Up From Slavery


Booker T. Washington

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Up From Slavery Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in Franklin County, Virginia, on a plantation near Hale’s Ford. Upon emancipation in 1865, Washington’s mother moved their family to join her husband who had escaped from slavery. Washington, desiring an education, worked his way to enrollment at the Hampton Institute, a college for black Americans. With his formal education Washington took a position at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, and developed a curriculum for vocational and technical education for black Americans. His promotion of physical labor, vocational education, and gradual racial uplift gained attention in the United States, and he eventually became one of the foremost conservative educational philosophers in America. Washington died in 1915 at the age of 59 of heart failure.
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Historical Context of Up From Slavery

As the title suggests, Washington’s autobiography is historically marked by the rise and establishment of former black slaves in American society. Washington’s autobiography begins with emancipation, or the freeing of slaves upon the Union Army’s victory over the Southern Confederates in Virginia in 1865. While the end of the Civil War in Appomattox, VA on April 9, 1865 (and the Emancipation Proclamation before that) is often attributed as the official end of American slavery, Washington was most likely freed only when the Union Army passed through the plantation on which he lived. Since most Southerners were hesitant to free their slaves, emancipation was actualized once the Union Army occupied the South. As a result, some slaves were freed before the war officially ended, and some were freed after the April 9th surrender. After Emancipation, Washington’s autobiography primarily details the issues of the Reconstruction Era. At the beginning of Reconstruction, a federally mandated rebuilding period enforced by President Andrew Johnson’s administration, black Americans made swift strides toward assimilating into American society. Due to the federal military occupation in the South and the passing of the “Reconstruction Amendments” to the U.S. Constitution, black Americans were granted protection and were able to exercise the right to vote, the right to run for office, the right to establish public business, and the right to own property. However, these accomplishments were soon erased, as Presidents Grant and Hayes removed federal troops from the South, leaving black Americans with little protection against Southern white racists who regained power through violence, intimidation, and economic control. Lynchings, or non-legal public executions of blacks, increased in the period after Reconstruction and the infamous Jim Crow laws enforced legal segregation and political subjugation. For the most part, black Americans were stripped of all political rights and economic progress after Reconstruction, and most political leaders on the Right and Left saw it as a failure—including Washington, who believed that the political uplift of black Americans by the government was much too swift to be ultimately successful. Jim Crow laws and post-Reconstruction racial subjugation remained the status quo of race relations through the end of the 19th and first half of the 20th century in the U.S., until the Civil Rights campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s helped to end segregation and voting suppression of African-Americans.

Other Books Related to Up From Slavery

The literary work most closely related to Up From Slavery is W.E.B. Du Bois’ sociological commentary, The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Du Bois was Washington’s greatest contemporary critic, and his book provided an argument for the importance of classical education for black Americans as well as promoting the social theory of double consciousness, the idea that black Americans have to reconcile their black identities with the views of white society. Washington’s autobiography was also satirized in the first portion of Ralph Ellison’s seminal novel, Invisible Man (1952).
Key Facts about Up From Slavery
  • Full Title: Up From Slavery
  • When Written: Late 1800s
  • Where Written: Tuskegee, Alabama
  • When Published: 1901
  • Literary Period: Early African American Literature
  • Genre: Autobiography
  • Setting: 19th Century America, primarily in Hampton, VA and Tuskegee, AL
  • Climax: Washington delivers his famous “Atlanta Exposition Address.”
  • Antagonist: Racism, liberal black Americans, and uneducated black Americans serve as symbolic antagonists to Washington’s educational philosophy.
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for Up From Slavery

Other accounts. Up from Slavery was not Washington’s only autobiography. In 1900, a year before the publication of the autobiography, Washington published another account of his life titled The Story of My Life and Work written with the help of a ghost writer. Despite positive sales, Washington disliked the general style of the writing and its editing, so he decided to publish Up from Slavery a year later.

Formidable opponents. Washington’s speech to the Atlanta Exposition became an important factor in W. E. B. Du Bois’ seminal work The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois, Washington’s main political rival, offered a whole chapter titled “The Atlanta Compromise” devoted to refuting Washington’s address. Du Bois’ opposition to Washington’s ideology of gradual racial progress eventually led him to found the NAACP in 1909.