At one level, Up from Slavery is an interesting autobiography by a prominent African American educator, perhaps the most influential ever. Washington certainly believed in, and unceasingly supported with time and resources, the Tuskegee philosophy that bore the imprint of Hampton Institute. The book is also an apologetic for that educational and race relations theory. Throughout its coverage, the reader is constantly reminded of both the difficulties confronted in building and maintaining Tuskegee and the supportive response by the American public, especially the political and economic leadership. Washington sought in the book to solidify and expand that support, always giving a positive note even in the most problematical times.
Washington’s account is also a valuable history of Tuskegee Institute from 1881 to 1915. Threading through the personal vignettes and commentaries, a fairly coherent historical summary of the institute’s development can be discerned. From modest beginnings, it grew into a major university by the mid-twentieth century.
In Washington’s time, it was largely a teacher training institution and a vocational school devoted to training African Americans in the requisite skills in an economic sphere that Washington assumed, not entirely accurately, would be the best source of jobs for many decades. As it turned out, the vocational training Tuskegee emphasized would not be sufficient to meet the job needs of...
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How does Washington aim to lift his race out of poverty?
Washington believes that industrial education is the key. Rather than moving to the north, he advises blacks to "cast down [their] bucket[s] where [they] are" (83) and establish themselves in the south, making friends with their southern white neighbors. He encourages them to excel in some industry, be it agriculture, mechanics, commerce, domestic service, or some other area, and to dignify and glorify common labor. For this reason he requires all students at Tuskegee to master a trade and to spend time doing manual labor along with studying academics.
What is Washington's relationship with southern whites?
Despite having been enslaved as a boy, Washington maintains an attitude of respect. He views all as potential helpers and is clear about his admiration of prominent white southerners. They, in turn, solicit his participation in political negotiations, such as requesting that the federal government support the Atlanta Exposition. Washington does not challenge the dominant white class, but rather seeks to assuage their guilt at enslaving his people by assuring them that blacks have no bitter feelings about their former masters. He highlights the similarities between the races and seeks to "civilize" his students to be more like their white neighbors.
What does Washington advise his race to do in order to achieve social and political equality?
He advises patience, as achieving such equality should be the result of natural, slow growth. He considers it folly to agitate for political and social equality, believing that progress will come as the result of constant struggle rather than artificial forcing. In time, he believes, southern whites will give the Negro political rights and will protect him in exercising those rights, provided they do not feel forced to do so. Blacks will achieve political rights as they acquire property and grow in intelligence and character.
How does Washington think the race problem can be solved?
He believes it is best to bring together the races and to encourage friendly relations. The Negro can do this by making himself valuable in the community where he lives, by learning to do something better than anyone else. He illustrates this idea by telling of a Tuskegee graduate who had figured out how to produce five times the average amount of sweet potatoes. The white farmers in his community respected his skill and knowledge and came to him for advice. Similarly, Tuskegee students built positive relationships with their white neighbors when they began providing them with high-quality bricks and vehicles produced at the school.
What is Washington's attitude towards women?
Washington mentions women infrequently, but when he does, he accords them power and gives them respect. It is notable that Tuskegee admitted both men and women from the start, given the prevailing attitude towards women at the time. He credits Viola Ruffner with teaching him valuable lessons about working hard and keeping up a property, and he praised Mary Mackie, the head teacher at Hampton, with the way she helped him to clean the institute despite her high pedigree. While we hear little of Washington's family life, he lavishes praise on the hard work performed by each of his wives in the interest of Tuskegee.