In the preface, Mr. Washington explains how he came to write his autobiography. It came about as an outgrowth of a series of articles he had written for the magazine Outlook. He received many requests for the articles to be preserved in book form. He regrets that his book is in such an imperfect form given that he is so busy with his administrative duties with the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. He has, however, used the time whenever he could find it: waiting for trains or in hotel rooms or at such stolen moments between his duties with Tuskegee. He ends the preface with a thank you for Mr. Max Bennett Thrasher who assisted him in putting this book together.
The preface is a wonderful indication of the sincerity and honest motivations of Mr. Washington. It immediately makes him a likeable man, one deserving of respect for his desire to present his story in a straightforward manner and to give credit to the man who helped make it possible.
This chapter begins where it should begin - at the beginning! Or least at the beginning as Booker knew it. He tells us he was born in Franklin County Virginia, but he is not sure of the year - it’s either 1858 or 1859 - and he doesn’t know what month or what day. He does know that his birth took place near a crossroads post-office called Hale’s Ford. Otherwise, his earliest impressions are of the plantation and the slave quarters, the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging of surroundings. His owners were not especially cruel, at least not as compared to other owners, but still he was forced to live in a 14 x 16 foot cabin with his mother, his brother, and his sister.
He knew almost nothing of his ancestry other than the whispers in the quarters about how horrible the voyage their ancestors had taken from Africa to America. However, that didn’t help him know the history of his own family. He did know that his mother had a half-brother and a half-sister, but her purchase as a slave attracted little more attention than the purchase of a cow or pig and there were no records of black people. He also didn’t know who his father was other than reports that he was a white man who lived on another plantation. His name was unknown to Booker, but he didn’t hate his father; he merely saw him as just another victim of the institution of slavery.
His mother was the plantation cook and the kitchen was also where they lived. It was without glass windows, had a door that barely hung on uneven hinges, and had large cracks in the walls that let in the coldest air in the winter and the humidity in the summer. The floor was the naked earth. Booker had a distinct memory of a potato hole in the cabin where sweet potatoes were stored. He was in charge of putting potatoes in or taking them out and in the process, he was able to snatch a few for himself. All the plantation cooking was done in an open fireplace, and there was none left for the slaves unless his mother was able to steal a chicken and cook it for her children late at night. In spite of the fact that taking the potatoes or stealing a chicken might be labeled as theft, Mr. Washington refused to believe that their actions were wrong given the circumstances of the time. Like his white father, his mother and he were also victims of the institution of slavery.
Booker had no memory of ever playing games or sports. He regretted that situation, because he believed he would be an even more useful man if he had. However, his life was devoted to work, because he was slave. He cleaned yards, carried water, or took corn to the mill. Carrying corn to the mill was the one of the hardest jobs he ever had. He was small and not very strong and even though he had a horse, if the corn shifted and slipped off, he had to wait until someone came along to help him put it back, and the time waiting was usually spent crying. Add to that the fact that he had to walk through the woods alone. He was always frightened, because the woods were often full of army deserters who were said to cut off the ears of any Negro boy they found there. Then, if he came home late, he was at the least, severely scolded, and at the worst, flogged. Life was very hard.
As for schooling, as a slave, he had none, but from the earliest he could remember, he ached for the opportunity to learn. Being able to walk into a schoolhouse would be like walking into paradise for him.
His earliest understanding that he was a slave came when he awoke early one morning and heard his mother praying that Lincoln and his armies would be successful, and that one day, she and her children would be free. He was also eternally amazed how a large mass of people like slaves, who were ignorant of books and newspapers, nonetheless, were completely and accurately informed about “great National questions that were agitating the country.” He calls it the grapevine telegraph. The news was usually received through the colored man who was sent to the post office for the mail. He would linger as long as he could to listen in on conversations of white people congregated there, and in this way, he often brought back news to the slave quarters before it was even heard in the “big house.”
Booker also had no memories of ever sitting down together at a table with his family to share a meal. Like most slaves, they ate with their hands, and since food was scarce, they ate quickly to satisfy their hunger. As a result, when he was sent to the big house at mealtimes to fan flies from the food by means of a large set of paper fans operated by a pulley, he saw for the first time how a meal could be shared in a genteel way. He also was able to listen in to their conversations on the subjects of freedom and war and absorb the news that he could tell his fellow slaves. Furthermore, he saw his masters eating ginger cakes, and the height of his ambition became to reach a point where he could eat ginger cakes in just the same manner as his owners.
Surprisingly, as the war progressed, the slaves felt it easier to accept deprivation than their white owners did. They had spent their lives deprived while white people were often in great straits when it came to those things they took for granted - coffee, tea, sugar, and other articles they were accustomed to.
Booker’s first pair of shoes were wooden - leather on top, but wooden bottoms that made a fearful noise and made him walk awkwardly. He also had to wear flax shirts, an ordeal that was one of the most trying he ever faced. It was made from the refuse of the flax, the cheapest and roughest part and pulling it on for the first time was to him like pulling a tooth. However, he had no choice, because he either wore the flax shirt or he wore nothing. Fortunately, his brother John often generously offered to wear the shirt to help break it in.
Mr. Washington is quick to pint out at this point in his narrative that one might suppose that he and the rest of his people would have had bitter feelings towards whites. However, in the case of the slaves on his plantation, this was not true. In fact, he believed it was not true for most of the black population of the South at that time. Instead, when one of their young masters was killed in battle, their sorrow was as great as that of the white family. “Mars Billy” had often begged for mercy for the slaves when they were being flogged or punished as he cared deeply for them from childhood. The slaves would also stay up around the clock to help nurse their wounded masters, and when the men were gone to battle, the slaves took upon themselves the serious responsibility to protect the white women and children with their lives if necessary. It was an honor among the slaves to be appointed as the ones to sleep in the big house during the absence of the men. All of this, to Mr. Washington, was a result of the kind and generous nature of the Negro race, which never in his memory would betray a specific trust.
In later years, the former slaves were even known to support and care for their former masters with gifts of money, food, and time to keep them from suffering. One ex-slave from Ohio had made a contract with his master two or three years before the Emancipation Proclamation to buy himself by paying so much per year for his own body. Once freedom came, he still owed his former master $300. Because he was free, he could have walked away from the debt, but the man walked the greater portion of the distance to Virginia to finish paying the debt. He had given his word to his master, and he felt his word must never be broken. He could not have enjoyed his freedom until he had fulfilled his promise.
The generous nature of the Negro slaves was no indication that they really didn’t want to be free. In fact, freedom was the greatest hope of their lives. However, said Washington, having been slaves or being the descendents of slaves had made Negroes better than any other black people in the world. He said that Providence so often uses men and institutions to accomplish a purpose and that it had made Negroes better people. Furthermore, slavery wasn’t just hurtful to blacks; it was also hurtful to whites who had no spirit or self-reliance and had never mastered a single trade or line of productive industry. They had no idea how to care for their homes and the refinements of their lives once the slaves were gone so when freedom came, the slaves were almost as well prepared to begin life anew as their masters.
In the days preceding their freedom, the grapevine telegraph worked overtime and the slaves catered to all the Yankee soldiers who passed through in order to get vital information about the end of the war. There was more, bolder singing in the quarters where the word “freedom” in their hymns had been assumed by the white race to mean death and a glorious meeting with God, but now the true meaning came out. The word “freedom” was the reality of Emancipation. Then, one morning the slaves were all called to the “big house” where they were told first by the sadness on the faces of their masters and then by the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation that they were really free. There was great rejoicing for some minutes, but no bitterness towards their former owners, and then the reality set in: they were suddenly in charge of themselves and it was a greater responsibility than they had ever faced before. What was even more sobering was the condition of the old people - those in their seventies and eighties - who had a strange attachment to their owners. As a result, one by one, they stealthily wandered to the big house to have whispered conversations with their former masters as to their future.
This large chapter is a wonderful exposé of life as a slave and a generous explanation of the relationship between the slaves and their masters. Booker never shows any bitterness about his life, but instead, explains the realties for both races, both during slavery and at emancipation.