Summary: Chapter II: Boyhood Days

Newly freed slaves have two immediate and pressing desires, according to Washington. The first desire is to change their names to mark their self-possession. During slavery, the enslaved were generally only referred to by first name. Following emancipation, former slaves take last names and middle initials to mark their new status. The second desire is to remove themselves, if only for a few days, from their home plantations to feel truly free. Many former slaves had never left their plantations prior to emancipation. Nevertheless, as Washington has noted previously, many slaves, especially older ones, would return to their former plantations after a short spell to negotiate labor contracts with their former masters.

Washington moves with his family—his mother, his stepfather, his brother, and his sister—to Malden, West Virginia. There, Washington’s stepfather secures a job as a laborer in a salt-furnace. The family’s new home resembles their old slave quarters. They live in a poorly constructed log cabin amongst a cluster of log cabins. While the condition of their family log cabin is similar to the one his family inhabited during slavery, Washington notes that the lack of community and order amongst the cabins create an entirely different social atmosphere. The community, largely made up of former slaves and a few “degraded whites” who work at the salt-furnace, is rife with vice and degradation. Gambling, drinking, and fighting are frequent, and the grounds that surround the row of cabins and the people who walk them are often filthy.

Nonetheless, Washington embraces his newfound liberty by pursuing his desire to learn how to read. Shortly after arriving in Malden, he asks his mother to get books for him. She procures a Webster’s spelling-book and with it, Washington masters the alphabet. Washington soon exhausts the spelling-book and then seeks out a teacher, but finds that no one in his community can read. Washington’s education languishes for a time, but when a young, literate black boy from Ohio arrives, his fervent desire to read is reignited. Soon after this scene, another young, literate black man from Ohio arrives and offers his services to the community as a teacher. Because the black people do not have a school, the teacher circulates amongst their cabins for a small fee, spending a full day with each family. In this way, Washington begins to further his education. Washington notes that his desire to read is not unique and that many of his race hunger for education.

By the time a nearby school opens in nearby Kanawha Valley, Washington works alongside his stepfather at the salt-furnace and cannot attend. The resulting disappointment spurs Washington to seek out night lessons. When Washington starts attending night lessons, he notices immediately that he is the only student without a hat or cap. His mother cannot afford to buy him one, so she makes him one. The other students ridicule Washington for his hat. He also takes his full name—Booker Washington—because of his experience at school, after learning that all other students had two names.

Summary: Chapter III: The Struggle for an Education

Shortly after securing a job at the coal-mine adjacent to the salt-furnace, Washington overhears talk of a school for black people in Virginia. The school, Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, offers students the opportunity to work for their room and board as they learn a trade or industry. Upon hearing of this school, Washington resolves to go to Hampton. Still, he continues to work at the coal-mine for some months before changing jobs to work for Mrs. Viola Ruffner, the wife of General Lewis Ruffner, the man who owns both the coal-mine and the salt-furnace.

Washington is apprehensive to work for Mrs. Ruffner due to her reputation as a strict mistress. Before Washington, Mrs. Ruffner dismissed several former servants who did not perform their duties to her standards. Washington’s fear of Mrs. Ruffner leads him to observe, learn, and adopt her ways fully. Mrs. Ruffner liked everything clean, all labor completed thoroughly and promptly, and complete frankness and honesty in communication. Washington reflects on this experience as a crucial step in his education, instilling within him a love for order and cleanliness, as well as an attention to detail. During this time, Washington begins his first library. He converts an old dry-goods box into a “library” by filling it with every book he can find.