Chapter 1: A Slave among Slaves
The opening chapter deals primarily with Booker T. Washington's childhood and his impressions of slavery. He sets the tone for his memoir with vivid descriptions of the conditions of his domestic life, his duties and the conditions under which he lived from the time of his birth to the end of the civil war.
Washington was born in a log cabin on a plantation in Virginia. He knew almost nothing of his ancestry, including the name of his father. His mother was the plantation cook and their living cabin doubled as a kitchen for the plantation. The cabin was small and uncomfortable, with an earthen floor, many holes to let in the cold, and an open fireplace for cooking which gave off a nearly unbearable heat in the summer. His mother had little time to care for her children during the day and sometimes had to steal food to feed them.
Washington had a burning desire for education and describes the schoolhouse as a paradise. He also notes, however, that despite their illiteracy, the slaves of the time were well informed as to what was going on in the rest of the country, especially regarding the state of the Civil War. They did so by means of the "grape-vine" telegraph, in which the slave who was sent to the post office to collect the mail would linger long enough to overhear the conversations of the whites receiving their mail and share it with the other slaves.
The children on the plantation were fed much as animals were, with scraps given here and there. When Washington saw some white women eating ginger-cakes, he felt he would be successful if someday he could eat ginger-cakes as these women did. As the war went on, however, the whites found it hard to procure food. Washington reasons that they may have felt the deprivation more than the slaves, as the slaves were used to eating foods that could be raised on the plantation while the whites had grown accustomed to things from elsewhere.
Washington's clothing also caused him some hardship. His first shoes were quite uncomfortable and made of wood. Even worse was the scratchy flax shirt he was forced to wear.
Despite these hardships, Washington notes that the slaves of the time did not harbor feelings of animosity toward the whites, but rather tenderness and sympathy. The slaves would defend the white women and children with their lives and were eager to nurse their wounded masters. Once free, many even cared for former masters and mistresses who had become poor after the war. They were also unlikely to betray the trust given to them. In one instance, a man made a contract with his master to purchase himself and to raise the money for his freedom through labor. After emancipation, he continued to pay off the debt even though it was not required, as he had given his word to his master.
Washington avoids placing blame about the institution of slavery, even going to far as to state that the former slaves are in a better position than black people in any other part of the world. He does not justify the institution, but still claims that the black man got nearly as much out of slavery as the white man. Whereas whites became less self-reliant, learning to see labor as something to be ashamed of, blacks often mastered a handicraft and learned to work hard.
There was much elation when freedom came. After a few hours, however, the rejoicing ceased, as the former slaves realized the great responsibilities that had suddenly been put on them. Older slaves especially had little strength or desire to earn a living in a new place, and they also fostered an attachment to their masters. Many therefore chose to stay at the plantation.
This first chapter introduces a number of themes, such as responsibility, the power of hard work, and the importance of education. Recalling that at no point in his childhood did he have the time to play, Washington begins to lay the groundwork for one of the book's primary messages - that industrial labor and education are the best means to advancement. Emphasizing the relative poverty of his young life enhances the power of his rags-to-riches story, in which education and rigorous manual labor eventually lead to great success.
It is likely that Washington was influenced by Frederick Douglass's autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, as there are many similarities between the opening paragraphs of both texts. Douglass, an abolitionist leader, was arguably the most famous African-American at the time. Washington may have drawn from Douglass's work as a way to emulate a role model or, perhaps, to draw parallels between himself and the famous leader for readers familiar with both of their books.
This chapter also introduces Washington's accommodationist tone, used to make crucial overtures to his white audience. While he condemns the institution of slavery, he also makes it clear that none of his race hold any animus towards their former masters and even goes so far as to suggest that blacks benefited nearly as much from slavery as whites. He shares specific examples of slaves or former slaves taking care of their former masters and making good on debts far beyond the ordinary, implying that integrating the former slave into American society will surely yield a stronger union. Conspicuously absent are any scenes which might indicate potential trouble between the races, such as a whipping scene he included in an earlier autobiography distributed primarily among less literate readers.
It is likely that Washington uses this rhetorical technique to assuage feelings of guilt among whites who might support his cause. Some critics have even argued that Washington's memoir is more fiction than autobiography, with his primary purpose to inspire white support and philanthropy. Keenly aware of the realities of race relations in a time of upheaval and social change, Washington may also be appealing to the better nature of his audience in the hopes that writing something can in some way make it true.
Chapter 2: Boyhood Days
The chapter opens with the preoccupation of former slaves with finding their own names and places in the world. One of the first signs of freedom was taking on a new surname, distinct from that of their former owners. Similarly, most left the plantation for at least some time to "try on" their freedom, although many of the older slaves ended up returning to their old homes.
Washington's family joined his stepfather in West Virginia, where he had secured work at a salt-furnace and a cabin for the family. The neighborhood was dirty and poor, with no sanitary regulations and frequent drinking, gambling, and fights. Washington and his brother were also forced to work in the salt furnaces. It was at this job where he learned his first symbols, the number "18," which signified his stepfather's salt barrels.
Washington's mother provided his first book, a copy of Webster's "blue-back" spelling book, from which he learned the alphabet. He so envied a young colored boy who would read the newspaper to the community each day! Many others shared his desire for education, and students of all ages clamored to attend a newly opened school. Washington was unable to attend the school at first, as his stepfather preferred for him to make money in the salt mines. For a time he convinced the teacher to give him lessons at night, giving him faith in the night-schools he would later establish at Hampton and Tuskegee. Eventually he gained permission to attend the day school, provided that he worked in the salt mines both before and afterwards. Since the school was some distance from the furnace, he used to change the time on the office clock each day to give him enough time to arrive at school on time.
Washington faced two other difficulties at school. First, all the other children wore hats or caps, but Washington's family had no money to buy one. Instead, his mother sewed one for him using two pieces of homespun cloth. He felt proud that his mother refused to go into debt for the hat, instead solving the problem by making one herself. Secondly, he realized that all of the other children had two or three names, while he had only one. When called upon, he gave himself a new name: Booker Washington. Later, he found his name at birth had been "Booker Taliaferro," and he expanded his name to "Booker Taliaferro Washington."
His mother showed her generosity of spirit once again by adopting an orphan boy, whom they called James B. Washington, and who has ever since been a part of the family.
Washington attended the day school for only a short time. He did most of his studies at night, and often had trouble finding a suitable teacher. However, he never gave up his goal of receiving an education. Instead of going to school during the day, Washington labored in a coal mine that provided fuel for the furnaces. He disliked this work immensely, as it was dirty, hard, and dangerous.
In addition to telling the story of his boyhood, Washington also shares his feelings about race and ancestry. In his view, a white boy, realizing that he will disgrace his entire family if he fails, may be more highly motivated to overcome obstacles and achieve success. On the other hand, being born with fewer advantages makes black people have to work harder in order to advance, and such hard work can give them a strength and confidence that those born with more advantages lack. Washington later adds that being a member of a "superior race" has no meaning unless a person also has individual worth, and that one's race cannot hold an individual back if he possesses individual merit.
In this chapter, Washington shows how thin the line was between ignorance and education for so many former slaves. His vivid descriptions of life in the salt furnaces and coal mines show the reality faced by so many of his race, and the challenges he faced in attending school illustrate that a desire for education was typically not enough to receive one when faced with the necessity of making a living. Without his mother's support and gift of a spelling book combined with his unquenchable thirst for knowledge, it is possible that Washington himself would have grown up to be nothing more than another salt miner instead of the powerful force for progress that he became.
The act of naming oneself is a powerful metaphor. In order to assert their new identity as free men and women, most former slaves gave themselves a new surname, distinct from that of their former masters. Washington, too, named himself, taking on the surname of "Washington" when he realized that the other children at school each had two or three names. Interestingly, "Washington" was the given name of his stepfather, who was unsupportive of his aspirations to better himself. Just ten years old and still uneducated, Washington most likely did not know much about our first president and instead gave the first surname that came to mind. It may be that he leaves his stepfather's first name out of the narrative so that readers will make the link between Washington and the well-known American hero on their own, thus increasing his stature in their minds.
The coal mine, while a reality in Washington's life, can serve as a metaphor as well. Washington notes that the mine was extremely dark, stating, "I do not believe that one ever experiences anywhere else such darkness as he does in a coal-mine" (14). As such, it can be seen as an Underworld of sorts, the darkest place from which he will eventually rise through hard work and education.
Washington introduces several more themes in this chapter, such as the importance of perseverance and the belief that individual merit trumps race in achieving success. A prime example of perseverance, Washington never gave up trying to get an education, even going so far as to alter the time displayed on the clock in the salt mines to make it to school on time. His preoccupation with cleanliness is apparent with his description of the coal mines, as he listed being unclean as the very first reason he disliked the job so much. He also introduces through the story of the "homespun hat" the idea that making something oneself is vastly preferable to purchasing things that one cannot afford, an idea which influences his policy of having the first students at Tuskegee build their own structures and furniture.
Chapter 3: The Struggle for an Education
While Washington was working in the coal mines, he overheard two miners talking about a school for people of all races somewhere in Virginia. Poor but worthy students could work in exchange for board, while also learning a trade. Washington was filled with a burning desire to attend this school, the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. Despite not knowing where it was or how he would get there, he was determined to make his dream reality.
Soon afterwards, Washington had the opportunity to work in the home of the owner of the salt furnace, Mrs. Viola Ruffner. While she had a reputation for being unusually strict with her workers, Washington understood her needs and appreciated her lessons on keeping a house. Ruffner allowed Washington to go to school for an hour a day during some of the winter months, and it was with her that he began collecting his first "library."
Despite making progress at gaining an education, Washington was still consumed with desire to attend Hampton. In the fall of 1872 he set out with very little money, donated by his brother John and some older colored people who were inspired by his dream. He traveled over 500 miles, traveling by stagecoach when he could afford the ticket and otherwise begging rides in wagons and cars. He also experienced for the first time the hindrance his skin color could cause when a hotelkeeper refused to even consider giving him food or lodging. By the time he reached Richmond, VA, he was completely out of money. Hungry and exhausted, he slept under the sidewalk for the night.
Once at Hampton, Washington earned his place at the institution by passing a test of cleaning skills, for which he had been well-prepared by Mrs. Ruffner. Due to the quality of his work, he was also given a job as a janitor, which allowed him to work off most of the cost of his board.
It was at this time that Washington met a man who was instrumental in his growth as a man and a teacher, General Armstrong. Washington portrays Armstrong as an extraordinarily inspirational and unselfish man. One former student was overjoyed to be able to push him up a hill near the end of his life, glad to be able to do something to be of service. Many other students volunteered to live in tents while at Hampton to please their mentor, so that more students could be admitted.
Washington learned many things at Hampton besides traditional book lessons. For example, he learned to eat meals at regular times, use a tablecloth and a napkin, take a bath, brush his teeth, and use sheets. He believes bathing daily to be one of the most important lessons he learned, and felt that it not only kept the body healthy but also promoted virtue and self-respect.
Tuition fees, which were $70 per year, could have prevented Washington from continuing his studies, as he had little money aside from what his brother John was able to send him. Fortunately, General Armstrong was able to find a donor to defray the cost. However, he still struggled to acquire books and clothing. Books he could borrow, but it was hard for him to keep his clothes clean when he had only one set. Thankfully, his teachers helped to supply him with second-hand clothes donated from the North.
The students at Hampton ranged in age, but all were extremely earnest in studying and working. Many were just as poor as Washington. Washington was impressed that all seemed to desire to prepare themselves to lift up their people back home, rather than thinking of themselves. He also expressed his admiration and gratitude for the Yankee teachers who devoted themselves to helping the Negroes of the South.
In this chapter Washington demonstrates the powerful effect that role models played in his life. Viola Ruffner had a formative influence on his work ethic and may have contributed to his obsession with cleanliness. In any case, she played a pivotal role in opening the doors to his education, giving him the skills to impress the staff at Hampton. General Armstrong, too, played a major role, later hiring him as a teacher and recommending him to be the leader of Tuskegee. Washington makes clear his debt to these mentors, noting, "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" (21). In this way he demonstrates how access to inspirational people can help young people to grow and reach their potential.
Washington also demonstrates the barriers caused by a lack of funds and expresses his gratitude for those who helped pay his tuition and supply him with books and clothing. Resolving his own financial issues lays the foundation for his later work as a fundraiser for the Tuskegee Institute.
In addition, he introduces the theme of helping others, commending his fellow students for educating themselves in order to lift up their people back home rather than for their own advancement. At the same time, his own struggles to attend Hampton remind readers of the power of hard work and perseverance.