Up From Slavery

Up From Slavery Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Coal mine

The coal mine where Washington worked as a boy can be thought of as a symbol of where he began on his path to greatness. A coal mine is about as low as one can get, situated deep in the earth where no light can get in. In Washington's case, working at the mines even jeopardized his schooling, which he saw as the way out of those depths.

Cloth cap

Washington's mother made him a cap out of two pieces of cloth so that he would have something to cover his head at school. Washington was proud that she didn't go into debt to buy him a "store hat," but rather made one herself: "I have always felt proud… that my mother had strength of character enough not to be led into the temptation of seeming to be that which she was not" (13). The cap thus serves as a symbol of the self-reliance, thrift, and industry that he so esteems.

Flag raised by the color-bearer

Washington spoke, among other places, at the dedication of the statue of Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the first all-black regiment of the Civil War. There, the color-bearer from Fort Wagner (where the unit had shown exceptional bravery despite suffering heavy losses) raised the flag as Washington spoke, and the crowd went wild. The flag served as a symbol not only of the United States, but also of the bravery of African Americans in fighting for their country and, by extension, the contributions they would continue to make.

A Negro Moses

James Creelman, when describing the Atlanta Exposition address, compared Washington to a "Negro Moses" (91) and noted that when he spoke, "his whole face lit up with the fire of prophecy" (91). Such terms convey the esteem with which Washington was held. He was seen as a leader who, like Moses, would bring his race from slavery to the promised land of prosperity.

Henry O. Tanner

While traveling through Europe, Washington and his wife spend some time with Henry O. Tanner, a famous African American painter. The artist serves as a symbol of Washington's belief that individual merit will be rewarded regardless of a person's race. He noted that people generally did not even think to ask what Tanner's race was, as they were far more interested in the work he was able to produce.