This autobiography begins with Booker’s recollection of his birth in Franklin County, Virginia, in 1858 or 1859 and follows his progress through his education, his establishment of the Tuskegee Institute, and his fame as a speaker who presents the importance of good race relations to as many audiences of both races as he can reach.
The Value of Education - The first and most important theme is the value of education. Booker emphasizes this idea throughout his autobiography, because as a slave, he had been denied the right to learn and once he was free, like nearly everyone of his race, he soaked up learning like a sponge.
The Dignity of Work - A second important theme is the dignity of work. Booker firmly believed that no education was complete without learning a trade. He believed that there was tremendous value in work and that his race would never rise up without being able to work a trade in their communities that was needed by every race.
Slavery - The net of slavery is often thematically presented. Booker believed that slavery affected the Negroes, but affected the white race morally, and so no one escaped its terrible impact.
The Relationship Between the Races - The relationship between the races is a theme that naturally flows out of the idea of the net of slavery. Booker came to understand that he had the influence to reach as many people of both races as possible to convince them how valuable a good relationship between them would be to the growth of the individual, the community, and the nation.
Success is measured by the obstacles we have to overcome to reach it and now what we have actually attained - The last theme involves the idea that success is measured by the obstacles we have to overcome to reach it and not what we have actually attained. Mr. Washington felt that a man’s character was built by how many walls he had to climb over before he reached his goal. It was the process of achievement that was more important than the finished product.
Overall, the mood is one of setbacks interspersed with optimism. Washington emphasizes the optimism and believes that whites and blacks living together in harmony is not only possible, but probable in spite of the ghost of the institution of slavery.
Although Booker himself was unsure of his birth date, it has been determined now that he was born on April 5, 1856 near Hale’s Ford, Virginia on the Burroughs farm.
He was born into slavery, as his mother was a slave and that made him the property of the same owner. After Emancipation in 1865, he had to help his poverty-stricken parents by working in the salt mines and the coalmines of West Virginia. He wanted to go to school so badly that at the age of 16, he walked over two hundred miles to attend school at the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia. He became a teacher, because he was convinced that only through education could his race rise up from the burdens of slavery. He first taught in his hometown, then at the Hampton Institute, and finally at the Tuskegee Institute which he himself founded.
Because he had to travel throughout the country in search of funding for the Institute, he soon gained fame as an important speaker for his race. His famous speech at the Atlanta Exposition brought the attention of the white race to his belief that Negroes could actually raise themselves up through hard work and education.
He was often encouraged to run for office, but always turned down the suggestion, because he wanted to devote his life to the field of education. He died at the age of 59 on November 14, 1915 in Tuskegee.