Telling the story of BTW

Published 9:57 pm Wednesday, July 30, 2014

With students and teachers having evacuated the buildings for the summer, the next few weeks will be the prime time for renovations and spruce-ups at schools around Suffolk. Walls will be repainted, floors re-waxed and lockers repaired, all in preparation for the first day of school on Sept. 2.

Students and teachers returning to Booker T. Washington Elementary School, like others around Suffolk, will notice some new paint among the improvements from the end of the last school year. But this new paint is different — this paint is there to inspire, rather than fade into obscurity.

When students and teachers return to BTWES in September, they’ll find a special mural painted near the front entrance to honor the man for whom the school was named.

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Suffolk artist Michael Graves recently completed his portrait of Booker T. Washington as homage to the black alumni of BTWES who have gone on to find great success. Among those successful alumni have been former Suffolk City Council member Ronald Hart and former Suffolk Police Chief William Freeman.

Those folks have long had their own photos featured in a display case that visitors to the school see when they arrive, and they have long provided inspiration for the students and teachers who have attended and taught at Booker T., so it’s no surprise that Graves points to them as his inspiration for the artwork he was commissioned to make by Principal David Reitz.

What’s perhaps surprising is that a predominantly African-American school named after a famous and successful African-American man and located in a predominantly African-American part of Suffolk is only now recognizing that man with his own portrait. If the stories of people like Ronald Hart and William Freeman are inspirational, then Washington’s biography should be downright galvanizing for the young charges at BTWES.

Born into slavery in 1856 in the backcountry of Virginia, after educating himself through what could only be described as sheer determination, Washington went on to advise Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, and championed education as a means for blacks to lift themselves out of poverty.

Naming the school for Washington was a fitting gesture. Telling his story in a compelling way that connects with children who need to be inspired is even more important, and painting his portrait on the wall is a great way to get students and staff talking about the great man whose name their school bears.