Upon Emancipation, most newly freed slaves felt that they must accomplish two things: first, they must choose a name for themselves, and second, they must leave the plantation at least briefly to experience true freedom. Most slaves dropped the names of their masters, which occupied the place of their surnames, and replaced them with names of Union military figures or U.S. presidents like Sherman or Lincoln. Few slaves changed their first name, and most kept the Anglicized slave name given to them upon enslavement. Almost all slaves left the plantation for a period, but older slaves tended to return to their old masters’ houses and created work contracts so that they could remain in their old homes.
A key aspect of the institution of slavery was the forced Anglicized name given to all slaves upon arrival to America. Many slaves were resistant to give up their original African names because a name not only defines one’s sense of self, but also can carry religious, historical, cultural, and national significance. Slaves would often secretly continue to use their African name or even openly defy their masters by refusing to accept their Anglicized name. Since names carry identity markers such as culture, religion, and history, newly freed slaves felt that one of the most important elements of beginning their journey toward societal uplift was self-naming. Yet, notably, their primary choices for new names (at least in Washington’s account) were still white men—and sometimes even slave-owning white men (like George Washington himself).
Washington’s mother decided to move their family to West Virginia to live with her husband, Washington and his brother John’s stepfather, who ran away from his master years before and settled in West Virginia. The family walked hundreds of miles from Franklin County, Virginia to Malden, West Virginia with the few possessions that they had. Once they arrived, their new cabin was no better than their cabin on the plantation in Virginia, and the community of ex-slaves and poor whites was unkempt and dirty.
Washington includes the details about walking all of the way from Franklin County to Malden in order to emphasize the struggle and determination of his family to establish itself. The labor of walking is no obstacle to them as they move to attempt to find economic independence in the mines. Also note Washington’s early preoccupation with cleanliness and order, particularly as indicators of moral character.
Washington’s stepfather immediately put him to work in the salt-mines (a mine in which salt is removed from the natural springs and caves in the area and refined for commercial use). Despite the difficult working condition, Washington was introduced to his first real experience of book knowledge in the mines. Washington noticed that each worker’s barrel was marked with an “18,” and he memorized the pattern and began to recognize it in places outside of the mine. He had long had a desire to learn how to read, and once his family arrived in West Virginia, he had his mother acquire a Webster “blueback” reader to accomplish that goal.
While Washington seems to dislike working in the salt mine because it is constantly at odds with his desire for an education, he construes his time in the mine as an open opportunity. His first experience of reading was in the mine, and often he discusses the mine as a complement of labor to his book learning.
Washington struggled to learn the alphabet, but with practice he mastered a good portion of it. His education was furthered when a black teacher came to town to establish a school for Malden’s black population. The town gathered together, and they decided that each family would house the new teacher for a day and pay a certain amount each month so that the school could be free for their children.
Washington’s narrative repeatedly follows a similar construction to this passage. He introduces a problem and details his struggles with it, but his difficulties are always followed by success through labor or ingenuity. This narrative structure serves to emphasize Washington’s belief that enough labor and merit will always help individuals find success. Washington rarely, if ever, documents outright failures.
Young and old newly freed black Americans took great interest in the school, and classes were conducted both in the daytime and at night to accommodate the great demand in the community. However, Washington was held back from the day school to work in the salt mine because his stepfather felt that the family needed the extra income. Washington was deeply disappointed, but with the help of his mother, arranged for the teacher to give him lessons after his long workday.
Washington suggests that the black community was deeply invested in education. Likewise, his personal value of education is demonstrated through his dedication to his studies despite full workdays. To Washington, nothing, not even a full time job of hard labor in the mines, should keep someone from getting an education. Education is only attained through hard work and dedication.
Washington was so successful at achieving academic growth in these lessons that he convinced his stepfather to allow him to leave the mines each day to attend school and then return to the mine in the afternoon. Washington would work from four in the morning until nine, attend school until it closed in the afternoon, and then work for at least two more hours. However, he often could not arrive at school on time because of the tightness of his schedule, so he decided to take action. Washington would go to the mines every day and set back the clock by 30 minutes in order to make it to school on time. However, his manager found out that someone was tampering with the clock, and the manager put a locked case around it. Although Washington felt a little bit guilty for being duplicitous with the mine clock, he felt that getting an education was more important than his shifts in the mine.
Again, Washington highlights that nothing can stand in the way of someone who wants an education if they work hard enough. His personal success was only achieved through relentless labor.
Even after Washington temporarily solved the problem of getting to school on time, he still faced obstacles in his education. While most students wore a hat or a cap to school, Washington did not have one. When he asked his mother if he could have a school cap, she was able to create a homespun cap out of scrap cloth around the house. Washington deeply admired his mother’s thriftiness, and he saw her creation of the homespun cap as a symbolic gesture of the importance of thrift over wealth.
The “homespun cap” symbolizes the importance of personal labor and thrift. To Washington, there is no greater virtue than applying labor to fix a problem. Washington feels that going into debt for a school cap would have been foolish and vain, and he is proud that his mother demonstrated her own good judgment in her crafting of the cap. This is also an example of how Washington sees almost any kind of comfort or excess at all as being extravagant and wasteful.
Washington also did not have a full name. Before school he had simply been called “Booker,” but during roll call he felt self-conscious about only having a first name. He chose Washington as his last name, and his mother had called him “Booker Taliaferro” as a child, so he adopted “Taliaferro” as his middle name. Washington felt that the opportunity to name himself was a special honor, and one that not many men have the chance to do.
As discussed before, choosing a name after being freed from slavery was an important symbolic move to establish personal and cultural identity. Washington kept his given middle name to retain his familial identity with his mother, and he followed the convention of choosing the last name of one of the founding fathers (even though George Washington himself was a slave owner).
Washington suggests in an aside that ancestry is an important part of society, and that it can motivate individuals to pursue success. Since black Americans have no ancestry as a result of slavery, they are at a distinct disadvantage. Washington suggests that instead of relying on ancestry to motivate them, black Americans must begin to form a legacy now for their future children by striving for excellence in American society.
Naming as a practice is one of the key ways to begin to establish the ancestral identity that Washington suggests. Legacy is largely associated with one’s name, so the best way to form a legacy is to attach a name to a reputation of merit, virtue, and hard labor, according to Washington.
Washington resumes his narrative of his childhood difficulties, saying that he was unable to continue to attend day school because he had to go back to work in the salt furnace. He resorted to night school, but often he felt that his instructors were inadequate and knew little more than he did. During this time, Washington’s family adopted an orphan boy, James B. Washington. After Washington worked in the salt furnace for a period, he was transferred to the coal mine. Washington was horrified by his time in the coal mine, finding the dirty, dark, and dangerous conditions to be detrimental to both his health and mental state.
While the salt mine is not terribly problematic to Washington despite its status as a constant impediment to his educational goals, he deeply dislikes the coal mine. Many newly freed black Americans went to work in coal mines after Emancipation. Whites did not want to work in the dark, dirty, and dangerous conditions in the mine, which often resulted in long term health problems as well as the danger of daily accidents. This type of labor was then the only kind available to most black Americans, so Washington’s position was not atypical.
Washington claims that most children who grew up working in coal mines ended up physically and mentally ill and had little motivation to do anything other than continue working in the mines for the rest of their lives. Because of this, Washington envied white boys who seemed to have unlimited potential to achieve their dreams. Upon reflection, however, Washington decides that it is not the status or station in life that reflects one’s merit, but the obstacles that one has to overcome. In this sense, Washington feels that black Americans have an advantage in society, because they have more obstacles to overcome and thus more opportunities to prove their merit.
Washington sees the coal mine as a symbol of the physical and mental impediments black Americans face. However, his rise from the coal mine to go attain an education is likewise symbolic of the success that black Americans can find due to their degraded position. To Washington, it is the number of obstacles overcome that truly marks progress and uplift. Thus in Washington’s view, black Americans can make strides towards progress and still find merit in those strides without achieving social and economic equality to white Americans. This passage is then a kind of thesis statement for much of the book. Though Washington’s argument is certainly flawed (and seems like it would be cold comfort to those who have may have overcome many obstacles, but still are forced to lead lives of great suffering and oppression), it is crucial to his narrative of meritocracy and racial uplift.