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Washington relates the story of his life from birth to late adulthood, while introducing his theory for racial uplift and using his own personal story as example. His life begins on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia. Following Emancipation and the end of the Civil War, Washington and his family, including his mother, his stepfather, his sister, and his older brother, move to Malden, Virginia, where Washington’s stepfather secures work at a salt-furnace. The first few years out of slavery are difficult for the family, but Washington is a curious, ambitious child and pursues his desire for an education. His first glimpse of education comes from his labor at the salt-furnace. Following this, Washington receives a spelling-book from his mother and with it, masters the alphabet. When a literate Black man from Ohio arrives, he offers his services as a teacher to the town’s Black population. In this way, Washington begins to develop academically.
Eventually, a school that holds both day and night classes opens in a nearby town and Washington attends after his work each day at the salt-furnace. At work, Washington hears word of a new school for Black students called the Hampton Institute and vows to go there for his education. He continues to work to raise money to travel to Hampton, Virginia, where the school is located. He stops working at the salt-furnace and begins to work for the owner’s wife, Mrs. Ruffner, as a servant. Mrs. Ruffner teaches Washington the strictures of civilized living: order, cleanliness, promptness. Washington also begins his first personal library at this time. After a short while, Washington heads off to Hampton. On his journey to Hampton, the stage-coach that he takes to the train station in the next town stops at a hotel. The hotel-keeper refuses to give Washington a room because of his race. Washington, consequently, sleeps outside.
After this episode, Washington walks and hitches rides to Richmond, Virginia. He reaches Richmond at night and sleeps under a raised sidewalk. The next morning, he finds work loading and unloading ships. He continues to sleep under the raised sidewalk as he earns money for the rest of his trip to Hampton. When he arrives at Hampton, his general appearance and the state of his clothing make a poor first impression. The head teacher admits several students to the school ahead of him and finally asks him to sweep the room adjoining the main hall. Washington sweeps the room as thoroughly as possible and so impresses the head teacher that he is admitted to the school and offered a position as a janitor. This provides Washington with a way to pay for his room and board, as well as a portion of his tuition.
A new life begins for Washington at Hampton. Hampton introduces Washington to the dignity in hard work and labor and teaches him the value and virtue of selflessness. Both lessons will later form the foundation of Washington’s social program for racial uplift. The man who makes the strongest impression upon Washington at Hampton is the school’s founder, General Samuel C. Armstrong. Armstrong admires Washington’s selflessness and his strength of leadership. At Hampton, Washington works at his studies and is an enthusiastic participant in the school’s debating societies. Washington does not return home to Malden, Virginia, until after his second year of school.
Washington’s mother dies during this summer and the event throws his family life into disarray. Washington considers not returning to Hampton, but his desire for an education is strong. He returns to Hampton and eventually graduates. After graduation, he returns to Malden where he opens a school for the Black community. Washington’s curriculum for the school extends beyond “mere book education” to include lessons on proper grooming, personal comportment, and personal industry. In addition to teaching the school, Washington also starts a night-school, multiple debating societies, and establishes a reading room. After two years teaching in Malden, Washington goes to Washington, D.C. to further his studies. Washington eventually returns to Hampton as a teacher and his first work at the school is to teach newly admitted Native American students. The experience solidifies Washington’s beliefs in hard work and selflessness. Washington teaches the Native American students how to operate in white society as well as traditional academic subjects.
His success at Hampton leads to an invitation to head a new school in Alabama. Once Washington reaches Tuskegee, Alabama, he finds eager students but no proper building in which to hold a school. For the first few months, Washington holds the school in a shanty located near a church. Eventually, Washington purchases an old plantation for the school. Washington, alongside his students, labors to repair the buildings to make them suitable as classrooms. He also has the students plant crops to make Tuskegee self-sustaining. These early experiments in student labor become part of the foundational curriculum at Tuskegee, each student having to learn a trade or industry alongside more traditional academic subjects.
During this time, Washington makes many trips North to raise money for the school and as a result, establishes a profile as a public speaker and Black leader. Washington begins to receive invitations to speak at all manner of events. By the time he receives the invitation to deliver what will become his most famous speech at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, his views about the proper approach to racial advancement and uplift have crystallized. In his speech at the Atlanta Exposition, which will later become known as the "Atlanta compromise," Washington exhorts former slaves to “cast down [their] bucket[s] where you are” and expresses opposition to political agitation. Washington also emphasizes racial intermingling only for common business interests, and otherwise says that the races “can be as separate as the fingers.” This speech catapults Washington to a new level of fame and renown, despite vocal detractors. The speech summed up Washington's belief that Black Americans could succeed and prosper through hard work and education, while not directly challenging the status quo of segregation and the loss of the voting rights that had been taken away from them Jim Crow took hold.
Washington ends the book by reflecting on the legacy of Tuskegee and his hope for the race in the coming years. He is optimistic about both because of the large distance he himself has traveled.