REVIEW of Up from Slavery, by Booker T. Washington

Born a slave in 1856, Booker T. Washington was only a child when the American Civil War commenced. After the war ended and the slaves were emancipated, young Booker moved to West Virginia with his mother, brother, and step-father. The newly freed slaves had to work hard to support themselves, and Booker (not even a teenager yet) did hard labor in the salt factories and coal mines to earn wages for the family. Even though he had few chances for education, Booker set his heart on learning to read,  and once he had mastered reading, he determined that he must learn more.

After several years, Booker heard about a new school for blacks established in Virginia called the Hampton Institute. With barely enough money for traveling expenses, he made his way to Hampton and asked to be admitted as a student. He did not have the money to pay either room and board or tuition at Hampton, but the school was used to finding sponsors to pay tuition for promising young people. One of the teachers gave Booker an unusual admissions test, instructing him to sweep one of the classrooms. Booker went over that room with the broom again and again, cleaning it so thoroughly that the teacher was amazed. He was admitted to the school and given janitorial work, the wages from which he could use to pay his room and board.

Booker excelled at the Hampton Institute becoming a noted public speaker. In his autobiography, he emphasizes that the most important thing he learned there was not to despise manual labor. He notes that many blacks of the time wanted to get an education because they thought that if they had book learning they would no longer have to do work. Booker came away from Hampton believing that it was just as important for the members of his race to master manual labor trades as it was for them to become men of letters.

After receiving further education at Wayland Seminary, Booker was ready to become a teacher and pass along all the knowledge he had gained. General Armstrong, the head of the Hampton Institute, recommended Booker to head up a brand new school for blacks in Alabama. It was called the Tuskegee Institute, and Booker spent the rest of his life establishing, nurturing, growing, defending, and delighting in this school.

Booker developed the truths he had learned at Hampton into an educational philosophy  for Tuskegee. All students were required to learn a trade at the same time as they pursued their academic studies. Brickmaking was one of the more popular trades, and Tuskegee was renowned for the fine quality of bricks produced at the school. The students were required to build their own dormitories, furniture, and classrooms, giving them an even further appreciation of working with their hands so that they would have the opportunity of learning with their heads.

The Southern white folks who lived around the school were surprisingly sympathetic to and supportive of all of Booker T. Washington’s efforts. Many of them contributed money for the establishment and maintenance of the school. As the Tuskegee Institute began to become renowned, the community took pride in its excellence.

Enrollment increased every year, and Booker was forced to spend more and more time fundraising. He traveled constantly to cities like Boston, to speak before clubs, community gatherings, and wealthy philanthropists. He describes his efforts not as begging, but as a simple laying down of the facts of the matter. Once the wealthy citizens in America heard about the school, its mission, and its success so far, they were happy to open their wallets without even being asked.

Booker became an increasingly public figure, a figurehead for the African American population in America. He received high praise for his Atlanta Address in 1895 and even corresponded with the president of the United States. The autobiography of Booker T. Washington shows a humble man who was willing to work slowly  to help his race become better off intellectually, morally, and spiritually. His philosophy was that no matter the difficulties you face, hard work and merit will be rewarded in the end.

“I have always been made sad,” he writes, “when I have heard members of any race claiming rights and privileges, or certain badges of distinction, on the ground simply that they were members of this or that race, regardless of their own individual worth or attainments…. I am conscious of the fact that mere connection with what is known as a superior race will not permanently carry an individual forward unless he has individual worth, and mere connection with what is regarded as an inferior race will not finally hold an individual back if he possesses intrinsic, individual merit. 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.”

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