Overview: Up from Slavery

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Date: 1997
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Work overview
Length: 3,735 words

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About this Work
Title: Up from Slavery (Autobiography)
Published: 1901
Genre: Autobiography
Author: Washington, Booker T.
Occupation: American educator
Other Names Used: Taliaferro, Booker; Washington, Booker Taliaferro;
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A teacher and former slave, Booker T. Washington founded and ran the Tuskegee Institute beginning in 1881, a school for African Americans in rural Alabama. Building on the school's success, Washington rose to prominence in the 1890s, winning recognition as the nation's leading African American spokesperson after the death of Frederick Douglass in 1895. In 1901 Washington published his autobiography, Up from Slavery. The book conveys his practical approach to black self-improvement, an approach that called for co-operation and compromise with white society.

Events in History at the Time of the Autobiography


In the years before the Civil War, slave-owners (who amounted to about one-fourth of Southern whites) controlled every aspect of the slave's life. Slaves were considered property and lived in often squalid conditions in shacks or barracks on the large plantations. They worked the fields, did the laundry, cooked the food, and served their masters in whatever capacity was demanded. Owners sometimes punished slaves severely, most commonly by whipping. The law forbade slaves from traveling except as directed by their owners. Slave families routinely suffered the pain of being broken up by the sale of children or spouses. Runaways were often tracked down and beaten harshly. The Fugitive Slave Law, passed in 1850, allowed the apprehension of any black suspected of being a runaway. Even in Northern states, those accused had no legal recourse.

Solomon Northup, a free black from upstate New York, was abducted in this way and enslaved. He describes the humiliation of the slave sale in his account, Twelve Years a Slave:

Next day many customers called to examine Freeman's [the owner of the slave market] “new lot.” ... He [Freeman] would make us hold up our heads, walk briskly back and forth, while customers would feel of our hands and arms and bodies, turn us about, ask us what we could do, make us open our mouths and show our teeth, precisely as a jockey examines a horse which he is about to barter for or purchase.
(Northup in Meltzer, p. 48)

War and Freedom

Through the four years of the Civil War, Southern blacks waited and watched. As parts of the South came under Northern rule, some black men were recruited to serve in the Union Army. Many, however, remained loyal to their masters as a matter of survival. Slaves protected the plantations, hid white owners from mistreatment by soldiers of either side, and suffered with their white masters when war reduced provisions.

Despite the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which freed slaves in rebel territory, slavery for most blacks ended only with Northern victory in 1865. Generations of oppression left the majority of these former slaves ill-prepared for freedom. Southern states had legally banned their slave populations from even the most elementary education; not surprisingly, a preponderance of the ex-slaves emerged from bondage untrained for any occupation other than farm work. Still, blacks embraced their freedom at the end of the war with joy.

Black Options

Many former slaves at first signed contracts that permitted them to labor in gangs under overseers, much as they had during slavery. Filled with desire to own their own land, however, they rapidly abandoned wage labor for share-cropping or tenant farming. Sharecroppers “borrowed” a plot of land, seed, tools, food, and clothing from a landowner, to whom, in return, they pledged as much as 50 percent of their harvest. They often had to buy other necessities on credit and at high cost from the landowner at his designated store, which made it nearly impossible for them to get out of debt and increase their earnings. Tenant farming differed slightly. In exchange for “borrowing” land, tools, and other items from a merchant, tenants promised to sell their entire crop to him. Forced before harvest-time to buy goods on credit at the merchant's store, they too became debt-ridden to a white landlord.

African Americans in the South thus faced severely limited options in the years immediately after the war. Despite the economic disadvantages, many preferred the nominal independence of sharecropping or tenant farming to the contract system, which reminded them too much of slavery. White overseers, for example, sometimes used whips just as they had before the war.

Freedmen's Bureau

The postwar era known as Reconstruction (1865–1877) brought an upheaval to Southern society that matched that of the war itself. In 1865, as part of Reconstruction, Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, usually known as the Freedman's Bureau. One of its purposes was to aid former slaves in the transition to freedom. Officially the bureau operated through 1868, though its education division and its efforts to collect money owed to black veterans continued until mid-1872. For the initial years of its stormy existence, the Freedmen's Bureau provided food, housing, medical care, and farm supplies to both blacks and whites in the war-ravaged South. It also oversaw labor relations, settling disputes that arose between black laborers and white employers. The bureau's longest lasting legacy, as reflected in its continuing activities in this field after 1868, was in education.


By 1869 the bureau had set up hundreds of schools that ultimately taught 200,000 ex-slaves to read. The bureau also helped establish black institutions of higher learning such as Howard University, the Hampton Institute, Fisk University, and Atlanta University. By the late 1860s, ex-slaves were flocking to educational opportunities wherever they arose. Classrooms across the South filled up with students of all ages seeking to escape illiteracy. Some classes taught a student population that spanned four generations; as Washington writes, “it was a whole race trying to go to school” (Washington, Up from Slavery, p. 21).

Along with their eager students, the new schools were distinguished by the teachers who led them. Beginning in Reconstruction's earliest days, a wave of enthusiastic Northern whites, many of them unmarried women and a good number highly religious in character, came south to teach the ex-slaves. These “Yankee” teachers brought their Puritan values of hard work, thrift, and cleanliness with them, influencing a whole generation of African Americans. Washington encountered such men and women at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, where he spent three years. Washington's time at Hampton proved to be the single most decisive influence in his life; he repeatedly praises “the part that the Yankee teachers played in the education of the Negro after the war” (Up from Slavery, p. 42).

Against the desire for learning was balanced the need to make a living. Children usually helped supplement the income of African American families, contributing either labor at home or wages from a job. As a child, Washington, for example, worked at the salt and coal mines in the early mornings, going to school when he could snatch time in the afternoons and evenings.

African Americans in Politics

African Americans played a greater part in Southern politics during Reconstruction than at any time until the 1960s. Allied with Northern Republicans who had come south, African Americans were elected to political positions and achieved a measure of control in many state governments after 1867. Referring to their occupations outside politics, Washington's autobiography reflects the popular conception that these officials were unprepared for the offices in which they found themselves:

I heard some brick-masons calling out, from the top of a two-story building on which they were working, for the “Governor” to “hurry up and bring up some more bricks.” ... I made inquiry as to who the “Governor” was, and soon found that he was a coloured man who at one time had held the position of Lieutenant-Governor of his state.
(Up from Slavery, p. 57)

But Washington also acknowledges that “some of them ... were strong, upright, useful men” (Up from Slavery, pp. 57–8). Educated Northerners of African descent—preachers, teachers, soldiers and businessmen—numbered among the new black leaders. Others were Southerners from the small class of African American landowners and merchants. These newly elected officials focused more on advancing education and commerce than on the economic plight of their race. There was some discussion of land redistribution, which alarmed Southern whites, but in the end it came to little more than talk. Land ownership, on the contrary, became concentrated into a smaller number of holdings, and larger ones, than had existed before the war.

Southern White Backlash

Southern whites responded to the changes Reconstruction wrought in several ways. Laws called Black Codes, passed by Southern states in the 1860s, set restrictive conditions for the right to vote and seek public office. In 1866 the Ku Klux Klan organized in Pulaski, Tennessee, to combat the new policies introduced by Reconstruction and to reestablish the dominant position of whites in Southern society. Its presence was soon felt throughout the South. The Klan and its supporters tried to intimidate blacks into not voting, or into voting for Klan-supported candidates. In 1868 efforts to control the vote resulted in the deaths of at least 25 people and injury to 175 others in two days of fighting. The Klan attempted to force the ex-slaves to vote for its candidates by threatening—and sometimes carrying out—mutilations, beatings, and even murders.

Outraged, the Republican Congress imposed the harsh Force Acts of 1871 and 1872. Five military regions replaced state governments until such time as the states could be legally readmitted to the Union by becoming certified for the statehood they held before the Civil War. In some cases, restoration of statehood did not come until 1874. Under the Reconstruction Acts, a slow-moving Congress was responsible for determining which Southerners could hold office, and what conditions must be met for enfranchisement and for statehood.

The End of Reconstruction

The tug-of-war between Congress and Southern whites gradually lost its hold on the nation's attention, and by the late 1870s public support for Reconstruction had waned in the North. Reconstruction ended in 1877 with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes to the presidency. The Klan stepped up its terrorization, the old white power brokers of the South returned to office, and the plight of African Americans in the region worsened. Though the plantation system had come to an end, members of the pre-Civil War planter class returned to power, controlling the land, towns, and factories of the post-Civil War South. Under the contract system of farm labor that developed immediately after the war, no matter how oppressive the work, ex-slaves were bound to their jobs. They could not break their contracts without facing floggings or prison. Wages were held dismally low, and African Americans flocking to the cities found housing as abominable as on their former plantations.

In the 1880s the Supreme Court began over-turning civil rights acts and other Reconstruction-era legislation. Encouraged, whites who had resumed control of the Southern states enacted a series of “Jim Crow” laws that restricted African American voting rights and the use of public facilities. The Supreme Court affirmed such laws in 1896 with its decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson, which allowed “separate but equal” facilities for whites and blacks. In reality, separate meant anything but equal.

African American Responses to Jim Crow

Even before the end of Reconstruction, African Americans rose up in their own defense. Some, like T. Thomas Fortune, argued for black separatism, calling for African Americans to found their own banks and other institutions to support the freedmen and preserve their identity. Carrying this even further, a number of others—such as “Pap” Singleton in the 1870s—advocated and founded towns for “blacks only” in Tennessee and Kansas as well as in Oklahoma Territory. Others stayed in the South and protested the systematic deprivation of their rights by whites. J. C. Price organized the Citizens Equal Rights Association in 1887 to petition against and protest segregation. Using the press, Ida B. Wells denounced lynching in her Memphis, Tennessee, newspaper Free Speech. These heated responses represented a minority reaction on the part of blacks, however. Most opted to follow the quieter path forged by Booker T. Washington, who advised adjusting to white racism for the present time and staying out of politics (though secretly he backed activists who fought for African American rights). Washington counseled fellow blacks to help themselves economically by learning skills they could profit from, a message that won the approval of even Southern whites.

The Autobiography in Focus

The Contents

Up from Slavery begins with Washington's birth to a slave woman named Jane on a day, according to his own estimate, in 1858 or 1859. Growing up a slave, he was put to work in the fields by the age of three. He never knew his father's name, going only by the name Booker until he took his stepfather's first name on enrolling in school. His mother married Washington Ferguson after the Civil War and moved the family to Malden, West Virginia, where Ferguson had previously worked as a slave in the salt mines. Ferguson again found work there, and Booker and his brother, John, soon were working in the mines as well.

Booker, however, showed an early interest in education. Just as early, he began to form opinions about the roles of blacks and how they might rise within the system. He obtained another job working as a servant for $5 a month in the home of General Lewis Ruffner and his wife Viola. Though the strict Viola Ruffner frightened Washington at first, she eventually befriended him and continually encouraged him to pursue his schooling. While living in the Ruffner house, Washington recalls, he gathered together his first “library”—comprised of a dry goods box that held every book he could get his hands on.

Washington's dream was to attend Hampton Institute, a vocational school for African Americans, but his mother considered the notion a “wild goose chase” (Up from Slavery, p. 32). Washington had no clear idea of exactly where Hampton was or how much it would cost to travel there, and although he had very little money—mostly small contributions from family and acquaintances, he struck out on his own. A few hours into the journey, he realized that he did not have enough money to make the five-hundred-mile journey by rail or stagecoach. Undaunted, he walked and begged rides in wagons and cars to reach his destination. He ran out of money in Richmond, but found work loading cargo off a ship and eventually saved enough earnings to finish the trip.

Washington did well at Hampton and eventually became a teacher there himself. He opened a night school at Hampton that became very popular. His reputation grew, and eventually the founder of Hampton Institute, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, selected Washington to establish a school similar to Hampton in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Arriving in Tuskegee in June of 1881, Washington found that not only was funding minimal, but there was not even a school building in which to conduct classes. Though he had to begin classes in an old church, he eventually succeeded in raising money to buy an abandoned plantation at a cost of $500. His main strategy was to use the building of the school as a learning experience for his students. Washington and his forty pupils learned brick-making, bricklaying, and other necessary skills to construct the first permanent building. As the student enrollment grew and faculty members were added, the Tuskegee students continued to build and make bricks for sale. By the end of the century, Tuskegee boasted more than forty brick buildings—all but four of them constructed by the students.

As Tuskegee became a leading vocational school for African Americans, Washington's reputation grew as well. Through his campaigns to gain funding, he developed skills as a public speaker, and in 1895 a speech he gave at the Atlanta Exposition in Georgia brought him national prominence. The fifteen-minute speech, delivered before an audience of several thousand, summarized his views. He counseled accepting the white call for segregation while insisting on black self-improvement. “In all things that are purely social,” he assured listeners, “we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress” (Up from Slavery, p. 147). It was vitally important now, he continued, for everyone to put their efforts into the training and growth of useful, intelligent black citizens. Over the next five years, as the autobiography relates, Washington's messages brought him recognition from both blacks and whites as America's leading black voice.

Washington's Aims and Methods

Washington believed that African Americans, having suffered under slavery for so long, had to begin at the bottom and work their way up in society by degrees. He thus stressed basic training in areas such as personal hygiene, good manners, and manual labor as a foundation for the study of other subjects. Above all, he believed, blacks needed qualified teachers who could teach the ex-slaves lessons that they could use to improve their daily lives.

Washington's educational philosophy was based on that of General Armstrong, the headmaster of the Hampton Institute during Washington's stint there. Armstrong's ideas were a natural fit with Washington's own character. A practical man, Washington believed in doing the best he could with the tools he was given. His viewpoint in this respect matched that of a number of white New Englanders who had come south, which explains why he got along so well with no-nonsense people like Mrs. Ruffner and General Armstrong. It also explains why Washington tried to cooperate with Southern whites in public, an approach that brought him criticism from some other African Americans. Not in his autobiography but important to gaining an understanding of Washington's methods is the story of his friend Thomas Harris. A black man living in Tuskegee, Harris wished to become a lawyer. For the town's whites, a black carpenter or builder may have been acceptable, but a lawyer or doctor was not. Southerners (and many Northerners too) expected blacks to “know their place” in society—that is, to have ambitions only for jobs involving manual labor. When hostile whites attacked Harris and shot him in the leg, the town's white doctors refused to treat him. The wounded man's friends brought him to Washington and asked him to have the school doctor treat Harris's leg. Washington turned them away, claiming that he could not allow the school to be endangered by a white mob.

This was the story told by the white newspapers, which endorsed Washington's behavior. The story caused other African American leaders to attack Washington bitterly. Yet in reality, while pretending to turn the man away, Washington had secretly arranged and paid for him to be taken to another town and treated there in safety. This solution saved the man and managed to preserve the receptive attitude of the whites toward Washington and the school, an attitude necessary for the school's survival. In this same way, Washington later secretly assisted blacks who challenged white restrictions in court, while on the surface preaching cooperation with white society.

By the 1890s, with the Tuskegee Institute's success to his credit, Washington began to win financial support from millionaires in the white community, people like Andrew Carnegie and the railroad king Collis P. Huntington. He impressed these hard-headed businessmen by telling them exactly how much he needed and what it would be used for, and then by providing an account of every dollar spent. As in other areas of his life, in raising money for the school Washington's own personality—practical and businesslike—appealed to white values. His approach would change somewhat in the decade following the publication of his autobiography. After 1910 or so, he saw evidence that the jobs he had wanted African Americans to fill were being taken over by machines. Washington also became less accepting of existing prejudices, and he grew closer to those who emphasized political equality over cooperation.


Up from Slavery was compiled from articles written by Washington for the journal Outlook. As a book, though, it also has roots in what had by the end of the century become a well-defined genre of literature, the black slave autobiography. The best known of these is The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), but other slaves or former slaves had also published accounts of their lives and struggles, for example, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, published in 1850.

Obviously, Washington's main source was his life experience and the lessons he gleaned from it. Throughout the book, he expresses gratitude to and appreciation for the personalities who guided him. Chief among them were Mrs. Ruffner, the “Yankee” lady for whom he worked during his boyhood, and General Samuel Armstrong, who ran the Hampton Institute. “The lessons,” declares Washington, “I learned in the home of Mrs. Ruffner were as valuable as any education I have ever gotten anywhere since” (Up from Slavery, p. 30). The General was, in Washington's words, simply “the noblest, rarest human being that it has ever been my privilege to meet” (Up from Slavery, p. 37).


Up from Slavery won praise from both blacks and whites. Even before its publication, however, a growing number of African American leaders had begun to question Washington's approach. W. E. B. Du Bois, a Northerner from Massachusetts and the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University, led the attack. Why, these critics demanded, should blacks wait to win economic and political equality? They had waited for more than thirty years already. By what law or principle should blacks be relegated to manual labor? Du Bois was by 1901 becoming an outspoken advocate of a more aggressive challenge to the status quo.

While Du Bois and others objected to Washington's doctrine of cooperation with whites as presented in Up from Slavery, the book was not all they criticized. They also resented what Du Bois called the “Tuskegee Machine,” referring to Washington's extensive if informal political influence. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, for example, sought Washington's approval when appointing blacks (and some whites) to office. Two years after Up from Slavery appeared, Du Bois would respond to Washington's ideas with a passionately argued book of his own, The Souls of Black Folk. And in 1909, with other prominent African Americans, Du Bois would aid in establishing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization that developed into the most vocal opponent of the ideas presented in Washington's autobiography.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1430002941