Rare Booker T. Washington book surfaces at library sale
HIGH POINT — Booker T. Washington never wrote mysteries, but one of the late author and educator’s books is at the center of a mystery in High Point.
For the Friends of the High Point Public Library’s most recent used book sale, someone donated — unknowingly, it is presumed — a first-edition copy of Washington’s 1902 book, “Character Building,” signed and dated by the author. A label inside the book indicates it originally belonged to George White Marston, a prominent citizen of San Diego, Calif., during the early 1900s.
The book, still in good condition, could be worth hundreds of dollars, according to High Point historian Bill Phillips, who spotted the rare book — and subsequently bought it — at the library’s May 30 sale.
He paid two bucks for it.
“I’m not an expert, but a first edition of that particular book from 1902, signed and dated by Booker T. Washington, tells me that it has some value,” Phillips says. “For the life of me, though, I don’t know how it got 3,000 miles away to the High Point Public Library. I hope some unsuspecting person will come forward and say, ‘Oh, that was in a batch of books I left there.’”
That person won’t be able to get the book back, though. Phillips chose not to keep the book or even sell it and cash in on his lucky find, instead donating it to the San Diego History Center, which Marston founded.
“I was much more interested in preserving the history,” explains Phillips, immediate past president of the High Point Historical Society. “I have a keen interest in history, so it’s much more important to me to keep things where they can be appreciated years from now.”
According to Phillips, “Character Building” was the first book he picked up at the sale. When he noticed Washington’s signature on an inside page, he immediately showed it to Friends of the Library volunteer Brenda Haworth.
“Gosh,” she exclaimed, “how did we miss that?”
Volunteers routinely sort through all donated books before the sale, setting aside any that might be valuable enough to auction on eBay, but “Character Building” slipped through the cracks.
“We sure missed it,” Haworth says, adding that she can’t remember an oversight like this ever happening before.
The mystery, of course, is figuring out who donated the book, and whether he or she even knew it was being donated. Donors often bring in boxes of books at a time, so “Character Building” may have been part of a larger donation and thus could’ve gone unnoticed by the donor.
Haworth says she and other volunteers have no clue who might have donated the book.
“We rarely know who donated the books, because there are so many,” she says. “We get donations from people in the community just about every day.”
What is known, thanks to some historical digging by Phillips, is that Washington visited San Diego in January 1903, and Marston served as his host. When Washington signed the book Phillips bought, he signed it Jan. 5, 1903, further confirming the book most likely belonged to Marston originally.
That’s why Phillips donated the book to the San Diego History Center, where officials were thrilled to receive it.
“Not only does it commemorate Washington’s visit to San Diego, but it belonged to one of our prominent citizens, George Marston, who was the founder of our institution,” archivist Jane Kenealy wrote in an email to Phillips. “It will be a very welcome addition to our collection and has found a good home with us.”
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Washington had ties to High Point
The appearance of Booker T. Washington’s autographed book at the public library’s recent used book sale may be a random happening, but the noted author and educator actually did have a couple of ties to this city.
First of all, it was because of Washington that the highly esteemed black educator Alfred J. Griffin came to High Point to serve as the first black principal of what was then the High Point Normal and Industrial Institute.
“In 1895, the Southern Committee of the Quakers contacted Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee for assistance in finding a guiding hand for its school in High Point,” historian Michael G. Pierce wrote in his book, “History of the High Point Public Schools 1897-1993.”
So Washington hand-picked Griffin, who arrived in 1897 and quickly made his mark as one of High Point’s most respected educators. Alfred J. Griffin Middle School was named for him, and later Penn-Griffin School for the Arts.
Later, Washington visited the city himself, speaking to a large audience at the old Pickett’s Tobacco warehouse on Oct. 29, 1910.
A few days before Washington’s visit, The High Point Enterprise wrote, “We consider Booker T. Washington as great a friend to the white race as he has proved to be to his own. He is pointing his people to the only safe way and one which if followed will prove helpful to both races.”
For his speech, Washington was introduced by the city’s mayor, and then students from the High Point Normal and Industrial Institute gave a musical presentation.
“It is difficult, almost useless, to try and report Booker Washington’s address,” the Enterprise wrote after Washington’s visit. “You have to hear him. His address here was a masterpiece in every way, and everyone who heard him was delighted.”
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