“With few exceptions, the Negro youth must work harder and must perform his tasks even better than a white youth in order to secure recognition.”
Booker T. Washington was born a slave. He never learned his father’s name, but heard reports that his father was a white man who lived on one of the near-by plantations. He grew up in a cabin that was so drafty, there were at least half a dozen places that could serve as cat-holes. The floor of the cabin was bare earth except for one hole used to store sweet potatoes covered with boards. It was very cold in the winter and heat from the open fireplace made it too hot in the summer. For a bed, the children slept on a bundle of filthy rags.
He doesn’t recall ever playing as a child, being occupied most of the time in cleaning the yard, carrying water to the field hands, or taking corn to the mill. When he was older, he went to the big house (where the slave owners lived) to fan flies from the table using a set of paper fans operated by a pulley. His first shoes were leather on top, but wood on the bottom. He wore flax clothing, made from the cheapest and roughest part of the flax, which felt like hundreds of small pin pricks.
Like many former slaves, he gave himself a last name when slavery ended. He says the end of slavery was hard on white people. He knows of instances of former slaves giving money to their former masters or assisting in educating the descendants of their former owners. Since slaves did everything for them, their former masters lacked self-reliance. The woman didn’t know how to cook, sew, or maintain a house. The men felt manual labor beneath them and thus found it hard to get work.
He says slaves generally didn’t have any hard feelings towards their owners. Many slaves returned to their former owners for work. Washington and his family kept up a correspondence with their former owners until their deaths.
Washington was still a child when slavery ended. After leaving the plantation, he worked in a coal mine, which is easy to get lost in even when your light hasn’t gone out. It was hard work, and also dangerous since falling rocks and premature explosions happened frequently.
Eager to escape working in a mine the rest of his life, he headed to Hampton where there was a college for black people. He couldn’t afford to travel all the way there and ended up being homeless in Richmond, Virginia for a time. When he got to Hampton, he got a job as a janitor in order to pay for his tuition. There wasn’t enough room in the dormitory, so he slept in a tent as did many other students. Sometimes, a strong enough wind would blow the tent away.
He eventually became a teacher and founded his own school at Tuskegee to teach practical knowledge. He discusses how they learned to make their own mattresses and bricks through trial and error. The focus of the school was on learning a trade rather than higher education. He criticizes the students who want an education so they can get a job where they don’t have to work with their hands and thinks it’s laughable that some black people want to learn Greek or Latin because that won’t put food on the table.
Washington’s life is certainly an inspiration, however, he criticizes his fellow black people for not lifting themselves up by their own bootstraps as he did. He doesn’t seem to realize that what worked for him isn’t going to work for everybody. He ridicules black people for having middle initials which don’t stand for anything; he jokes that many black people become preachers in order to avoid manual labor; and he even makes fun of the way they talk.
On the other hand, he seems afraid to say anything bad about white people, constantly saying how nice they are and praising the white people who helped him succeed. He only briefly mentions the horrors of the Ku Klux Klan. Since the success of the Tuskegee Institute depended on generous donations from white people, it makes sense for this to be his approach. As he says, “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.”
He thinks the solution to racial injustice is for black people to work harder. If they do this, they’ll earn respect and eventually equality will come. He says it’s folly to fight for equality now. “The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.”
I can’t help compare this book to The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois which was written around the same time. Du Bois paints a much bleaker picture of life during the Jim Crow era. He points out how black people who work hard get cheated out of their money and have land stolen from them. They get charged with crimes so they can be used as forced labor. They get paid low wages, but are charged high rent, keeping them perpetually in debt.
Washington’s book comes off as far too optimistic by comparison, but perhaps appeasing white people seemed like the best way to get along at the time.