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Up From Slavery

Encyclopedia of African American History 1896 to the Present

Barbara McCaskill

Up From Slavery. 

Up from Slavery: An Autobiography is the best-known written work of Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), the educator, intellectual, and national leader who was born near Hale's Ford, Virginia, to a slave cook named Jane and a white man. When Washington published his book, he had served for twenty years, since 1881, as principal of the Tuskegee Institute, the Alabama school that he transformed into a national model for the industrial education and teacher training of black southerners. Initially appearing in serialized form in Outlook magazine from 3 November 1900 to 23 February 1901, Up from Slavery is divided into seventeen chapters and traces Washington's impoverished boyhood years and his drive to acquire an education, his vision for Tuskegee and adventures as its major fund-raiser and booster, and, finally, his reflections on personal habits, family relationships, and travels.

Similarities to Slave Narratives.

Much of Washington's memoir shares characteristics with African American slave narratives, a literary tradition that attained its height in popularity and readership during the 1840s and 1850s. One element found in slave narratives that Washington incorporates in his book is to begin his first chapter by admitting to readers that he cannot remember “the exact place or exact date of my birth” (p. 7), that family members rarely had an opportunity to meet, and that he cannot recall very much about the relatives of either his white father or his black mother. As in the pre–Civil War narratives, these introductory comments in Up from Slavery underscore how the peculiar institution of slavery meant to dehumanize black people by treating them as animals with no histories or ties of intimacy.

In a direct and factual style that is also a highlight of the form, Washington chronicles other deprivations that are characteristically discussed in slave narratives, such as inadequate shelter and clothing and the arduous duties and chores assigned even to young children like him. Another aspect of his book consistent with the slave narratives is how Washington recognizes the innate drive among the slaves to obtain freedom and literacy. His own desire to learn to read and write, which grew when he carried books to school for his young mistresses, along with the alertness of his fellow slaves on the tobacco farm for news of Union victories, stands as evidence of the slaves’ inherent will to be free and autonomous that contradicts slaveholders’ assertions that slaves preferred the dependency and paternalism of bondage.

Controversial Statements.

One of the most memorable and controversial statements that Washington makes is his assertion that “notwithstanding the cruel wrongs inflicted upon us, the black man got nearly as much out of slavery as the white man did” (p. 14). His documentation of slavery's brutalities and blunt condemnation of slaveholders’ financial greed demonstrate that he is no apologist for slavery. In fact, his position on the past stands as a prediction about the future: that post-Reconstruction African Americans would bring to the nation, particularly the South where the majority of them lived, a work ethic that would engender wealth and self-sufficiency and enable the South to recover from the economic devastation and psychological trauma of the Civil War. His proposition that “the school of slavery” (p. 13) generated a positive impact on African Americans is an example of the conciliatory tone that characterizes both his book and his politics. His is a pragmatic response to whites’ fears that African Americans nursed bitterness and rage about past treatment, or that the former slaves lacked the discipline, drive, and self-reliance to succeed in a capitalist society and thus would become a burden on the state.

In the 1880s and 1890s southern African Americans established secondary schools and colleges, organized religious and social organizations, published newspapers and books, and fought social injustice and political repression in their cities and towns. Yet they also became vulnerable to racial violence and second-class treatment from whites, exclusion from trades and professions, and resistance to their attempts to vote and participate in the electoral process. In the chapter that reprints his Atlanta Exposition Address—a speech that he gave on the opening day of the Cotton States and International Exposition (CSIE) in 1895—Washington offers members of both races a solution to this standoff. With the command “Cast down your bucket where you are” (p. 99), Washington urges African Americans to build wealth and self- sufficiency primarily through ordinary occupations such as farming, domestic service, and agriculture. He directs the same phrase to white Americans, suggesting that they will profit by investing in black labor, rather than looking to new immigrant populations from Europe. His vision includes a day when African Americans will have political privileges equal to those of whites, with assurances that the race is content to achieve such parity gradually. “In all things that are purely social,” he states, “we can be as separate as the five fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress” (p. 100). Washington does not challenge the social taboos prohibiting blacks and whites in the South from interacting together outside the workplace.


Both the white and the African American periodical press praised the best-selling Up from Slavery. Yet sarcastically dubbing the man “The Great Accommodator” and his plan “The Atlanta Compromise,” many African American leaders also publicly opposed Washington's conciliatory ideas. Two years after Up from Slavery was published, W. E. B. Du Bois, the Harvard-educated scholar and sociologist, dedicated one chapter of his book The Souls of Black Folk (1903) to a discussion of Washington's philosophy of race uplift. In “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others”—a revision of his essay “The Evolution of Negro Leadership,” which was originally published for The Dial on 16 July 1901—Du Bois criticizes Washington's strategy both for encouraging African Americans to postpone the fight for political power and civil rights and also for discouraging the Talented Tenth among black youth from seeking higher education with a liberal arts emphasis, for entry into the professions. Black women intellectuals such as the educator and clubwoman Anna J. Cooper and the antilynching activist and newspaper editor Ida B. Wells-Barnett also decried what they saw as Up from Slavery's lower expectations of blacks’ potential.


Carroll, Rebecca, ed. Uncle Tom or New Negro? African Americans Reflect on Booker T. Washington and “Up from Slavery” One Hundred Years Later. New York: Broadway Books, 2006. Provides a unique assessment of the legacy of Washington and his book by collecting reflections from contemporary African Americans; includes an edition of Up from Slavery.Find this resource:

    Kowalski, Philip J. “No Excuses for Our Dirt: Booker T. Washington and a ‘New Negro’ Middle Class.” In Post-Bellum, Pre-Harlem: African American Literature and Culture, 1877–1919, edited by Barbara McCaskill and Caroline Gebhard, pp. 181–196. New York: New York University Press, 2006. An excellent evaluation of Washington's advice on hygiene and discipline in the context of his agenda for racial advancement in Up from Slavery.Find this resource:

      Moore, Jacqueline M. Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the Struggle for Racial Uplift. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2003. Examines the dispute between the two African American leaders over how to achieve social equality with whites, and examines their philosophies in relation to the historical and cultural circumstances that shaped them.Find this resource:

        Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery: An Autobiography. Edited by William L. Andrews. New York: Norton, 1995. Includes contemporaneous reviews and correspondence that exemplify the work's critical reception, as well as a selection of scholarly essays that interpret its impact on literature and history.Find this resource:

          —Barbara McCaskill