Up From Slavery


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 have been able to 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.[11]

Lynching in the South at this time was prevalent as mobs of whites would take the law into their own hands and would torture and murder of dozens of men and women, including white men. The offenses of the victims included: "for being victor over a white man in a 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 complicit himself and become vulnerable to violence by the mob. In 1901, Reverend Quincy Ewing of Mississippi charged the press and pulpit with uniting public sentiment against lynching. Lynching would continue into the 1950s and 1960s.[12]

Some blame Washington's comparatively sheepish message upon a lack of desire for true African-American uplift. But for some, taking into account the environment in which he was delivering his message, support 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."[13] This assessment of the book makes Washington accessible to both white and black audiences.

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