Booker T. Washington recounts his childhood as a slave in Franklin County, Virginia. Because of his slave status, Washington is ignorant of his exact date of birth, his father’s identity, and his family ancestry. Nevertheless, through the “grape-vine,” rumor and conversation amongst slaves in slave quarters, Washington learns that his father is likely a white man from a nearby plantation. Washington also learns that his mother’s ancestors endured the Middle Passage, the frightful journey by ship from Africa to America.
Washington lives in a log cabin with his mother, his older brother John, and his sister Amanda. The log cabin is poorly constructed and open to the elements. The cabin’s wooden structure has numerous holes in its sides, an ill-fitting door, and no wooden floor. The naked earth serves as the floor, instead. In all manner of weather, the cabin is uncomfortable. In winter, Washington and his family find it impossible to keep warm. In spring and summer, they find it impossible to keep dry. Because Washington’s mother labors as the plantation’s cook, Washington’s cabin also doubles as the plantation’s kitchen. Many of Washington’s earliest memories are of the treats his mother procures as cook, including of a time when she woke him up in the middle of the night to eat chicken.
Washington’s small size makes him suited only for a small number of tasks on the plantation. He is often ordered to sweep the yards or to carry water out to the enslaved men in the fields.
His most dreaded task is going to the mill, which is three miles away from his plantation. On trips to the mill, slaves and other attendants load a horse with large bags of corn. Invariably, over the course of the long journey to the mill, however, the bags would shift and fall off. Unable to lift and reload the bags of corn himself, Washington would have to wait on the side of the road for passerby. Washington would sometimes have to wait for hours. During these times, he is always terrified because stories circulate amongst the slaves that deserted soldiers like to hide in the woods and lop off the ears of small, black boys.
Washington first gains self-knowledge as a slave when he hears his mother praying for President Lincoln’s soldiers to prevail in the Civil War. The experience of the war is very different for black and whites. Though deprivation is widespread during the war, Washington writes that the whites suffer more because they are used to certain luxuries, while the slaves are used to being resourceful. One of the young master’s on Washington’s plantation is killed in the war, a death which Washington reports was met with sorrow even among the slaves.
When the war ends, Washington’s master calls all his slaves to the big house and reads the Emancipation Proclamation aloud. The slaves immediately rejoice and revel in the ecstasy of freedom. This ecstasy soon gives way to apprehension. Most slaves, unfamiliar with life outside of slavery, are not necessarily prepared to enter society. Older slaves, especially, left the plantation only to return to bargain with their former masters for positions that very much resembled the ones they held during times of enslavement.