The inspiring stories that Booker T. Washington shares with readers in his turn of the century book of articles, Up From Slavery should be required reading for American high school students. The book's more poignant stories should be as much a part of a high school student's studies as the reasons for the Civil War, as the important players in the Civil Rights Movement. Well before the Civil Rights Movement, well before civil rights and voting rights legislation in Congress, in the midst of horrifyingly unfair Jim Crow segregation racism in the south, Washington stood out among men of all colors for his advocacy of education and his leadership in pursuit of education for all. This paper reviews / critiques his quest for education, his passion for helping others, particularly those who have been disenfranchised, to have a chance to learn.
A Slave Among Slaves - Background on Washington's Life
Washington was born into slavery, and he is quick to admit that while his masters were not as cruel as others were, the living conditions in the little cabin where his mother raised him were horrendous. His mother cooked over an open fire since there was no stove. He remembers being awakened at night while his mother was cooking a chicken that she no doubt had stolen. "How or where she got it I do not know," he writes on page 5. Yes, she "procured" it from the farm where he was enslaved, he admits, but she wasn't to be thought of as a thief, she was "…simply a victim of the system of slavery."
So in this chapter a reader can become familiar with the life of a very bright, creative, innovative man who began his trek through his formative years struggling with primitive living conditions. On page 6 he mentions education for the first time. He carried his sister's books to the schoolhouse and seeing "…several dozen boys and girls in a schoolroom engaged in study made a deep impression on me," he recalls. More than that, he believed that actually having the right to enter that schoolroom "…would be about the same as getting into paradise" (6). His passion to learn began early in his life, and he never blinked or hesitated in this quest for knowledge.
Washington was impressed as he looked back to his childhood and wondered at how his mother and the slave community -- "completely ignorant as were the masses so far as books or newspapers were concerned" -- could have been so "accurately and completely informed" about the "great National questions that were agitating the country" (7). From these early recollections it was clear that "word of mouth" kept people informed. That concept, information, helped to build a fire of interest for the young man. By his Chapter II, Washington is starting to focus on what will become an important spoke in the wheel of his productive life, learning. From the time he had thoughts "…about anything," he was thinking about being able to read, to write, to learn. He had a problem because no African-Americans could read or write that lived near him, and he was shy to seek help from white people. But problems never caused him a moment's delay.
But when a "colored man from Ohio" arrived in his town in West Virginia, everyone was excited to have him read a newspaper out loud for the Black folks could be informed. After reading page 18 of Washington's Chapter II a student can begin to understand fully how much passion Washington had for learning and education. When his stepfather made him keep working in the "salt furnace" rather than attend the new school, it broke his heart. Watching the children pass by on their way to and from school caused him great emotional pain. But typical of the resilience this remarkable person showed throughout his life, Washington soon figured out how to be educated at night after work. "I think I learned more at night than the other children did during the day," and in fact going to school at night lit a spark in his fertile mind, and later in his life he would attend night classes at both Hampton and Tuskegee (19). This is a man on a mission, and it would be hard to imagine any person born into cultural incarceration that had a stronger desire to be educated, and to help others, than Booker T. Washington.
By Chapter III Washington is very zeroed in on his need to study and learn. His $5 a month work experience with the testy, picky Mrs. Ruffner -- who couldn't stand anything out of order, "sloven or slipshod" or simply not neat -- taught him lessons "as valuable" as "any education I have ever gotten anywhere else" (25). That may have been an exaggeration, since what he learned from Mrs. Ruffner was structure and neatness and later he would become a highly educated man in history, science, and the other disciplines; but he wanted in this section to point out how learning doesn't always take place in a classroom or a library. Life's lessons are all around us, he was saying. Learn what you can when you can, was his unspoken motto.
Meantime, before he finished his travels -- the 500 miles to the Hampton Institute -- Washington had a first-hand brush with segregation; the hotel front desk clerk would not admit a person with black skin. He also learned to ask to work for food, and was willing to sweep floors and dust woodwork in order to be admitted to Hampton; he had learned these kinds of domestic chores from Mrs. Ruffner, hence, what he said about "valuable" lessons earlier now becomes clear to the reader (pp. 28-29). How absolutely unique and fascinating for a young African-American to be admitted to an institution of learning by dusting and sweeping, but for Washington this was the tone he set in his life and in his writing: let nothing deter the goal you have for yourself. In fact his excellence at sweeping and dusting resulted in him being hired as a janitor, which would allow him to pay "…nearly all the cost of my board" even though it was "hard and taxing work" and required him to work late into the night to clean the building.
Again and again in his narrative, Washington refers to the hard work he was willing to put in to pay for his board, and he mentions those that were gracious and helpful to him, a young man with but one set of clothing, one pair of socks, with no money but a powerful desire to do whatever was required in order to learn. The quality of his personality certainly helped him over and over again, and though he doesn't say it, he must have been a charming young man because people believed in him and were impressed by his honesty and aptitude, his willingness to take on any challenge, and his native intelligence. It took more than charm to succeed, but he used all the personal and social tools he could muster to get where he needed to go.
By the time the reader reaches Chapter III, Washington is beginning to confront the issues that had previously kept Black folks from educational opportunities. The author used a bit of humor to describe the "knowledge" that some of the students in attendance at his first teaching opportunity in Tuskegee. Some of the students could "locate the Desert of Sahara or the capital of China" on a globe, he wrote (63), but they "could not locate the proper places for the knives and forks on an actual dinner-table." Meanwhile, Washington settles in to his new teaching role and is assisted by a teacher named Miss Davidson, who becomes his wife in time. In addition to traditional education, Washington can see that helping these Black students to learn how to bathe and eat properly and keep their rooms neat is as important as knowing geography and history. This is part of his legacy, helping Black folks learn how live, learn what society expects of them, and how education can pave the way to a better future.
Washington's work with the Tuskegee Institute -- his founding of the school, and his creative way of raising money to move the school into a larger facility, which entailed getting donations from white folks and Black folks -- is inspiring and historic in the level of success it achieved. As Washington became a known leader in the field of education -- with emphasis of course on the education of African-Americans -- he began making speeches. The presentation he made at the National Educational Association in Madison, Wisconsin was impressive because only positive things were said about Alabama, in particular about those white folks that had helped the Tuskegee Institute set down roots were praised. Moreover, Washington's speech (his first big public presentation) emphasized the need for cooperation between the…