- Around the anniversary of Emancipation Day earlier this year, I was wondering what it was like to live as a slave in the USA at that time. I went looking for a book written by someone in that position and this is the book I found.
- After being freed, Booker T. Washington dedicated his life to building schools, notably Tuskegee University, and this book covers his approach to education and work, the institutions he built, his travel to raise funds for these projects and the wide respect he came to command among all races.
- While his autobiography is a bit repetitive (he just couldn’t stop building schools!), there are a lot of quotes and insights that helped me to understand a bit more about life at that time and in his position.
- The book is a 130 page read and I recommend it to get better context than just these quotes, which will just give you some flavour.
Life before freedom:
Here I draw attention to a quote from the very end of the civil war, when word of freedom was spreading throughout the south, and the freedom in songs began to take on a new meaning:
“As the great day drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some references to freedom. True, they had sung those same verses before, but they had been careful to explain that the “freedom” in those songs referred to the next world, and had no connection with life in this world. Now they gradually threw off the mask, and were not afraid to let it be known that the “freedom” in their songs meant freedom of the body in this world.”
The transition into freedom:
This is a quote about his name – Booker T. Washington, how it came about, and how he takes a slight and turns it into a privilege:
“My second difficulty was with regard to my name, or rather A name. From the time when I could remember anything, I had been simply “Booker”. Before going to school it had never occurred to me that it was needful or appropriate to have an additional name. When I heard the school-roll called, I noticed that all of the children had at least two names… An idea occurred to me which I thought would make me equal to the situation and so, when the teacher asked me what my full name was, I calmly told him “Booker Washington”… Later in life I found that my mother had given me the name of “Booker Taliaferro” soon after I was born… I revived it, and made my full name “Booker Taliaferro Washington”. I think there are not many men in our country who have had the privilege of naming themselves in the way that I have.”
Booker T. sees freedom as a responsibility, remarking on the feelings of the former slaves – just freed – returning to their cabins:
“The great responsibility of being free, of having charge of themselves, of having to think and plan for themselves and their children, seemed to take possession of them.”
Booker T’s Outlook
Throughout the book, it is clear that Booker T. has a bright outlook on life, seeing the positive aspects – as when he compares life in the USA and in other parts of the world at that time:
“we must acknowledge that, notwithstanding the cruelty and moral wrong of slavery, the ten million Negroes inhabiting this country, who themselves or whose ancestors went through the school of American slavery, are in a stronger and more hopeful condition, materially, intellectually, morally and religiously, than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe.”
At many points in his career, people would refer to Booker T. as “Reverend”, but Booker T. would humbly point out that he was not a reverend. Still, his language and his actions remind me of those with a vocation to serve others. For example, this phrase that pops up in a number of forms, here in reference to his first year at Hampton university:
“Before the end of the year, I think I began learning that those who are the happiest are those who do the most for others.”
Here, from chapter XIIV, is a quote showing what I see is the integrity he valued not to speak behind people’s backs:
“As a rule, the place to criticize the South, when criticism is necessary, is in the South – not in Boston. A Boston man who came to Alabama to criticise Boston would not effect so much good, I think, as one who had his word of criticism to say in Boston.”
In Chapter XIV, the reader learns of Booker T’s trust in others – via a parable:
“A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal, “Water, water; we die of thirst!” The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” A second time the signal, “Water, water; send us water!” ran up from the distressed vessel, and was answered, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heading the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River.”
Men, Women, Black, White, Education
Booker T. Washington lived from 1856 to 1915. I don’t know a lot about that time, but I would have assumed that education was mostly for men. So, interestingly for me, was how women were present at many (if not all, I don’t know) schools and initiatives Booker T. seems to have been involved in – although the type of labor (building vs sewing) that students pursued – for example at Tuskegee – differed for men vs women.
Education is absolutely central in Booker T.’s autobiography and he see its role as central in turning the corner from the past of slavery:
“I had the feeling that it was cruelly wrong for the central government, at the beginning of our freedom, to fail to make some provision for the general education of our people in addition to what the states might do, so that the people would be the better prepared for the duties of citizenship.”
He goes further, to a point where today’s society would feel uncomfortable (and repeats a very similar point later in chapter XIV):
“I cannot help feeling that it would have been wiser if some plan could have been put in operation which would have made the possession of a certain amount of education or property, or both, a test for the exercise of the franchise, and a way provided by which this test should be made to apply honestly and squarely to both the white and black races.”
I should point out that Booker T.’s vision of education was not heavily academic. He expected students at Tuskegee to do physical work to earn a way to pay for tuition, and he saw that a central to education and to character building.
Chapter VI of Booker T.’s book is called “Black Race and Red Race”. In it, he talks about enrolling the first Native Indian students into a school with white and black students:
“I knew that the average Indian felt himself above the white man, and, of course, he felt himself far above the Negro, largely on account of the fact of the Negro having submitted to slavery – a thing which the Indian would never do.”
Booker T. goes on to talk about how he was able to have students of all races study and learn together, which brings me back to a quote from an earlier chapter outlining his view on racism:
“I have always been made sad when I have heard members of any race claiming rights or 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.”
Booker T. was prodigious at raising funds – from donors and from local communities – for his work to bring projects like Tuskegee University to life. Chapter XII is called “Raising Money” and here he makes a sympathetic and supportive case for wealthy donors, that perhaps would be seen as too sympathetic with wealthy people, and for which I understand Booker T.’s legacy has received criticism.
“My experience in getting money for Tuskegee has taught me to have no patience with those people who are always condemning the rich because they are rich, and because they do not give more to objects of charity. In the first place, those who are guilty of such sweeping criticisms do not know how many people would be made poor, and how much suffering would result, if wealthy people were to part all at once with any large proportion of their wealth in a way to disorganize and cripple great business enterprises. Then very few persons have any idea of the large number of applications for help that rich people are constantly being flooded with.”
Eventually, after decades of building and helping others – someone finally got the guy (and his wife) a holiday! He went off to Europe for while. One interesting perspective he shares is that of servants in Europe, contrasting the experience with that of slaves in the USA:
“I was impressed, too, with the deference that the servants show to their “masters” and “mistresses”, – terms which I suppose would not be tolerated in America. The English servant expects, as a rule, to be nothing but a servant, and so he perfects himself in the art to a degree that no class of servants in America has yet reached. In our country the servant expects to become, in a few years, a “master” himself. Which system is preferable? I will not venture an answer.”
Have you heard of Booker T. Washington? What similar books do you recommend? Let me know in the comments below.
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