Uncle Tom? Not Booker T.


If the Negro males in Washington’s background were either absent or powerless, his mother, Jane, was there with the strength of ten. Although worn down physically, she was devoted and courageous. Washington was never able to find out much about her ancestry, but that didn’t matter. “If I have done anything in life worth attention,” he wrote, “I feel sure that I inherited the disposition from my mother.” Her white owners valued her despite the fact that she was—in slavery’s brutal phrase—“not a breeder” and worth only fifty dollars more on the market than her baby, Amanda. Laura Burroughs remembered that she was “more clever and intelligent than the average colored girl and was kept about the house on that account. She was an extra good cook, a particularly good ironer” who was “delighted to have her white people appear well.” She was also sweet-tempered and forgiving. Yet the first knowledge little Booker had that he was a slave came one troubling morning when he was awakened by his mother’s voice, nakedly fervent as he had rarely heard it. She was kneeling by him and his sleeping brother and baby sister, praying for Lincoln and the victory of his armies so that she and her children could go free.

Vivid memories of his mother were all of happenings at night or in the early morning, around the edges of the daylight hours during which, of course, her time and energy belonged to her owners. She and her children never sat down to a meal together. For them, it was “a piece of bread here and a scrap of bread there … gotten very much as animals get theirs.” In a sense, the farm animals were better off: at least they had scheduled feeding times. In the morning, when the Indian corn was boiled for them, Booker used to get some before it went to the cows and pigs, or if he were too late, he could still find enough corn scattered around the fence or the trough. Although he did not say so in Up From Slavery , he said in a later book that he had not gotten enough to eat. Slave ration was a monotonous and skimpy diet of cornbread and salt pork—with two tablespoons of molasses every Sunday. Little Booker used to try to stretch it out by tilting the tin plate so that the molasses would spread and seem more. Anything else he got was stolen. Living in the plantation kitchen had one advantage—the sweet potatoes were kept there in a large hole covered with boards in the middle of the cabin floor. When it was opened, Booker had a chance to filch one. One of his nighttime memories was of his mother waking her children to eat some eggs or a chicken she had cooked for them in the secret hours. Reporting this, Washington made a distinction between the morality of slavery and that of freedom, when nobody was more strict about honesty than his mother: “Taking place at the time it did, and for the reason it did no one could ever make me believe that my mother was guilty of thieving.”

If food was scarce, clothing was even more so. Up to the time he was nearly six, Booker wore nothing. He and his brother and baby sister all crawled or toddled about the yard among the numerous outbuildings—the other slave cabins, the springhouse, smokehouse, corncrib, and barn—as naked as the farm animals.

Sometimes other children, both black and white, came to the place, but when John and Booker were big enough for real play—to try fishing in the stream, for instance—they were big enough to be switched for it. They were set to work carrying water to the men in the fields and cleaning up the yard around the house.

Not that the yard ever got a great deal of attention. Weeds grew in it, fences were broken down, gates hung half off their hinges. It was slave work to tend to these things, and on small marginal farms like the Burroughs’, no one paid much attention to such details. But the sun gleamed on the leaves of the water oaks, and the mourning dove sounded above the shrilling of the locusts; nature, even as it crowded in on the plantation, was beautiful in itself. It was in these earliest years that Booker learned to “love the soil, to love cows and pigs and trees and flowers and birds and worms and creeping things.”

When he was big enough to work outside the confines of the yard, Booker was given his first slave clothing. It consisted of a single shirt, made of a material called tow, which was worn all year round; for cold weather there was a pair of wooden-soled brogans. Booker was proud of the shoes, but the shirt was a misery. It was made of flax spun by Aunt Sophie, who lived in “the weave.” The coarsest part of the flax—actually the refuse—was set aside for the slaves. New material from it was like a medieval hair shirt. To Booker’s tender skin it felt like dozens of chestnut burrs. It was that or go naked, and he would have flatly chosen the second if he had been allowed to. But John took over his little brother’s shirts at their prickliest and wore them the first few weeks to break them in. John was not only protective and generous; he was tougher and more assertive than his shy little brother. He would have been handsome if it had not been for a cast in one eye, and he was remembered more clearly than Booker by the Burroughs grandchildren as “lively and bright as a dollar.”