Uncle Tom? Not Booker T.


The brave start did not last. At the end of his first year, he re-enlisted for only one year, in contrast with most of the company, who volunteered for “two years or the war.” Shortly afterward he came down with varioloid—a light case of smallpox—but he recovered sufficiently so that he was judged fit to return to his company. He had married at some time in that first war year. His new wife was a schoolteacher with a long name (Angelina Florentina Thomas Wright Turner) and a small inheritance. He hired a susbstitute to rejoin the troop—a practice far more common in the North than in the South—and the substitute deserted in January of 1863. This must have been the last straw. Bright or not, Ben was the Ferguson black sheep.

Booker Washington had neither of the two reasons a mulatto might have to talk about his white blood. He was not one of those lucky few with an acknowledged and responsible father who had actually behaved as one—and they did exist—nor had his father been a man of particular prestige. Washington’s reticence on the subject was so great that his own children were not sure who their white grandfather had been. Washington even helped create the illusion that he might have been someone else’s son. When he was in his teens he started using the middle name of Taliaferro—long after he had chosen Washington as a last name. His explanation was that he had just discovered that his mother had given him this middle name when he was born. She might have done so. There was no one who commanded more respect in Franklin County when Booker was a little boy than old Dr. Richard McCuIloch Taliaferro. The first practicing physician in the county seat of Rocky Mount, he also had a country place near Halesford. The name was pronounced ToIliver—and throughout the family-conscious South it was considered one of gentility rather than of simple yeomanry. Every slaveholder was automatically considered a member of the ruling class, but some were more ruling than others.


During slavery, Negroes absorbed white social distinctions easily and were proud of connections with an important family. After slavery, a small mulatto elite kept the pride alive, and when people assumed Booker Washington had Taliaferro blood, he did not deny it.

Neither did he deny that he was Ben Ferguson’s son when it was printed in a newspaper in 1908, although Ferguson was the one name that Washington could not stand. It was not only the name of the white father who in the old days had given him no cause for pride. It was, by coincidence, the name of his Negro stepfather, Washington Ferguson, whom he actively resented. The resentment was stronger after freedom, because during slavery he rarely saw his stepfather. “Wash” Ferguson belonged to Josiah Ferguson, but he had been hired out to work on a railroad in western Virginia. He got home mostly at Christmastime—the universal holiday for everybody. His small stepson used to wonder “why he was so much interested in the building of a railroad that he could remain away from home for five or six months … at one time.”

One Christmas Wash did not come home at all, and the whisper among the whites was that he had “gone off with the northern people.” It was easy to do. Confederate troops were no longer in western Virginia after 1861, and two years later the territory pledged a gradual emancipation of the slaves within its borders when it applied to the Union for admission as a new state called West Virginia.

If Wash’s failure to return was legal desertion in the minds of his owners, it was emotional desertion to his little stepson, who now had no semblance of a father, white or black. The only older man of his own race for him to look up to was his mother’s half-brother, known on the Burroughs plantation as Uncle Monroe . And Washington learned early the powerlessness of the Negro man—something more shocking than absence. He said afterward that nothing about slavery was as vivid to him as that morning when he saw his uncle, “a grown man tied to a tree, stripped naked and someone whipping him with a cowhide. As each blow touched his back, the cry ‘Pray, Master! Pray, Masterl’ came from his lips.” It was a memory which he said he would carry with him to his grave—but he did not choose to remember it in Up From Slavery .