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An Autobiography


Chapter I.-A Slave Among Slaves my owner and hers. Her addition to the

slave family attracted about as much attenWAS born a slave on a plantation in tion as the purchase of a new horse or Franklin County, Virginia. I am not

cow. Of my father I know even less than quite sure of the exact place or exact of my mother. I do not even know his date of my birth, but at any rate I suspect name. I have heard reports to the effect I must have been born somewhere and at that he was a white man who lived on one some time. As nearly as I have been of the near-by plantations. Whoever he able to learn, I was born near a cross was, I never heard of his taking the least roads post-office called Hale's Ford, and interest in me or providing in any way the year was 1858 or 1859. I do not for my rearing. But I do not find especial know the month or the day. The earli

fault with him. He was simply another est impressions I can now recall are of unfortunate victim of the institution which the plantation and the slave quarters, the Nation unhappily had engrafted upon the latter being the part of the plantation it at that time. where the slaves had their cabins.

The cabin was not only our living-place, My life had its beginning in the midst but was also used as the kitchen for the of the most miserable, desolate, and dis- plantation. My mother was the plantacouraging surroundings. This was so, tion cook. The cabin was without glass however, not because my owners were windows; it had only openings in the side especially cruel, for they were not, as com

which let in the light, and also the cold, pared with many others. I was born in chilly air of winter. There was a door to a typical log cabin, about fourteen by six- the cabin that is, something that was teen feet square. In this cabin I lived called a door-but the uncertain hinges with my mother and a brother and sister by which it was hung, and the large cracks till after the Civil War, when we were all in it, to say nothing of the fact that it was declared free.

too small, made the room a very uncomOf my ancestry I know almost nothing, fortable one. In addition to these openIn the slave quarters, and even later, I ings there was, in the lower right-hand heard whispered conversations among the colored people of the tortures which the corner of the room, the “ cat-hole," a con

trivance which almost every mansion or slaves, including, no doubt, my ancestors cabin in Virginia possessed during the on my mother's side, suffered in the mid- ante bellum period. The “cat-hole” was dle passage of the slave ship while being

a square opening, about seven by eight conveyed from Africa to America. I inches, provided for the purpose of letting have been unsuccessful in securing any the cat pass in and out of the house at information that would throw any accu- will during the night. In the case of our rate light upon the history of my family particular cabin I could never understand beyond my mother. She, I remember, the necessity for this convenience, since had a half-brother and a half-sister. In there were at least a half-dozen other the days of slavery not very much atten- places in the cabin that would have accomtion was given to family history and family modated the cats. There was no wooden records--that is, black family records. floor in our cabin, the naked earth being My mother, I suppose, attracted the atten- used as a floor. In the center of the tion of a purchaser who was afterward earthen floor there was a large, deep "Copyright, 1900, by Booker T. Washington.

opening covered with boards, which was


used as a place in which to store sweet theft. If such a thing were to happen potatoes during the winter. An impres- now, I should condemn it as theft myself sion of this potato-hole is very distinctly But taking place at the time it did, and engraved upon my memory, because I for the reason that it did, no one could recall that during the process of putting ever make me believe that my mother wa: the potatoes in or taking them out I would guilty of thieving. She was simply a vic often come into possession of one or two, tim of the system of slavery. I canno which I roasted and thoroughly enjoyed. remember having slept in a bed unti There was no cooking-stove on after our family was declared free by the plantation, and all the cooking for the Emancipation Proclamation. Three chil whites and slaves my mother had to do dren-John, my older brother, Amanda over an open fireplace, mostly in pots my sister, and myself—had a pallet or and “skillets." While the poorly built the dirt floor, or, to be more correct, we cabin caused us to suffer with cold in the slept in and on a bundle of filthy rags laic winter, the heat from the open fireplace upon the dirt floor. in summer was equally trying.

I was asked not long ago to tell some The early years of my life, which were thing about the sports and pastimes that spent in the little cabin, were not very engaged in during my youth. Until tha different from those of thousands of other question was asked it had never occurred slaves. My mother, of course, had little to me that there was no period of my life time in which to give attention to the that was devoted to play. From the time training of her children during the day. that I can remember anything, almos She snatched a few moments for our care every day of my life has been occupied in in the early morning before her work began, some kind of labor ; though I think and at night after the day's work was would now be a more useful man if I hac done. ne of my earliest recollections is had time for sports. During the period that of my mother cooking a chicken late that I spent in slavery I was not larg at night, and awakening her children for enough to be of much service, still I wa the purpose of feeding them. How or occupied most of the time in cleaning thi where she got it I do not know. I pre- yards, carrying water to the men in th sume, however, it was procured from our fields, or going to the mill, to which owner's farm. Some people may call this used to take the corn, once a week, to b





THE LOG CABIN IN WHICH MR. WASHINGTON NOW THINKS HE WAS BORN ground. The mill was about three miles was a slave, though I remember on sevfrom the plantation. This work I always eral occasions I went as far as the schooldreaded. The heavy bag of corn would house door with one of my young misbe thrown across the back of the horse, tresses to carry her books. The picture and the corn divided about evenly on each of several dozen boys and girls in a schoolside; but in some way, almost without room engaged in study made a deep imexception, on these trips, the corn would pression upon me, and I had the feeling so shift as to become unbalanced and that to get into a school-house and study would fall off the horse, and often I would in this way would be about the same as fall with it. As I was not strong enough getting into paradise. to reload the corn upon the horse, I would So far as I can now recall, the first have to wait, sometimes for many hours, knowledge that I got of the fact that we till a chance passer-by came along who were slaves and that freedom of the slaves would help me out of my trouble. The was being discussed was early one mornhours while waiting for some one were ing before day, when I was awakened by usually spent in crying. The time con- my mother kneeling over her children and sumed in this way made me late in reach- fervently praying that Lincoln and his ing the mill, and by the time I got my corn armies might be successful, and that one ground and reached home it would be far day she and her children might be free. into the night. The road was a lonely In this connection I have never been able one, and often led through dense forests. to understand how the slaves throughout I was always frightened. The woods were the South, completely ignorant as were said to be full of soldiers who had deserted the masses so far as books or newspapers from the army, and I had been told that were concerned, were able to keep themthe first thing a deserter did to a negro selves so accurately and completely inboy when he found him alone was to cut formed about the great National questions off his ears. Besides, when I was late in that were agitating the country. From getting home I knew I would always get the time that Garrison, Lovejoy, and others a severe scolding or a flogging.

began to agitate for freedom, the slaves I had no schooling whatever while I throughout the South kept in close touch


with the progress of the movement. by the children very much as dumb ani. Though I was a mere child during the mals get theirs. It was a piece of bread preparation for the Civil War and during here and a scrap of meat there. It was a the war itself, I now recall the many cup of milk at one time and some potatoes late-at-night whispered discussions that I at another. Sometimes a portion of our heard my mother and the other slaves on family would eat out of the skillet or pot, the plantation indulge in. These discus- while some one else would eat from a tin sions showed that they understood the plate held on the knees, and often using situation, and that they kept themselves nothing but the hands with which to hold informed of events by what was termed the food. When I had grown to sufficient the "grape-vine" telegraph.

size, I was required to go to the “big During the campaign when Lincoln house” at meal-times to fan the flies was first a candidate for the Presidency, from the table by means of a large set of the slaves on our far-off plantation, miles paper fans operated by a pulley. Natufrom any railroad or large city or daily rally much of the conversation of the white newspaper, knew what the issues involved people turned upon the subject of freedom were. When war was begun between the and the war, and I absorbed a good deal North and the South, every slave on our of it. I remember that at one time I saw plantation felt and knew that, though other two of my young mistresses and some issues were discussed, the primal one was lady visitors eating ginger-cakes in the that of slavery. Even the most ignorant yard. At that time those cakes seemed members of my race on the remote plan- to me to be absolutely the most tempting tations felt in their hearts, with a certainty and desirable things that I had ever seen, that admitted of no doubt, that the free- and I then and there resolved that, if I dom of the slaves would be the one great ever got free, the height of my ambiresult of the war, if the Northern armies tion would be reached if I could get to conquered. Every success of the Federal the point where I could secure and eat armies and every defeat of the Confeder- ginger-cakes in the way that I saw those ate forces was watched with the keenest ladies doing. and most intense interest. Often the Of course as the war was prolonged the slaves got knowledge of the results of white people, in many cases, often found great battles before the white people it difficult to secure food for themselves. received it. This news was usually gotten I think the slaves felt the deprivation less from the colored man who was sent to than the whites, because the usual diet for the post-office for the mail. In our case the slaves was corn bread and pork, and the post office was about three miles from these could be raised on the plantation; the plantation, and the mail came once or but coffee, tea, sugar, and other articles twice a week. The man who was sent to which the whites had been accustomed to the office would linger about the office use could not be raised on the plantation, long enough to get the drift of the con- and the conditions brought about by the versation from the group of white people war frequently made it impossible to secure who naturally congregated there after these things. The whites were often in receiving their mail to discuss the latest great straits. Parched corn was used for news. The mail-carrier on his way back coffee, and a kind of black molasses was to our master's house would as naturally used instead of sugar. Many times nothretail the news that he had secured among ing was used to sweeten the so-called tea the slaves, and in this way they often and coffee. heard of important events before the white The first pair of shoes that I recall people at the big house," as the master's wearing were wooden ones. They had house was called.

rough leather on the top, but the bottoms, I cannot remember a single instance which were about an inch thick, were of during my childhood or early boyhood wood. When I walked they made a fearwhen our entire family sat down to the ful noise, and besides this they were very table together, and God's blessing was inconvenient, since there was no yielding asked, and the family ate a meal in a to the natural pressure of the foot. In civilized manner. On the plantation in wearing them one presented an exceedVirginia, and even later, meals were gotten ingly awkward appearance. The most

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