Up from Slavery: An Autobiography, by Booker T. Washington, is an account of his life, which began in slavery and ended with his being a renowned educator. It is written in a simple style with an optimistic tone that suggests to African Americans that they can succeed through self-improvement and hard work. Although Up from Slavery has been ranked along with Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1791) as a classic story of personal achievement, critics disagree about its central theme. Some scholars complain of its conciliatory stance, while others see the work as a justification for black pride.
The book opens with Washington’s boyhood hardships, beginning with his life as a slave on a Virginia plantation where the lack of a family name and a history that would give identity to his existence was painful and difficult to understand. He mentions the slaves’ fidelity and loyalty to the master, but he stresses the brutality of the institution: A lack of refinement in living, a poor diet, bad clothing, and ignorance were the slave’s lot.
A struggle for literacy is the focus in the intermediate chapters. Leaving the plantation with his mother and stepfather after the Civil War, Washington moved to West Virginia to work in salt and coal mines, where he learned letters while doing manual labor and used trickery to escape work and get to school on time. His situation improved after he was employed...
Booker Taliaferro Washington’s best-selling autobiography, Up from Slavery, has been translated into more than one dozen languages and is part of an African American literary tradition that has found its place among the American classics. The book’s fifteen chapters give a progressive historical account of the author’s life as it began on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia, in 1858. The poverty and human misery of Washington’s early years are documented with unusual candor in the first two chapters. He did not know his father, had very little recollection of his extended family, never slept in a bed before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, never ate a family meal with knives and forks around a table as a child, and had a trying ordeal wearing his first pair of heavy and hard wooden “brogans” on his feet. After his family moved to Malden, West Virginia, to work at the salt furnace and coal mine, they lived in the most derelict of conditions, surrounded by unreconstructed African Americans who were given over to excessive “drinking, gambling, quarrels, fights, and shockingly immoral practices.” Washington worked very long, hard, and lonely hours, and was exploited by his stepfather, but he never lost the “intense longing to learn to read and write.”
Washington learned to read from an old copy of Webster’s spelling book that his mother got for him. Since African American teachers were rare, any black person who could read and write almost always became an educator. After a young black soldier from Ohio moved into Malden, he was immediately pressed into establishing “the first school for Negroes.” The people were so poor, the teacher got his support from “boarding around”—sleeping and eating with a different family each day. Washington comments: “Few people who were not right in the midst of the scenes can form any exact idea of the intense desire which the people of my race showed for education. . . . It was a whole race trying to go to school. Few were too young, and none too old, to make the attempt to learn.”
When Booker himself went to register at his first school, he chose the name Washington so he could have two names like the other students. He had such a passion for education, no obstacle could deter him from going to college. He traveled over eighty miles on foot, slept under (wooden) sidewalks, and worked on a shipping dock just to earn enough to buy breakfast and pay his way to Hampton, five hundred miles from home. Matriculation at Hampton was the dream of a lifetime. There, Washington met General Samuel C. Armstrong, who had a great impact on Washington’s life. The ideology of industrial education taught at Hampton fashioned Washington’s career.
Following his graduation from Hampton in 1875, Washington assisted in a successful campaign to move the capital of West Virginia from Wheeling to Charlestown. His rhetorical ability in the campaign brought him many speaking engagements, and he seriously considered a career in public service. He also taught for a year in West Virginia before spending a year as a student at Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C. In 1878, Armstrong recruited him to teach Native Americans in Indian territory, and he won the complete confidence of his students there. Washington noted that Indians were served at restaurants and admitted to hotels, but he was not.
Chapter 7 begins the epoch in Washington’s life for which he is best known. In the spring of 1881, General Armstrong called him to Alabama, where he would begin his life’s work building Tuskegee Institute. There, Washington said he found “hundreds of ignorant” and uncultured “hungry, earnest black souls who wanted to secure knowledge” and who had not “degraded and weakened their bodies by vices such as are common to the lower class of people in the large cities.” Encouraged by local blacks and an allocation of two thousand dollars from the state legislature to pay a teacher to start a college, Washington opened the institute in an “old dilapidated shanty near the colored Methodist church” in June, 1881. The building was in such deplorable disrepair that a student had to hold an umbrella over Washington’s head as he taught in the leaking, unheated shack. For the first few months, Washington supported himself by “boarding around.” Often the people had nothing to eat except “slave food”—fat pork, corn bread, and black-eyed peas. The poor people of the area were so anxious to...