1901: Up from Slavery

The leader, educator, founder of Tuskegee University and prodigious fundraiser Booker T. Washington was the most renowned black man in the United States between 1895 and his early death in 1915. A bestseller in its time, his autobiography Up from Slavery, first published in serial form in The Outlook and then as a book in 1901, has been read by millions of people around the world.

Born a slave, Washington describes the changes that came with freedom, his fervent desire to go to school and his transformation into a teacher and a leader against a backdrop of incredible violence in the post-Civil War American South. A committed optimist, he spread the gospel of hard work and of faith in the inevitability of progress:

Every persecuted individual and race should get much consolation out of the great human law, which is universal and eternal, that merit, no matter under what skin found, is, in the long run, recognized and rewarded. This I have said here, not to call attention to myself as an individual, but to the race to which I am proud to belong.

Cautious and pragmatic at a time when such qualities were survival skills, Washington resolved never to say anything in the North that might be imprudent in the South. In his own way and in clear, simple words that everyone could understand, he told the most powerful men in the country that his people were rising and that no one and nothing could forever block their ascent:

In my early life I used to cherish a feeling of ill will toward any one who spoke in bitter terms against the Negro, or who advocated measures that tended to oppress the black man or take from him opportunities for growth in the most complete manner. Now, whenever I hear any one advocating measures that are meant to curtail the development of another, I pity the individual who would do this. I know that the one who makes this mistake does so because of his own lack of opportunity for the highest kind of growth. I pity him because I know that he is trying to stop the progress of the world, and because I know that in time the development and the ceaseless advance of humanity will make him ashamed of his weak and narrow position.

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