Up from Slavery: Chapter 15,16

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Summary – Chapter Fifteen, ‘The Secret of Success in Public Speaking’, Chapter Sixteen, ‘Europe’ and Chapter Seventeen, ‘Last Words’

James Creelman’s report of Washington’s address for New York World is related here, and it is where he refers to Washington as ‘a Negro Moses’.


The narrative cuts to Washington and he tells how he likes to give speeches to businessmen and audiences of Southern people of ‘either’ race. After this, he likes a college audience and has spoken at Harvard, Yale, Williams, Amherst and Fisk University to name a few. He was also invited to deliver an address at the dedication of the Robert Gould Shaw monument in Boston. A report of this appeared in the Boston Transcript and is repeated here.


The narrative returns to Washington and how he was also invited to speak at a celebration of the end of the Spanish-American war in Chicago. There were 16,000 at the first of these and this included President William McKinley. Here, he thanked the President for his recognition of ‘the Negro’ in his appointments during the war.


Washington moves from the description of this particular speech to discuss his constant work and how he has always aimed to master it and have a clear desk by the end of the day. In 19 years of continuous work, he has only had one holiday and this was when some friends put the money in his hand and forced him and his wife to spend 3 months in Europe.


In Chapter Sixteen, it is related how in 1893 he married Margaret James Murray, who was a native of Mississippi and a graduate of Fisk University in Nashville. At the time they married, she was Lady Principal of the school and also worked outside the school as well, at a mother’s meeting in the town and on plantation work eight miles away. She is also a member of other clubs and is the President of the Federation of Southern Colored Women’s Clubs.


He outlines the achievements of the rest of his family and explains how Portia, his eldest child, has learned dressmaking and is good at music. She also teaches and studies at Tuskegee. Booker Taliaferro is already a brickmason and says he wants to be an architect. His youngest, Ernest Davidson, says he wants to be a physician.


He returns to his story of travelling to Europe and how their first European landing was in Antwerp. On his visit to England, he gained a ‘higher regard for the nobility’ than he had had previously, and states he had no idea ‘that they were so generously loved and respected by the classes’.


On their return trip, he read a book about the life of Frederick Douglass and learned that on his trip to England he had not been permitted to enter the cabin and had to stay on deck. A few minutes after reading this, Washington was waited on by a committee of ladies and gentlemen who wanted him to deliver an address at a concert the following evening: ‘And yet there are people who are bold enough to say that race feeling in America is not growing less intense.’ After the concert, some of the passengers proposed that a subscription should be raised to help the work at Tuskegee and several scholarships have been supported as a result of this. The chapter ends with references to many of the public receptions he has been invited to including Charleston.


The final chapter begins with an account of General Armstrong coming to Tuskegee 6 months before he died and nearly a year after he had been stricken with paralysis. A special train was laid on for him and students held a torch lit procession in his honor. He stayed for 2 months and often spoke of the duty of the country to elevate ‘the Negro of the South’ and ‘the poor white man as well’.


After relating the news of the General’s death, the narrative cuts to a letter Washington received in 1896 and which is described as the greatest surprise he has had. This was a letter informing him of a conferment of an honorary degree from Harvard University. Tears came to his eyes when he read this and as he thought back over the struggles he has had. He was given a Master of Arts this was the first time a New England university had conferred an honorary degree on a ‘Negro’ and ‘was the occasion of much newspaper comment throughout the country’.


Washington switches to discuss how soon after he began work at Tuskegee he secretly decided that he wanted to build up a school of ‘so much service’ that the President would visit. In November 1897, he made the first move in this direction and secured a visit from a member of President McKinley’s cabinet. In 1898, he visited the President twice to see if he would come to Tuskegee and he agreed. When the President came, along with his entourage, the citizens decorated the town. The school also made floats to show off their work. Speeches were made in praise of the work done there and this included one by the President.


At the time of writing, 20 years have passed since the opening of the school and the institution now owns 2,300 acres of land, 66 buildings, and all but 4 of these were erected by students. There are 30 industrial departments, which all help students find immediate work. They have to turn away half the people who apply and the demand for the graduates by employers is greater than they can offer.


The students are always trained to be able to work in the part of the South where they live. They are also taught to have skill and character to earn a living, and to feel that labor is ‘dignified and beautiful’.


The value of the property including endowments is $1,700,000. Originally, they had 30 students and now there are 1,400. These are made up of national and international students.


10 years ago he organized at Tuskegee the first Negro Conference. This is now an annual gathering and brings 800 to 900 representatives ‘of the race’ to the school. In 1900, he also helped organize the National Negro Business League. This had its first meeting in Boston.


As he writes these closing words, he tells of how he is once more in Richmond, Virginia. 25 years ago he slept here under the sidewalk and this time he is the guest ‘of the colored people of the city’. He has come to give an address in the Academy of Music and this is the first time ‘colored people’ have been allowed in the hall. He thanks ‘both races for this welcome back to the state that gave me birth’.


Analysis – Chapter Fifteen, ‘The Secret of Success in Public Speaking’,

Chapter Sixteen, ‘Europe’ and Chapter Seventeen, ‘Last Words’

This autobiography marks the progress of a man born into slavery and who was later given an honorary degree by Harvard University, which even now is undoubtedly one of the remaining bastions of white privilege. His achievements are remarkable and this is particularly evident when one recalls that he taught himself the alphabet and it was through sheer determination that he joined one of the few schools at that time that taught African Americans. That he went on to run a similar life-changing institution is a testament to his strength of character and to the belief and tenacity of others who supported him.


His understanding of hierarchies may at times appear to be too submissive, especially to modern readers, and he may also seem to have been too ready to conform or even consort with the enemy. However, and in fairness, his achievements have had longevity and the influence of General Armstrong means that his desire for equality extended to fair treatment for all, including all those who are born into poverty. 

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