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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.
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.
By the fall of 1872, he sets off to Hampton. For his journey, Washington has very little money and only a small satchel with a few items of clothing. To get to Hampton, which is 500 miles away from Malden, Washington must take both stagecoaches and trains. He begins his journey by stagecoach. He immediately realizes, only a few hours away from home, that he does not have enough money to complete his journey to Hampton. When the stagecoach stops for the night at a hotel, Washington feels embarrassment for his lack of money. Before he can communicate this to the hotelkeeper, however, he is turned away due to his skin color. This episode is the first time that Washington learns the meaning of his skin color as a freeman.
By walking and hitching rides, Washington arrives in Richmond, Virginia, which is only 82 miles from Hampton. He does not have any money and does not know anyone. He walks the streets until midnight and decides to sleep on the ground under a raised sidewalk. In the morning, Washington realizes that he is sleeping near a shipyard. He sees a large ship nearby and asks the captain to allow him to unload the ship for money to buy food. The captain agrees and is so pleased with Washington’s work that he allows him to work for him for several days. To save money, Washington continues to sleep under the raised sidewalk. In this way, Washington raises enough money to secure transportation to Hampton.
When Washington arrives at Hampton, he has fifty cents in his pocket. The first sight of the school’s main building arrests all his senses and touches him deeply. He feels a new life begin. When he goes to the head teacher to seek admission to the school, he is deferred though he watches her admit several students after him. Washington attributes this to his shabby appearance, the result of going so long without proper food or bath. After hours of waiting, the head teacher asks Washington to sweep the adjoining recitation-room. Washington sweeps and dusts the room with great care, going over it several times. The head teacher inspects the room and cannot find fault. She admits Washington to the school and offers him a job as a janitor.
Hampton introduces Washington to a new way of life. For the first time, Washington eat meals at regular hours, uses silverware and napkins, and take daily baths. These experiences teach Washington the importance of cleanliness as an inducement to self-respect and virtue. Washington also meets the founder of the school, General Samuel C. Armstrong. Washington describes Armstrong as the perfect man, totally absent selfishness. Armstrong is beloved by other students as well. Washington describes how students volunteered to sleep in tents at Armstrong’s request one winter when the dormitories overflowed. Washington was among the volunteers and describes how each of the students who volunteered felt honored to serve and help Armstrong.
In Chapters 2 and 3, Washington continues to lay the foundation for the elaboration of his social program of racial uplift. By chronicling the difficulties that beset former slaves, Washington illustrates both the necessity for the adoption of his program and the unfortunate consequences that can befall those who do not follow it. He uses his personal experience to further testify to the power of thrift and hard work, cornerstones of his program, as a method for social advancement. These chapters emphasize the lessons that former slaves must learn before they can enjoy the full breadth of freedom.
The opening anecdote is an example of Washington’s strategy for communicating his ideals through narrative. Washington observes that former slaves desire to change their names and to remove themselves from their former plantations. Regarding the former, Washington describes the appropriateness of changing one’s name, while noting the temptation to pretention. Many former slaves took a last name and a middle initial, even where the initial stood for no middle name. Washington subtly mocks this pretention as unearned pride stemming from a lack of knowledge and experience. Likewise, though former slaves possessed a strong desire to leave their former plantations, Washington notes that many returned to their former masters, again indicating the necessity of patience and gradualism for former slaves as they enter society.
In the first community Washington and his family live in following emancipation, Washington again notes the possibility and temptation available to free people. The only difference that separates Washington’s living conditions post-emancipation from those he lived under during slavery is the lack of order and coherence. The unruly libertinism of the log cabins contrasts strongly with Washington’s depictions of work at the salt-furnace and coal-mine and as a servant for Mrs. Ruffner. Though others describe Mrs. Ruffner as harsh, Mrs. Ruffner serves as a source of discipline and knowledge for Washington. Washington learns order and cleanliness from Mrs. Ruffner, as well as a notion of accountability. Throughout his text, Washington will emphasize the humility, hard work and effort, and making the most out of what one has, as the proper modes for self-advancement.
Chapters 2 and 3 are largely devoted to the obstacles that block Washington from his deep desire for education. Though Washington’s family is poor, Washington utilizes thrift, patience, and concerted effort to achieve his ends. When other schoolboys ridicule his homespun cap, Washington steps out of the narrative to provide commentary on the importance of not going into debt to impress others. He also remarks that many of those boys, later in life, could never again have enough money purchase a cap due to their misplaced values. On his trip to Hampton, Washington likewise encounters obstacles due to his lack of money. When he reaches Hampton, his humility and industriousness again secure him a position in the school and the means to pay for it.
At Hampton, Washington learns each of the lessons that form the basis for his social program and he experiences “civilized” society for the first time. Because Washington works to attend school, he achieves dignity and self-possession through labor. Likewise, his lack of money regularly requires humility and sacrifice. The biggest lessons Washington learns, however, are those related to personal comportment. At Hampton, Washington learns to eat at regular hours, dress neatly and cleanly, and how to groom himself properly. Washington’s relation of his and others’ confusion over these matters demonstrates his belief that former slaves must be formally educated in these matters before they are ready to fully participate in society. That Washington learned them as a process toward his education further suggests that such growth happens in stages.
These chapters introduce the core character ideals that Washington believes former slaves must develop to succeed. Washington, in his celebration of General Samuel C. Armstrong, articulates the importance of selflessness and desire to increase the happiness and purpose of others. Anyone who pursues these goals can achieve a happy life. Absent from these chapters is any mention of racial prejudice, save for his experience at the hotel on the way to Hampton. Though he notes the hotelkeeper’s prejudice, he emphasizes his strength of purpose, saying his desire for an education so overwhelmed him that it quashed any bitterness that might have stemmed from the episode. This is characteristic of Washington’s approach to racial inequality and prejudice throughout the narrative, and one of the most controversial aspects of Washington’s legacy and social program.