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Up From Slavery

How Booker T. Washington helped millions of former slaves go to school

Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images (Booker T. Washington); Corbis via Getty Images (Top Right); Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images (Bottom Left); Granger, NYC/The Granger Collection (All Other Images)

A Chance to Learn
Slaves were not allowed to learn to read and write. After slavery ended, Booker T. Washington helped raise money to educate black students in the South.  

    It was a cold October night in 1872. A 16-year-old boy named Booker walked the dark streets of Richmond, Virginia. Dogs howled. Thieves hid in alleys. Booker shivered in his torn clothes.

    He was hundreds of miles from his home in West Virginia. He had no money, no food, and nowhere to spend the night. To get to Richmond, he had walked and walked. He had one dream: to go to a school called Hampton Institute. But he was still 82 miles away.

    Booker found a spot where the wooden sidewalk was raised up off the ground. Then he crawled into the small, dark opening and fell asleep. 

    To most people, this young black boy would have looked like just another former slave without hope.

    Nobody would have guessed that Booker T. Washington would become one of the most famous men on Earth.

    It was a cold October night in 1872. A 16-year-old boy named Booker walked the streets of Richmond, Virginia. Dogs howled. Thieves hid in alleys.

    Booker was hundreds of miles from home. He had no money, no food, and nowhere to sleep. To reach Richmond, he had walked and walked. He was heading for a school called Hampton Institute. Going there was his dream. But it was still 82 miles away.

    Booker found a spot where the wooden sidewalk was raised up off the ground. He crawled into the small space and went to sleep.

    To most people, Booker would have looked like just another hopeless former slave.

    No one would have guessed that Booker T. Washington would become one of the most famous men on Earth.

    On a cold October night in 1872, a 16-year-old boy named Booker wandered the dark streets of Richmond, Virginia. Dogs howled, and thieves lurked in alleyways. Booker shivered in his torn clothing.

    He was hundreds of miles from his home in West Virginia, with no money, no food, and nowhere to spend the night. To get to Richmond, he had walked and walked. He was pursuing his dream: to attend a school called Hampton Institute. But he was still 82 miles away.

    Booker found a spot where the wooden sidewalk was raised up off the ground. He crawled into the small, dark opening and fell asleep.

    To most passersby, this young black boy would have looked like just another former slave with no resources or prospects.

    Nobody would have guessed that Booker T. Washington would become one of the most famous men on Earth.

A Piece of Property 

    Booker was born a slave in Virginia in 1856. That meant he was treated like a piece of property to be used and sold. Sadly, this was the reality for the 4 million people forced into slavery in America’s South.

    Booker was luckier than many. His owners rarely beat their slaves. Still, life was hard. Booker’s family lived in a tiny shack. They slept on a bed made of filthy rags. For supper, they were often fed pig slop. 

    Booker’s owners had daughters. Each day, Booker had to carry their books to their schoolhouse. He’d gaze through the window, watching the kids at their desks. To him, it seemed like paradise. Booker dreamed of getting an education too.

    But it was illegal for a slave to learn to read or write. An education gives a person power. And the last thing a slave owner wanted was a powerful slave.

    Every night, Booker prayed for the day his life would change. As it would turn out, that day was not so far away.

    Booker was born a slave in Virginia in 1856. He was treated like a piece of property to be used and sold. This was true for all of the 4 million people forced into slavery in America’s South.

    Booker was luckier than many. His owners rarely beat their slaves. Still, life was hard. Booker’s family lived in a tiny shack. They slept on a bed made of dirty rags. For supper, they were often fed pig slop.

    Booker’s owners had daughters. Booker had to carry their books to their school each day. He’d look through the window at the kids. He dreamed of getting an education too.

    But it was against the law for a slave to learn to read or write. Knowledge is power. And slave owners didn’t want powerful slaves.

    Booker prayed for the day his life would change. As it would turn out, that day was not so far away.

    Booker was born a slave in Virginia in 1856. That meant he was treated like a piece of property to be used and sold. Sadly, this was the reality for the 4 million people forced into slavery in the South.

    Booker was relatively fortunate—his owners rarely beat their slaves, unlike many slave owners. Still, life was difficult. Booker’s family lived in a tiny shack and slept on a bed made of filthy rags. For supper, they were often fed pig slop.

    Booker’s owners had daughters. Each day, after Booker carried the girls’ books to their schoolhouse, he’d gaze longingly through the window. To Booker, the school seemed like paradise. He dreamed of getting an education too.

    But it was illegal for a slave to learn to read or write. An education gives a person power, and the last thing a slave owner wanted was a powerful slave.

    Every night, Booker prayed for the day his life would change—and as he would discover, that day wasn’t so far away.

Jim McMahon/Mapman ® (Map)

The Journey to Hampton
To get to Hampton Institute, Booker T. Washington traveled hundreds of miles. It was a long, hard journey—and he walked much of it.

The Civil War 

    In 1861, the Civil War broke out. America’s Northern states fought against the South. Booker heard about the war as he worked in his owners’ home. 

    What amazed Booker was that all of this terrible fighting was about him—about slaves. Northern states had banned slavery decades before. Most Northerners believed it should be abolished in the South too. 

    Southerners disagreed. Many were willing to fight to the death to keep their slaves. 

    The Civil War lasted for four years and killed as many as 750,000 men. When it ended in 1865, the North had won. Booker was 9 years old—and he and his family were finally free.

    In 1861, the Civil War broke out. America’s Northern states fought against the South.

    As he did his work, Booker heard about the war. He learned that the war was about slaves. Northern states had banned slavery decades before. Most Northerners thought it should be abolished in the South too.

    Southerners disagreed. Many were willing to fight to the death to keep their slaves.

    The war lasted for four years. As many as 750,000 men were killed. When it ended in 1865, the North had won. Booker was 9 years old, and he and his family were free.

    In 1861, the Civil War broke out. America’s Northern states fought against the South. Booker overheard conversations about the war as he worked in his owners’ home.

    What fascinated Booker was that all of this terrible fighting was about people like him—slaves. Northern states had banned slavery decades earlier, and most Northerners believed it should be abolished in the South too.

    Southerners disagreed—and many were willing to fight to the death to keep their slaves.

    The Civil War lasted for four years and killed as many as 750,000 men. When it ended in 1865, the North had won. Booker was 9 years old—and he and his family were finally free.

Still Struggling 

    Sadly, life for free black people in the South was not much better than life as a slave. Booker’s family moved to Malden, West Virginia. His stepdad found a job in a salt mine. Within weeks, Booker and his brother were working there too. 

    In the dark and sweaty mine, Booker began to educate himself. He learned the numbers on the sides of the salt barrels. As he shoveled, he whispered his ABCs. 

    Soon, a nearby school started to offer night classes for former slaves. Booker would rush over from the mine. The tiny schoolhouse was always packed—and not only with kids. 

    Across the South, former slaves yearned for education. Yet there were not nearly enough schools and teachers to teach them.

    Sadly, life for free black people in the South was not much better than life as a slave.

    Booker’s family moved to Malden, West Virginia. His stepdad got a job in a salt mine. Soon Booker and his brother got jobs there too.

    In the mine, Booker began to teach himself. He learned the numbers on the sides of the salt barrels. As he shoveled, he whispered his ABCs.

    A nearby school began to offer night classes for former slaves. Booker would rush over from the mine. The tiny schoolhouse was always packed, and not only with kids.

    Across the South, former slaves yearned for education. Yet there were not enough schools and teachers for them.

    Unfortunately, life for free black people in the South wasn’t much easier or more comfortable than life as a slave. Booker’s family moved to Malden, West Virginia. His stepfather found a job in a salt mine, and Booker and his brother soon began working there too.

    In the dark and sweaty mine, Booker began to educate himself. He learned the numbers on the sides of the salt barrels. As he shoveled, he whispered the alphabet.

    Soon, a nearby school started offering night classes for former slaves. Booker would rush over from the mine. The tiny schoolhouse was consistently packed—and not only with children.

    Across the South, former slaves yearned for education—but there weren’t nearly enough schools and teachers to accommodate them.

Schomburg Library/NYPL (Slaves); Granger, NYC/The Granger Collection

A Life of Slavery (right) 
Booker faced a great deal of suffering growing up. Slaves—like the family shown here—often worked long hours in tobacco and cotton fields.

 

A Very Special School (left) 
Hampton Institute was one of the few boarding schools for former slaves. Students were taught skills that would help them find jobs. In this photo, they’re learning cheese making.

A New Dream

    One day, Booker heard two men talking about the Hampton Institute. It was a special school created to train black students. It didn’t matter that the school was 500 miles away. It didn’t matter that it cost $70 a year—a fortune for his family. Booker had to go to Hampton. 

    For two years, Booker worked and worked. He saved every cent he could. The day he left, half the town of Malden showed up to send him off. They pressed pennies into his hands and hugged him tight. 

    They told him they had no doubts that he would make his dream come true.

    One day, Booker heard two men talking about the Hampton Institute. It was a special school created to train black students. 

    The school was 500 miles away. It cost $70 a year, a fortune for his family. But none of this mattered. Booker wanted to go.

    Booker worked for two years. He saved his money. The day he left, half the town came to say goodbye. They pressed pennies into his hands. They hugged him. They told him they were sure he would make his dream come true.

    One day, Booker heard two men discussing the Hampton Institute, a special school created to train black students. The school was 500 miles away, and it cost $70 a year—a fortune by his family’s standards. Still, Booker decided that he would attend Hampton.

    Booker worked for two years, saving every cent he could. The day he left, half the town of Malden showed up to bid him farewell. They pressed pennies into his hands and hugged him tightly.

    They assured him they felt confident that he would achieve his goals.

Rising Up

    People believed in Booker. And he remembered that as he slept under the sidewalk that night in Richmond. He woke up hungry but determined. He found a job helping unload a ship. Within days, he’d earned enough for the last part of his journey to Hampton Institute. 

    Booker finally made it to the school. He became a star student and paid his school fees by working as the school’s janitor. After Hampton, he returned to Malden to teach. Then he went to college. 

    In 1881, Booker started the Tuskegee Institute. It became a celebrated college for black students. But Booker didn’t stop there. 

    Over the next three decades, he became a famous writer and speaker. He used his fame to raise money for thousands of schools for black students across the South. 

    As Booker wrote, “If you want to lift yourself up, lift someone else up.”

    No wonder Booker T. Washington rose so high.

    People believed in Booker. And he remembered that as he lay under the sidewalk that night in Richmond. He woke up hungry but determined. He found a job helping unload a ship. He soon earned enough for the last part of his trip.

    Booker made it to the school. He was a great student. He paid his school fees by working as the school’s janitor. After Hampton, he returned to Malden to teach. Then he went to college.

    In 1881, Booker started the Tuskegee Institute. It became a celebrated college for black students. 

    But Booker didn’t stop there. He became a famous writer and speaker. He used his fame to raise money for schools for black students across the South.

    As Booker wrote, “If you want to lift yourself up, lift someone else up.”

    No wonder Booker T. Washington rose so high.

    People believed in Booker—and he remembered that as he huddled beneath the sidewalk on that chilly October night in Richmond. He woke up hungry but determined. He found a job helping unload a ship, and he quickly earned enough money for the final portion of his journey to Hampton Institute.

    At Hampton, Booker became a star student and paid his school fees by working as the school’s janitor. After Hampton, he returned to Malden to teach. Later, he went to college.

    In 1881, Booker started the Tuskegee Institute, which became a celebrated college for black students. But Booker didn’t stop there.

    Over the next three decades, he became a famous writer and speaker. He used his celebrity to raise money for thousands of schools for black students throughout the South.

    As Booker wrote, “If you want to lift yourself up, lift someone else up.”

    No wonder Booker T. Washington rose so high.

Theodore Roosevelt Collection/Harvard College Library

A Famous Man
Even after slavery ended, many people looked down on African Americans. But Booker gained the respect and friendship of some of the most powerful people in America. Here he’s shown with President Theodore Roosevelt.

ACTIVITY: 
Finding text evidence

You’ve just read “Up From Slavery”. Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer, or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

You’ve just read “Up From Slavery”. Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer, or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

You’ve just read “Up From Slavery”. Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer, or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

What was slavery like for Booker and other slaves?  

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “A Piece of Property” and in the caption “A Life of Slavery.”)

Answer: Slaves worked long hours, lived in poor conditions, and were often beaten by their owners.

What was slavery like for Booker and other slaves?  

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “A Piece of Property” and in the caption “A Life of Slavery.”)

Answer: Slaves worked long hours, lived in poor conditions, and were often beaten by their owners.

What was slavery like for Booker and other slaves?  

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “A Piece of Property” and in the caption “A Life of Slavery.”)

Answer: Slaves worked long hours, lived in poor conditions, and were often beaten by their owners.

When did Booker start dreaming of an education? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “A Piece of Property.”)

When did Booker start dreaming of an education? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “A Piece of Property.”)

When did Booker start dreaming of an education? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “A Piece of Property.”)

What did Booker do to educate himself when he lived in West Virginia? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Still Struggling.”

What did Booker do to educate himself when he lived in West Virginia? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Still Struggling.”

What did Booker do to educate himself when he lived in West Virginia? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Still Struggling.”

How did Booker pay for his journey to Hampton? How did he pay his school fees? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the sections “A New Dream” and “Rising Up.”

How did Booker pay for his journey to Hampton? How did he pay his school fees? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the sections “A New Dream” and “Rising Up.”

How did Booker pay for his journey to Hampton? How did he pay his school fees? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the sections “A New Dream” and “Rising Up.”