Up From Slavery: A 400-Year Journey

July 29, 2019 Updated: July 29, 2019

In August 1619, a privateer docked at Point Comfort near Jamestown, Virginia. In exchange for food and supplies, the privateer left behind “20 and odd” of the slaves it had seized from a Portuguese vessel.

And so, 400 years ago, began a blot on American ideals that would in time develop into the ugliest of stains.

Not exactly a quadricentennial deserving of celebration.

About a quarter of a century ago in this same month, my wife and I visited the campus of Tuskegee University, the private, historically black institution in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Though we were on the campus less than two hours, our time there remains vivid in my memory. Because of the season, few students and teachers were present, and the silence of the afternoon lent mystery to the hot, still air.

As we walked past the older buildings, many of them built by students in exchange for tuition during the school’s early years, I felt as if those bricks, mortar, and wood were alive and breathing, replete with the sweat, dreams, and hopes of all those young people who had worked and studied on these grounds.

Here, too, on these sweltering lawns lingered the ghosts of two famous Americans: Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver.

Most of us think of the peanut when we hear the name of George Washington Carver, the agricultural scientist who invented over 300 uses for the peanut, including shaving cream and shampoo. Though he didn’t invent peanut butter, his work doubtless contributed to its manufacture. Those of us who relish peanut butter hold Mr. Carver in high esteem.

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The botanist George Washington Carver, circa 1910. (Public Domain)

But it is to Booker T. Washington I wish to pay homage.

A Remarkable Legacy

For many years, in the American history and literature seminars I offered to homeschoolers in Asheville, North Carolina, I taught Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, “Up From Slavery.” Here was a remarkable American: born into slavery, a boy with a thirst for learning, graduate of the Hampton Institute, principal and then president of the Tuskegee Institute (later to be renamed Tuskegee University), renowned public speaker, and tireless fundraiser for his college.

When he arrived in 1881 to help found the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, a school for educating teachers that later became the Tuskegee Institute, Washington faced a multitude of challenges: a lack of books, professors, and even buildings for housing his students.

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The Tuskegee campus in 1916. (Public Domain)

Under his direction, the students not only attended academic classes but also built their classrooms and dormitories. During his years as Tuskegee’s president, Washington remained a staunch proponent of learning trade skills along with academic subjects.

In addition, as he records in his autobiography, many of his students hailed from so impoverished a background that he and other teachers had to instruct them in personal hygiene. By example and by instruction, he also taught the young people manners, decorum, and dress.

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Booker T. Washington, 1905. (Public Domain)

Until his death in 1915, Washington presided over Tuskegee, and the institute flourished. His work attracted many benefactors, presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft sought political advice from him, and the institute produced an impressive array of graduates.

Particularly important to blacks at this time were the teachers born from this endeavor, who took the gifts of learning bestowed on them by Washington into communities across the South, thereby changing the lives of thousands.

Some black leaders have criticized Washington for his advocacy of compromise and patience regarding racism and segregation. In 1885, he gave his Atlanta Exposition Speech, in which he proposed an arrangement by which blacks would recognize and accept the divisions between blacks and whites in the South, and so submit to white political rule, in exchange for state support of education and due process of law for blacks.

As time passed, many black leaders desirous of more rapid changes and for greater political power referred to his speech as the “Atlanta Compromise,” believing his approach too conservative.

Another Remarkable Legacy

Whether Washington or his detractors were correct in their ideas regarding change will be long debated among historians. But from the landing of that ship in 1619 in Jamestown and from the life of Booker T. Washington, we may draw some conclusions about America.

First, America remains what historian Wilfred M. McClay calls the “Land of Hope.” While slavery and other injustices have indeed blemished the American dream of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Booker T. Washington and an army of others—men and women of all races—stand as examples of courage and perseverance in pursuit of this dream. Our history is filled with heroes who faced horrific challenges yet worked tirelessly to bring American realities more in line with its ideals.

We should also pause in this particular year to recognize the great strides forward America has made regarding race. Between the slaves of Jamestown and the founding of Tuskegee,  there was one mighty difference—liberty. Between the time of Booker T. Washington and our present era, we see the fruits of that liberty: equal opportunities, black successes across a broad spectrum of professions, and the election of a black president.

When I was 4, my family moved from Pennsylvania to a small town in North Carolina so that my dad, a fledgling physician, could practice medicine. Dad put an end to the separate waiting rooms for black and white patients, and the 1960s put an end to the segregation of the town’s schools, movie theater, churches, and restaurants.

Were we to visit that town today, we would find a community where black and white intermingle socially, attend the same schools, and lead generally harmonious lives. It has taken many years, but today there exists among us only the residue of the racism faced by Booker T. Washington.

We have come a long way.

Finally, we should refrain from using racism as a smear tactic against those whose ideas or politics we dislike. Some people today bandy the word about as a weapon, an accusation without merit or proof. When we do so, when we sling the epithet “racist” at others in hopes of political or personal gain, we demean the word, our complicated American story, and figures like Booker T. Washington who knew full well the cruelty and evil of real racism. By engaging in such wild and irresponsible rhetoric, we prove ourselves ignorant of the travails of history.

Booker T. Washington once wrote, “There are two ways of exerting one’s strength: one is pushing down, the other is pulling up.”

In the “Land of Hope,” we should all be pulling up.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.

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