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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 reenter 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 fads 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 white and Black people alike. He believes that Black people 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.
After teaching in Malden for two years, Washington leaves to take classes in Washington, D.C. At the institution he attends, there is no industrial training and he finds that the students are wealthier, better dressed, and occasionally more brilliant. Still, Washington observes that the lack of personal industry displayed by these students makes them less independent and more consumed by outward appearances. He says that these students do not begin at the bottom with a solid foundation and that many, upon graduation, seek out work as Pullman-car porters and hotel waiters, rather than reinvesting their talent to support the uplift of the race. While in Washington, D.C., Washington also observes the lives of many Southern migrants. He says that they can make good lives in Washington, many securing minor government positons and other stable work. Amongst this class of Black people, however, Washington observes a certain superficiality. He comments on how freely they spend money and note their dependence on the Federal Government. He says that rather than desire to make a position in society for themselves, these people want the Government to make a positon for them. Washington imagines the impact that moving these people to the neediest districts of the South would have on them and the race. Lastly, Washington observes that many of the women of these families enter school and learn to have their wants increased without any knowledge or skill to supply for themselves those wants.
Though Washington has yet to introduce his social program for racial uplift explicitly in the text, Chapters 4 and 5 continue to expound on its foundational tenets while using Washington’s personal story as an example of their power and effect. In Chapter 4, Washington encounters numerous obstacles that he overcomes through singularity of focus, concerted effort and application in labor, and self-reliance. Though Washington’s money problems persist throughout his time at Hampton, Washington, when not employed in study, always seeks out work. Though he begins his second year in debt, after a devastating summer where he was unable to earn enough money to pay his debt, his appeal to the school’s treasurer reveals a selflessness that inspires Washington forward. This episode follows the scene where Washington finds ten dollars and honestly gives it to the proprietor of the restaurant he works in only to watch the owner selfishly pocket it. This selflessness of people at Hampton importantly and consistently contrasts with the selfish and superficial attitudes that Washington observes outside the school.
When Washington arrives home in Malden, Virginia, he likewise experiences selfishness and superficiality. He describes the numerous requests by the town’s Black population to hear him speak about his experiences at Hampton as “almost pathetic.” He observes that they value neither dignity through labor nor self-reliance, and he critiques the strikes at the salt-furnace and the coal-mine as senseless and misguided. The death of his mother provides a crucial test that displays Washington’s strength of character and the source of that strength. When Washington’s mother dies, he describes the void she leaves not as an emotional one, but as a material and utilitarian one. Without his mother the household could not function. Washington responds by securing work, both with Mrs. Ruffner and at a nearby coal-mine, and encouraging the adoption of skills amongst his brother and sister that will support the home.
Washington’s early return to Hampton to work alongside Miss Mackie preparing the school for the students’ returns likewise provide a parable in support of hard work and dignity. Miss Mackie’s lack of pretension contrasts sharply with the working Black populations that Washington meets in Washington, D.C. Where Miss Mackie, a woman of status of achievement, was willing to clean and mop and dust, Washington finds that many of the Black people of Washington wish to escape labor, and do not desire to be of use. This makes this susceptible to pretension and dependence. Washington provides examples of this dependence through their unused education, their frivolity with money, and their concern with outward appearances. Washington observes this in anecdotes that depict the types of jobs most black D.C. residents pursue, in the way that they spend their money, and lastly, in their inability to make themselves useful in society.
This last point, to make oneself useful by providing a service that a community needs, is a thread that runs through both chapters. By making oneself useful, one can not only contribute and make a position for oneself in society, but can also develop self-reliance and independence. Washington uses this understanding to critique the political aspirations of Black people who lack these qualities and so, the ability to productively participate in society. His anecdote about the brick-mason illustrates the brick-mason’s unsuitedness for political office, but it also sits in uncomfortable tension with Washington’s championing of learning a trade. Washington does not resolve this contradiction in his text. Instead, he uses this anecdote to emphasize pretension and opportunism, commenting that ill-prepared politicians do not help advance the race or establish political foundations. Chapters 4 and 5 serve to introduce the moral, social and political reasons for the adoption of Washington’s social program for racial uplift, even before he has explicitly stated it in the text. These chapters emphasize the personal growth that one can achieve through steadfastness, the overcoming of obstacles, and the application of concerted effort and labor. In them, Washington inveighs against needless political agitation, concern with outward appearances, and dependence. The former qualities, Washington believes, are necessary for a people “starting at the bottom” to develop. Otherwise, they will enter and participate in society with a “false foundation,” which makes them vulnerable to pretension, dependence, and unrelenting hardship.