Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington

“I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia.”

This was my third book on slavery in succession that I’ve read for my WEM Project.  The Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and the Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass were the first two, and while I enjoyed the history and information I gleaned on a subject of which I know little (I plead ignorance on the basis of being Canadian), I really did not feel touched by either book as a whole.  Really, I wondered if there was something wrong with me.  Yes, I felt sympathy for the plight of the slaves; just the thought of being owned and having stripped from you the many things that make one human, was horrifying.  The degradation and the suffering generated disgust. Yet there was something missing, for me at least.

In my Frederick Douglass review, Cirtnecce made a comment, and suddenly my mind opened up and I had it; the reason why I was left rather cold by the other two books.  This was my response to her:

What I’ve missed from these books so far, is a way to move forward in a human way. You can speak about practicalities and reason and that’s useful, but if one tries simply to protect one segment of the population or to legislate people’s behaviour, it almost seems as if nothing has truly changed. I’d love to read something that communicates ideas of how to make changes in the hearts and minds of people; imo, that’s the way to effect true change.”

That was it!  I was looking for a book that would precipitate a transformation, and in Booker T. Washington’s biography, I received more than I could ever hope for!

Washington briefly chronicled his experiences as a slave during the Civil War, where he gained his freedom through emancipation at the approximate age of ten.  Eventually he made his way to the Hampton Institute, earned an education through hard work, and because of his perserverance and a solid work ethic, Washington was chosen to become the first leading teacher of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a school formed to promote the higher education of blacks in Confederate States.  Washington’s biography offers an in-depth history of his creation and formation of Tuskegee, which Washington built not only with his hands, but his rather creative mind and intellect.

This book is a fascinating portrait of not only a man who rose above slavery, but conquered the demons that it bred, to see a way forward for blacks and whites to live, not just in harmony, but in cooperation with each other to make a better community and a better world.  In spite of the racial prejudices he encountered, Washington never responded in anger, preferring to examine the issues and problems that caused the prejudice, and to respond in a way that was beneficial for both blacks and whites.  He never viewed himself as a victim and in his gracious and measured responses, won accolades and respect on each side of the divide, narrowing it with his quiet, yet determined, demeanour.

There are so many wonderful quotes in this book that I hardly know where to start.  I’m going to choose to concentrate mostly on the Tuskegee school, since it was such a large part of Washington’s life and therefore his existence, and it really exemplified his philosophy for social change in a manner that was visual and effective.


Tuskegee Univeristy Panorama (1916)
source Wikipedia

Washington structured the Tuskegee school not only to promote learning but to entrench something possibly even more valuable …… hard work.  The students were given preference, not only because of their academic abilities, but their willingness to work hard.

“No student no matter how much money he may be able to command, is permitted to go through school without doing manual labour …….  From the beginning, at Tuskegee, I was determined to have the students do not only the agricultural and domestic work, but to have them erect their own buildings.  My plan was to have them, while performing this service, taught the latest and best methods of labour, so that the school would not only get the benefit of their efforts, but the students themselves would be taught to see, not only utility in labour, but beauty and dignity; would be taught, in fact, how to lift labour up from mere drudgery and toil, and would learn to love work for its own sake.  My plan was not to teach them to work in the old way, bt to show them how to make the forces of nature —– air, water, steam, electricity, horse-power —- assist them in their labour …………  Mistakes I knew would be made, but these mistakes would teach us valuable lessons for the future.”

The Oaks – Washington’s home
on Tuskegee campus
source Wikipedia

However, while work and academia were important, Washington did not neglect the spiritual growth of his students including services and prayer, using a non-denominational model.  I know little about the times in this respect, but I can imagine that this was a revolutionary way of structuring an academic institution:

“If no other consideration had convinced me of the value of the Christian life, the Christlike work which the Church of all denominations in America has done during the last thirty-five years for the elevation of the black man would have made me a Christian.  In a large degree it has been the pennies, the nickles, and the dimes which have come from the Sunday-schools, the Christian Endeavour societies, and the missionary societies, as well as from the church proper that have helped to elevate the negro at so rapid a rate.”

And paramount to anything, Washington exemplifies forgiveness:

“It is now long ago that I learned this lesson from General Armstrong, and resolved that I would permit no man, no matter what is colour might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.  With God’s help, I believe that I have completely rid myself of any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that me hay have inflicted upon my race.  I am made to feel just as happy now when I am rendering service to Southern white men as when the service is rendered to a member of my own race.  I pity from the bottom of my heart any individual who is so unfortunate as to get into the habit of holding race prejudice.”

“I early learned that it is a hard matter to convert an individual by abusing him, and that this is more often accomplished by giving credit for all the praiseworthy actions performed than by calling attention alone to all the evil done.”

History class at Tuskegee Institute 1902
source Wikipedia

Washington rather fell into public speaking, feeling that it was more important “to do things than merely to talk about doing them.”  He first went north with his friend and mentor, General Armstrong,  a white educator dedicated to the education of blacks and a founder of the Hampton Institute, and spoke at a series of public meetings.  In 1895, Washington was asked to speak at the Atlanta Exposition, an important exposition to showcase products and new technologies.  His speech was received with accolades from both whites and blacks alike, and afterwards, Washington became a highly sought after speaker about the benefits raising black ingenuity, hard work and resourcefulness to the level of white America.  He promoted the improvement of race relations where blacks and whites both stood on level ground.  There is a fascinating section of the book where Washington expounds on his manner of public speaking and it includes some gems of advice:

” ……. It seems to me that there is rarely such a combination of mental and physical delight in any effort as that which comes to a public speaker when he feels that he has a great audience completely within his control.  There is a thread of sympathy and oneness that connects a public speaker with his audience, that is just as strong as though it was something tangible and visible  …… I never tell an anecdote simply for the sake to telling one ……  I believe that one always does himself and his audience an injustice when he speaks merely for the sake of speaking.  I do not believe that one should speak unless, deep down in his heart, he feels convinced that he has a message to deliver …..”

At the close of the book, Washington first gives a schedule for his Tuskegee school which is rather interesting from the view of posterity:

5 am.          Rising bell
5:50            Warning breakfast bell
6 am.          Breakfast bell
6:20            Breakfast over
6:20 – 6:50 Rooms are cleaned
6:50            Work bell
7:30            Morning study hour
8:20            Morning and school bell 
8:25            Inspection of young men’s toilets
8:40            Devotional exercises in chapel
8:55            Five minutes in the daily news
9 am.          Class work begins
12 pm.        Class work closes
12:15          Dinner
1 pm.          Work bell
1:30            Class work begins
3:30            Class work ends
5:30            Bell to “knock off” work
6 pm.          Supper
7:10            Evening prayers
7:30            Evening study hours
8:45            Evening study hour closes
9:20            Warning retiring bell
9:30            Retiring bell

And his teaching philosophy, while appearing relatively simple, is designed to have far-reaching results.  Washington strove to empower his students, not only academically, but to give them skills to serve them well in life.

“In our industrial teaching we keep three things in mind:  first, that the student shall be so educated that he shall be enabled to meet conditions as they exist now, in the part of the South where he lives —– in a word, to be able to do the thing which the world wants done; second, that every student who graduates from the school shall have enough skill, coupled with intelligence and moral character, to enable him to make a living for himself and others; third, to send every graduate out feeling and knowing that labour is dignified and beautiful —- to make each one love labour instead of trying to escape it.”

During this time, the Tuskegee school had so many applicants that they were forced to turn away half and could only supply one half of the graduates that were requested.  A huge accomplishment from twenty years ago when Washington started the school from sweat, common sense, an empathy for all people, and a firm belief in industry.

A final quote by Washington which I think encompasses much of his philosophy:

“Before the end of the year, I think I began to learn that those who are happiest are those who do the most for others.  This lesson I have tried to carry with me ever since.”


The Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

“I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland.”

Born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey around 1817/1818, Douglass learned to read and write as a boy with the help of the wife of his master. In spite of his situation, he claims that he always had an implicit belief that he would not always be a slave.

“From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embarce; and in the darkets hours of my career in slavery, this living world of fath and spirit of ope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angles to cheer me through the gloom.  The good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and peace.”

At around twenty years old, he escaped to the north, married, and soon afterwards changed his name to Douglass.  Becoming involved in the abolitionist movement, Douglass was encourage to speak and tell the story of his experiences as a slave.

Yet while he was welcomed by the anti-slavery community, Douglass did not only find critics outside this movement, but also opposition from within.  He was limited by white abolitionists as to what he could say during speeches, attempting to avoid any reference to current issues or a way forward for black people as a race.  Yet upon the publication of his book, Douglass’ popularity soared and he gained a credibility he has not experienced previously.

Douglass elucidates on the cruelty of slavery that goes beyond the physical. He speaks of being shut up in a “mental darkness” by the refusal of masters to educate their slaves.  He relates how slaveholders would practice mental fraud on their slaves by allowing and encouraging them to drink to excess during their free holiday time, with the result that the conditions of slavery and liberty did not appear to have a decided difference.

Douglass also gives the recipe for making a content slave:

“…… I have found that to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one.  It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason.  He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.”

Douglass has some interesting insights into slave masters:

“……. and of all men, adopted slaveholders are the worst  …… He was a slaveholder without the ability to hold slaves.  He found himself incapable of managing his slaves either by force, fear, or fraud.  We seldom called him, “master;” we generally called him “Captain Auld,” and were hardly disposed to title him at all ……. He wished to have us call him master, but lacked the firmness necessary to command us to do so ……”

There are apparently two editions of this narrative, this one being a rather shorter narrative, and the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, which is a third publication and expanded to give more detail about his life including some history of the period.

The next book in the WEM order is Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington. While the first two slave narratives have been interesting, they certainly haven’t been gripping and I must admit I’m not really looking forward to this next book.  In any case, onward and upward!

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl – Harriet Ann Jacobs

“Northerners know nothing at all about Slavery.  They think it is a perpetual bondage only.  They have no conception of the depth of degradation involved in that word, SLAVERY; if they had, they would never cease their efforts until so horrible a system was overthrown.”

Being Canadian, and unlike my U.S. counterparts, I have little knowledge of the details and intricacies of the history of slavery in the United States, so I was pleased to note that my The Well-Educated Mind Biographies Project has a few books that cover this important, yet disturbing, period.  Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is the first book of this ilk on the list.  A book written in the tradition of the slave narrative and the sentimental novel, Jacobs strives to give a voice to the thousands of black men and women, who suffered abuse, injustice and the theft of their true identities under the yoke of slavery.

Jacobs (in the book calling herself Linda Brent), chronicles her story, beginning with her idyllic life within her family who are well-off slaves of a kind owner.  At her mother’s death when Linda is six, she is sent to reside with her mistress who teaches her to read and write, but at the death of her owner, she is sold to the Flint family and her suffering begins.  Dr. Flint is harsh and cruel, developing a desire for Linda, and she is continually tormented by his sexual advances.  Thinking to save herself and her virtue, she begins a relationship with another white man and has two children with him in hopes Dr. Flint will cease his attentions.  Instead he is enraged and sends her and her children to do hard labour on one of his plantations.  The book further relates of her escape, her continuous concern about the fate of her children, seven years of her life in an attic so she is not discovered, and her final journey to the north and a relative freedom, although her expectations of her life there are perhaps somewhat disappointed.

Reward for notice for the return of
Harriet Jacobs by James Norcome (Dr. Flint)
source Wikipedia

Jacobs tells a touching and unique story from a woman’s point-of-view, highlighting not only all the brutality and abuse the negro people suffered at the hands of some of their masters, but also the degradation to their spirits. Yet although Jacobs shows her people in their suffering, she also is able to emphasis their greatness of spirit:

“Truly, the colored race are the most cheerful and forgiving peole on the face of the earth.  That their masters sleep in safety is owing to their superabundance of heart; and yet they look upon their sufferings with less pity than they would bestow on those of a horse or dog.”

While the book is full of horrid examples, Jacobs also strives to mention the white men and woman she met or observed in her life that showed kindness or compassion, and says of her benefactress, Mrs. Bruce:

“The noble heart!  The brave heart!  The tears are in my eyes while I write of her.  May the God of the helpless reward her for her sympathy with my persecuted people!”

Harriet Ann Jacobs
source Wikipedia

While most of this book is at once both heartbreaking and wonderfully illuminating, there was an aspect of it that bothered me.  Jacobs was very clear and concise, and rightly so, with her denunciation of slavery and its assault on human dignity and the human spirit, but whenever a slave committed something from as small as a lack of good judgement to something as large as a crime, Jacobs excused their actions based on the treatment they had suffered under their masters.  For example, with regard to her decision to enter into a relationship and have children with Mr. Sands, she says:

“I feel that the slave woman ought to not to be judged by the same standards as others.”

Later she states:

“I like a straightforward course, and am always reluctant to resort to subterfuges.  So far as my ways have been crooked, I charge them all upon slavery.”

When she encounters a slave who has stolen money from his dead master, she declares:

“This is a fair specimen of how the moral sense is educated by slavery.  When a man has his wages stolen from him, year after year, and the laws sanction and enforce the theft, how can he be expected to have more regard to honesty than has the man who robs him?  I have become somewhat enlightened, but I confess that I agree with poor, ignorant, much-abused Luke, in thinking he had a right to that money, as a portion of his unpaid wages.”

I don’t disagree with Jacobs’ premise that slavery can drive people to excesses, but I do disagree about excusing wrong behaviour with it.  Because someone has committed a wrong against you, does that give one the right to return the same in kind?  Couldn’t this startling reasoning be as dangerous as the reasoning employed to bring the black people into slavery?  It reminded me of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s words, words from a man who had been both a commander and a persecuted soul, effectively both a master and a slave, and who finally learned that: “If only it were all so simple!  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evils cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”  The seeds that began slavery and other atrocities are within us all, it’s important that man or woman, slave or free, persecuted or persecutor, that we are all aware of that piece and the danger it can do to ourselves and others.

In any case, it was a blemish on an otherwise excellent narrative.  Jacobs hatred of slavery in all its forms shows through as well as her overwhelming love and understanding for her fellow man.