We were in a planning meeting at work, just the three of us.
My boss asked, “Do you want to go Bedford for D-Day on Wednesday?”
In mostly one breath I said, “Yes, yes, of course I want to go to Bedford because the Booker T. Washington National Monument is there, or at least near to there and if I go down earlier on Tuesday and use it as a travel day then maybe I can swing by and spend a few hours there, so, yes, I’ll go.”
It was a lot of words all at once and I went full nerd about the chance to visit the site, one of the last national parks in Virginia I haven’t visited. It’s three hours away so popping down for a day didn’t seem like a great use of my time when I have a job that sends me all over the state and I knew if I waited it out, sooner or later, I’d get myself down there.
Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in 1856 in southwest Virginia, a little southeast of Roanoke, on a plantation owned by James Burroughs. When he was nine, in 1865, Booker and his family gained their freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation.
According to Washington, a stranger, presumably an U.S. Army officer, came to the plantation, made a speech, read the Emancipation Proclamation and told the slaves gathered there that they were free. Washington said his mother, Jane, leaned down and kissed her children as tears of joy ran down her face.
Now free, Washington and his family went to West Virginia where he started school. He continued his education and eventually made his way to the Hampton Institute, and, in 1881, the president of that institution recommended that Washington head the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama, which later became the Tuskegee Institute and is today Tuskegee University. He led the school for the rest of his life, adding to the curriculum and the campus and, along the way, becoming a national leader.
Today, the Booker T. Washington National Monument preserves the birthplace and boyhood home of Booker T. Washington, while also serving as a place to reflect upon and learn about this part of our collective American history.
I started my visit in the visitor center, like I usually do. I wandered through the displays, talked briefly with the volunteer manning the front desk – himself a graduate of Tuskegee – and set out down the hill on the Plantation Trail, a quarter-mile loop that goes past the garden, a few reconstructed 19th century farm buildings, the footprint of some of the original buildings and a farm area.
I visited a reconstructed tobacco barn, walked a little of the Jack-O-Lantern Branch Heritage Trail and then headed toward the farm area of the park, just in time to be let inside the turkey pen where I met Turkules (sounds like Hercules) and Xena.
Turkules is a very proud turkey and he had a lot of things to say to me about being a turkey and about how beautiful his feathers looked. It was all very impressive and he’s definitely a ham. Apparently, this is a show he puts on whenever there are guests around.
There are ducks too, some fat sheep, a few pigs and some very sweet horses. As with other national parks that include a farm, attempts have been made to include the same breeds that would have been on the farm when Washington lived there.
I walked back up the hill after visiting all the animals and taking one last look at the park’s buildings. I talked to the ranger and volunteer in the visitor center for a while, like I always do when there’s time and things are busy. I tried to think of good questions, but we talked mostly about the other parks we’d visited, about the different sorts of people who come through the park, about how beautiful New Mexico and Arizona are and I left smiling, like I usually do, thankful to have visited another important part of American history and to have spent time in the company of a few fellow park nerds.
Associate yourself with people of good quality, for it is better to be alone than in bad company. – Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington National Monument is in southwest Virginia, near Roanoke, and admission to the park is free. The park is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. The park is also sometimes closed due to inclement weather and visitors can call 540-721-2094 to make sure the park is open and for more information.