and cleanliness, in which he led by example. Graduates of Tuskegee Institute became business and land owners.
A special award in the form of a miniature bust of Booker T. Washington, encased in glass, was presented to her. The miniature bust was created by Bernard Edmonds, creator of the original bust. Charles Bibbs rendered a portrait of Booker T. Washington for this Sesquicentennial Celebration.