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Born a slave on a small farm in the Virginia backcountry, Booker T. Washington recounts a very dismal and difficult childhood in Up from Slavery. He never knew his father, who he had heard was a white man; his mother, a cook on the plantation, suffered many hardships along with her family. What is remarkable about Washington’s narrative of this time is that he never expresses bitterness. In fact, throughout the entire book, he is conciliatory and forgiving toward southern whites and their system of racism and oppression. Plantation life, though harsh, taught valuable lessons regarding hard work and perseverance which Washington used in later life. He saw slavery as only another challenge to overcome and felt every obstacle could be conquered with the right attitude.
As far as Washington was concerned, slavery made the black race stronger. While he believed the system of slavery was wrong, Washington states that ex-slaves held no ill will toward their former slave masters. On the contrary, blacks had strong feelings of loyalty and devotion for their former masters. He describes one incident, “During the Civil War 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.”
The loyal and devoted Negro is a recurring theme throughout Up from Slavery. It is a message he wants whites—particularly southern whites—to hear. The latter part of the nineteenth century was racially volatile for both whites and blacks, and southern whites felt northerners had abused them during the period directly after the Civil War. Blacks had been given the right to vote, courtesy of the Fifteenth Amendment, but whites that had rebelled against the Union (and that was most of the southern whites) had their vote taken away. Union soldiers, many of whom were black, enforced this upside-down arrangement until 1876, when they were withdrawn. After 1876, the white South reasserted itself with a vengeance by systematically removing blacks from the voting rolls. They used everything from instituting poll taxes to outright intimidation and violence – it was during this period that the Klu Klux Klan was organized and started operating – to keep blacks from voting. Lynching became a common occurrence and racial segregation the law of the land. Washington operated in this hostile climate and understood the prevailing belief many whites had regarding educating “the Negro.” Education, they felt, would ruin blacks and make them hard to handle. He tried to allay these fears and convince whites that “educating Negroes” only made them better able to serve white society for the mutual benefit of both blacks and whites.
After slavery ended, he moved with his family to West Virginia and went to work in the salt furnaces and coalmines. Working in the salt furnaces and coalmines was extremely hard on young Washington, but he persevered. He thirsted for knowledge and wanted to learn to read and write. “From the time that I can remember having any thoughts about anything, I recall that I had an intense longing to learn to read. I determined, when quite a small child, that, if I accomplished nothing else in life, I would in some way get enough education to enable me to read common books and newspapers.” He describes his educational journey as long and arduous. Education for blacks was not a high priority because it would sometimes interfere with earning a living. “It was not long before I had to stop attending day-school altogether, and devote all of my time again to work. I resorted to the night school again. In fact, the greater part of the education I secured in my boyhood was gathered through the night school after my day’s work was done.... There was never a time in my youth, no matter how dark and discouraging the days might be, when one resolve did not continually remain with me, and that was a determination to secure an education at any cost.”
Washington attended Hampton Institute, but his journey to the school and admissions is another tale of monumental struggle against the odds. He had little money for travel from West Virginia to Virginia and, after reaching one town, talks about sleeping “... under the sidewalk and lay for the night upon the ground, with my satchel of clothing for a pillow. Nearly all night I could hear the tramp of feet over my head.” When he arrived at Hampton, he presented himself before the head teacher for an assignment to a class. But Washington thought he probably looked like a bum or hobo because “having been so long without proper food, a bath, and a change of clothing, I did not, of course, make a very favorable impression.” He noticed other students being admitted while he waited; after some hours had passed, the head teacher told him, “The adjoining recitation-room needs sweeping. Take the broom and sweep it.”
In the classic Washington style he saw this as his opportunity to prove himself worthy and “...never did I receive an order with more delight. I knew that I could sweep…. I swept the recitation-room three times. Then I got a dusting-cloth and dusted it four times. All the woodwork around the walls, every bench, table, and desk, I went over four times with my dusting-cloth. Besides, every piece of furniture had been moved and every closet and corner in the room had been thoroughly cleaned....” When the teacher was unable to find one bit of dirt on the floor, or a particle of dust on any of the furniture, she told him, “I guess you will do to enter this institution.” Hard work and excellence are major themes in Washington’s formula for success in life. These are also lessons he wished to teach members of his race. In Up From Slavery, Washington believed that true excellence in whatever one is doing will be rewarded no matter what race or what position a person holds in life.
After completing secondary education at Hampton Institute, he accepted a teaching position. Education and teaching became his career goal; in 1881, he founded Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute on the Hampton model in the Black Belt of Alabama. The students who attended the school built Tuskegee from the ground up. Washington believed in vocational education and felt that educating blacks in what he called “textbooks” was a waste of time. Black boys should be trained as bricklayers or carpenters and girls, in laundering or cooking, so they could earn a living. He criticized the “craze for Greek and Latin learning” and believed one of the saddest things he ever saw was a young man “sitting down in a one-room cabin, with grease on his clothing, filth all around him, and weeds in the yard and garden, engaged in studying French grammar.” Such education for blacks was frivolous and of little use. And some blacks, says Washington, felt that an education meant no more manual labor. Not at Tuskegee, however, where students were given a vocational education and taught the dignity of hands-on manual labor.
He was particularly critical of the academic and political education championed by his contemporary black rival leader W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois, a pre-eminent black educator and scholar, together with many other northern black leaders, believed Washington’s opposition to political agitation would slow the advance of the black race. Washington felt political agitation would not save the Negro, “that ‘property, industry, skill, intelligence, and character’ would prove necessary to black Americans’ success.” But these views were controversial, even in the late nineteenth century, and many considered him too accommodating and apologetic to segregationists for the racism of late nineteenth century America. When criticized for limiting the educational horizons of blacks by emphasizing agricultural and vocational subjects at Tuskegee, Washington declared that these were the true basis of black economic development.
Washington revealed a political adroitness by emphasizing an accommodationist philosophy that convinced southern white employers and governors that Tuskegee offered an education that would keep blacks “down on the farm” and in the trades. To prospective northern donors and particularly the new self-made millionaires, such as Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Huntington, he promised the inculcation of the Protestant work ethic. To blacks living in the segregationist South, Washington held out industrial education as the means of escape from the web of sharecropping and debt and the achievement of attainable self-employment, landownership, and small business. Washington cultivated local white approval and secured a small state appropriation, but it was northern donations that made Tuskegee Institute, by 1900, the best-supported black educational institution in the country.
The Atlanta Compromise Address, delivered before the Cotton States Exposition in 1895, enlarged Washington’s influence into the arena of race relations and black leadership. In this address, he offered black acquiescence in disfranchisement and social segregation if whites would encourage black progress in economic and educational opportunity. “As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one. In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”
After this famous speech, he was regarded as the chief spokesman for blacks in America and acquired enormous political influence. And when his widely read autobiography Up From Slavery was published in 1901, he further increased his influence by founding the National Negro Business League. In the same year, Washington was invited to dinner at the White House, which was unprecedented for a black man in that day. As chief black advisor to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, he exercised considerable control over patronage politics. Washington maintained his white following through conservative policies and moderate speeches, but faced growing black and white opposition to his accommodationist views.
While Washington’s accommodationist views toward racism cause many current black civil rights leaders to minimize his legacy, he still presents a positive model for success. He overcame enormous odds in his achievements and started the tradition of black higher education. Historically, most educated blacks got their start at black colleges and these institutions still train many African Americans today. In a sense, it is unfair to judge Washington’s accommodationist views by today’s political standards.
During his time, southern whites oppressed blacks, taking away their political rights, and there was very little Washington could have done about it. What he did do, being a pragmatist, is try to salvage something out of this ongoing oppression by getting whites to help him build educational institutions for blacks. To this end, starting as an ex-slave, he was quite successful and leaves a lasting legacy presented in Up from Slavery.
James Robinson teaches Politics & Race and Change in South Africa and the U.S. and has written for National Minority Politics Magazine.