Booker T. Washington’s autobiography Up From Slavery is a good read that students like. The book tells the story of what happened to Washington after he became a freed slave in Virginia at the age of nine when the Civil War ended. Washington was the most prominent African American of his time and a leading 19th century intellectual. His life story is as inspirational today as when it was published in 1901. Up From Slavery remained a bestseller for 60 years after it was published and is widely read today. The reading level for Up From Slavery is 5th through 12th grades. Two of the main themes of the book are the dignity of work and the value of education.
Washington’s story is so compelling because he rose from slavery to become an educated man who knew business tycoons, presidents and kings. He raised close to two million dollars for Tuskeegee Normal School (Hampton University today), the equivalent of more than 53 million dollars today. Washington received many honors including the following:
• Booker T. Washington was the first African American to be invited to the White House. In 1901 President Theodore Roosevelt invited Washington to dine with him and his family.
• The first U.S. postage stamp to honor an African American was issued in 1940 with the portrait of Booker T. Washington on the 10 cent stamp.
• The first U.S. ship named for an African American was launched in 1942. The Booker T. Washington, a cargo carrier, was christened by African American opera star Marian Anderson.
• The first U.S. coin to feature an African American, the Booker T. Washington half dollar, was issued in 1946.
• Numerous elementary, middle schools and high schools are named Booker T. Washington.
The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has created the National African American Read-in to celebrate Black History Month. One of the best choices for a Read-in is Chapter 3 of Up From Slavery. The chapter opens with Booker T. Washington working in a coal mine in West Virginia. He is inspired when he overhears two miners talking about a college for African Americans in Virginia. Washington winds up walking 500 miles to enroll in the college, Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute (Hampton University today). He works odd jobs enroute to pay for food. By the time he reaches Richmond he has 82 miles to go to get to Hampton. He has no money, so he sleeps under a wooden sidewalk. The next day he gets a job unloading a ship to earn enough money to buy breakfast.
When Washington finally arrives at Hampton, he is a dirty, ragged candidate for admission. The head teacher takes one look at him and decides to test Washington to see what he’s made of. She asks him to clean a classroom. Washington remembers that this was his moment to shine. He had been taught how to clean to perfection. He sweeps the floor three times and dusts the room four times. He moves all the furniture and cleans under it. He cleans inside the closets. He cleans the baseboards. When the head teacher looks for dirt and cannot find any, she admits him to the college.