One day while at work, Booker overheard two men talking about a school for colored people opening up in Virginia. He learned that not only was the school established, but opportunities were also provided to work out the cost of board and at the same time, the student would be taught a trade or some industry. It seemed to him to be the greatest place on earth and he determined to go to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia. To continue to earn money, he left the salt mines and got a job in the home of General Lewis Ruffner, the owner of the mines. His wife was a very exacting stern boss, and many young men had quit or been fired, because they didn’t meet her standards. Booker soon learned that to make her happy, you had to understand that she wanted things clean, done promptly and systematically and she wanted absolute honesty and frankness. They developed a great friendship based on trust. Here, he started his first library, placing all the books he could get his hands on into a dry goods box. Mrs. Ruffner also was the one who encouraged Booker to go to Hampton, but she also worried that he was starting out on a wild goose chase with little money, clothing, or shelter on the way. His brother gave him as much money as he could, and older people who were proud of his ambition would give him nickels and dimes here and there. Finally, the day came when he would leave Malden. His mother was in ill health and so when he told her goodbye, it was with the realization that he would probably never see her again.
He set off by stagecoach, knowing halfway through the 500-mile trip that he probably didn’t have enough money to finish the trip. He also learned what the color of his skin meant when he was turned away at an in where the stagecoach stopped by the man at the desk who wouldn’t even consider giving him food or lodging. He walked around all night and then began begging for rides in wagons and cars until he was 82 miles from Hampton. Again, he was forced to just walk around the city of Richmond, having no way to pay his way. He finally found an elevated spot in the board sidewalk and he crawled under there to sleep. He had gone a long time without food, so the next morning he went to a ship unloading a cargo of pig iron and asked for a job. He worked there for a while to earn food money and slept at night under the sidewalk. Years later, he was in Richmond for a reception where over 2000 people were present. It was held in a spot not far from the sidewalk under which he had slept and his mind kept drifting to thoughts of it rather the cordial reception given just for him.
Finally, Booker saved enough money to reach Hampton. He figured he had a surplus of exactly 50 cents. When he reached Hampton, he was awed by the beauty of the school building and believed that now his life would have new meaning. He presented himself before the head teacher to enroll, but he didn’t make a very favorable impression on her, because of his dirty clothes and rough appearance. He had to change her opinion so when she sent him into an adjoining reception room and asked him to sweep it, instead he realized she was a Yankee woman who knew just where to look for dirt. Therefore, he swept, polished and dusted over and over again every surface of the room, and when she inspected his work, she decided he would be allowed to enter the school. He thought of his sweeping of the room as his college entrance exam. To help him work out the cost of his board, she offered him the position of janitor. The work was hard, but he stuck to it. She - Miss Mary F. Mackie - became one of his strongest and helpful friends.
The man who made the greatest impression on him was General Samuel C. Armstrong. He was to Booker one of the noblest, rarest human beings he had ever met. He was very unselfish and worshipped by his students and was determined to assist in lifting up the Negro race. He got S. Griffitts Morgan of New Bedford, Massachusetts to defray the cost of Booker’s tuition. The teachers at Hampton also helped Booker obtain more clothing according to the strict rules of the school to have clean clothes and polished shoes. He was supplied with second hand clothing sent in barrels from the North.
Besides the clothing, Booker slept in his first bed that actually had sheets on them. He was so unfamiliar with them that for the first several nights, he wasn’t sure how they worked. However, by watching the other boys, he soon learned how to make his bed. He was also one of the youngest boys in the school, but that didn’t dim his determination. Every hour was occupied with study no matter what age the student and Booker felt that the part the Yankee teachers played in the education of the Negroes immediately after the war would be one of the most thrilling parts of the history of our country.
This chapter furthers the emphasis that Booker placed on his education, and what he would go through to achieve his dream. It’s important to note, however, that he gives credit more to those who were to help him than to himself: his mother, Mrs. Ruffner, Miss Mackie, General Armstrong, and the teachers of Hampton. It shows his modesty and his trust in those of all races.