Thursday, February 9, 2017

21 Amazing Quotes from Booker T. Washington's 'Up From Slavery' (1901)

Wise words from one of America's greatest thinkers we'd all be wise to heed - black, white and everything in between.

By: Jimbo X

I don't care what color you are, there are three nonfiction books penned by black American writers everybody ought to read. We've already covered two of them - The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Du Bois - and to kick off Black History Month 2017, I reckoned it was worth all of our respective times to take a nice, long gander at book no. 3 - Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery

Booker T. Washington, for those of you not in the know, is the guy who's pretty much responsible for the Tuskegee Institute existing. Probably his biggest claim to fame as his legendary 1909 "Atlanta Compromise" speech, where he said black success in America wouldn't come about through civil rights legislation, but through education and entrepreneurialism. This, naturally, made him public enemy no. 1 to Du Bois and the founders of the N.A.A.C.P., who instead sought to bring about racial parity through legal challenges and public policy reform.

After re-reading Up From Slavery last year, it suddenly dawned on me why schools don't talk about any black American academics or civil rights crusaders before 1963. Simply put, you could yank any of Washington's arguments posited in his classic 1901 autobiography outlining the root causes of black economic failure and without changing a damn word, make it applicable to plight of contemporary African-Americans. If kids today had to read Up From Slavery in class, they might walk away from it with this crazy-ass idea that Booker T. WAS right - that simply changing the laws all willy-nilly to integrate blacks into "mainstream" U.S. society may not have been the best approach to curb racism or put African-Americans in better financial positions to succeed, or at the very least, remain self-sustaining. Egads, some of them may even develop the verboten idea that the Civil Rights Movement actually did very little to stomp out bigotry or make lives for African-Americans better, and had we gone the Washingtonian route and focused on black economic nationalism and supporting family structures instead of building a gargantuan welfare state and telling white kids to feel ashamed of being white from the time they enter preschool, blacks in America might be much better off, financially AND civically.

It's doubly - maybe even triply - damning because, as the title hints, this Booker T. Washington fellow literally began life as a slave. Forget microaggressions and white feminism and not being able to get a cab, this dude was literally considered chattel up until he was a teenager. So here's a guy that experienced the ULTIMATE form of white oppression coming out and telling us that government forced integration won't do much of nothing 60 years before anybody knew who Martin Luther King, Jr., was - and to top it all off, his success as academic and statesman PROVES that investments in real education ( i.e., the kind where you actually learn worthwhile, marketable job skills and not 250,000 different ways to blame Whitey for everything) and economy building is the actual cure-all for African-American plight. Shit, if that approach helped an honest to goodness ex-slave become one of the wealthiest and most respected men in the country, what excuse do middle and working class African-American teens today - who haven't experienced one tenth of one percent of the racial persecution Washington faced when he was their age - possibly have to justify their own financial failures?

In that, I consider not only Up From Slavery to be one of the most important nonfiction works of the 20th century, it's one of the few books I'd consider mandatory reading for anybody who dares consider themselves "American." Since it's in the public domain (I think), it shouldn't be too hard to find a copy of the book somewhere on the Internets. Frankly, you need to read the whole thing if you haven't, but for those of you who need a little appetizer plate to grasp why it's so fucking crucial you read it, I've clipped out 21 quotes from Washington's tome that succinctly sum up why Washington's way of thinking was so profound ... and is so utterly terrifying to critical theory proponents to this very day.

Quote One
“One may get the idea, from what I have said, that there was bitter feeling toward the white people on the part of my race, because of the fact that most of the white population was away fighting in a war which would result in keeping the Negro in slavery if the South was successful. In the case of the slaves on our place this was not true, and it was not true of any large portion of the slave population in the South where the Negro was treated with anything like decency. During the Civil War one of my young masters was killed, and two were severely wounded. I recall the feeling of sorrow which existed among the slaves when they heard of the death of 'Mars' Billy." It was no sham sorrow, but real. Some of the slaves had nursed 'Mars' Billy; others had played with him when he was a child. 'Mars' Billy had begged for mercy in the case of others when the overseer or master was thrashing them. The sorrow in the slave quarter was only second to that in the 'big house.'

Quote Two
“I pity from the bottom of my heart any nation or body of people that is so unfortunate as to get entangled in the net of slavery. I have long since ceased to cherish any spirit of bitterness against the Southern white people on account of the enslavement of my race. No one section of our country was wholly responsible for its introduction, and, besides, it was recognized and protected for years by the General Government. Having once got its tentacles fastened on to the economic and social life of the Republic, it was no easy matter for the country to relieve itself of the institution. Then, when we rid ourselves of prejudice, or racial feeling, and look facts in the face, we must acknowledge that, notwithstanding the cruelty and moral wrong of slavery, the ten million Negroes inhabiting this country, who themselves or whose ancestors went through the school of American slavery, are in a stronger and more hopeful condition, materially, intellectually, morally, and religiously, than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe.”

Quote Three
“The whole machinery of slavery was so constructed as to cause labour, as a rule, to be looked upon as a badge of degradation, of inferiority. Hence labour was something that both races on the slave plantation sought to escape. The slave system on our place, in a large measure, took the spirit of self-reliance and self-help out of the white people. My old master had many boys and girls, but not one, so far as I know, ever mastered a single trade or special line of productive industry."

Quote Four
“The very fact that the white boy is conscious that, if he fails in life, he will disgrace the whole family record, extending back through many generations, is of tremendous value in helping him to resist temptations. The fact that the individual has behind and surrounding him proud family history and connection serves as a stimulus to help him to overcome obstacles when striving for success.

Quote Five
“In later years, I confess that I do not envy the white boy as I once did. I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed. Looked at from this standpoint, I almost reached the conclusion that often the Negro boy's birth and connection with an unpopular race is an advantage, so far as real life is concerned. With few exceptions, the Negro youth must work harder and must perform his tasks even better than a white youth in order to secure recognition. But out of the hard and unusual struggle through which he is compelled to pass, he gets a strength, a confidence, that one misses whose pathway is comparatively smooth by reason of birth and race.”

Quote Six
“I have referred to this unpleasant part of the history of the South simply for the purpose of calling attention to the great change that has taken place since the days of the 'Ku Klux.' To-day there are no such organizations in the South, and the fact that such ever existed is almost forgotten by both races. There are few places in the South now where public sentiment would permit such organizations to exist.

Quote Seven
“I felt that the Reconstruction policy, so far as it related to my race, was in a large measure on a false foundation, was artificial and forced. In many cases it seemed to me that the ignorance of my race was being used as a tool with which to help white men into office, and that there was an element in the North which wanted to punish the Southern white men by forcing the Negro into positions over the heads of the Southern whites. I felt that the Negro would be the one to suffer for this in the end. Besides, the general political agitation drew the attention of our people away from the more fundamental matters of perfecting themselves in the industries at their doors and in securing property.”

Quote Eight
“More and more I am convinced that the final solution of the political end of our race problem will be for each state that finds it necessary to change the law bearing upon the franchise to make the law apply with absolute honesty, and without opportunity for double dealing or evasion, to both races alike. Any other course my daily observation in the South convinces me, will be unjust to the Negro, unjust to the white man, and unfair to the rest of the state in the Union, and will be, like slavery, a sin that at some time we shall have to pay for."

Quote Nine
“I saw other young men who received seventy-five or one hundred dollars per month from the Government, who were in debt at the end of every month. I saw men who but a few months previous were members of Congress, then without employment and in poverty. Among a large class there seemed to be a dependence upon the Government for every conceivable thing. The members of this class had little ambition to create a position for themselves, but wanted the Federal officials to create one for them. How many times I wished then, and have often wished since, that by some power of magic I might remove the great bulk of these people into the county districts and plant them upon the soil, upon the solid and never deceptive foundation of Mother Nature, where all nations and races that have ever succeeded have gotten their start,—a start that at first may be slow and toilsome, but one that nevertheless is real."

Quote Ten
“My experience has been that the time to test a true gentleman is to observe him when he is in contact with individuals of a race that is less fortunate than his own. This is illustrated in no better way than by observing the conduct of the old-school type of Southern gentleman when he is in contact with his former slaves or their descendants. An example of what I mean is shown in a story told of George Washington, who, meeting a coloured man in the road once, who politely lifted his hat, lifted his own in return. Some of his white friends who saw the incident criticised Washington for his action. In reply to their criticism George Washington said: "Do you suppose that I am going to permit a poor, ignorant, coloured man to be more polite than I am?”

Quote Eleven
“At night, during Christmas week, they usually had what they called a "frolic," in some cabin on the plantation. That meant a kind of rough dance, where there was likely to be a good deal of whiskey used, and where there might be some shooting or cutting with razors. While I was making this Christmas visit I met an old coloured man who was one of the numerous local preachers, who tried to convince me, from the experience Adam had in the Garden of Eden, that God had cursed all labour, and that, therefore, it was a sin for any man to work. For that reason this man sought to do as little work as possible. He seemed at that time to be supremely happy, because he was living, as he expressed it, through one week that was free from sin.

Quote Twelve
“The making of these bricks taught me an important lesson in regard to the relations of the two races in the South. Many white people who had had no contact with the school, and perhaps no sympathy with it, came to us to buy bricks because they found out that ours were good bricks. They discovered that we were supplying a real want in the community. The making of these bricks caused many of the white residents of the neighbourhood to begin to feel that the education of the Negro was not making him worthless, but that in educating our students we were adding something to the wealth and comfort of the community. As the people of the neighbourhood came to us to buy bricks, we got acquainted with them; they traded with us and we with them. Our business interests became intermingled. We had something which they wanted; they had something which we wanted. This, in a large measure, helped to lay the foundation for the pleasant 'relations' that have continued to exist between us and the white people in that section, and which now extend throughout the South.

Wherever one of our brickmakers has gone in the South, we find that he has something to contribute to the well-being of the community into which he has gone; something that has made the community feel that, in a degree, it is indebted to him, and perhaps, to a certain extent, dependent upon him. In this way pleasant relations between the races have been simulated.

My experience is that there is something in human nature which always makes an individual recognize and reward merit, no matter under what colour of skin merit is found. I have found, too, that it is the visible, the tangible, that goes a long ways in softening prejudices. The actual sight of a first-class house that a Negro has built is ten times more potent than pages of discussion about a house that he ought to build, or perhaps could build.”

Quote Thirteen
“The individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of race. One man may go into a community prepared to supply the people there with an analysis of Greek sentences. The community may not at the time be prepared for, or feel the need of, Greek analysis, but it may feel its need of bricks and houses and wagons. If the man can supply the need for those, then, it will lead eventually to a demand for the first product, and with the demand will come the ability to appreciate it and to profit by it."

Quote Fourteen
“With God's help, I believe that I have completely rid myself of any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that he may have inflicted upon my race. I am made to feel just as happy now when I am rendering service to Southern white men as when the service is rendered to a member of my own race. I pity from the bottom of my heart any individual who is so unfortunate as to get into the habit of holding race prejudice.

The more I consider the subject, the more strongly I am convinced that the most harmful effect of the practice to which the people in certain sections of the South have felt themselves compelled to resort, in order to get rid of the force of the Negroes' ballot, is not wholly in the wrong done to the Negro, but in the permanent injury to the morals of the white man. The wrong to the Negro is temporary, but to the morals of the white man the injury is permanent. I have noted time and time again that when an individual perjures himself in order to break the force of the black man's ballot, he soon learns to practise dishonesty in other relations of life, not only where the Negro is concerned, but equally so where a white man is concerned. The white man who begins by cheating a Negro usually ends by cheating a white man. The white man who begins to break the law by lynching a Negro soon yields to the temptation to lynch a white man. All this, it seems to me, makes it important that the whole Nation lend a hand in trying to lift the burden of ignorance from the South.”

Quote Fifteen
“When I went into the smoking-room I was never more surprised in my life than when each man, nearly every one of them a citizen of Georgia, came up and introduced himself to me and thanked me earnestly for the work that I was trying to do for the whole South. This was not flattery, because each one of these individuals knew that he had nothing to gain by trying to flatter me.”

Quote Sixteen
“My experience in getting money for Tuskegee has taught me to have no patience with those people who are always condemning the rich because they are rich, and because they do not give more to objects of charity. In the first place, those who are guilty of such sweeping criticisms do not know how many people would be made poor, and how much suffering would result, if wealthy people were to part all at once with any large proportion of their wealth in a way to disorganize and cripple great business enterprises.”

Quote Seventeen
“The effort to secure help from the Slater and Peabody Funds brought me into contact with two rare men—men who have had much to do in shaping the policy for the education of the Negro. I refer to the Hon. J.L.M. Curry, of Washington, who is the general agent for these two funds, and Mr. Morris K. Jessup, of New York. Dr. Curry is a native of the South, an ex-Confederate soldier, yet I do not believe there is any man in the country who is more deeply interested in the highest welfare of the Negro than Dr. Curry, or one who is more free from race prejudice.

Quote Eighteen
“And in this connection it is well to bear in mind that whatever other sins the South may be called to bear, when it comes to business, pure and simple, it is in the South that the Negro is given a man's chance in the commercial world, and in nothing is this Exposition more eloquent than in emphasizing this chance. Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the sub-substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful. No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.”

Quote Nineteen
“I am constantly trying to impress upon our students at Tuskegee—and on our people throughout the country, as far as I can reach them with my voice—that any man, regardless of colour, will be recognized and rewarded just in proportion as he learns to do something well—learns to do it better than someone else—however humble the thing may be. As I have said, I believe that my race will succeed in proportion as it learns to do a common thing in an uncommon manner; learns to do a thing so thoroughly that no one can improve upon what it has done; learns to make its services of indispensable value.”

Quote Twenty
“In this library I found a life of Frederick Douglass, which I began reading. I became especially interested in Mr. Douglass's description of the way he was treated on shipboard during his first or second visit to England. In this description he told how he was not permitted to enter the cabin, but had to confine himself to the deck of the ship. A few minutes after I had finished reading this description I was waited on by a committee of ladies and gentlemen with the request that I deliver an address at a concert which was to begin the following evening. And yet there are people who are bold enough to say that race feeling in America is not growing less intense!"

Quote Twenty-One
“Time and time again he said to me, during this visit, that it was not only the duty of the country to assist in elevating the Negro of the South, but the poor white man as well. At the end of his visit I resolved anew to devote myself more earnestly than ever to the cause which was so near his heart. I said that if a man in his condition was willing to think, work, and act, I should not be wanting in furthering in every possible way the wish of his heart.”


  1. "My experience is that there is something in human nature which always makes an individual recognize and reward merit, no matter under what colour of skin merit is found. I have found, too, that it is the visible, the tangible, that goes a long ways in softening prejudices,..."

    Yes, the angry mobs that burned down the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa were simply acknowledging black merit.

    1. So what to make of the angry mobs that burned down their own neighborhoods during the L.A. and Ferguson riots?

  2. Those who burn down their own communities are deplorable and counterproductive.

    However, I find Washington’s comments regarding other races recognizing and rewarding merit as ridiculous. If that were the case, then American history wouldn’t have several examples of prominent black communities being torched by whites.

  3. So why aren't racist whites burning down Jay-Z's recording studio or Oprah Winfrey's headquarters today?


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