One day in the coal mine, Washington overheard two men talking about a school for black Americans in Virginia. Washington crept toward them through the darkness to hear more clearly, and was delighted to discover that the school catered to poor black folks as well, both by equipping students with a job to pay off their room and board and by teaching all students a trade. Washington heard that the name of this school was the Hampton Institute, and at that moment in the coal mine he resolved to attend that school no matter what obstacles faced him.
Like his time in the salt mine, Washington construes his time in the coal mine as difficult, but not without opportunity. After all, the coal mine provided him an opportunity to hear about the Hampton Institute, which he is now determined to attend. He also foreshadows some of the struggles that will come in his journey to get an education at Hampton, and he sets up another plot construction of problem-struggle-success.
Washington continued to work in the mine for a few months longer, but soon he heard of a position as a house servant that opened up in the home of General Lewis Ruffner, the owner of the mine. The job was to assist Mrs. Viola Ruffner, the General’s wife, in attending to the house. Mrs. Ruffner had a reputation among servants for being particularly strict and severe, so when Washington initially took the job, he was quite afraid of her particularity. However, he quickly realized that she simply preferred to keep a systematically run, clean home, something that he respected.
This symbolic movement from the hard labor of the mines to the domestic labor at the Ruffners’ is suggestive of the field vs. house slave paradigm in slavery. Field slaves, seen as having a lower status, were relegated to hard labor in the fields. House slaves, on the other hand, were generally seen as having a higher status in the slave hierarchy because of their position of relative comfort in the house and their access to more material resources. Similarly, Washington sees his position in the Ruffner house as an opportunity for personal uplift through the development of cleanliness and access to educational resources, in contrast to the material disparity of the mines. The problem with this kind of framework is that it was originally used in slavery to divide slaves against one another in order to prevent unification or rebellion. By repeating this framework, Washington can be seen as repeating some of the same divisive problems that are found in the field slave/house slave paradigm.
Mrs. Ruffner instilled in Washington a desire for cleanliness and orderliness that he adopted and applied to the rest of his life. Soon, Washington saw Mrs. Ruffner as not just a mentor, but also a best friend. She encouraged his education and allowed him to study at night. Washington even collected a small library of books while he was working at her house.
Mrs. Ruffner was an influential factor in Washington’s ideas of meritocracy. He saw cleanliness, organization, and work ethic as key character traits that exemplify merit. Mrs. Ruffner also plays a key role in Washington’s educational development by encouraging him to pursue book knowledge in conjunction with his household duties.
Despite his comfort and success serving in the Ruffner household, Washington still was determined to attend the Hampton Institute. In the fall of 1872, he began to collect funds in order to pay for his journey to get to the institute. Most of his money was taken by his stepfather to support the family, so Washington had little money on his own. His brother, John Washington, tried to give him some of his wages from the coal mine, but most of Washington’s money ended up coming from older black people in the community. These older people took a special interest in ensuring that Washington had a chance at an education, and they would give him any small amount that they could afford, sometimes no more than a penny. After collecting funds along with his gifts from family and friends, Washington finally had enough to begin his journey to Hampton.
This passage begins a series of problem-struggle-solution constructions in the text, as Washington’s journey to Hampton is fraught with difficulty. The problem of money is a recurring issue in the narrative, and Washington demonstrates in this passage how the generosity of his community and his family helped him to overcome it in this situation. By showing how his community rallied around him to support his dream of getting an education, Washington tries to relay that the black community recognizes the value of education, regardless of monetary burden.
Washington’s journey would not be easy. There were no trains running from Malden to Virginia, so he had to piece together his transportation by taking both short train rides and stagecoaches. Partially into his 500-mile trip, he realized that he did not have enough money to make it the whole way to Hampton. In conjunction with his poverty, Washington says, his trip was full of hardship. He could not gain access to any hotels or accommodations on account of his skin color, and sometimes at night he would just have to walk back and forth outside to stay warm enough to make it until morning. He would often have to walk for portions of the journey and beg for rides in wagons at other times. After traveling for a number of days this way, Washington arrived in Richmond, just 82 miles away from Hampton.
This portion of Washington’s account is designed to show the extreme conditions that he is willing to endure in order to get an education. He is willing to literally starve, freeze, or collapse from exhaustion simply to make it to Hampton. His narrative of such hardship is not to invoke sympathy in the reader, however. Its purpose is rather to show that, if one works hard enough, education can be attained, and no obstacles, even racial and class barriers, are too large to overcome.
But as soon as Washington arrived in Richmond, he ran out of money. He wandered the streets looking for food and lodging, but no one would help him. He walked around until around midnight and found a portion of the boarded sidewalk slightly raised above the rest. He looked around to ensure that no one was looking, crawled under the sidewalk, and went to sleep with his clothes sack as his pillow.
Washington also is not afraid to sacrifice his dignity in order to achieve his goals. He is even willing to sleep under a sidewalk, homeless and cold, if the result is a chance at an education.
In the morning Washington was able to find a ship captain in the harbor who would give him money in return for unloading the ship’s cargo, and Washington was able to get enough money for breakfast. This captain allowed Washington to return the next morning and continue to unload cargo, and after a few weeks of sleeping under the sidewalk and working for the captain, Washington had enough money to pay his way to Hampton. Later in life, Washington was asked to return to Richmond to attend a reception, and it was held very near to the spot where he had slept under the sidewalk.
Washington’s problem of homelessness and lack of money is, as is expected, again solved through hard labor. Washington works for weeks in the harbor, still sleeping under the sidewalk, to save enough money to pay his way to Hampton. The result, when Washington returns to Richmond years later for a reception, is his elevated status as Tuskegee principal and famous speaker. To him, anything is possible, even moving from sleeping under a sidewalk to speaking behind a podium, if one works hard and depends on one’s merit.
After saving money for months, Washington had finally made it to the Hampton Institute. He felt a great sense of relief arriving at his destination, and he also felt that no obstacle could hold him back from accomplishing good in the world. Washington immediately presented himself to the head teacher for admission, but he was quite self-conscious of his appearance. Days of travel and labor in Richmond gave him a rather rugged look.
Even when Washington finally accomplishes his goal and makes it to Hampton, he is still concerned about his appearance. He wishes to look clean and professional to demonstrate his merit to the school. Throughout the rest of the narrative, Washington will repeatedly emphasize his belief that appearance is a key indicator of personal merit.
Washington was forced to wait as he watched the head teacher admit other students, and eventually she came out of her office and asked him to sweep the lecture hall next door. Washington took this task very seriously, sweeping the room three times and dusting it four times. The head teacher inspected the room, and when she was unable to find any dust or dirt, she admitted him to the Institute. Washington was elated—he had finally reached his goal of securing admission to Hampton.
Washington has no problem proving his worth through labor, and he takes joy in demonstrating his thoroughness and strong work ethic. He believes that his demonstration of worth and practical skills are what granted him admission to the school (while also ignoring the problematic aspect of a school admitting students entirely based on their sweeping ability). Thus his goal, the one that he was willing to starve and freeze for, was granted with his own hard labor and merit.
Miss Mary F. Mackie, the head teacher that conducted the “sweeping” examination, offered Washington a position as school janitor to provide him means by which to pay his room and board. Although this job was difficult, often requiring him to rise at 4 am to begin his work, Washington cherished the opportunity to prove his worth to the school. He appreciated the opportunity from Miss Mackie, and he felt that she was one of his closest friends and advisors.
Once again, Washington suggests that labor creates opportunity in life, and that people who apply themselves in labor can accomplish their goals. Success is founded in hard work.
Washington’s greatest connection at Hampton, he says, was his relationship with General Samuel C. Armstrong, a retired Union General and benefactor of the school. To Washington, General Armstrong was a larger-than-life figure, greater than any man Washington had ever met. He was honored just be in the presence of General Armstrong. Washington particularly admired his work ethic, for even in old age and with crippling disabilities, Armstrong would work tirelessly for the schools that he supported. The students at Hampton all deeply admired Armstrong, and they would do anything that he requested. When the school ran out of dormitories and was forced to board students in tents outside during the winter, the older students readily volunteered—because Armstrong wished them to. According to Washington, pleasing General Armstrong eclipsed the discomfort of the cold students.
General Armstrong is the closest character in the narrative that Washington could consider a father figure, since Washington is physically alienated from his biological father and emotionally alienated by his stepfather, and doesn’t even tell us the name of either. General Armstrong, however, fills this gap in Washington’s narrative. Armstrong is hard working, strong in character, and deeply admired by all of his students, all traits that Washington wishes to emulate. To Washington, Armstrong is the ideal man, the archetype that demonstrates the true potential of dependence on merit and hard labor.
Washington felt that life at Hampton was like a constant revelation. Regular meals, bathing requirements, toothbrushes, and sheets were all foreign notions to Washington. The most valuable of these, he believes, is the use of the bath. Washington believes that regardless of their material wealth, all families should pursue regular bathing habits in order to promote cleanliness and respectability.
Washington never mentions any “book learning” that he engages in at Hampton. All of the educational lessons mentioned in his narrative have to do with practical purposes, such as his “sweeping” exam or the importance of the bath. Note that Washington again places a huge emphasis on appearing “respectable,” seeing this as a mark of civilization and even moral character.
Although Washington secured a job as a janitor and was admitted to the Institute, his financial troubles did not end. He was required to pay ten dollars a month for his board coasts, which he accomplished through his hard work as a janitor. However, there was also a yearly tuition fee of seventy dollars, which Washington could not afford. In order to keep him at Hampton, though, General Armstrong secured money from a New England donor to pay his way through the school. Washington also did not have money for books or new clothes, so he would borrow books from libraries or peers, and wash his clothes at the end of each day in order to preserve them. Eventually, he was gifted second hand clothing from Northern donors. He was thus able to work for or acquire all of his basic needs.
Even though Washington’s education was partially subsidized by a rich New England family, he insists that his labor in his janitorial position and his meticulous care for his belongings are what propelled him through Hampton’s education program.
At Hampton, the students themselves were of all ages and from many different backgrounds. Washington describes the students as all being extremely hard-working and earnest people. Although some of the older students struggled with the book learning, all of the students worked together to form a supportive working community. Even the teachers would work day and night and year round to ensure that students were provided with the support and instruction that they needed. Washington deeply appreciated the services of his fellow students and his teachers during his time at Hampton.
Although much of Washington’s narrative is about his personal and individual accomplishments through merit and hard labor, he also occasionally points out the labor of collective groups, such as the Hampton staff and students here. To Washington, labor not only fosters individual improvement and accomplishment, but community uplift as well. In this passage, the importance of labor is a collective rather than an individual concern.