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A respected educator and founder of the Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington was one of the most important social thinkers of the early twentieth century. His 1895 speech before a racially mixed audience at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition won him national recognition. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901) is a classic American autobiography that has long inspired black and white readers alike.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born into Slavery
Washington was born in 1856 near Roanoke, Virginia, at Hale’s Farm, where his mother was the slave cook of James Burroughs, a minor planter. His father was white and possibly a member of the Burroughs family. As a child, Washington swept yards and brought water to slaves working in the fields. Freed after the American Civil War, he and his mother went to Malden, West Virginia, to join Washington Ferguson, whom his mother had married during the war. Booker later added “Washington” to his name.
In Malden, young Washington helped support the family by working in salt furnaces and coal mines. He taught himself the alphabet, then studied nights with the teacher of a local school for blacks. In 1870 he started doing housework for the owner of the coal mine where he worked. The owner’s wife, an austere New Englander, encouraged his studies and instilled in Washington a great regard for education.
Journey to Hampton, and Tuskegee
In the South after the Civil War, blacks—although they were legally free—were often denied access to basic services and institutions. In some cases, special facilities, including schools were created for blacks in order to keep them separated from whites. In 1872 Washington set out for the Hampton Institute, a school set up for blacks by the Virginia legislature. He walked much of the way and worked at menial jobs to earn the fare to complete the five-hundred-mile journey. Washington spent three years at Hampton and paid for his room and board by working as a janitor. After graduating with honors in 1875, he taught for two years in Malden, then returned to Hampton to teach American Indians as part of a special program.
In 1881, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, the principal at Hampton, recommended Washington to the Alabama legislature for the job of principal of a new school for black students at Tuskegee. Washington was accepted for the position, but when he arrived in Tuskegee he discovered that neither land nor buildings had been acquired for the projected school, nor were there any funds for these purposes. Consequently, Washington began classes with thirty students in a shanty donated by a black church. Soon, however, he was able to borrow money to buy an abandoned plantation nearby and moved the school there.
Building the Tuskegee Institute
Convinced that economic strength was the best route to political and social equality for blacks, Washington encouraged Tuskegee students to learn industrial skills. Carpentry, cabinetmaking, printing, shoemaking, and tinsmithing were among the first courses the school offered. Boys also studied farming and dairying, while girls learned cooking and sewing and other skills related to homemaking. At Tuskegee, strong emphasis was placed on personal hygiene, manners, and character building. Students followed a rigid schedule of study and work and were required to attend chapel daily and a series of religious services on Sunday. Washington usually conducted the Sunday evening program himself.
During his thirty-four-year career as principal of Tuskegee, the school’s curriculum expanded to include instruction in professions as well as trades. At the time of Washington’s death from arteriosclerosis and extreme exhaustion in 1915, Tuskegee had an endowment of two million dollars and a staff of two hundred. Nearly two thousand students were enrolled in the regular courses, and about the same number in special courses and the extension division. Among its all-black faculty was the renowned agricultural scientist George Washington Carver. So revered was Washington at Tuskegee that he was buried in a brick tomb, made by students, on a hill overlooking the Institute.
A Public Figure
Although his administration of Tuskegee is Washington’s best-known achievement, his work as an educator was only one aspect of his multifaceted career. Washington spent much time raising money for Tuskegee and publicizing the school and its philosophy. His success in securing the praise and financial support of northern philanthropists was remarkable. One of his admirers was industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who thought Washington ”one of the most wonderful men …whoever has lived.” Many other political, intellectual, and religious leaders were almost as approving.
Washington was also in demand as a speaker, and he won national fame on the lecture circuit. His most famous speech was his address at the opening of the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta in September, 1895. Later known as the Atlanta Compromise, the speech contained the essence of Washington’s educational and racial views and was, according to the historian C. Vann Woodward, ”his stock speech for the rest of his life.” Emphasizing to black members of the audience the importance of economic power, Washington contended that ”the opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house.” Consequently, he urged blacks not to strain race relations in the South by demanding social equality with whites.
At the Center of Controversy
The Atlanta speech, C. Vann Woodward has noted, ”contained nothing [Washington] had not said many times before…. But in the midst of racial crisis,” Washington’s speech ”electrified conservative hopes.” Washington was hailed in the white press as leader and spokesman for all American blacks and successor to the prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who had died a few months earlier.
Washington’s position, however, was denounced by many black leaders, including civil-rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois, who objected to Washington’s emphasis on vocational training and economic advancement and argued that higher education and political agitation would win equality for blacks. According to historian August Meier, a pioneering authority on Washington’s place in intellectual history, those blacks who accepted his ”accommodation” doctrines ”understood that through tact and indirection [Washington] hoped to secure the good will of the white man and the eventual recognition of the constitutional rights of American Negroes.”
The contents of Washington’s private papers reinforce the later interpretation of the educator’s motives. These documents offer evidence that in spite of the cautious stance that he maintained publicly, Washington was covertly engaged in challenging racial injustices and in improving social and economic conditions for blacks. The prominence he gained by his placating demeanor enabled him to work surreptitiously against segregation and disenfranchisement and to win political appointments that helped advance the cause of racial equality. ”In other words,” Woodward argues, ”he secretly attacked the racial settlement that he publicly sanctioned.”
Up from Slavery
Among Washington’s many published works is his autobiography Up from Slavery, an account of his life from slave to eminent educator. Often referred to by critics as a classic, its style is simple, direct, and anecdotal. Like his numerous essays and speeches, Up from Slavery promotes his racial philosophy and, in Woodward’s opinion, ”presents [Washington’s] experience mythically, teaches ‘lessons’ and reflects a sunny optimism about black life in America.” Woodward adds, ”It was the classic American success story.” Praised lavishly, Up from Slavery became a best-seller in the United States and was eventually translated into more than a dozen languages.
Even after achieving literary success, Washington continued to focus his time and energy on his duties at the Tuskegee Institute until his death on November 14, 1915, at the age of fifty-nine.
Works in Literary Context
As a literary figure, Washington is remembered today for two works: Up from Slavery and the Atlanta Exposition speech (and in fact, the speech is included as a chapter in the former). A reluctant author persuaded to write by his admirers, Washington was not a natural stylist. His books reflect the main concern of his life in the outside world— namely, the ”raising up” of his fellow black Americans by means of land ownership and a thorough education, with emphasis on the mastery of skilled trades. As much propaganda as literature, his work launches itself at the consciousness of the reader with the immediacy of speech. An exhortation in writing from one of the greatest public speakers of his time, Up from Slavery delves deep into the personal experience of the man who wrote it. This experience sustains its author in the alien terrain of ”literature.” As a writer, Washington impresses by simplicity of utterance, by a telling use of anecdotes in the building of arguments, and above all by his grasp of practical detail. As he states, ”I have great faith in the power and influence of facts.”
The Rags-to-Riches Story
Thrift and industry are the solutions Washington preaches, the familiar nineteenth-century gospel of self-help given substance by his own success at Tuskegee. Washington’s autobiography thus fits clearly into the tradition of the rags-to-riches story. It has often been compared to Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (1791), an early example of the genre, and with the tales of Horatio Alger, the dime novelist well-known for his stories about impoverished youths who achieve wealth through sheer determination. The title of Washington’s narrative suggests his inexorable optimism: he is interested in movement upward, a movement that in Washington’s own case was effected by his ”struggle for an education.” He based his personal confrontation with white America, although at times it scarcely seems to be a confrontation, on the belief that ”every persecuted individual and race should get much consolation out of the great human law, which is universal and eternal, that merit, no matter under what skin found, is in the long run, recognized and rewarded.” The tension that exists in Up from Slavery is between Washington’s unwavering self-belief, his tenacious self-reliance and idealism, and the society that excluded him.
The Slave Narrative
Up from Slavery is also one of the most famous slave narratives. This genre had its origins in the eighteenth century, and normally features the recollections of a former slave who has escaped from captivity. The genre was most popular in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century, when a large number were written as part of the political movement to end slavery; famous narratives produced during this era include Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Jacobs. After the Civil War and the end of slavery, the genre became less popular, and coming after the turn of the twentieth century, Up from Slavery is a late entry. However, it has many of the features of the traditional slave narrative, especially in its focus on education. In the post-Civil War examples of the genre, literacy and education in general is a precious commodity bought by the narrator with some difficulty, and celebrated as a key to freedom. By substituting “progress” for “freedom,” Washington’s quest for education fits this mold exactly.
Works in Critical Context
Washington’s work, especially the politics to be found in his books, has an old-fashioned quality, and many critics have been unwilling to grant him the status of a “great” writer. What keeps people reading him? One answer is his personality, which is appealing on a number of levels. Writing of Up from Slavery, one of Washington’s first literary advocates, the critic William Dean Howells, wrote of the charming qualities he saw in Washington, ”whose winning yet manly personality and whose ideal of self-devotion must endear him to every reader of his book.” Geoff Sadler has more recently seen similar qualities in Washington:
Throughout his writings, one is made aware of Washington’s humanity, the genuine concern for his fellows that informs every page. Undoubtedly a man of strongly held opinions, he seems incapable of malice (”No man shall drag me down by making me hate him”). Self-taught himself, he never loses his close affinity with the black working man, whose respect he clearly retained.
Up from Slavery
One of the most persistent defenders of Washington as a literary artist is the critic Houston Baker, who has written repeatedly about the qualities he has found in Up from Slavery and that others have overlooked. In Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987), Baker argues that the book is characterized by a conscious design, an effort to adopt the literary conventions of dominant white culture and use them for political ends: ”Given that Up from Slavery has some-times been considered merely an imitative version of Horatio Alger or of Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth (1889), how can one justify an emphasis on self-conscious design” in the book? ”One possible answer to this question can be formulated in structural terms. In Washington’s work more than forty of two hundred total pages are devoted to oratorical concerns.” According to Baker, the book is at one level a public speaking manual, ”setting forth strategies of address (ways of talking black and back) designed for Afro-American empowerment.” Washington is, however, a subtle enough author to leave the discovery of these strategies to his readers.
- Baker, Houston A., Jr. Turning South Again: Re-Thinking Modernism/Re-Reading Booker T. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001.
- Bieze, Michael. Booker T. Washington and the Art of Self-Representaton. New York: Peter Lang, 2008.
- Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
- Meier, August. Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915: Racial Ideologies in the Age of Booker T. Washington. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1963.
- West, Michael Rudolph. The Education of Booker T.Washington: American Democracy and the Idea of Race Relations. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
- Ashton, Susanna. ”Entitles: Booker T. Washington’s Signs of Play.” Southern Literary Journal 39 (Spring 2007): 1-23.
- Gibson, Donald B. ”Strategies and Revisions of Self-Representation in Booker T. Washington’s Autobiography.” American Quarterly 45 (September 1993): 370-393.
- Hicks, Scott. ‘W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Richard Wright.” Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters 29 (Winter 2006): 202-222.
- Totten, Gary. ”Southernizing Travel in the Black Atlantic: Booker T. Washington’s The Man Farthest Down.” MELUS 32 (Summer 2007): 107-131.
- National Park Service. Booker T. Washington National Monument. Retrieved November 19, 2008, from http://www.nps.gov/archive/bowa/home.htm.
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