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Uncle Tom? Not Booker T.

May 2024
29min read

In 1901 when Booker Taliaferro Washington’s memoir Up From Slavery was published, William Dean Howells called him “a public man second to no other American in importance.” He was also a very private man. His life was far more complicated than the readers ol his most famous book could imagine—then or even today, sixty-seven years afterward. Almost hidden within his vast correspondence is the evidence that the soft-spoken man who won such public recognition as an educator was actually waging a secret fight for the Negro’s civil rights. Politically, he managed to do more and do it earlier than the militants of his day who scornfully dismissed him as an Uncle Tom.

Eighteen months before the publication of Washington’s autobiography, Howells had seen the public man impressively honored. On the night of December 4, 1899, Howells had put on full evening dress and gone to the Madison Square Garden Concert Hall in New York to a fund-raising meeting for Booker Washington’s school, Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. Howells represented literary New England in a gathering that drew not only editors, ministers, and descendants of early abolitionists, but New York’s oldest society and America’s newest wealth. Men such as August Belmont, William Dodge, Jacob Schiff, Collis Huntington, John D. Rockefeller, and ]. P. Morgan crowded the hall, and the presiding speaker of the evening was ex-Senator and former Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz.

Although the list of box holders was a fund raiser’s dream, no one was so crude as to pass a tall silk hat that night. William H. Baldwin, president of the Long Island Railroad and treasurer of Tuskegee’s board of trustees, asked the audience to go home and consider what they had heard. He gave the facts and figures of the achievement that had brought such a luminous assemblage to hear a speech by a former slave. Eighteen years before, the Alabama legislature had appropriated $2,000 to pay teachers’ salaries in a non-existent normal school for Negroes. When a young mulatto named Booker Washington was appointed to manage this ironic appropriation, he pledged his own salary to buy an abandoned plantation called the Old Burnt Place and started the school with seventeen students. Now, Baldwin told his audience, Dr. Washington (who had subsequently been awarded an honorary degree by Harvard) was educating 1,200 Negro boys and girls in forty-two buildings on more than 2,000 acres of land. The institution by then was worth $300,000.

Washington had seen to it that students built those buildings, paying for their education and learning a trade as they did so. He had raised the money—dollar by dollar—to expand and run a school which now needed nearly $65,000 a year just to keep going. The state of Alabama had been more than willing to let him do all the work. Its yearly appropriation by 1899 was 84,500, and Washington had to ask northern philanthropists to donate the rest of the operating expenses. Now he was asking lor an endowment fund of a million dollars. Former President Grover Cleveland, who had planned to preside at the Madison Square fund-raising meeting, sent a letter when illness prevented his coming—and a promise of $25,000 from an anonymous donor in the Middle West.

Yet the chief drawing card of the evening—the reason for standees in the packed concert hall—was Booker Washington, public speaker. He was not only an earnest Negro educator, a self-made man who answered all the popular requirements; he was also a great orator. As Howells later recalled:I heard Mr. Washington speak at a meeting which had been addressed by several distinguished white speakers. When this marvelous yellow man came upon the platform and stood for a moment, with his hands in his pockets, and with downcast eyes and then began to talk at his hearers, the clearest, soundest sense, he made me forget all those distinguished white speakers.… It was somewhat the manner of [Othello] when he defends himself to the Venetian Senate.

Common sense, Howells thought, was the dominant mood of Up From Slavery. “He has lived heroic poetry and he can, therefore, afford to talk simple prose. Simple prose it is, but of sterling worth.” Readers in 1901 thought so—and so did successive generations. In the sixty-seven years since its publication it has become a recognized American classic and is available in five different editions. This was not Washington’s intention when he wrote his book. He was a man of action and never considered himself a writer. He took time out from the consuming job of raising funds for Tuskegce to tell his own story because he had been persuaded that it would bring in money for the school, which indeed it did. Andrew Carnegie, who met the endowment goal almost singlehancled three years after the Madison Square meeting, was relatively unimpressed by Washington until he read Up From Slavery .


It is hard to imagine how the book could have been more successful. Yet anyone who knows what the author left out cannot help realizing that it could certainly have been more candid. If Washington had told the whole story it would have been obvious that he was not solely an educator. And William Dean Howells could hardly have said, “By precept and by practice he counsels … a manly fortitude in bearing the wrongs that cannot now be righted and a patient faith in the final kindliness and ultimate justice of the Anglo-Americans. His counsel has been for the Afro-American to forego politics, at least for the present.”

Washington indeed saw nothing to be gained by an open fight over the Negro’s rights in 1900. The crucial word here is “open.” Washington believed in fighting—and, if possible, in winning. By iyoo he had already begun a secret battle to keep southern legislatures from denying the Negro the franchise. Howclls’ embarrassing praise—one of the many remarks that later helped give Washington a reputation as an Uncle Tom—was one of the crosses he had to bear. He was acutely sensitive to criticism as a leader, but he cared most deeply about results. Hc let everyone sec his main concern—the long-range program of educating the Negro for responsible citixenship. He felt that he could not let the readers of Up From Slavery see his hopes for the Negro’s final complete integration into American life—or his own more immediate fight for political justice—without endangering both prospects.

The “Negro problem,” as far as the audience gathered at Madison Square was concerned, was solely the result of the black man’s own illiteracy, immorality, and sloth, and Washington was going to solve it. Speaker after speaker assured possible patrons that their consciences could be cleared by giving money to Tuskegee. “There is no longer the old problem of what to do with the Negro,” said William Haldwin. “That question has been settled. The problem now is one of co-operation and help and work.” Baldwin was an unusual philanthropist, but he shared” the belief of most white Americans, as the new century began, that the passage of time meant inevitable progress.

It was not, however, a time of progress for the American Negro. In the grim nineties, when there were more lynchings than at any other time in American history, the South, with the connivance of a largely indifferent North, was rapidly taking away all the rights given the frcedman during Reconstruction. In iyoo the educated Negro minority could not help but sec its problem as primarily a political one. In the South, state after state was rewriting its Reconstruction constitution to disfranchise, by one device or another, its colored voters—who were thereby doomed to political impotence for the next fifty years. Mississippi had begun it in iSyo, followed by South Carolina in iSy^ and Louisiana in 1898. When Washington wrote Up From Slavery , he knew that Virginia and Alabama had constitutional conventions coming up in 1901.

At this critical time for the Negro, Washington’s position was unique. He was an ambassador—very much without portfolio and with little leverage—from a small, diffuse country-within-a-country. He was the one man whom the majority of both races trusted. From this perilous summit he was expected to protect the Negroes in the South and protest with those of the North, to rally the silent white southern moderates, and to stem the power of the racists as best he could—and in the North to get contributions from both white liberals and conservative businessmen for his school. He managed to do more of these things at once than anyone realized because inevitably some of his alignments were private. William E. B. DuBois, Washington’s chief antagonist in later years, said” in his review of Up From Slavery; “It is no ordinary tribute to this man’s tact and power that, steering as he must amid so many diverse interests and opinions, he today commands not simply the applause of those who believe in his theories, but also the respect of those who do not.”

The editors of the intellectual weekly the Outlook , who serialized Up From Slavery before it was published in book form, wanted Washington to comment more on the stormy contemporary racial scene. He refused. He was writing a personal, not a political, book. Reviewers inevitably noticed the omission, but as the Nation ’s critic said, “It is not as if Mr. Washington had not written elsewhere of Negro lynching and disfranchisment.”

He had done so in a successful little book called The Future of the American Negro , published shortly before the Madison Square— fund-raising meeting. (It was one of the unforeseen consequences of Up From Slavery ’s overwhelming popularity that so many readers in the future would never know that Washington had written anything else.) Washington included in this earlier book the substance of two open letters he had written—a strong protest against lynching, which he managed to have printed in every possible southern newspaper in the summer of i8gg; and an earlier letter to the Louisiana constitutional convention, which had met in i8g8 to consider how to keep Negroes from voting without actually saying so.

“I entreat you,” Washington wrote the Louisiana lawmakers, “not to pass such a law that will prove an eternal millstone about the neck of your children.” In Up From Slavery he wrote one strong prophetic paragraph. Unless literacy tests, or any other changes in the franchise, were applied “without double dealing or evasion to both races alike … [it] will be, like slavery, a sin that at some time we shall have to pay for.” He made no public comment then on the device the Louisiana convention had, in spite of his letter, finally chosen—the so-called “grandfather clause,” which could not possibly be administered fairly to both races. In effect, the clause restricted the privilege of voting to all whose grandfathers had enjoyed it; this included nearly all white men, even illiterates. But for Negroes, most of whose grandparents had been slaves, it was virtual disfranchiscmcnt.

There is a story behind the conclusion of Up From Slavery that shows clearly what Hooker Washington thought—and did—about the grandfather clause. The way he wrote that conclusion illustrates, as nothing else can, the different levels of his life at that critical moment: “As I write the closing words of this autobiography I find myself—not by design—in the city of Richmond, Virginia … where, about twenty-five years ago, because of my poverty I slept night after night under the sidewalk.” He had been asked to speak, lie went on, before an integrated audience in a hall which Negroes had never before been allowed to use. “Jn the presence of hundreds of coloured people, many distinguished white citizens, the City Council, the State legislature and state officials, I delivered my message, which was one of hope and cheer; and from the bottom of my heart I thanked both races for this welcome back to the state that gave me birth.”

On a personal level, Washington’s conclusion was certainly sincere. Hc was moved by the occasion and by the public rapprochement between the races which he had brought about. However, he never mentioned what actually brought him to Richmond. The aesthetics of the book would have made a recital of the facts inappropriate, but more important, the whole truth would have been politically indiscreet.

The facts were that the man who urged Washington to come to Richmond was a Negro lawyer named Giles Jackson—and Negro lawyers were at that time usually regarded as either ludicrous or suspect. Jackson was neither. He was a city leader and vice president of the National Negro Business League (founded by Booker Washington the year before), whose local chapter had issued the formal invitation. Giles Jackson was also a link between Washington and the white moderates in the city of Richmond, who had good reason to respect the Negro community. Not long before, when the city had needed money to keep the schools open, no white bank had been able to lend them fifty thousand dollars, but a Negro bank had been able and willing to lend them double the amount.

One provision of Virginia’s proposed constitution divided money to schools by race—white tax money to support white schools, Negro taxes to support Negro ones. This would obviously result in Negro schools getting less per pupil than white schools and considerably less than they had been getting. White leaders with troubled consciences urged Jackson to get Booker Washington to come to speak out on this; there was a chance he might have some influence. But as for the primary purpose of the new constitution, the disfranchisement of the Negro by a grandfather clause or some other such device, Jackson wrote Washington confidentially that neither he nor anyone else could stop it: “This they will do at all hazards.”

Washington had no reason to doubt it. The Louisiana legislature had paid little attention either to Washington’s open letter of 1898 and the editorial support it got in the South, or to their own United States senators, both of whom had publicly stated that the grandfather clause was obviously unconstitutional. But no test case had yet reached the Supreme Court. Since 1899 Washington had been the leader of a small group of Negroes who were raising money to finance such a court test. Jackson, in urging Washington to speak in Richmond on the school issue, promised him that a large share of the proceeds from his speech would be donated to his anti-grandfather-clause fund. As a result, the distinguished audience, including the Virginia legislature, unwittingly helped contribute one hundred dollars to a fund designed to disallow its own proposed disfranchisement legislation.

From 1901 on, Booker Washington’s political involvements became more important, and secrecy was therefore even more essential. For in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became President. Within hours after he was sworn in, he was writing to Booker Washington,”… I must see you as soon as possible.” Washington’s new role as arbiter of all Roosevelt’s Negro appointments and even of some southern white ones (a role carried on under TaIt as well, although with diminished inlluence) had constantly to be concealed from a hostile Democratic press.

It was also in 1901 that .Washington’s home state of Alabama rewrote its constitution, complete with a grandfather clause and, as one delegate said with satisfaction, “enough traps to catch every Negro in Africa.” Washington, who had lobbied against it with every subtle maneuver he could devise, undertook secretly to challenge it in the Supreme Court almost as soon as it was ratified. The case was eventually lost, but it was the first of a series of landmark cases that Booker Washington initiated. That southern white moderates sometimes helped him in these litigations was kept so secret that often even in his private correspondence he used assumed names. If he had worked openly in these legal fights—against disfranchisement, segregation, and peonage, and on behalf of the rights of Negroes to sit on juries—he would have been run out of the South.

Undoubtedly some of the inaccuracy in Up From Slavery was quite unintentional—the hi vied recollection of a busy man who did not take u je to look up old records and simply got mixed up on his own chronology, as most people do. Some of it was the dramatic exaggeration of a fluent speaker trying to make a point. And if in his memoir he could make comments about slavery in general through himself, he did so—even though specific facts might hot have strictly applied to his own life.

However, other facts were clearly omitted by editorial choice. There had been an earlier version of his memoirs—a book called The Story of My Life and Work —consisting mainly of press clippings strung together by a narrative that was partly ghostwritten. It was published by a midwestern firm which sold its books by subscription only, primarily to Negroes, but Washington’s white patrons saw it and Lyman Abbott, editor of the Outlook , told Washington he not only could, but should, do better. Wide distribution of a better biographical reminiscence, Abbott told him, would “do good to the cause you have at heart.” This time Washington wrote his story himself. He recorded his early life as he wanted the whole world to see it, and this is the version which has been uncritically accepted ever since.

The story started with a very human deception: Washington concealed his real age. It was understandable that he might be unsure, because many slaves did not really know exactly how old they were—and that was a point he wanted to make. Apparently, however, Washington did know. He had told his teachers at Hampton Institute in Virginia, where he went to school and later taught, that he was born in 1856, which was true. In 1899, when he was struggling with his first autobiography, he wrote to “correct” Hampton’s record: “I am not sure of the year I was born, but recent investigations tend to show that it was about 1858 or 1859.” In the same year, when he sent in his first entry to Who’s Who , he made it “about 1859,” thus admitting to forty rather than forty-three.

Forty as a male landmark was even more pronounced back in the nineties, in days of earlier mortality. He had been almost a prodigy, one of the youngest in his class at Hampton—so young that when in 1881 he was proposed as principal of Tuskegee the trustees didn’t know whether to accept him. But now, in 1900, constant newspaper exposure had made it seem that Washington had been around for quite some time. He was even beginning to be called “the veteran leader.” But probably more than personal pride was behind his concealment of his tru^^^ge: he was constantly driven by a feeling that he had not yet done enough. As he said in the first paragraph of The Story of My Life and Work: “I hope that my life work, by reason of my present age, lies more in the future than in the past.”

1856 was actually a vintage year. A number “of babies were born in it who were to be heard from later—Sigmund Freud in Vienna; George Bernard Shaw in Dublin; and in Staunton, Virginia—not far away from Booker’s birthplace—Thomas Woodrow Wilson. Unlike the other new arrivals, Booker had only one name. It was all that was required when his owner, James Burroughs, a planter near rural Halesford, Virginia, noted the birth in the family Bible and then rode over to the Rocky Mount courthouse and registered the birth of a child to his slave Jane, on April 5.

Despite the fact that Booker was a common Virginia surname, used often for a first name, the clerk spelled it Bowker at first. So did the man who recorded James Burroughs’ estate when he died in 1861, by which time the baby had grown to be worth four hundred dollars.

The child was known as Burroughs’ Booker. He was now a member of the close-knit household of a small rural slaveholder in which black and white worked together and considered themselves one family in a feudal sense. When the Burroughs daughters wrote to Washington years later they filled their chatty letters with news of all the relatives. At their best, little Booker’s white owners were simple, direct, and kindly. He said that they were not “especially cruel… as compared with many others.”

Yet there was always an undertow of force. In the plantation family the Negroes were the perpetual stepchildren, linked not only by law but by ties of dependence and enmity in an ambivalence that could not be resolved. For the Negro child, even after he grew up, was rarely allowed to leave. On this point, Washington did not want to be misunderstood. He wrote of the devotion some slaves felt for their masters, but he made it clear that he was not contributing to southern myth: “From some things I have said one may get the idea that some of the slaves did not want freedom. This is not true. I have never seen one who did not want to be free, nor one who would return to slavery.”

The Burroughs family, like many other slaveholdJL ers, were slaves themselves in a sense, bound to a system that made them unkind without thinking. Little Booker was born on the packed dirt floor of a ramshackle cabin because that was the way things were in back-country Virginia in the 1850’s. His white owners lived far from luxuriously. James Burroughs owned approximately two hundred acres in the poorer section of Franklin County, and he did not have a grand “Big House” with Greek Revival pillars. Like most Big Houses, his was large mainly in contrast to “the Quarters”—an elaborate term for the plantation’s two slave cabins. Riders jolting down the Burroughs lane from the pike would have seen the house as the small-porched center of a cluster of outbuildings, dwarfed by a large barn on the right. The house had originally been only a two-room log cabin; an ell, a back porch, and a half-storied second floor had been added. The kitchen shack was behind the house, and it was there that Jane, as plantation cook, lived with her children.

Booker’s home for nine years was a windowless room, about twelve by sixteen feet, with a big fireplace at one end. In the humid summers the heat seemed unbearable; in the winters the ill-fitting door and the cracks in the wall let in the cold. The beds were “pallets” that were rearranged every night from rags in the corner. Jane’s children had all been born there. Booker and his older brother, John, were fathered by different white men; his little sister, Amanda, by Jane’s slave husband. This, too, was the way things were in slavery, but on this plantation there was conscious guilt about it. James Burroughs’ father was a Baptist preacher and this was a religious family.

White people lowered their voices when they discussed the parentage of mulatto slaves, and the very verbs they used were indicative of uneasiness. When it came to Jane’s first child, John, they “blamed” Ben Burroughs, second son of Jane’s master. When it came to Booker, they “accused” one of the Fergusons.

The identity of his father was one secret Washington never divulged. In Up From Slavery he wrote him off: “I do not even know his name. I have heard reports to the effect that he was a white man who lived on one of the nearby plantations. Whoever he was, I never heard of his taking the least interest in me, or providing in any way for my rearing.”

Even his mulatto relative Biah Ferguson, when she accused Washington of not telling the whole truth, could not have wanted him to name his father. Not only the whites but the Negroes who absorbed their attitudes felt shame as well as anger about their sexual exploitation. The majority of slave women yielded to white men with the docility of despair—and then were considered immoral by white society. Biah herself was the illegitimate child of a slave named Mary Ann and her master—a planter named Josiah Ferguson, who lived in a handsome brick house across the pike from the Burroughs plantation. When people asked Biah why she didn’t claim her relationship with Washington when he became famous, she said simply, “when you talk about that, you’re talking about my mother.”


This could also have been the reason that Washington, who adored his mother, dismissed the topic as briefly as he could. But certainly he could not help knowing he was a Ferguson. He looked like the white Ferguson family and very much like Biah and her little brothers and sisters across the road. Like them he had large gray eyes, so startling in a brown face as to look almost luminous. Probably he also knew exactly which one of the large Ferguson family was his father. All the evidence points to Josiah Ferguson’s second eldest son, a brilliant, unreliable charmer named Thomas Benjamin Ferguson.

Ben, as he was called, was said to be “the brightest Ferguson that ever had that name.” He was a twenty-five-year-old bachelor when his presumed son, Booker, was born. By the time Jane’s baby was four Ben had moved away from the family and was in business for himself. He had a tobacco factory three miles down the pike near the post office of Taylor’s Store, but his operation was unimpressive compared to the factory run by his industrious older brother, John Cardwell Ferguson, down at Halesford. When Ben enlisted in the Franklin Rangers—in the very first muster of May, 1861—the family finally had cause for pride in him.

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 .

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.”

But John could not shield his brother from everything. The year when the shirt became obligatory was also the year of two dramatic events that hastened growing up in a hard world. In April of 1861, when Booker was five, the war began, and in July his master died. The beginning of the four fighting years was exciting: to the whites because it was adventurous and because they could not conceive of losing, to the Negroes because they hoped that if their masters did lose they would be free. The whole neighborhood was present at the first muster of the Franklin Rangers, the proud Company D of the Second Regiment of Virginia Cavalry. Young Frank and Billie Burroughs were in that group which gathered with its horses—most men had two—in the field at Taylor’s Store. Frank and Billie were the only two of the six Burroughs boys to die in the war.

Their father died first, of “lung fever,” and was buried on the plantation, beside the road leading down to the house. To a little slave boy this was a much more serious event than the beginning of the war. It was part of a good owner’s articles of faith that slaves should not be sold and families broken up except in cases of absolute necessity; but the death of a master was always a time for financial stocktaking. The Burroughs slaves were at once the most valuable and the most negotiable part of the estate. Altogether they were worth $5,500 out of the property’s total value of about $10,000.


The will was not probated until November, and during that summer Booker certainly learned that there was a chance he could be sold away from his mother. His master’s will provided that he was now the property of his mistress, Elizabeth Robertson Burroughs. But if she should die—or marry again—the property should be divided among the fourteen Burroughs children. All the Burroughs slaves knew about the neighborhood bogeyman, “Tradin’ Tom” Dudley, who lived only a few miles away in a big house with an auction block right in his front yard. And they knew of the master’s son Tom Burroughs, who also traded in slaves. The rumor was that he had a pot of gold buried down in Georgia; Booker heard the slaves singing a song in the Quarters:

Mother, is Massa going’ to sell, sell us tomorrow? Yes, my child! Yes, my child! Yes, my child! Gain’ to sell us way down in Georgia? Yes, yes, yes.

But Elizabeth Burroughs was not going to die—or marry again. She stayed on, and she needed all the slaves to keep the place running. Her five eldest children had married and left home years before, Frank and Billie were off with the Rangers, and only sixteen-year-old Newton was at home with his six sisters. The three elder Burroughs girls were above the old-maid line of twenty-five. And young Eliza, Laura, and little Ellen America were, according to a candid relative, not very pretty, “but better people never lived.”

In Up From Slavery , Washington makes very few judgments about his owners. The only member of his master’s family whom he mentions in the brief, generally nameless account of his owners was young Master Billie, who, before his enlistment, often interceded to save the slaves from being whipped. But Washington corresponded with Laura in later years and asked her down to Tuskegee to see his school. Miss Laura herself had taught school near Halesford, and one of little Booker’s chores had been to ride bareback behind her to the schoolhouse, hold the horse while she dismounted, and then take the horse back to the farm, where it was needed for work during the day. At no time did he himself enter the schoolhouse. When he looked in and saw the white children studying the books that were denied to him, he felt that to walk in that door would be “the same as getting into paradise.”

As he grew older he took other trips behind Laura’s sisters, and the plantation, which had seemed “about as near to nowhere as any locality gets to be,” became fixed between certain points. He found out that when you turned right at the gate, the post office of Halesford was about two miles down the pike near the Staunton River. Over the river in Bedford County was the big tobacco market town of Lynchburg. When you turned left toward the post office of Taylor’s Store, three miles along, you could go right on to Rocky Mount, the county seat. From there a stagecoach ran over the mountain to Big Lick (later the city of Roanoke). But Booker could go to none of these places without one of his mistresses or a pass from his owners.

There was a group of neighborhood men called the Patrol—in the Quarters they were known as “paterollers”—night riders who looked for slaves absent from their plantations without passes. The patrollers also searched the neighborhood Quarters for arms, and broke up any gathering of Negroes.

One night every week Booker found himself away from the plantation, alone and frightened. The war had brought heavier tasks to the few at home, and one of these was almost more than Washington could manage. He took corn to be ground at Teel’s mill, on Indian Run, about three miles from the plantation. The heavy sack of corn on the horse’s back was evenly divided on each side when he started out, but when he got on the back-country road that led off the pike there were gullies in the red clay, and steep grades. Inevitably the corn shifted and the sack fell off, carrying the small rider with it as he tried to hold it back. The only thing to do then was to wait for someone to come along who could help lift the sack. On the lonely road this could be hours. It was often after dark when the corn was ground, and the ride back was full of terror. Rustles in the trees could be wolves or wildcats or even army deserters, who were said to cut off the ears of little colored boys. And lateness meant being whipped.

At home his easiest job was in the Big House dining room, where he kept flies off the table at meals by working a large set of paper fans, operated by a pulley. It was here that he picked up most of his knowledge about the white world. As the paper whispered and slapped together and the voices of the family rose above the clatter of crockery, Booker absorbed conversation with a curiosity and retentiveness that they could not have guessed.

They talked mostly about the war, for their involvement was complete. All six of the sons had enlisted, and the household was constantly stirring with news of them; their goings and comings on furlough or sick leave, their wounds—and their deaths. From the time the war began the Burroughs slaves, for all their secret wish that their master’s enemies would win the war, could not help sharing in the family’s griefs. When young Master Billie died in the spring of 1863 there was sorrow in the Quarters that Booker remembered as “only second to that in the ‘Big House’… it was no sham sorrow, but real.” Frank’s death was particularly poignant because he had re-enlisted after being given a medical discharge by the Surgeon General. He died aboard a hospital ship on his way home.

In Up From Slavery Washington made a specific point of the fact that the slaves were just as eager to help take care of their wounded young masters as the white relatives. Nursing young Newton must have given everybody one of the war’s few light moments. His record soberly stated that he had been wounded “in the right thigh.” The family language was simpler: “Uncle Newt got shot in the rump, and he was teased a lot for it. People said he must have been running away and he said, ‘well, if you had bullets whizzing all around you, you’d run too.’”

When Newton had left, it meant that there were, for the first time, no white males regularly on the plantation. Washington said in his book what he frequently stressed later in speeches to white southerners: that the behavior of the vast majority of slaves during the war had proved that the Negro should be considered worthy of “a specific trust.… The slave who was selected to sleep in the ‘big house’ during the absence of the males was considered to have the place of honor. Anyone attempting to harm ‘young mistress’ or ‘old mistress’ during the night would have had to cross the dead body of the slave to do so.”

But with all their personal loyalty, the slaves kept listening for news of northern victories, and in Up From Slavery Washington reported that they knew the outcome of every battle. There were a good many poetic ideas about the Negro grapevine—that in some way this child of nature was able to pluck happenings out of the air in an extrasensory manner denied the white man. As Stephen Vincent Benêt says in John Brown’s Body:

The wind from the brier patch brought him news That never went walking in white men’s shoes.

Washington gave a simpler explanation: that the slave who went for the mail hung around and listened to the talk at the post office, then told the latest news to other slaves whom he met on the road. He did not mention that on the Burroughs plantation he was sometimes the slave who went for the mail. Nor did he disclose that in the Halesford neighborhood there was another explanation for the mysterious slave grapevine.

Only a mile from Taylor’s Store lived a planter called Ol’ Menas, who owned twenty-nine slaves. One of them could read. The girl who cleaned the master’s room in the morning would sneak out the latest newspaper and return it after it had been read. It would be carefully folded or crumpled as it had been before—but the news in it was already on its way.

In the early months of 1865 every day brought “its news and mutterings of great events.” The deserters came out of the woods and walked the main road openly along with whole regiments of discharged soldiers. In the Quarters the singing was louder:

We’ll soon be free, When de Lord will call us home.

The momentous news was brought by a stranger who rode down the lane one summer morning. All the slaves were told to gather around the little front porch of the Burroughs home. Booker, Amanda, and John stood close to their mother. Members of the Burroughs family were ranged on either side to listen as the stranger read from a paper what Booker Washington remembered as the President’s own Proclamation: that they were then, thenceforward, and forever free. When he had finished reading, the stranger turned to the Negroes and translated in simple terms. They could go now, when and where they pleased. Booker’s mother, with tears running down her face, leaned down and kissed him and explained the incredible again—that “this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.”

That Promised Land which presumably lay all about Jane Ferguson and her family, and nine million other freed slaves, was full of cruel disappointment—and of hope. The long, patient job of making ex-slaves into citizens in fact was the one her son Booker undertook to begin. He did not think that progress would be swift, although he did all he could to hasten it. He knew it would go on after his own lifetime. Before Booker Washington died in 1915, the perceptive journalist Ray Stannard Baker, who knew only part of Washington’s work for his race, said of him: “Measured by any standard, white or black, Washington must be regarded today as one of the great men of his country; and in the future he will be so honored.” The simple truth is that he has not been honored as he should have been, because his whole story has never been fully known. In the emotional climate of America’s most grievous social upheaval, it is time for everyone concerned to consider him again.

Tuskegee: Washington’s Monument

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