Notes Concerning the Author:
Booker T. Washington (1858/9-1915) is adequately described in the note at the front of the paperback reprint edition published in 1995 by Dover Publications.
“Born a slave and educated during the difficult period following the [War Between the States], Booker T. Washington became one of the most influential black leaders in American history. Gaining notice through his vigorous development of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, Washington succeeded Frederick Douglass (who died in early 1895) as the nation’s most prominent black spokesman with a landmark speech delivered later that year. By advocating a pragmatic doctrine of compromise, Washington gained widespread public approval.”
“Up from Slavery, (1901) written with journalist Max Bennett Thrasher, was the second of Washington’s autobiographies, and was carefully constructed to present a favorable portrait of its subject.”
The first autobiography, written by Washington, called “The Story of My Life and Work” was published five years earlier, in 1896, and “distributed primarily by door-to-door sales in black districts.” Up from Slavery was distributed through normal channels and “continues to inspire readers with its straightforward message of personal achievement and liberation.”
Booker T. Washington begins his story with his birth, about which he had no exact record. “I was born a slave on a [farm] in Franklin County, Virginia” sometime in 1858 or 1859.” Franklin County is south of Roanoke, halfway to the North Carolina line on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains. His mother worked as the farmhouse cook. About his father, all he could say was, “I do not even know his name. I have heard reports to the effect that he was a white man who lived on one of the near-by [farms]. ” He related that his mother had two children, John and himself, whose father was not known to him, and that she and her husband had a daughter, Amanda. Her husband, considered a stepfather to Booker and brother John, lived a few miles away in the same county. So, Booker spent his childhood with his mother, brother John and sister Amanda, with infrequent visits by his stepfather.
Washington was a toddler of about 3 years old when Federals launched the War Between the States and about 7 when they secured the surrender of the Confederate armies. Although just a young boy of perhaps 6, he remembered, “During the [War Between the States] one of my young masters was killed, and two were severely wounded. I recall the feeling of sorrow which existed among the slaves when they heard of the death of ‘Mars’ Billy.’ It was no sham sorrow, but real. Some of the slaves had nursed ‘Mars’ Billy’; others had played with him when he was a child.” Slightly older when surrender led to emancipation, he remembered, “The wild rejoicing on the part of the emancipated colored people lasted but for a brief period, for I noticed that by the time they returned to their cabins there was a change in their feelings. The great responsibility of being free, of having charge of themselves, of having to think and plan for themselves and their children, seemed to take possession of them. It was very much like suddenly turning a youth of ten or twelve years out into the world to provide for himself.”
Not long after the start of the Republican Party’s Political Reconstruction Program, Booker’s stepfather arranged for his mother and the three children to join him at Malden, West Virginia, where he had secured a job at a salt-furnace, which processed salt brought up from the salt mines. There was work for young Booker, too. “Though I was a mere child, my stepfather put me and my brother to work at one of the salt furnaces.” But Booker longed to learn to read. And eventually he did, by working at the salt furnace in the very early morning, taking a few hours off to attend a school, then returning to the salt furnace to finish out the day. Such was the determination of young Booker.
Booker was able to continue his schooling, even after moving from working the salt furnaces to working in a nearby deep underground coal mine. After a while he left the coal mine to take a position as a household servant of the mine owner. The wife allowed him to take off one hour a day to attend school. Finally, at the age of 14 years, he decided to strike out on his own and leave his mother and step-father, even though, “with the exception of a very few dollars,” all of his earnings had gone to support the family. He struck out for Hampton, Virginia, location of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which had been founded for Negros 4 years earlier, during Political Reconstruction, in 1868, by the American Missionary Association, a northern States group. By 1872 it was chartered by the State, but was “neither a government nor a State school.”
Perhaps it was Booker’s display of a determined work ethic that gained him a school janitor’s job, which enabled him “to work out nearly all the cost of my board.” After 3 years of persistent work and study, at the age of 17, he had completed the course work offered by the school. He then returned to Malden, West Virginia, where he taught at the Malden colored school. Two years later in the fall of 1878, he went to Washington, DC, where he studied for 8 months. From there he returned to Hampton to help with instruction.
Approximately 100 Native American youths, mostly boys, were being brought to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute from the western plains in a grand experiment to attempt to educate them. To help them through their first school year, Booker was needed to live with them in the dormitory and give instruction and encouragement. He undertook this assignment earnestly. A year later Booker was put in charge of the night school, a job he handled well for that school term.
The Principal of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute was Samuel C. Armstrong, who had been born in Hawaii to missionary parents, completed his education at Williams College in Massachusetts and then joined the Federal Army in 1862 Fighting primarily in Virginia, he eventually took command of Negro troops and rose to the rank of General. Following the surrender, he joined the Federal Freedmen’s Bureau. With help from the American Missionary Association, Armstrong founded the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. It was under Armstrong’s leadership that Booker T. Washington thrived. And Armstrong saw in young Washington a promising future as a leading educator of Negros. In May, 1881, Armstrong “received a letter from some gentlemen in Alabama asking him to recommend someone to take charge of what was to be a normal school for colored people in the little town of Tuskegee in that State.” Armstrong told Washington he wanted to recommend him for the job, if he was willing to accept the position. Washington agreed. Several weeks passed with no word from Alabama. Then, one Sunday evening, a telegram arrived. “Booker T. Washington will suit us. Send him at once.”
We have now arrived at page 51 of Washington’s book, Up From Slavery. One Hundred Fifteen pages remain, but our abstract must end here. The Hampton Normal School and Agricultural Institute would grow into today’s Hampton University. Furthermore, beginning as a start-up in a small borrowed church building, Booker T. Washington would guide his charges at Tuskegee Normal School on a remarkable growth trajectory to become Tuskegee University. He would serve as its President until his death in 1915. Hampton and Tuskegee are both among the top historically black universities in the world.
The Society is happy to post Up From Slavery on its Recommended List.
Availability of this Book
Up from Slavery and other books about and by Booker T. Washington are readily available as reprint paper books and as Kindle e-books. His first book, The Story of My Life and Work, is likewise available as a reprint paper book and as a Kindle e-book. Of them all, Up From Slavery, ought to be the first read.