After Washington’s first year, he does not return home for summer vacation because he does not have enough money. He tries to sell an old coat to get home, but cannot find a buyer who will give him enough money. Instead, Washington finds work at a restaurant at Fortress Monroe and spends his nights studying and reading. He hopes that he will earn enough money to pay back his sixteen-dollar debt to Hampton. The money he earns barely covers his board and Washington is unable to save much money despite his disciplined frugality. One day he finds a ten dollar bill on the floor and reports it to the owner. The owner pockets the money. Washington describes his disappointment in this moment, but says he was not discouraged. Though Washington does not find enough money to pay his debt to the school, the treasurer allows him to re-enter for a second year if he agrees to settle the debt when he has the money. During his second year, the selflessness of many individuals at Hampton deeply impresses Washington. He considers this the most important aspect of his education at the school. He begins to faithfully read the Bible, reading a portion of chapter each morning before work. He also begins to develop his facility as a public speaker by joining the debating societies at Hampton. Washington does not miss a single meeting for his entire career at Hampton.
Due to gifts from his teachers and money sent from his mother and brother, Washington can afford to return home after his second year. Upon arriving, he is besieged by requests from the community’s black population to visit and give talks. He speaks at churches and numerous other gatherings about his experiences at Hampton. Washington expresses annoyance at this. He also expresses disapproval upon finding that both the town’s salt-furnace and its coal-mine are not in operation due to a worker’s strike. Washington notes that most workers suffer and gain nothing because of the strike. Unable to find work in Malden due to the strike, Washington sets off for a nearby town to inquire about a job. On the way home, exhaustion overtakes Washington and he decides to sleep in an abandoned house. His brother John finds him there early the next morning and breaks the news that their mother has died. This news shatters Washington and throws the entire family into disarray.
Without Washington’s mother, his family has no one to do the washing or to cook meals, and each of the family members’ clothing goes unattended. Amanda, Washington’s younger sister, is too young to keep home and Washington’s stepfather cannot afford to hire a housekeeper. Washington describes this period as one of the toughest of his life. Washington continues to seek out work and finally secures a positon with his old employer Mrs. Ruffner. Washington briefly considers not returning to Hampton, but soon vows to not give up without a struggle. Fortunately, he receives a letter from head teacher Miss Mackie requesting his early return to help her prepare the dormitories and the campus for reopening. Washington describes the effect of seeing Miss Mackie, a woman of status, laboring and cleaning as a life-changing. He says that any school that fails to teach the dignity of labor is inadequate. After Washington graduates Hampton, he is once again without money. He finds a summer job as a waiter in Connecticut. The manager assumes that Washington has experience as a waiter, but Washington makes an early mistake that gets him demoted to dish-carrier. Washington, undeterred, studies the art of waiting tables and gains his positon back in several weeks.
At the end of the summer, Washington returns to Malden and begins to teach at the black school. He describes this period as one of the happiest of his life. His curriculum extends beyond “mere book education” to emphasize proper grooming, personal comportment, and personal industry. In addition to teaching at the black school, Washington starts a night school, debating societies, and establishes a small reading room in Malden. Washington observes that during this time the Ku Klux Klan is at the height of its activity. During that time, Washington believed that there was little hope for reconciliation of the races. At the moment of his writing, however, he recalls the moment only to measure the distance from which both races have travelled on the road to full reconciliation.
During Reconstruction, a period Washington defines as the years 1867 to 1878, Washington is a student at Hampton and a teacher in Malden, West Virginia. Two crazes occupy the minds of black people during this time: the desire to hold political office and the desire to learn Latin and Greek. Washington describes these desires as product of a people less than a generation removed from slavery. Though he admires the fervent desire of many black people to attain education, he dismisses the idea that educational attainment alone will make one’s troubles go away or free one from physical labor. Washington observes that some members of his race attain minimal education in order to live by their wits rather than their hands. Both the ministry and the schools suffer as a result. Despite this tendency amongst some, Washington believes that both the ministry and the schools show steady growth.
During Reconstruction, the black population relies heavily on the Federal Government. Washington observes that this is to be expected. He also laments the lack of provisions in place before the decree of emancipation. The absence of readily available education and property for the formerly enslaved results in a “false foundation” for black advancement socially and politically. Washington recounts a story where he overhears some brick-masons call for a “Governor” to hurry up as they complete a job atop a roof. After inquiry, he later finds out that this man is the Lieutenant-Governor of his state. Washington emphasizes that not all black politicians are ill-equipped for their jobs, but that the overall lack of experience in politics and lack of education characteristic to the race leads to expected mistakes. Because of this, Washington says he is not opposed to laws that limit suffrage, but says that those laws should apply equally to whites and blacks alike. He believes that blacks are better situated than they were thirty-five years ago, and says that the best way to solve political dispute across the color line is to hold both races to the same standard with respect to political and civic participation.