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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Booker T. Washington

Booker Taliaferro Washington’s life and most important literary work embodied the American myth of the poor boy who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps to become a success. As he wrote in his autobiography, Up from Slavery, he was born a slave in Franklin County, Virginia, “in the midst of the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surroundings.” He received no help from his white father, whose identity has never been ascertained. It was his mother, Jane, the cook for a small planter named James Burroughs, who taught young Booker his survival lessons. Booker (he did not take the name Washington until he began to attend school) spent his first nine years as a slave on the Burroughs farm. When the Civil War ended, his mother took him and his three siblings to Malden, West Virginia, to join her husband, Washington Ferguson, a former slave who had found employment in the salt mines. Booker soon went to work at a salt furnace; by the time he was twelve years old, he had seen considerable dangerous work in the Malden coal mines. Nevertheless the boy had his dream—he wanted to go to school.

By attending night school sporadically, Washington achieved fundamental literacy, but he was unable to get any regular schooling until he went to work as a houseboy for Mrs. Viola Ruffner, the wife of a Malden mine owner. She was the first of many well-placed white people whom Washington learned to please in exchange for their support of his ambitions. From her he learned lessons that in 1872 enabled him to gain admission into the Hampton Institute, an industrial school for blacks and American Indians near Norfolk, Virginia. He studied not only the academic curriculum at Hampton but also the ways in which its president, Samuel C. Armstrong, won the admiration of his black students and the goodwill of the white community. After graduating from Hampton with honors in 1875, Washington soon returned as a faculty member. In 1881 the Alabama legislature asked Armstrong to recommend someone who could found a school for black teachers at Tuskegee in the heart of the state’s “Black Belt.” Washington was his choice.

From 1881 until his death Washington concentrated on three goals: (1) the creation and maintenance of Tuskegee Institute as a major black-run educational institution, (2) the advancement of his own power as a national racial leader, and (3) the publicizing and defense of his philosophy of African American education and socioeconomic progress. With a modest tone, Washington provides considerable evidence of the lofty status he attained in the eyes of powerful whites. The text of his most famous address, which he gave at the opening of the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, is followed by a letter from President Grover Cleveland congratulating him on the wisdom of his ideas about how to solve America’s race problem. Without expounding these ideas systematically in his autobiography, Washington makes Up from Slavery demonstrate their efficacy in his life and in the life of Tuskegee.

As many post-war African American leaders believed, Washington felt the key to his race’s advancement was education. But the kind of education that Tuskegee offered was what Washington called “practical knowledge”—“knowing how to make a living.” This attitude toward education gave Washington his reputation as a realist. When he urged fellow blacks in his Atlanta Exposition address “to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful,” he concerned himself with the here and now, rather than romantic hopes and distant ideals.

Washington’s brand of realism had profound political implications. Black leaders like Frederick Douglass had traditionally laid claim to the principles of full citizenship embodied in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. But Washington’s pragmatism implied that African Americans had to prove they were qualified for civil rights by making a success of themselves first in the economic arena.

For a half century after its publication Up from Slavery was the best-known book written by an African American. This was mainly attributable to Washington’s skill in subtly revising his literary models, the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass. Up from Slavery is a slave narrative whose opening recalls Douglass’s 1845 Narrative, but Washington’s agenda is radically different from his predecessor’s. While Douglass depicts slavery as a hell on earth, Washington blandly calls it a “school” that helped prepare blacks for the role that he argues they were ready and willing to assume in the post-war economic order. Washington attributes his successes to his adherence to many of the virtues celebrated in Franklin’s archetypal American success story: selflessness, industry, honesty, and optimism. But as recent scholarship has shown, behind the mask of the public-spirited, humble, and plainspoken schoolmaster one can often find a devious and self-centered power broker. To read Up from Slavery is to explore the rhetorical means by which Washington constructed the most powerful and disingenuous myth of black selfhood in his era.

William L. Andrews
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In the Heath Anthology
from Up from Slavery
      Chapter I: "A Slave Among Slaves" (1901)
      Chapter III: "The Struggle for an Education" (1901)
      Chapter VI: "Black Race and Red Race" (1901)
      Chapter XIII: "Two Thousand Miles for a Five-Minute Speech" (1901)
      Chapter XIV: "The Atlanta Exposition Address" (1901)

Other Works
The Appeal to Reason (1895 - 1929)
The Future of the American Negro (1899)
My Larger Education (1911)
Working with the Hands (1940)

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Up from Slavery: An Autobiography
The complete text of Washington's autobiography, with a portrait and illustrations.

About Booker T. Washington
Brief biography by Louis Harlan, University of Maryland.

Booker T. Washington
Photograph, biography, and selected bibliography.

Booker T. Washington Monument
Historic quotes and information about the monument.

Recent Acquisitions: Letters from Booker T. Washington
Scans of two letters provided by the University of Virginia's library.

The Booker T. Washington Papers
Images and a multitude of Washington's texts in a searchable database.

Secondary Sources

William L. Andrews, "The Representation of Slavery and the Rise of Afro-American Literary Realism, 1865-1920," Slavery and the Literary Imagination, eds. Deborah E. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad, 1989

Louis R. Harlan, Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901, 1972

Louis R. Harlan, Booker T. Washington; The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915, 1983 \

"Lost in a Cause: Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery," From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative, ed. Robert B. Stepto, 1979

August Meier, Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915, 1963