Summary: Chapter 16: Europe

In 1893, Washington remarries after his first wife dies. He marries Miss Margaret James Murray, the Lady Principal of Tuskegee. The new Mrs. Washington proves to be an immense help in more efficiently running the school. Washington describes their ability to cooperate in the interest of the school as seamless. Washington says that the thing that bothers him most about his life’s work is how often it has kept him away from his family and his children. In 1899, Washington attends a distinguished meeting in Boston where several people notice he looks more tired than usual. Two women press him on it and implore him to take a vacation. A close friend, Mr. Francis J. Garrison, raises enough money to pay for a full summer trip to Europe and, along with the ladies, implores that Washington and his wife take a vacation. Washington begrudgingly accepts and leaves the United States for the first time in his life.

Washington is apprehensive about how people will respond to his taking a vacation. He does not want people to think him pretentious for spending a summer in Europe. This fear and his guilt about not working for so long a time plague Washington before he sets out on his trip. Washington and Margaret set off to Europe at the start of the summer with many letters of introduction to people across Europe, especially in England and France. On board the ship, the Washingtons meet several prominent people including a senator and an influential journalist. They are also delighted to find that the captain greets them personally. Washington says that as soon as the ship moved away from the wharf, he felt a huge weight lift from his soldiers. For the first few days, Washington sleeps a great deal.

The ship lands in Antwerp, Belgium. The Washingtons spend a few days there and then a group invites them on an excursion to Holland. The manner of agriculture and the excellence of cultivation in Holland impress Washington greatly. After this brief trip to Holland, the Washingtons return to Belgium and from there, set off for Paris. In Paris, they meet up with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an anti-slavery and women’s rights activist. They are invited to many high-profile events in Paris and meet many distinguished people. They also encounter the famous Black American painter Henry O. Tanner. Tanner impresses Washington a great deal and makes him believe more strongly in power of merit to overcome the prejudice of the color line. The French people impress Washington with their love of pleasure and excitement. Washington says that he does not believe the Frenchman to be ahead of the American Negro and believes that the future will show that the American Negro far surpasses the average Frenchman.

From Paris, the Washingtons travel to England. In England, the Washingtons likewise visit with many distinguished guests. The country houses of England make the deepest impression upon Washington, who describes them and the life they allow as perfect. He also marvels at the efficiency of English homes in general and the lack of pretention amongst the servants. He credits his trip to England with deepening his regard for nobility and praises the character of the English in its entirety. On the ship back home, Washington finds a copy of Frederick Douglass’ biography in the library and reads it.

Summary: Chapter 17: Last Words

Washington reflects on his life and says that it has been full of surprises, but that he believes that anyone’s life can be full of surprises if he or she is willing to give his or her absolute best, living purely and selflessly, each day. Nonetheless, fortunate and unfortunate surprises befall Washington. General Armstrong, who a year earlier was stricken with paralysis, desires to see Tuskegee one last time before he dies. The school holds a torchlight reception in his honor. The General is overcome by the demonstration. General Armstrong dies shortly after. Washington’s greatest surprise is the moment he opens a letter from Harvard University that says it wishes to confer upon him an honorary degree. Tears come to his eyes as he holds the letter. He thinks of his whole life in that moment: his former slave life, his work at the coal-mine, his struggles to get to Hampton, his first difficult days at Tuskegee, and the general oppression set out for people of his race. He is deeply moved.

Washington goes to Harvard and sits through the ceremony and is afterwards invited to dine with the University’s president. Washington recalls the entire experience as one of his fondest memories. Soon after, Washington convinces President McKinley to visit Tuskegee after he hears that the President will be in Atlanta, Georgia for an official visit. The President comes to Tuskegee with his wife and all but one of his cabinet members. A huge crowd of students, teachers, and locals receive the party. Citizens decorate the entire town in preparation for the President’s visit. The students of Tuskegee host a parade in the President’s honor. The President delivers an address. Reflecting on this moment makes Washington marvel at how far Tuskegee has come. He describes the mission of Tuskegee as preparing students with three main goals in mind: to give the student the ability to enter a community and perform the work that needs to be done, to enable the student to become self-sufficient and be able to support himself, and to develop a love of labor.

Washington closes his autobiography by telling the reader that he writes from the city of Richmond, Virginia, where the night previous he delivered an address at the Academy of Music. He was the first Black man to do so. He notes how far notions of race have progressed since the nights he slept under a raised sidewalk in Richmond. He closes by saying he expects more progress to follow.

Analysis: Chapters 16-17

Washington takes the first break of his career during these chapters and gives the reader a full glimpse of how far he has risen in societal esteem. In Chapter 16, which is entirely dedicated to Washington’s voyage to Europe, Washington uses his own journey of success to reflect on the possibilities available to Black people who are similarly determined, educated and trained. Before embarking on his voyage, Washington emphasizes that this is his first vacation in nineteen years of work and tells multiple stories of his reluctance to go. He details his work day and the philosophy he has toward his work and relates his apprehension about not working for so long a period. Washington also relates his fear that people will perceive him as pretentious. This has a doubled effect in the text. It both relates the fear that Washington had before going on the trip and guards against the same charge in the reader. Lest the reader think Washington is pretentious, he includes his initial fear of this criticism in the text. Likewise, Washington’s emphasis on his prodigious work ethic serves to guard against any ill-feeling that might arise from the luxurious vacation that Washington describes.

On his voyage to Europe, Washington describes being treated like American royalty from the start of the voyage to the end. Washington does not relate a single negative experience in all his travels. When he and his wife first board the ship to Europe, he describes their warm reception by the ships’ other guests and the captain himself. After landing in Antwerp, Belgium, Washington and his wife immediately receive an invitation to Holland where they spend a few days. This depiction not only showcases Washington’s high social standing, but also suggests the possibility of the elimination of race prejudice through achievement. Washington reinforces this idea when he recounts his experiences in Paris. There he meets a famous Black American painter named Henry O. Tanner and visits one of his shows currently on display in Paris. At the show, Washington notes that few onlookers stop to inquire whether the painting before them has been painted by a Black man. For Washington, this is a confirmation of his most deeply held values about merit and race. What is important is not that Henry O. Tanner is a Black man, but that he has painted a picture worthy of display.

Washington’s experience in France also convinces him of the possibility available to Black Americans if they continue to cultivate themselves. Washington’s observations of the French lead him to believe that the French do not possess a great morality or human capacity beyond that of Black Americans. In fact, Washington comments that the French’s love of pleasure and excitement far exceeds that rumored for Black Americans. Washington suggests that even amongst civilized white people, Black Americans do not necessarily register at the bottom. After Paris, the Washingtons head to England, where all of Washington sees all his ideals of civilized life confirmed and manifest. In England, the Washingtons attend the best parties and accept multiple invitations to visit friends in their English country homes. Washington comments on the homes’ impeccable order and the simple life they enable. He also notes the lack of pretension in the servants. He says they desire nothing other than to be perfect servants. Washington praises this adherence to social hierarchy and this regard for achievement and wealth.

Washington closes Up From Slavery by reflecting on his legacy. The last chapter reads, in part, as a long celebration of his achievements. Washington grounds his achievements within the lessons and teachings upon which Tuskegee was founded. Though Washington spends ample time quoting people who praise him, it is implied that he does so in service of celebrating his theory of racial uplift. Finally, he offers himself as proof that the race can advance. His story, an unlikely one, from slavery to one of the most esteemed Black leaders in all American history testifies, according to Washington, to the ability to overcome race prejudice and the turning of the tides in America.