The coming of freedom brought two points to the surface with which most Negroes agreed: they needed to change their names and they needed to leave the plantation for at least a few days to try out their freedom. For Booker, this meant traveling to West Virginia with mother and siblings, because her husband had secured employment in the salt mines. They began their journey from Virginia to a little town called Malden about five miles from Charleston, West Virginia. His stepfather had not only gotten them jobs, but he had also secured a little cabin for them all. However, in many respects life in that cabin was worst than the slave quarters. They were crowded very close together and the filth was intolerable. The people were a “motley mix” of colored and poor, degraded white people. Even young Booker had to go to work at 4:00AM in one of the salt furnaces, which were filthier than the cabin where they lived.
The first thing he ever learned in the way of book knowledge was in the furnaces. The packers marked their barrels with certain numbers, and his boss would put an “18” on all his barrels and Booker soon came to learn his first number symbol. He had an intense desire to learn to read. He finally got his mother to get him a book and somehow she procured a Webster “blue-back” spelling book. It contained the alphabet and meaningless phonic sounds, but Booker devoured it. He realized the alphabet would lead to words, and he was determined to apply it anywhere he could. His mother was the one who shared with him, aided him and abetted him in his desire. Later, a young colored boy came to Malden, and he knew how to read. At the close of every day’s work, people who wanted him to read the newspapers to them surrounded him. Booker really envied this boy. Then, about that time, the questions of opening a school for colored children became the subject of discussion among the former slaves. The problem was finding a teacher. Not long after, a former colored soldier with considerable education came to town and the first school opened. The school was open night and day to accommodate work schedules. For the older people, it was learning to read the Bible before they died. For everyone, though, it was just the opportunity finally to go to school. Booker, however, was disappointed, because his stepfather could not afford to allow him to quit working and go to school with the other children. So his mother arranged with the teacher to give Booker lessons at night. He accepted this arrangement happily, but his boyish desire was to be just like the other children and go to day school. He finally succeeded in his desire as long as he went to work before school and after.
Because the school was some distance walk from the furnace, Booker was often late. Work ended at 9:00AM and school began at the same time. He conceived the idea, as a result, to move the clock hands at work from 8:30 to 9:00AM, and he could leave work earlier. Eventually, the boss locked the clocked face, but this emphasized Booker’s desire to be at school on time. Another problem he faced was his lack of a cap. All the other boys wore caps to school, but Booker didn’t have one. Once again, his mother saved the day by taking two pieces of “homespun” (jeans) and sewing them together to make his first cap. He was inordinately proud of his mother who didn’t give in to the temptation to go into debt and buy him a store cap. Instead, she came up with one that he was always proud to wear.
Once he had a cap, he then had another problem: choosing a name. When the teacher asked him his name, he decided that he was Booker Washington. Later, his mother reminded him that when he was born, she had given him the name Booker Taliafero, but that the second name had been forgotten. Now, he added it and became Booker Taliafero Washington. With a cap and a name, he resolved to continue with his desire to create an ancestry for his children of which they would be proud and which might encourage them to strive even higher. As a result, knowing that a Negro youth starts out with a presumption of failure against him, he determined that, day or night, he would get an education. About the same time, his mother adopted into the family another son who was named James B. Washington.
Booker dreaded working in the salt mines more than anything he did. They were filthy and filled with the blackest darkness. He feared constantly of getting lost in the mine or his light going out. What’s more, it was dangerous on just a regular basis. He noted that young boys who began life in a coalmine were often physically and mentally dwarfed and had no ambition beyond the mines.
At the same time as he was being educated, Booker tried to imagine the feelings and ambitions of a white boy who had no limit placed upon his aspirations and activities. Under such circumstances, he knew he would begin at the bottom and keep rising until he reached the “highest round of success.” However, he confessed that he did not envy the white boy as he once did. He had learned that success is measured not in the position you have reached in life, but the obstacles you have over come to get there. Out of the struggles he has to overcome, the Negro youth achieves a strength and a confidence that he would miss if his pathway in life were comparatively smooth because of his race or birth. Race will not carry one forward unless he has individual worth, and because of these observations, Booker had come to be very proud of the race to which he belonged.
This chapter is devoted to Booker’s observations of his boyhood in West Virginia. It emphasizes how important education becomes for him and shows how he comes to value the race to which he belongs.