Revisit the literature that set you free–or set you on fire!
Booker Taliaferro Washington was born on April 5, 1856 in Hale’s Ford, Virginia to an enslaved woman name Jane and an unknown, probably white, father. The family lived in a one room cabin. His early life mirrored that of most slaves on plantations. Washington became fascinated with education after he heard white students learning in a classroom.
After Jane married Washington Ferguson, a freedman, the family moved to Malden, West Virginia. Ferguson had the family working with him in the Malden salt mines. Washington took his stepfather’s first name as his last name. In 1866 Washington left the salt mines to become a houseboy to Viola Ruffner. Ruffner was the wife of the coal mine owner Lewis Ruffner. Ruffner was a very difficult woman to work for. However, she was intrigued with Booker Washington and took him on as a project. She drilled into Washington’s young mind cleanliness, punctuality and thrift. Washington believed these were the fundamental building blocks for a people.
After graduating from Malden’s school in 1872, Washington left his family and traveled 500 miles to Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia. He arrived with no money and, as he tells it, was given an entrance exam which required him to clean a room. Using the lessons he learned under Ruffner, Washington cleaned the room so well that the school hired him as a janitor.
While at Hampton, Washington met a second white mentor, General Samuel C. Armstrong. Armstrong was a Civil War veteran who had commanded African American troops and a firm believer in practical education as the best tool for lifting the race. He believed that African Americans needed to learn a skill, get a job, pay their taxes and become good citizens. He drilled these ideas into Washington. Washington spent three years soaking in Armstrong’s lessons. In 1875, Washington graduated with high marks, then returned to Malden to teach. In 1879, he returned to Hampton as the school’s graduation speaker. Armstrong then offered Washington a teaching position at Hampton.
In 1881, the Alabama legislature approved $2,000 for a “colored” school, the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. Armstrong was asked to recommend a white man to run the school. Instead, he recommended Booker T. Washington, assuring the community Washington’s work would not be a threat to the system and he would not challenge white economic supremacy. Washington dove into the job traveling the countryside promoting the school and raising money. He used hard work and elbow grease to build an impressive institution at Tuskegee.
By the 1890s Washington had developed a reputation as an educational leader. It was then that southern leaders invited him to travel to Washington, DC, to help them get federal money to sponsor a Cotton States Exposition. Washington dazzled the Washington politicians. In gratitude, Washington was invited to deliver the keynote address at the Cotton State Exposition. Washington’s speech “Throw down your buckets speech” transformed him from an educational leader to a race leader. It made Washington the most powerful black figure in America. Washington ends his book in the early 1900s as he is attempting to cash in on his newfound stardom to build his school and community.
Like most 19th century autobiographies, Up From Slavery is a formulaic praising of whites with a sprinkling of self-deprecating anecdotes. It is a must read if one wants to understand the complicated story of Booker T. Washington. Written to appeal to a white audience, Washington builds a narrative designed to praise the many “Good White people” who shaped his life and provided ladders to success for him and his people. His story serves as an example of African American potential despite the many obstacles arrayed against them. Washington was both an Uncle Tom and a shrewd genius who outwitted Whites to underwrite African American advancement during the racial nadir of post-Reconstruction America.