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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Social Realism Booker T. Washington (c. 1856-1915)

[1824] Palmer, Instructor and Three Graduates with Diplomas and Geraniums (1905), courtesy of the Wm. B. Becker Collection/photography museum.com.

Born into slavery and poverty, Booker T. Washington grew up to become one of the most powerful African American public figures in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. As a speaker, writer, and educator, Washington articulated ideas that had a tremendous influence on the state of race relations in America. In his autobiography, Up from Slavery (1901), he told the story of his life as the fulfillment of the mythic American Dream: he stresses that his success was achieved through hard work, perseverance, and virtue. Washington’s skillful self-presentation and his remarkable abilities as a speaker, writer, and rhetorician played no small part in his rise to leadership and his consolidation of power within the African American community.

Washington was born on a plantation near Roanoke, Virginia. His childhood was spent in slavery, and he grew up, as he put it, in “the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surroundings.” Freed after the Civil War, he and his mother moved to West Virginia, where his stepfather had found work as a miner. Although he was eager to attend school, Washington was forced to help support his family by working in salt and coal mines and as a domestic servant. He eventually acquired a basic education by teaching himself the alphabet, studying with a local schoolteacher in the evenings, and convincing the wife of his white employer to give him lessons.

In 1872 Washington was admitted to the Hampton Institute, an industrial school established by the state of Virginia to educate freed blacks and Native Americans. Washington had to work as a janitor to support himself at Hampton, but he still managed to graduate with honors in three years. After college, Washington worked as a teacher until he was selected to serve as the principal of Tuskegee, a new school for black students in Alabama.

From 1881 until his death in 1915, Washington devoted much of his considerable energy and talent to establishing and maintaining Tuskegee as a prestigious black-run institution. Working with little money and few resources, he managed to transform the school from a small college of thirty students into a respected institution with an endowment of $2 million, a staff of two hundred, and a student body of four thousand. Convinced that African Americans would achieve social and economic advancement only through acquiring practical industrial and agricultural skills, Washington focused Tuskegee’s curriculum on vocational subjects such as carpentry, masonry, farming, and domestic science. The school also stressed hygiene, manners, and religious instruction.

Building on Tuskegee’s success, Washington concentrated on publicizing his educational and social philosophy on a broader level. In 1895 he captured national attention when he delivered a speech on race relations at the Atlanta Exposition. Later known as the “Atlanta Compromise,” the speech emphasized the importance of attaining economic security through pragmatic, nonconfrontational means. Washington urged African Americans not to strain race relations by demanding civil rights, but instead to settle for peaceful coexistence and economic opportunity. As he put it, “in all things that are purely social we can be as separate as fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” While some African Americans resented Washington’s willingness to sacrifice civil equality and political rights for menial jobs and toleration, many others saw Washington’s plan in a positive light. In a climate in which African Americans were routinely oppressed, disenfranchised, and targeted for violence, it is perhaps understandable that Washington’s promises of economic opportunity and peace would seem appealing. Organized opposition to Washington’s “accommodationist” philosophy within the African American community would not arise until many years later (most notably under the leadership of W. E. B. Du Bois), and, following the Atlanta convention, Washington emerged as a powerful leader who commanded respect from both blacks and whites. The white press hailed him as the successor of Frederick Douglass and the undisputed leader of his race.

Washington consolidated his almost mythic position with the publication of Up from Slavery. Drawing on the literary models of Douglass’s and Benjamin Franklin’s autobiographies, he told his life story as an exemplary lesson in hard work, thrift, and virtue. With its deceptively simple and direct style, the book became a best seller and was translated into more than ten languages.

Washington’s willingness to compromise on African American civil equality–a philosophy that had ensured his popularity in his own time–has hurt his reputation with subsequent generations of American readers. Recent scholarship, however, has made the case that Washington’s placating and accommodating stance was merely a public screen to gain favor with white authorities. According to this theory, Washington worked covertly to challenge racial injustice while maintaining a nonthreatening appearance. While critical debates continue on the nature of Washington’s racial philosophy and political strategy, no one denies that he was an influential force in bringing African American concerns to public consciousness at the end of the nineteenth century.

Teaching Tips

  • In Up from Slavery, Washington reprints his Atlanta Exposition address, following it with excerpts from newspaper reviews praising the speech and a congratulatory letter from President Grover Cleveland. Ask students why they think Washington included all this supplementary material in his autobiography. What effect do the letters and newspaper reviews have on the reader’s understanding of the speech? Ask students to imagine that they listened to the speech at the Atlanta Exposition and then have them write newspaper reviews or letters to Washington in which they articulate their responses to his philosophy.
  • The opening of Up from Slavery consciously engages with autobiographical conventions. Ask students to pay attention to the way Washington opens the story of his life. What is the effect of Washington’s inability to say where and when he was born, or to give any details about his ancestry? How are we meant to understand the line “I suspect I must have been born somewhere and at sometime”? Is this humorous? Tragic? Both?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Washington closes Chapter 15 of Up from Slavery with some reflections on time management and organization. What kind of lessons and life tips does he impart to his readers? What values underlie his manner of structuring his work and leisure?
  2. Context: Like Henry Adams, Washington uses his autobiography as an occasion to reflect on his own education and his educational philosophy more generally. How do Washington’s ideas about education compare to Adams’s? How might the two men’s radically different backgrounds contribute to their different ideas on what constitutes a useful education?
  3. Context: Examine the bust of Washington and the broadside poem celebrating his accomplishments featured in the archive. What vision of Washington as a man and as a leader do these pieces construct? How did Washington contribute to his own mythology in Up from Slavery?
  4. Exploration: Many scholars have argued that Washington consciously modeled Up from Slavery on Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. What do these two texts have in common? What structures and tropes does Washington borrow from Franklin? How does his life story complicate Franklin’s construction of an exemplary American identity?

Selected Archive Items

[1824] Palmer, Instructor and Three Graduates with Diplomas and Geraniums (1905),
courtesy of the Wm. B. Becker Collection/photography museum.com.
Former slave Booker T. Washington was deeply involved with the Tuskegee Institute throughout his life-time. Washington advocated vocational training for African Americans as a means by which they could achieve economic advancement. His social philosophy was later criticized by such figures as W. E. B. Du Bois.

[3079] Richmond Barth, Bust of Booker T. Washington (c. 1920),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration [NWDNS-H-HN-BAR-38].
Washington was the most prominent African American at the turn of the twentieth century; he worked for most of his life to expand and support Tuskegee College in Alabama; his best-known literary work is Up from Slavery.

[6937] R. V. Randolph, Booker T. Washington (1913),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Printed Ephemera Collection [Portfolio 189, Folder 2a].
This poetic tribute, published as a broadside, reads, in part, “Now ‘Tuskegee and its People’ know, / That fitness and efficiency win; / The Negro in Business will show, / The methods make a place for men”–an apt reference to Washington’s vision that education in the mechanical arts would raise African Americans from their subjugated status.

[7852] Arthur Rothstein, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama Students (1942),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USW3-000237-D].
Now designated a historic site by the National Park system, Tuskegee Institute was the lifelong project of Booker T. Washington and also the site of George Washington Carver’s revolutionary agricultural experiments.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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