Booker T. Washington is the narrator of the book. In the book, he shares his life story, from his early years in slavery to the height of his career as president of the Tuskegee Institute, renowned orator, and spokesman for the black race.
Washington's mother was the plantation cook. She had three children: Washington, his older brother John, and his younger sister Amanda. Despite the family's poverty, she also adopted an orphan boy, James. Washington comments about how much his mother supported his education. She somehow procured a Webster spelling book for him to learn his alphabet, and she sewed a cap for him in order to fit in with the children at school. Washington greatly respected her for refusing to go into debt to purchase a store-bought cap, instead solving the problem by making one herself. She passed away during one of his summer breaks while he was studying at the Hampton Institute.
Washington's stepfather brought the family to West Virginia after Emancipation, where he had procured a cabin and a job in a salt mine. He made Washington and his brother John work in the salt mine as well, even though they were still children. He was far less supportive of his stepson's desire to go to school than Washington's mother, allowing the boy to attend only with the condition that he work many hours before and after classes. Ironically, Washington took his last name from his stepfather's first name (Washington), giving himself this surname when he realized he was supposed to possess two names at school.
Washington's brother, John
John was very supportive of his younger brother. As a child, he wore Washington's new, uncomfortable flax shirt for a few days to break it in. When Washington wanted to go to the Hampton Institute to further his education, John helped him as much as he could with whatever money he could spare. He worked in the coalmines to support the family while Washington was studying. After graduating, Washington repaid the favor by preparing John to enter Hampton himself, and by saving money to help pay his expenses. John later became Superintendent of Industries at Tuskegee. Both brothers also helped send their adopted brother James to Hampton, which prepared him to become Tuskegee's postmaster.
Mrs. Viola Ruffner
Viola Ruffner was the wife of General Lewis Ruffner, owner of the salt-furnace and the coalmine where Washington and his brother John worked. Although she had a reputation for being unusually strict with her servants, Washington preferred to enter her service than to continue working at the coalmine. He worked for her at a salary of $5 per month and soon learned how to keep her satisfied. He credits her with teaching him valuable lessons about how to take care of a house. Ruffner was supportive of Washington's education and allowed him to go to school for an hour a day during some of the winter months. It was while living with her that he began to compile his first "library."
Miss Mary F. Mackie
Mary F. Mackie was the head teacher at Hampton and controlled who would be admitted. Washington impressed her with his diligence while cleaning the recitation room, and she hired him as a janitor along with allowing him to enter the institution. The position was instrumental in allowing Washington to study, as it paid for nearly all of his board. Mackie became a good friend and worked alongside Washington to prepare the school for students' entrance. He respected the way she cleaned windows, dusted rooms, put beds in order, and so on, despite being a member of one of the oldest and most cultured northern families.
General Samuel C. Armstrong
General Armstrong was the leader of the Hampton Institute and one of Washington's most important mentors. He was a northern white man, but he dedicated his life to helping students of both races in the south. Armstrong was well loved and respected by his students, who, for instance, gladly honored his request to live in tents during the cold winter in order to make room for more students. He was instrumental in advancing Washington's career: he found a donor to defray the cost of his tuition at Hampton, invited him to return to the school to teach and start a night-school, and recommended him to the founders of the Tuskegee Institute. He helped Washington raise funds as well, donating some of his own money and introducing his former student to potential donors in the North. The two were so close that Armstrong spent several months at the end of his life with Washington at Tuskegee.
Mr. George W. Campbell and Mr. Lewis Adams
Campbell and Adams were the two men who wrote to General Armstrong requesting a teacher to run the Tuskegee Institute. Campbell was a white man and an ex-slaveholder, while Adams was a black man and an ex-slave. Washington depended on both men for advice and guidance.
Miss Fannie N. Smith
Smith was Washington's first wife. She came from West Virginia and was a graduate of the Hampton Institute. The two married in 1882 and had one daughter, Portia Washington, who became an accomplished dressmaker, musician, and teacher. Smith passed away in 1884, just two years after marrying Washington.
Olivia A. Davidson
Davidson was Washington's second wife. She was born in Ohio, but moved to the South when she heard of the need for teachers there. Based on Washington's account, she was an extraordinarily generous and selfless woman. While working in Mississippi, for instance, one of her pupils became sick with smallpox. When nobody would nurse him for fear of catching the disease, she closed her school and nursed him herself. Similarly, she offered her services as a yellow-fever nurse in Memphis, despite having no immunity.
Davidson was educated at the Hampton Institute and the Massachusetts State Normal School. She came to Tuskegee soon afterwards, bringing many fresh ideas. Along with Washington, she helped to raise funds and to plan the future of the institution.
Washington and Davidson married in 1885. They had two children together: Baker Taliaferro, who later mastered the brickmason's trade at Tuskegee; and Ernest Davidson Washington, who at the time of the book's publication was studying to be a physician. Davidson passed away in 1889, after four years of marriage and eight years of work for the school.
General J. F. B. Marshall
General Marshall was treasurer of the Hampton Institute. He generously loaned Washington $250 from his own personal funds to purchase an abandoned plantation house for the Tuskegee Institute. This was the school's first loan and marked the beginning of Washington's fundraising career.
Rev. Robert C. Bedford
Reverend Bedford was a white man from Wisconsin who became the pastor of a colored Congregational church in Montgomery, Alabama. He gave the first Thanksgiving service at Tuskegee. Bedford became one of the trustees of the school and maintained his connection for 18 years.
Mr. Warren Logan
Logan was the treasurer of the Tuskegee Institute for 17 years. He also served as acting principal during Washington's many absences. Like many of his colleagues, he was educated at Hampton.
Hon. J. L. M. Curry and Mr. Morris K. Jesup
Hon. J. L. M. Curry - general agent for the Slater and Peabody funds.
Mr. Morris K. Jesup - treasurer of the Slater fund - gives not only money but time and thought to elevating the Negro; these two men helped a sum of money be sued to pay the expenses of his wife and Washington to hold a series of meetings among colored people in large centers of Negro population; meetings were attended by both colored and white people; Mrs. Washington would speak with the women; this let them get first-hand information as to the condition of people of the race.
Hon. Thomas W. Bicknell
Bicknell was the president of the National Educational Association and extended the first invitation Washington received to be a speaker. This first address, in front of around four thousand members of the Educational Association in Madison, WI, paved the way for Washington's famous Atlanta Exposition address.
Dr. Lyman Abbott
Abbott was the editor of Outlook Magazine, formerly the Christian Union, which later published Up from Slavery in a series of installments. He was the pastor of a church and asked Washington to write a letter for the paper giving his opinion of the condition of colored ministers in the South. Washington's views upset many black ministers, but eventually they led to a demand for better men being placed in the pulpit.
Miss Margaret James Murray
Murray was Washington's third wife. A native of Mississippi, Murray attended Fisk University in Nashville, TN and was serving as Tuskegee's Lady Principal when she and Washington married in 1893. Other activities included running a mothers' meeting at Tuskegee, doing plantation work with the residents of a settlement connected with a large plantation near town, and running a woman's club.
Mr. Francis J. Garrison
Mr. Garrison was a supporter of Washington from Boston. He helped raise the money to send Washington and his wife to Europe for a few months to enjoy his first vacation in 18 years. Garrison also made plans for the two to visit a number of important people in England and France.
Up From Slavery Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Up From Slavery is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
At the close of Washington's time in Washington, D.C., he received an invitation from a committee of whites in Charleston to advocate on behalf of the city to become the new capital of West Virginia. He accepted and spent three months speaking...
Washington gained more insight into the lives of the people of Alabama by witnessing their Christmas traditions. The day before, scores of children knocked on doors asking for "Chris'mus gifts!" (50). Following the traditions of slave times, there...