Documenting the American South Logo
Loading
Collections >> North American Slave Narratives >> Document Menu >> Summary

Booker T. Washington, 1856-1915 and Frank Beard, 1842-1905
An Autobiography: The Story of My Life and Work
Toronto, Ont.; Naperville, Ill.: J. L. Nichols & Co., c1901.

Summary

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was one of the most influential African American leaders of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Born a slave in Hale's Ford, Virginia, Washington moved to West Virginia after the Civil War, where he learned to read while working in a coal mine. After several years of part-time schooling, he enrolled full-time at the Hampton Institute, a secondary school for African Americans, and graduated in 1875. Washington spent the next six years teaching school in West Virginia and at Hampton before accepting an offer to start a brand new school in Tuskegee, Alabama. Washington founded what is today Tuskegee University in 1881 and spent the rest of his life making that institution financially viable and academically respected.

First published in 1900, The Story of My Life and Work was ghostwritten for Washington by a young African American journalist named Edgar Webber. Webber wrote the book with minimal oversight from Washington, who was on a European tour when his autobiography was sent to the publisher in the summer of 1899. Washington's correspondence, which was later published in the 14-volume Booker T. Washington Papers, reveals that he was furious with Webber's numerous errors and casual tone when he saw the work in print, In the 1901 edition of his Story reproduced here, Washington corrected the most egregious errors; he also removed Webber's picture from the book and his name from the index. At least in part because he was dissatisfied with The Story of My Life and Work, Washington urged his publishers to sell the book to poor, predominantly African American buyers—so that wealthier, more educated readers would not have a chance to condemn the work. The Story of My Life and Work was very popular and sold more than 75,000 copies in its first four years, but Washington was dissatisfied and selected a more accomplished ghostwriter for Up From Slavery (1901), his second attempt at an autobiography. In 1911, Washington produced a third and final autobiography titled My Larger Education: Being Chapters From My Experience, an updated narrative that also describes his conflicts with activists in the nascent civil rights movement.

The Story of My Life and Work begins by recalling Washington's first realization that "my mother and I were slaves," when he awakes one morning to find his mother "kneeling over me, fervently praying as was her custom to do, that some day she and her children might be free" (p. 14). Washington is emancipated in 1865, when he is only nine years old, but he remembers his experiences as a slave vividly. As a child, Washington's "only garment" is a shirt "made of the refuse flax" too stiff and coarse to be made into linen or damask; this shirt is "a veritable instrument of torture" because "until it had been worn for about six weeks it made one feel as if a thousand needle points were pricking his flesh" (p. 16).

Unlike many freed slaves who entered the employ of their former masters, Washington moves away from the plantation with his family and settles in West Virginia, where he works in the salt furnaces and coal mines to help support the family. There, Washington learns to read "by watching the letters that were put on the salt barrels" and by taking his "book into the coal mine," where, "during the spare minutes I tried to read by the light of the little lamp which hung on my cap" (pp. 24-27).

Wanting a better education than his small town could provide, Washington leaves West Virginia for Virginia and the Hampton Institute, a secondary school for African Americans, where the principal asks him to sweep a room before "telling him whether or not I could remain" (p. 37). Washington sweeps "that room over as many as three times, and dusted it the same number of times," and when the principal returns to run "her handkerchief over the tables and benches," she cannot find any dust (p. 37). Based on this unusual entrance exam, Washington is admitted into the Institute in October 1872. He graduates three years later.

With a diploma from Hampton, Washington becomes a teacher, first in West Virginia and later back at the Hampton Institute. But when Hampton president S. C. Armstrong receives a letter "written on behalf of the colored people of the town of Tuskegee by . . . one of the foremost white citizens of Tuskegee" requesting that he nominate "a white man to take the principalship" of a new school there, Armstrong can think of "no suitable white man for the position" and recommends Washington instead (p. 50). Washington accepts and arrives "about the middle of June, 1881" in Tuskegee, where "the only thing that had been done toward the starting of a school" is the securing of "an annual appropriation of $2,000" to be used for teacher salaries (pp. 53-57).

Undeterred, Washington opens his school "on the 4th of July, 1881, in an old church and a little shanty that was almost ready to fall down from decay," declaring the intellectual independence of African Americans in Alabama under the meanest of circumstances (p. 57). Washington recognizes that Tuskegee is widely viewed as an experiment that will reflect on the administrative capabilities of African Americans in the same way that men like George Washington were aware that the United States was considered an experiment in government whose success or failure would be used to promote or suppress democracy. For Washington, Tuskegee gives "colored people an insight into their ability to accomplish something by united effort" and provides "thousands of white people . . . opportunities to see some of the best results of the Negro's advancement" (pp. 164-65).

Washington's fundraising prowess allows the school to expand rapidly, and by 1895, he and the Tuskegee Institute have become so well known and respected that the organizers of the Atlanta Exposition ask him to speak. Washington emphasizes the fact that his speech represents "the first time in the history of the South that a Negro had been invited to take part on a programme with white Southern people on any important and national occasion" (p. 131). There, Washington delivers his most famous address, calling on African Americans to work less for civil rights and more for economic growth through the low-level employment opportunities offered by white Southerners. He instructs his African American auditors to "glorify common labor" and assures his white audience that African Americans will "buy your surplus land, make blossom the waste places in your fields, and run your factories" (pp. 139-140). Washington also promises that this economic partnership will bring prosperity to both groups without disturbing the status quo—because "in all things that are purely social we can be separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress" (p. 140).

While Washington's concessions to white policies of social inequality have been criticized by twentieth-century African American leaders, his views were widely praised by both races at the turn of the century. In that sense, The Story of My Life and Work is really a story of how Washington learned to live in two separate and unequal worlds. Praised by both white presidents and former slaves, he was one of few African Americans who successfully straddled the color line in the postbellum South.

Works Consulted: Bieze, Michael, Booker T. Washington and the Art of Self-Representation, New York: Peter Lang, 2008; Harlan, Louis R., Booker T. Washington, New York: Oxford University Press, 1983; Harlan, Louis R., The Booker T. Washington Papers, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1972-1989.

Zachary Hutchins

Document menu