Up from Slavery tells the life story of Booker T. Washington, from childhood through the height of his career. It is written in the first person, supplemented with excerpts from letters and newspaper editorials about his work.
Washington was born as a slave on a plantation in Virginia. He had a burning desire for education and, once freedom came, he taught himself to read. He spent much of his boyhood working in a salt furnace and a coal mine, attending school whenever he could. When he heard of the Hampton Institute - a school open to people of all races where students could work in exchange for board - he became determined to attend. After working for some time in the home of Mrs. Viola Ruffner, he set off for Hampton. His excellent training and work habits paid off, as he was hired as a janitor and allowed to enroll.
At Hampton, Washington became acquainted with his lifelong mentor and friend, General Armstrong, to whom he credits the idea of industrial education. He also learned to eat with a tablecloth and a napkin, bathe regularly, brush his teeth, and use sheets. Donors paid his tuition, but he worked hard both during the year and in the summers to pay for his board and necessities such as clothing and books. He learned that the happiest people were those who did the most for others, and also that one of the best things education could do is to teach a man to love labor.
After graduation, Washington returned to his hometown of Malden, VA and began teaching in the community. He taught both during the day and at night, and prepared several students (including his brothers) to attend Hampton. He also studied for eight months in Washington, D.C., where he found that students were less self-reliant as they had not learned to help themselves through industrial work. He found that many blacks in the city had become lazy, hoping for an easy life.
At the close of his studies, Washington was invited to teach at Hampton. He lived with a group of American Indian men as a "house father," and also took charge of the newly opened night school. When two men wrote to General Armstrong looking for someone to take charge of a new school for coloured people in Tuskegee, Alabama, Washington was recommended and accepted the job. He spent some time traveling around the region to get a sense of people's needs, and found they were extremely great.
When the Tuskegee Institute opened, there were just 30 students and one teacher, and the only structures were an old shanty and an abandoned church. Washington, along with Olivia Davidson, a teacher who later became his wife, worked hard to raise funds to purchase an abandoned plantation close to town. They shared a vision to teach far more than books, including proper hygiene, diet, table manners, and the practical knowledge of an industry that would allow students to make a living. With a loan from General Marshall, Treasurer of the Hampton Institute, they purchased the land and had students repair the dilapidated buildings. Students also cleared the land and planted crops, under the leadership of Washington himself.
Soon Washington and Davidson began traveling north to fundraise for new buildings. Students dug the foundations and did most of the labor themselves. They also learned to make bricks and furniture, and Washington saw that providing a needed service for the community did a lot to improve race relations. Despite objections from students and their parents, Washington insisted that all students learn an industry and spend sufficient time working at their trade. Enrollment increased, and the school soon opened a boarding department. With more students came the need for more buildings and funds, and Washington increased his fundraising efforts.
When traveling north to raise money, Washington also began receiving invitations to give lectures. After speaking at the National Educational Association in Madison, WI, he received an invitation to speak in Atlanta, which opened the door to giving an address at the opening of the Atlanta Cotton states and International Exposition in September 1895. This address was the high point of his career. Speaking in front of an audience of mixed race and origin (north and south), he shared his ideas that southern blacks should remain in the south and primarily work with their hands, and that southern whites should turn to their black neighbors rather than to foreign immigrants to meet their needs. Blacks should not agitate for social equality, but rather earn privileges through hard work and struggle. The speech was extremely well received by the white community, and Washington was soon in high demand as a speaker. Some of his own race were less positive, however, as they felt he had not spoken out strongly enough for black "rights."
Washington spoke at a number of other notable events, including the dedication of the Robert Gould Shaw monument in Boston and a peace celebration in Chicago following the close of the Spanish-American war. Tuskegee by that time was able to run itself in his absence, although he was kept informed of its proceedings through daily reports. He was also honored in a number of public receptions and received an honorary degree from Harvard University.
In the spring of 1899, some of Washington's friends in Boston arranged for him and his wife to take a tour of Europe for a few months. It was his first vacation in 19 years. The couple visited Holland, Belgium, France, and England and met a number of important individuals, including the queen of England.
Tuskegee grew enormously in the twenty years since its inception. From its start in a broken-down shanty and a hen-house, it had grown to 2300 acres of land, 66 buildings, thirty industrial departments, 1400 students, and 110 officers and instructors, and it was well-respected enough to earn a visit from President McKinley.