Up From Slavery

Up From Slavery Quotes and Analysis

As a rule, not only did the members of my race entertain no feelings of bitterness against the whites before and during the war, but there are many instances of Negroes tenderly caring for their former masters and mistresses who for some reason have become poor and dependent since the war.


Washington was very cognizant of his audience, as he relied upon his white readers to support the Tuskegee Institute. For this reason, he was careful to ensure Southern whites that members of his race had no bitterness against their former masters, whether or not that was actually true for all. To stress his point, he repeated this sentiment five times in the first chapter alone. Washington's accommodationist tactics were effective at winning this support, as evidenced by the fact that he became the de facto leader and spokesmen for his race. At the same time, it also earned him some vocal critics in the black community.

Ever since I have been old enough to think for myself, I have entertained the idea that, notwithstanding the cruel wrongs inflicted upon us, the black man got nearly as much out of slavery as the white man did. The hurtful influences of the institution were not by any means confined to the Negro… The whole machinery of slavery was so constructed as to cause labour, as a rule, to be looked upon as a badge of degradation, of inferiority… The slave system on our place, in a large measure, took the spirit of self-reliance and self-help out of the white people.


In this quote, too, Washington assuages the guilt of the former slaveholder by implying that both blacks and whites were victims of the system of slavery, rather than placing blame on any group of people. In this way he stresses the common bond between the two races, even though each suffered in different ways. Washington also makes clear the importance he places on self-reliance and the dignity of labor, arguing that the reason whites were hurt by slavery is that it deprived them of the ability to help themselves.

There is no education which one can get from books and costly apparatus that is equal to that which can be gotten from contact with great men and women.


Washington wrote this line in reference to General Armstrong, his teacher and mentor at Hampton, whom he describes in glowing terms. However, it could easily refer to any of a large number of individuals he praises who have influenced him in some way. It is notable that he includes women in this quote, reflecting a progressive view of women given the norms of his time.

Those who are happiest are those who do the most for others.


Washington repeatedly expresses the sentiment communicated in this quote. For instance, when describing Hampton, he notes that "at that institution [he] got [his] first taste of what it meant to live a life of unselfishness, [his] first knowledge of the fact that the happiest individuals are those who do the most to make others useful and happy" (28). Later on, he reiterates: "In meeting men, in many places, I have found that the happiest people are those who do the most for others; the most miserable are those who do the least" (87). This repetition suggests that this idea - that serving others leads to happiness - is one of Washington's core beliefs, influencing his own dedication to the Tuskegee Institute.

In all my teaching I have watched carefully the influence of the tooth-brush, and I am convinced that there are few single agencies of civilization that are more far-reaching.


This quote is one of several reflecting Washington's preoccupation with cleanliness and personal hygiene. While this obsession may seem unusual to the modern-day reader, it is important to recall that during the time period in which he lived, death rates were high and hygiene made a big difference to people's health. Washington may have been particularly cognizant of the dangers of disease, as his first two wives passed away prematurely.

My experience is that there is something in human nature which always makes an individual recognize and reward merit, no matter under what colour of skin merit is found. I have found, too, that it is the visible, the tangible, that goes a long ways in softening prejudices. The actual sight of a first-class house that a Negro has built is ten times more potent than pages of discussion about a house that he ought to build, or perhaps could build.


One of the book's recurring ideas is that individual merit will be recognized no matter the color of one's skin. A few additional examples:

"Every persecuted individual and race should get much consolation out of the great human law, which is universal and eternal, that merit, no matter under what skin found, is, in the long run, recognized and rewarded" (15).

"The individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of race" (58).

"Say what we will, there is something in human nature which we cannot blot out, which makes one man, in the end, recognize and reward merit in another, regardless of colour or race" (89).

"The great human law that in the end recognizes and rewards merit is everlasting and universal" (122).

This belief is one of the driving forces behind Washington's choice to make a difference for his race through the medium of industrial education, rather than agitating for political and social equality. As long as individual merit is rewarded, it pays to teach students that working hard and making a contribution to their communities will earn them both a living and the respect of their neighbors.

Great men cultivate love, and that only little men cherish a spirit of hatred. I learned that assistance given to the weak makes the one who gives it strong; and that oppression of the unfortunate makes one weak.


Washington credits General Armstrong with teaching him this lesson. Despite having fought against the south in the Civil War, Armstrong appeared to care deeply about the prosperity and happiness of southern whites as well as blacks and harbored no ill feelings against his former enemies. Washington was proud to adopt Armstrong's values for himself. Whether or not he truly rid himself entirely of any bad feelings against his former enslavers, stating that he had done so was a politically wise move to win him white southern supporters. Stating that "oppression of the unfortunate makes one weak" also allowed him to criticize those who continued to discriminate against blacks without showing any malice.

In this address I said that the whole future of the Negro rested largely upon the question as to whether or not he should make himself, through his skill, intelligence, and character, of such undeniable value to the community in which he lived that the community could not dispense with his presence. I said that any individual who learned to do something better than anybody else - learned to do a common thing in an uncommon manner - had solved his problem, regardless of the colour of his skin, and that in proportion as the Negro learned to produce what other people wanted and must have, in the same proportion would he be respected.


Washington expressed this sentiment at his first public address, given at the meeting of the National Educational Association in Madison, WI. It represents his solution to the race problem: rather than agitating for political and social equality, teach blacks to make themselves valuable within their communities and their white neighbors will naturally treat them with respect. The idea certainly worked for Washington himself; after making a name for himself, he not only no longer faced discrimination, but also was often greeted by strangers wishing to shake his hand. Whether or not it would work for less gifted members of his race is another question, and one that is not answered within this text.

No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.


This quote is from the celebrated Atlanta Address. At the center of Washington's message is the idea that there is dignity in labor, as it allows individuals to be self-reliant and to make themselves valuable within their communities. Just as he worked his way up from slavery, so too must members of his race work their way up from the bottom, earning respect from their neighbors by doing work that needs to be done rather than becoming teachers, preachers, or politicians without possessing the requisite skills and the character that comes from hard work.

In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.


This oft-quoted metaphor from Washington's Atlanta Exposition address is a tacit acceptance of segregation. It expresses Washington's views that economic progress is more important for his race than social equality.