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Up from Slavery is the 1901 autobiography of Booker T. Washington detailing his personal experiences in working to rise from the position of a slave child during the Civil War, to the difficulties and obstacles he overcame to get an education at the new Hampton University, to his work establishing vocational schools—most notably the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama—to help black people and other disadvantaged minorities learn useful, marketable skills and work to pull themselves, as a race, up by the bootstraps. He reflects on the generosity of both teachers and philanthropists who helped in educating blacks and native Americans. He describes his efforts to instill manners, breeding, health and a feeling of dignity to students. His educational philosophy stresses combining academic subjects with learning a trade (something which is reminiscent of the educational theories of John Ruskin). Washington explained that the integration of practical subjects is partly designed to reassure the white community as to the usefulness of educating black people.
This text, while certainly a biography of his life, is in fact an illustration of the problem facing African Americans by detailing the problems of one. By showing how he has risen from servitude to success, he demonstrates how others of his race can do the same, as well as how sympathizers can aid in the process.
This book was first released as a serialized work in 1900 through The Outlook, a Christian newspaper of New York. It is important to mention that this work was serialized because this meant that during the writing process, Washington was able to hear critiques and requests from his audience and could more easily adapt his paper to his diverse audience.
Washington was a somewhat controversial figure in his own lifetime, and W. E. B. Du Bois, for example, criticized some of his views. The book was, however, a best-seller, and remained the most popular African American autobiography until that of Malcolm X. In 1998, the Modern Library listed the book at #3 on its list of the 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century.
Up from Slavery chronicles over fifty years of Washington's life: from slave to schoolmaster to the face of southern race relations. In this text, Washington climbs the social ladder through hard, manual labor, a decent education, and relationships with great people. Throughout the text, he stresses the importance of education on the black population as a reasonable tactic to ease race relations in the South. The book is in essence Washington's traditional, non-confrontational message supported by the example of his life.
A Slave Among Slaves - In the first chapter, the reader is given a vivid yet brief sight of the life of slaves, as seen from the author's point of view. Basically, it speaks of the hardships the slaves endured before independence, their dedication for their masters, and their joys and hassles after liberty.The first chapter explains about his suffering in that plantation.
Boyhood Days – In the second chapter, the reader learns the importance of naming oneself as a means of reaffirming freedom and the extent to which freedmen and women would go to reunite their families. After families had reunited and named themselves, they would then seek out employment (usually far from their former masters). The reader learns the story behind the author's name: Booker Taliaferro Washington. The second chapter also gives an account of cruel child labour on the mines at the city of Malden. Furthermore, Booker is badly attracted towards education and oscillates between the extensive schedule of the day's work and the school. The second chapter also describes the role of Booker's mother and her character. She was very much supporting to him and would fulfill his needs at any cost.
The Struggle for Education – Washington struggles, in this chapter, to earn enough money to reach and remain at Hampton Institute. That was his first experience related to the importance of willingness to do manual labor. This is the first introduction of General Samuel C. Armstrong
Helping Others – Conditions at Hampton are discussed in this chapter, as well as Washington's first trip home from school. He returns early from vacation to aid teachers in the cleaning of their classrooms. When Washington returns the next summer, he is elected to teach local students, young and old, through a night school, Sunday school, and private lessons. This chapter also gives the first mention of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
The Reconstruction Period (1867-1878) – Washington paints an image of the South during Reconstruction, with several assessments of Reconstruction projects including: education, vocational opportunities, and voting rights. He speaks of the Reconstruction policy being built on "a false foundation." He seeks to play a role in forming a more solid foundation based upon "the hand, head, and heart."
Black Race and Red Race – General Armstrong calls Washington back to Hampton Institute for the purpose of instructing and advising a group of young Native-American men. Washington speaks about different instances of racism against Native Americans and African Americans. Washington also begins a night school at this time.
Early Days at Tuskegee – Once again General Armstrong is instrumental in encouraging Washington's next project: the establishment of a normal school for African Americans in Tuskegee, Alabama. He describes the conditions in Tuskegee and his work in building the school: "much like making bricks without straw. Washington also outlines a typical day in the life of an African American living in the country at this time.
Teaching School in a Stable and a Hen-house – Washington details the necessity of a new form of education for the children of Tuskegee, for the typical New England education would not be sufficient to affect uplift. Here is also the introduction of long-time partners, George W. Campbell and Lewis Adams, and future wife, Olivia A. Davidson; these individuals felt similarly to Washington in that mere book-learning would not be enough. The goal was established to prepare students of Tuskegee to become teachers, farmers, and overall moral people.
Anxious Days and Sleepless Nights – This chapter starts by stating how the people spent Christmas drinking and having a merry time, and not bearing in mind the true essence of Christmas. This chapter also discusses the Institute's relationship with the locals of Tuskegee, the purchase and cultivation of a new farm, the erection of a new building, and the introduction of several generous donors, mostly northern. The death of Washington's first wife, Fannie N. Smith, is announced in this chapter. He had a daughter named Portia.
A Harder Task Than Making Bricks Without Straw – In this chapter, Washington discusses the importance of having the students erect their own buildings: "Not a few times, when a new student has been led into the temptation of marring the looks of some building by lead pencil marks or by the cuts of a jack-knife, I have heard an old student remind him: 'Don't do that. That is our building. I helped put it up.'" The bricks reference in the title refers to the difficulty of forming bricks without some very necessary tools: money and experience. Through much labor, the students were able to produce fine bricks; their confidence then spilling over into other efforts, such as the building of vehicles.
Making Their Beds Before They Could Lie In Them – The establishment of a boarding department is discussed as attendance rises at Tuskegee Institute. Washington impresses upon the students at Tuskegee that this is not his school, it is theirs for they have as much an interest in its success as anyone else. With this philosophy in mind, students proceed to construct their own furniture. Washington also impresses upon Tuskegee students the importance of the tooth brush.
Raising Money – Washington travels north to secure additional funding for the Institute with which he had much success. Two years after a meeting with one man, the Institute received a cheque of ten thousand dollars and, from another couple, a gift of fifty thousand dollars. Washington felt great pressure for his school and students to succeed, for failure would reflect poorly on the ability of the race. It is this time period Washington begins working with Andrew Carnegie, proving to Carnegie that this school was worthy of support. And Not only did Washington find large donations helpful, but small loans were key which paid the bills and gave evidence to the community's faith in this type of education.
Two Thousand Miles for a Five-Minute Speech – Washington marries again. His new wife is Olivia Davidson, first mentioned in Chapter 8. This chapter begins Washington's public speaking career; first at the National Education Association. His next goal was to speak before a Southern white audience, unfortunately his first opportunity was limited severely by prior engagements and travel time, leaving him only five minutes to give his speech. Subsequent speeches were filled with purpose: when in the North he would be actively seeking funds, when in the South encouraged "the material and intellectual growth of both races." The result of one speech was the Atlanta Exposition.
The Atlanta Exposition Address - The speech that Washington gave to the Atlanta Exposition is printed here in its entirety. He also gives some explanation of the reaction to his speech: first, delight from all, then, slowly, a feeling among African Americans that Washington had not been strong enough in regards to the "'rights' of the race. In time, however, the African American public would become, once again, generally pleased with Washington's goals and methods for African American uplift. Washington also speaks about the African American clergy. He also makes a much disputed statement about voting: "I believe it is the duty of the Negro – as the greater part of the race is already doing – to deport himself modestly in regard to political claims, depending upon the slow but sure influences that proceed from the possession of property, intelligence, and high character for the full recognition of his political rights. I think that the according of the full exercise of political rights is going to be a matter of natural, slow growth, not an over-night, gourd-vine affair. I do not believe that the Negro should cease voting…but I do believe that in his voting he should more and more be influenced by those of intelligence and character who are his next-door neighbors…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 from voting. Such a law is not only unjust, but it 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. I believe that in time, through the operation of intelligence and friendly race relations, all cheating at the ballot box in the South will cease."
The Secret Success in Public Speaking – Washington speaks again of the reception of his Atlanta Exposition Speech. He then goes on to give the reader some advice about public speaking and describes several memorable speeches...
Europe – The author is married a third time, to Margaret James Murray. He speaks about his children. At this time, he and his wife are offered the opportunity to travel to Europe. Mixed emotions influenced their decision to go: Washington had always dreamed of traveling to Europe, but he feared the reaction of the people, for so many times had he seen individuals of his race achieve success and then turned away from the people. Mr. and Mrs. Washington enjoyed their trip, especially upon seeing their friend, Henry Tanner, an African American artist, being praised by all classes. During their time abroad, the couple was also able to take tea with both Queen Victoria and Susan B. Anthony. Upon arriving back in the United States, Washington was asked to visit Charleston, West Virginia, near his former home in Malden.
Last Words – Washington describes his last interactions with General Armstrong and his first with Armstrong's successor, Rev. Dr. Hollis B. Frissell. The greatest surprise of his life was being invited to receive an honorary degree from Harvard University, the first awarded to an African American. Another great honor for Washington and Tuskegee was the visit of President McKinley to the Institute, an act which McKinley hoped to impress upon citizens his "interest and faith in the race." Washington then describes the conditions at Tuskegee Institute and his resounding hope for the future of the race.
The America of the 1880s and 1890s was one of white hostility toward African Americans. There was also the belief that the African American race would not be able to even survive without the institution of slavery. Popular culture played in to the ideas of "black criminality and moral decline" as can be seen in the characters Jim Crow and Zip Coon. When Washington began his writing and public speaking, he was fighting the notion that African Americans were inherently stupid and incapable of civilization. Washington's primary goal was to impress upon the audience the possibility of progress. Furthermore, living in the Black Belt, Booker T. Washington was vulnerable to mob violence and was, therefore, always mindful not to provoke the mob. As would be expected for a man in such precarious position, when violence erupted, he tried to stem his talk of equality and progress so as not to exacerbate the situation.
Lynching in the South at this time was incredibly prevalent as mobs of heated and barbaric white southerners would take the law into their own hands and would participate in the torture and murder of dozens of men and women, even white men. The offenses of the victims included: "for being victor over what man in fight;" "protecting fugitive from posse;" "stealing seventy-five cents;" "expressing sympathy for mob's victim;" "for being father of boy who jostled white women." It is clear that any white person to show sympathy or offer protection for African American victims would be labeled a criminal himself and leave him vulnerable to violence by the mob. In 1901, Reverend Quincy Ewing of Mississippi charged the press and pulpit with uniting public sentiment against lynching. Unfortunately, lynching would continue well into the 1950s and 1960s.
It is easy to blame Washington's comparatively sheepish message on a lack of desire for true African-American uplift, but, if one takes into account the environment in which he was delivering his message, it is much more appropriate and empathetic to instead applaud Washington for making any public stance at all. His strategy of garnering sympathy and speaking realistically, encouraged many in staunch opposition to consider the possibility of civil rights and liberties.
April 1, 1901, The Washington Post describes Up From Slavery quite plainly: [Mr. Washington's] book is full of practical wisdom and sound common sense. It may be read with profit by white and black alike." This assessment of the book makes Washington accessible to both white and black audiences.
Nearly 100 years after the publication of Up from Slavery, some critics refuse to see this text as anything more than egotism:
"An autobiography necessarily involves egotism, even if only slightly. The writer feels that his life has such instructive value that it ought to be told of, written about, so that other people can benefit from life well led--at least, ultimately. In the past, only 'heroes' or other persons of great stature qualified for such distinction. Personally, I believe that no one under the age of 35 should write an autobiography unless he or she has had extensive therapy. Before that age, people haven't had enough time to get a perspective on their lives. In the 19th century there were many slave narratives (autobiographies) fostered by abolitionists who used them as political fodder in advancing their cause. I imagine there was titillation involved, too: 'Tell us what it's like to be a slave.' The same continued into the 20th century: 'Tell us what it's like to be a Negro.' 'Up From Slavery,' by Booker T. Washington, arrived on the scene, but Richard Wright's "Black Boy" really did the trick. By the time Claude Brown, a manchild who reached the promised land, arrived on the scene, 'they' wanted to know what it was like to be black: 'Tell us about the essential bleakness of black life in America.' A host of other writers obliged. As this millennium stumbles toward its close, that demand still resonates. In response, what I term 'new slave narratives' flood the market place telling us what it's like to be black and formerly criminal on the new plantation."
This inflammatory language and disregard for the importance of Washington's life and message was part of the motive for other advocates of civil rights to utilize a more direct and abrasive approach. They began to demand, rather than request, the respect and dignity they deserved from southern whites. Unfortunately, it seems these messages have not quite stuck with the entirety of the population.
Since publishing, Up From Slavery paints Booker T. Washington as both an "accommodationist and calculating realist seeking to carve out a viable strategy for black struggle amidst the nadir of race relations in the United States." While more contemporary ideas of black civil rights call for a more provocative approach, Washington was certainly a major figure in his time. Most critiques of Washington target his accommodationism, yet his private life was very much aimed at opposition through funding. The Atlanta Exposition speech shows his dual nature, giving everyone present something to agree with, no matter their intention. Washington deserves praise for "seeking to be all things to all men in a multifaceted society." Many do argue against his being characterized as an accommodationist: "He worked too hard to resist and to overcome white supremacy to call him an accommodationist, even if some of his white-supremacist souther neighbors so construed some of his statements. Having conditions forced on him, with threat of destruction clearly the cost of resistance, does not constitute a fair definition of accommodation." Historians are quite thoroughly split over this characterization.
W.E.B. DuBois initially applauded Washington's stance on racial uplift, at one point he went as far as to say of the Atlanta Exposition speech: "here might be a real basis for the settlement between whites and blacks in the South." DuBois, in his book The Souls of Black Folk, congratulates Washington for accomplishing his first task, which was to earn the ear of the white southern population through a spirit of sympathy and cooperation. He also acknowledges the unstable situation in the south and the necessity for sensitivity to community feelings, yet he believes that Washington has failed in his sensitivity to African Americans. DuBois asserts that there are many educated and successful African Americans who would criticize the work of Washington, but they are being hushed in such a way as to impede "democracy and the safeguard of modern society." This is where their paths would diverge: Washington with his "Tuskegee Machine" and DuBois with the "Niagara Movement."
In 1905, the Niagara Movement issued a statement enumerating their demands against oppression and for civil rights. The Movement established itself as an entity entirely removed from Washingtonin conciliation, but rather a new, more radical course of action: "Through helplessness we may submit, but the voice of protest of ten million Americans must never cease to assail the ears of their fellows, so long as America is unjust." For a time, the Movement grew very successfully, but they lost their effectiveness when chapters began to disagree with one another. Eventually, the Movement's efforts translated into the development of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Of course there were other participants in this discussion of the future of the African American race, including that of W.H. Thomas, another African American man. Thomas believed that African Americans were "deplorably bad" and that it would require a "miracle" to make any sort of progress. As in the case of Washington and DuBois, Washington and Thomas have areas of agreement, though DuBois would not so agree: that the best chance for an African American was in the areas of farming and country life. In some respects, it is hard to compare the two as each has different intentions.
Similarly, Thomas Dixon, author of The Clansman, began a newspaper controversy with Washington over the industrial system, most likely to encourage talk of his upcoming book. He characterized the newfound independence of Tuskegee graduates as inciting competition: "Competition is war….What will the [southern white man] do when put to the test? He will do exactly what his white neighbor in the North does whn the Negro threatens his bread—kill him!"
The debate over the place of African Americans in America, their rights and privileges continued clear through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s to the present day. While many in modern America would label Booker T. Washington as a "politically correct" accommodationist, he merely represents one figure in the multidimensional movement toward racial uplift and equality.
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In September 2011, a seven part documentary television and DVD series was produced by LionHeart FilmWorks and director Kevin Hershberger using the title Up From Slavery. The 315-minute series is distributed by Mill Creek Entertainment. This series is not directly about the Booker T. Washington autobiography Up From Slavery, but tells the story of Black Slavery in America from the first arrival of African slaves at Jamestown in 1619 to the Civil War and the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which prohibits the government from denying a citizen the vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude (i.e., slavery), the third of the Reconstruction Amendments which finally ended the legitimacy of slavery in the United States.
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