Up From Slavery
Author Booker T. Washington
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
This is one of the great works of American History. It is the story of Booker T. Washington in his own words. He was born a slave and has memories of being one as a young boy during the Civil War. He does not know his birth date and places it about 1858 or 1859. A biographer, Louis H. Harlan dates his birth in 1856 which may be more accurate as he has vivid memories of his childhood that would be more consistent with one a couple of years older at the time. The book is A Norton Critical Edition which has several other authors weighing in on him and slavery. It should be a mandatory read for all students. His experiences and observations would go against the narrative presented by many today. Between him, who was a slave and became highly educated, and someone today with an agenda I would tell you in believe him.
Chapter 1: A Slave among slaves
“I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia. I am not quite sure of the exact place or exact date of my birth, but at any rate I suspect I must have been born somewhere and at some time. As nearly as I have been able to learn, I was born near a cross-roads post office called Hale’s Ford, and the year was 1858 or 1859. I do not know the month or the day.” (A footnote in the Norton Critical Edition says: “According to Louis H. Harlan’s Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901, Washington was born in 1856 on a modest tobacco farm belonging to James Burroughs”) Page 7
“My life had its beginning in the midst of the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surroundings. This is so, however, not because my owners were especially cruel, for they were not, as compared with many others. . . . “ Page 7
“My mother, I suppose, attracted the attention of a purchaser who was afterward my owner and hers. Her addition to the slave family attracted about as much attention as the purchase of a new horse or cow.” Page 7
“I had no schooling whatever while I was a slave, though I remember on several occasions I went as far as the schoolhouse door with one of my young mistresses to carry her books. The picture of several dozen boys and girls in a schoolroom engaged in study made a deep impression upon me, and I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise.” Page 9
“One may get the idea, from what I have said, that there was bitter feeling toward the white people on the part of my race, because of the fact that most of the white population was away fighting a war which would result in keeping the Negro in slavery if the South was successful. In the case of the slaves on our place this was not true, and was not true in any large portion of the slave population in the South where the Negro was treated with anything like decency. During the Civil War one of my young master’s 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. “Mars’Billy” had begged for mercy in the case of others when the overseer or master was thrashing them. The sorrow in the slave quarter was only second to that in the “big house.” When the two young masters were brought home wounded, the sympathy of the slaves was shown in many ways. They were just as anxious to assist in the nursing as the family relatives of the wounded. Some of the slaves would even beg for the privilege of sitting up at night to nurse their wounded masters. The tenderness and sympathy on the part of those held in bondage was a result of their kindly and generous nature. In order to defend and protect the women and children who were left on the plantations when the white males went to war, the slaves would have laid down their lives. The slave who was selected to sleep in the “big house” during the absence of the males was considered to have the place of honor. Anyone attempting to harm “young Mistress” or “old Mistress” during the night would have had to cross the dead body of the slave to do so. I do not know how many have noticed it, but I think it will be found to be true that there were few instances, either in slavery or freedom, in which a member of my race has been known to betray a specific trust.
“As a rule, not only did the members of my race entertain no feelings of bitterness against the whites before or during the war, but there are many instances of Negros tenderly caring for their former masters and mistresses who for some reason have become poor and dependent since the war. . . “ Page 12
When the war was over the U.S. Government sent an officer to the plantations to give official notice and read the Emancipation Proclamation to all. Here is some of what he said about that day.
“. . . . All of our master’s family were either standing or seated on the veranda of the house, where they could see what was to take place and hear what was said. There was a feeling of deep interest, or perhaps sadness, on their faces, but not bitterness. As I now recall the impression they made upon me, they did not at the moment seem to be sad because of the loss of property, but rather because of parting with those whom they had reared and who were in many ways very close to them. The most distinct thing that I now recall in connection with the scene was that some man who seemed to be a stranger (a United States officer, I presume) made a little speech and then read a rather long paper – the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. . . .” Page 15
“For some minutes there was great rejoicing, and Thanksgiving, and wild scenes of ecstasy. But there was no feeling of bitterness. In fact, there was pity among the slaves for our former owners. The wild rejoicing on the part of the emancipated coloured 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. In a few hours the great questions with which the Anglo-Saxon race had been grappling for centuries had been thrown upon these people to be solved. There were questions of a home, a living, the rearing of children, education, citizenship, and establishment and support of churches. Was it any wonder that within a few hours the wild rejoicing ceased and a feeling of deep gloom seemed to pervade the slave quarters? To some it seemed that, now that they were an actual possession of it, freedom was a more serious thing than they had expected to find it. . . . . Besides, deep down in their hearts. There was a strange and peculiar attachment to “old Marster” and “old Missus,” and to their children, which they found it hard to think of breaking off. With these they had spent in some cases nearly a half century, and there was no light thing to think of parting. Gradually, one by one, stealthily at first, the older slaves began to wander from the slave quarters back to the “big house” to have a whispered conversation with their former owners as to the future.” Pages 15/16
“From the time 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, if I accomplished nothing else in life, I would in some way get enough education to enable me to read common books and newspapers. . . . “
“In the midst of my struggles and longing for an education, a young coloured boy who had learned to read in the state of Ohio came to Malden. As soon as the coloured people found out that he could read, a newspaper was secured, and at the close of nearly every day’s work this young man would be surrounded by a group of men and women who were anxious to hear him read the news contained in the papers. How I used to envy this man! . . . . “ Page 18
“This experience of a whole race beginning to go to school for the first time, presents one of the most interesting studies that has occurred in connection with the development of any race. . . . . The great ambition of the older people was to try to learn to read the Bible before they died. . . . “Page 19
“. . . . Years ago I resolved that because I had no ancestry myself I would leave a record of which my children would be proud, and which might encourage them to still higher effort.” Page 21
“In those days, and later as a young man, I used to try to picture in my imagination the feelings and ambitions of the white boy with absolutely no limit placed upon his aspirations and activities. I used in the the white boy who had no obstacle placed in the way of his becoming a Congressman, Governor, Bishop, or President by reason of the accident of his birth or race. . . . .
“In later years, I confess that I do not envy the white boy, as I once did. I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed. Looked at from this standpoint, I almost reach the conclusion that often the Negro boy’s birth in connection with an unpopular race is an advantage, so far as real life is concerned. With few exceptions, the Negro youth must work harder and must perform these tasks even better than white youth in order to secure recognition. But out of the hard and unusual struggle through which he is compelled to pass, he gets a strength, a confidence, that one misses whose pathway is comparatively smooth by reason of birth and race.” Page 23,
“Perhaps the most valuable thing that I got out of my second year was an understanding of the use and value of the Bible. . . . “ Page 35
“During the whole of the Reconstruction period our people throughout the South looked to the Federal Government for everything, very much as a child looks to its mother. This was not unnatural. The central government gave them freedom, and the whole Nation had been enriched for more than two centuries by the labour of the Negro. Even as a youth, and later in manhood, I had the feeling that it was cruelly wrong in the central government, at the beginning of our freedom, to fail to make some provision for the general education of our people. In addition to what the states might do, so that people would be the better prepared for the duties of citizenship.
“It is easy to find fault, to remark what might have been done, and perhaps, after all, and under all the circumstances, those in charge of the conduct of affairs did the only thing that could have been done at the time. Still, as I look back now over the entire period of our freedom, I cannot help feeling that it would have been wiser if some plan could have been put in operation, which would have made the possession of a certain amount of education or property, or both, a test for the exercise of the franchise, and a way provided by which this test should be made to apply honestly and squarely to both the white and black races.
“Though I was but little more than a youth during the period of Reconstruction, I had the feeling that mistakes were being made, and that things could not remain in the condition that they were in then very long. I felt that the Reconstruction policy, so far as it related to my race, was in a large measure was on a false foundation, was artificial and forced. In many cases it seemed to me that the ignorance ofmy race was being used as a tool with which to help white men into office, and there was an element in the North which wanted to punish the Southern men by forcing the Negro into positions over the heads of the Southern whites. I felt the Negro would be the one to suffer for this in the end. Besides, the general political agitation drew the attention of our people away from the more fundamental matters of perfecting themselves to the industries at their doors and in securing property.” Pages 41/42
“Of course the coloured people, so largely without education, and wholly without experience in government, made tremendous mistakes, just as any people similarly situated would have done. Many of the Southern whites have a feeling that, if the Negro is permitted to exercise his political rights now to any degree, the mistakes of the Reconstruction period will repeat themselves. I do not think this swould be true, because the Negro is a much stronger and wiser man than he was thirty-five years ago, and he is fast learning the lesson that he cannot afford to act in a manner that will alienate his Southern white neighbors from him. . . .” Page 43
‘My experience has been that the time to test a true gentleman is to observe him when he is in contact with individuals of a race that is less fortunate than his own. This is illustrated in no bettervway than by observing the conduct of the old school type of Southern gentleman when he is in contact with his former slaves or their descendants.
“An example of what I mean is shown in a story told of George Washington, who, meeting a coloured man in the road once, who politely lifted his hat, lifted his own in return. Some his white friends who saw the incident criticized Washington for his action. In reply to their criticism George Washington said: “Do you suppose that I am going to permit a poor, ignorant, coloured man to be more polite than I am?” Page 49
He was in charge of the building of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
“In general, I found the relations between the two races pleasant. For example, the largest, and I think at the time the only hardware store in the town was owned and operated jointly by a coloured and a white man. This copartnership continued until the death of the white partner.” Pages 52/53
“. . . . but I, want to add that Miss Davidson did not apply to a single white family, so far as I now remember, that failed to donate something; and in many ways the white families showed their interest in the school.” Page 62
This is something that many do not know that the blacks had access to guns. Washington said this about it”
“During the days of slavery it was a custom quite generally observed throughout all the Southern states to give the coloured people a week of holiday at Christmas, or to allow the holiday to continue as long as the “yule log” lasted. . . There was a widespread hilarity, and a free use of guns, pistols, and gunpowder generally. . . .”
“. . . . In other homes some member of the family had bought a new pistol. . . . “ Page 63
“ Perhaps, I might add right year, what I hope to demonstrate later, that, so far as I know, the Tuskegee school at the present time has no warmer and more enthusiastic friends anywhere that it has among the white citizens of Tuskegee and throughout the state of Alabama in the entire South. . . . Page 64
“. . . . It was not only a source of satisfaction to secure a permanent location for the school, but it was equally satisfactory to know that the greater part of the money with which it was paid for had been gotten from the white and coloured people in the town of Tuskegee. . . . Page 65
“One incident , which occurred about this time gave me a great deal of satisfaction as well as surprise. When it became known in the town that we were discussing the plans for a new, large building, a Southern white man was operating a sawmill not far from Tuskegee came to me and said that he would gladly put all the lumber necessary to erect the building on the grounds, with no other guarantee for payment that my word that would be paid for when we secured the money. I told the man frankly that at the time we did not have in our hands. One dollar of the money needed. Notwithstanding this, he insisted on being allowed to put the lumber on the grounds. After we had secured some portion of the money we permitted him to do this.” Page 65/66
“When it is considered that the laying of this corner-stone took place in the heart of the South, in the “Black Belt,” in the centre of that part of our country that was most devoted to slavery; that at that time slavery had been abolished only about sixteen years; that only sixteen years before that no Negro could be taught from books without the teacher receiving a condemnation of the law, or of public sentiment – but all this is considered, the scene that was witnessed on that spring day at Tuskegee was a remarkable one. I believe there are few places in the world where it could have taken place.
“The principal address was delivered by the Hon. Waddy Thompson, the Superintendent of Education for the county. About the corner-stone will gather the teachers, the students, their parents and friends, the county officials – who were white – and all the leading white men in that vicinity, together with many of the black men and women whom the same white people but a few years before had held a title to as property. The members of both races were anxious to exercise the privilege of placing under the cornerstone some momentum.” Page 67/68
“In all our difficulties in anxieties, however, I never went to a white or a black person in the town of Tuskegee for any assistance that was in their power to render, without being helped according to their means. More than a dozen times, when bills, figuring up into the hundreds of dollars were falling due, I applied to the white man of Tuskegee for small loans, often borrowing small amounts, from as many as half dozen persons, to meet our obligations. . . .
“I shall always remember a bit of advice given to me by Mr. George W Campbell, the white man to whom I have referred as the one who induced Gen. Armstrong to send me to Tuskegee. Soon after I entered upon the work Mr. Campbell said to me, in his fatherly way: ”Washington, always remember that credit is capital.” Page 68
“Wherever one of our brick makers has gone in the South, we find that he has something to contribute to the well-being of the community into which he has gone; something that has made the community feel that, in a degree, is indebted to him, and perhaps, to a certain extent, dependent upon him. In this way pleasant relations between the races have been stimulated.
“My experience is that there is something in human nature, which always makes an individual recognize and reward merit, no matter under what color of skin merit is found. I have found, too, that it is the visible, tangible, that goes a long ways and softening prejudices. The actual site of a first-class house that a Negro has built is ten times more potent than pages of discussion about a house that he ought to build, or perhaps could build.” Pages 71/72
“The individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of his race. One man may go into a community prepared to supply the people there with an analysis of Greek sentences. The community may not at that time be prepared for, or feel the need of, Greek analysis, but it may feel its need of bricks and houses and wagons. If a man can supply the need for those, then, it will lead eventually to a demand for the first product, and with the demand will come the ability to appreciate it into profit by.” Page 72
“This first visit, which General Armstrong made to Tuskegee gave me an opportunity to get an insight into his character such as I had not before had. I refer to as interest in the Southern white people. Before this I had had the thought that Gen. Armstrong, having fought the Southern white man, rather cherished a feeling of bitterness towards the white South, and was interested in helping only the coloured man there. But this visit convinced me that I did not know the greatness and the generosity of the man. I soon learned, by his visits to the Southern white people, and from his conversations with them, that he was as anxious about prosperity and the happiness of the white race as the black. He cherished no bitterness against the South, and was happy when an opportunity offered for manifesting his sympathy. In all my acquaintance with General Armstrong, I never heard him speak, in public or in private, a single bitter word against the white man in the South. From his example. In this respect. I learned the lesson that great men cultivate love, and only little maen cherish the spirit of hatred. I learned that assistance given to the weak makes the one who gives it strong; and that oppression of the unfortunate makes one weak,
“It is now long ago that I learned this lesson from General Armstrong, and resolved that I would permit no man, no matter what his colour might be, too narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him. With God’s help, I believe that I have completely rid myself of any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that he may have inflicted upon my race. I am made to feel just as happy now when I am rendering service to Southern white men as one. The services rendered to a member of my own race. I pity from the bottom of my heart an individual who is so unfortunate as to get into the habit of holding race prejudice.” Page 76
“While writing upon this subject, it is a pleasure for me to add that in all my contact with the white people of the South. I have never received a single personal insult. The white people in and near Tuskegee, to as especial degree, seem to count it a privilege to show me all the respect within their power, and often go out of their way to do this.
“Not very long ago I was making a journey between Dallas (Texas) in Houston. In some way became known in advance that I was on the train. At nearly every station at which the train stopped, numbers of white people, including in most cases, the officials of the town, came aboard and introduced themselves and thanked me heartily for the work that I was trying to do for the South..” Page 78
“My experience in getting money for Tuskegee has taught me to have no patience with those people who are always condemning the rich because they are rich, and because they do not give more to objects of charity. In the first place, those who are guilty of such sweeping criticisms do not know how many people would be made poor, and how much suffering would result, if wealthy people were to part all at once, with any large proportion of their wealth in a way to disorganize and purple great business enterprise. Then very few persons have any idea of a large number of applications for help that rich people are constantly being flooded with. I know wealthy people receive as many as twenty calls a day for help. More than once, when I have gone into the offices of Richmond, I have found half dozen persons waiting to see them, and all come for the same purpose, that of securing money. . . “ Page 83/84
“I have spoken of several large gifts to the school; but by far the greater proportion of the money that has built up the institution has come in the form of small donations from persons of moderate means. It is upon the small gifts, which carry with them the interest of hundreds of donors, that any philanthropic work must depend largely for its support. In my efforts to get money I have often been surprised at the patience and deep interest of the ministers, who are besieged on every hand and at all hours of the day for help. If no other consideration had convinced me of the value of the Christian life, the Christlike work which the church of all denominations in America has done during the last 35 years for the elevation of the black man would have made me a Christian. In a large degree it has been the pennies, nickels, and the dimes which have come from the Sunday schools, the Christian Endeavor societies, and the missionary societies, as well as from the church proper, that have helped to elevate the Negro at so rapid a rate.” Page 88
“In this address I said that the whole future of the Negro rested largely upon the question as to whether or not you should make himself, through his skill, intelligence, and character, of such undeniable value to the community in which he lived that the community could not dispense with his presence. I said that any individual who learn to do something better than anybody else – learned to do a common thing in an uncommon manner – and solved his problem, regardless of the colour of his skin, and that in proportion as the Negro learned to produce what other people wanted and must have, in the same proportion would he be respected.” Page 92
“In my early life I used to cherish a feeling of ill will toward anyone who spoken bitter terms against the Negro, or who advocated measures that tended to all press the black man or take from him opportunities for growth in the most complete manner. Now, whenever I hear any one advocating measures that are meant to curtail the development of another, I pity the individual who would do this. I know that the one who makes this mistake does so because of his own lack of opportunity for the highest kind of growth. I pity them because I know that he is trying to stop the progress of the world, and because I know that in time the development and the ceaseless advance of humanity will make them ashamed of his weak and narrow position. One might as well try to stop the progress of the mighty railroad train by throwing his body across the track, as to try to stop the growth of the world in the direction of giving mankind more intelligence, more culture, or skill, or liberty, and in the direction of extending more sympathy and more brotherly kindness. “ Page 93
“The demands made upon me for public addresses continue to increase, coming in about equal numbers from my own people, and from northern whites.” Page 94
“ . . . In the spring of 1895, I received a telegram from prominent citizens in Atlanta asking me to accompany a committee from that city to Washington for the purpose of appearing before a committee of Congress in the interest of securing Government help for the Exposition. The committee was composed of about twenty-five of the most prominent and most influential white men of Georgia. All the members of this committee were white men, except Bishop Grant, Bishop Gaines, and myself.” Page 94
“I tried to emphasize the fact that while the Negro should not be deprived by unfair means of the franchise, political agitation alone would not save him, and that back of the ballot. He must have property, industry, skill, economy, intelligence, and character, in that no race without these elements could permanently succeed. . . .” Page 95
“I do not believe that any state should make a law that permits an ignorant and poverty-stricken white man to vote, and prevents a black man in the same condition promoting. Such allies not only unjust, but will react, as all unjust laws do, in time, for the effect of such a law is to encourage the Negro to secure education and property, and at the same time it encourages a white man to remain in ignorance and poverty. . . .” Page 107
“As a rule, I believe in universal, free suffrage, but I believe that in the South, we are confronted with peculiar conditions that justify the protection of the ballot in many of the states, for a while at least, either by an educational test, a property test, or by both combined; but whatever tests are required, they should be made to apply with equal and exact justice to both races.” Page 108,
Here he writes of speaking at the Atlanta Exposition:
“As to how my address at Atlanta was receiving money audience in the Exposition building, I think I prefer to let Mr. James Creelman, the noted war correspondent, tell. Mr. Creelman was present, and telegraphed the following account to the New York World: –
“. . . . .It is the first time that a Negro has made a speech in the South on any important occasion before an audience composed of white men and women. Electrified the audience, and the response was as if it had come from the throat of whirlwind.” Page 108
“. . . . Within ten minutes the multitude was in an uproar of enthusiasm – handkerchiefs were waived, canes were flourished, password tossed into the air. The fairest women of Georgia stood up and cheered. It was as if the order had bewitched them.
“And when he held his dusky hand high above his head, with the finger stretched wide apart, and sent to the white people of the South on behalf of his race, ‘In all things that are purely social. We can be a separate as the fingers, yet one is that hand in all things essential to mutual progress,’ the great wave of sound – itself against the walls, the whole audience was on his feet in the delirium of applause. . . . “ Page 109
“. . . .The average audience, I have come to believe, once facts rather than generalities or sermonizing. Most people, I think, are able to drop proper conclusions if they are given the facts and interesting form on which to base them.
“As of to the kind of audience that I like best to talk to, I would put at the top of the list and organizational strong, wide awake, businessmen, such, for example, as is found in Boston, New York, Chicago, and Buffalo. I have found no other audience so quick to see a point, and so responsive.” Page 111
“Next to accompany him businessmen, I prefer to speak to an audience of Southern people, of either race, together are taken separately. Their enthusiasm and responsiveness are constant delight. The ‘amens’ and ‘dat’s de truf’ that come spontaneously from the colored individuals are calculated to spur any speaker onto his best efforts. I think that next in order of preference. I would place a college audience. . . Page 112
“. . . the truth which I am constantly trying to impress upon our students at Tuskegee – and on our people throughout the country, as far as I can reach them with my voice – that any man, regardless of colour will be recognized and rewarded just in proportion as he learns to do something well – learns to do it better than someone else – however humble the thing may be. As I have said, I believe that my race will succeed in proportion as it learns to do a common thing in an uncommon manner; learns to do anything so thoroughly that no one can improve upon what it has done; learns to make its services of indisputable value. . . .” Page 126
“. . . When a Negro girl learns to cook, to wash dishes, to sew, to write a book, or a Negro boy learns to groom horses, or to grow sweet potatoes, or to produce butter, or to build a house, or to be able to practice medicine, as well or better than someone else, they will be rewarded regardless of race or colour. In the long run, the world is going to have the best, and any difference in race, religion, or previous history will not long keep the world from what it wants.
“I think that the whole future of my race hinges on the question as to whether or not it can make itself of such indispensable value that the people in the town and the state where we reside will feel that our presence is necessary to the happiness and well-being of the community. No man who continues to add something to the material, intellectual, and moral well-being of the place in which he lives his long left about proper reward. This is a great human law which cannot be permanently nullified.” Page 128