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The Reading Quilt: ‘Up from Slavery’ by Booker T. Washington

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

There is no sweeter taste than that of freedom, and when your freedom is merely a wish or memory, you die a little inside for every moment you are not free. The institution of slavery, which lasted more than four centuries, was a cruelty suffered by nearly 60 million African people. Within this legal and widely accepted system, more than four million men, women, and children died in horrific ways.

Although slavery’s history is included in U.S. students’ textbooks, few people can visualize the days and nights of the enslaved victims who endured what John Henrik Clarke, an African American historian, once described as when Africans were “torn from their homeland, herded onto ships, and dispersed all over the so-called New World.” Torn, herded, and dispersed: In the unpacking of these verbs, the true crime against humanity is detailed.

After centuries in effect, U.S. slavery did officially end one day.

June 19, or Juneteenth, commemorates the day in 1865 when the slaves in Texas received the message that their freedom had been granted by the Emancipation Proclamation – which had gone into effect two and a half years before that. Although this announcement was marked with great joy because it heralded the freedom of the remaining slaves, historians tell us that slavery did not end at that moment.

Nevertheless, African Americans welcome the time of celebration and the reminder of freedom that Juneteenth provides.

Each month “The Reading Quilt” provides a short review of a book that a teacher may use to spark conversations about culture and race, along with a learning activity that may help students understand human behavior. The acronym QUILT stands for Quality of writing, Imaginative plot, mini-Lesson plan, and Talking points that stem from the book’s premise. This month, a book that details a legacy of fortitude and strength against the cruelty of slavery, is the focus of QUILT.

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington was born April 5, 1856, in Hale’s Ford, Virginia, where the name of Taliaferro, Booker’s middle name, was associated with prominent people who settled in Virginia in the 17th century. Washington was born to Jane, a slave cook, and a white man who is not identified by surname in Booker’s historical materials, a fact that highlights his compromised and violent beginning.

Booker was born a slave and grew up on the James Burroughs tobacco plantation, where Booker’s mother was the cook. Booker’s original last name was Taliaferro, but Jane decided later to erase that name from his future.

When Booker was just a baby, his mother met and fell in love with Washington Ferguson, a slave. Jane and Washington married and conceived Amanda and other children. Later, when Booker started his formal academic journey, he gave himself the surname Washington out of respect to Washington Ferguson.

Several years later, when Booker was a small boy, the family left Burroughs’ farm to start a life with Washington Ferguson, who needed to leave for work in Malden, Virginia. Booker joined his stepfather packing salt at just 9 years old. At 10, Booker, a hard worker, began working in a coal mine while going to school. Not long after, he took a job with Gen. Lewis Ruffner, owner of the mines, as Mrs. Ruffner’s houseboy.

Quality – In his book Up From Slavery (Bantam, 1901), Booker T. Washington details significant life experiences as a slave. It was originally published in a magazine called Outlook. Washington, encouraged by readers and other fans, put the vignettes together to publish an autobiography of 40 years of his life. In the book’s preface, he shows humility about his life’s work and literary success, giving accolades to his Tuskegee colleague Max Bennett Thrasher. Four years his junior, Thrasher was also an accomplished writer.

Universal theme – The theme of industriousness is prominent and inspirational in this work of profound personal fortitude. With chapter headings like “A Slave Among Slaves,” “The Struggle for Education,” and “Early Days at Tuskegee,” the narrative speaks to people who understand education as a personal freedom and escape from mental slavery. Washington was quoted as saying: “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.” He hoped his autobiography would inspire other people to courageously embrace the productive struggle.

Imaginative story – The book’s opening chapter, “A Slave Among Slaves,” is an account of Washington’s life as a slave. He writes that he learned through secrets and whispers about his African ancestors and the atrocities that African people endured on “on the middle passage of the slave ship while being conveyed from Africa to America.”

Lesson plan: Slavery in the United States, the “legal institution of human chattel enslavement,” helped the United States move into economic stability through the use of free labor. Slaves maintained plantations and tended crops such as tobacco and cotton while tending to the plantation owners’ domestic lives as butlers, maids, houseboys, chambermaids, and cooks. A lesson may center on the individual lives of slaves who offered their stories of dauntlessness, grit, spirituality, and perseverance.

Talking points: The book Up From Slavery provides a personal look into the evil business of human chattel. Historians tell us that the curriculum in the United States has compromised the timeline and personal stories of slavery and the slaves. If this is true, do Americans know the real history of slavery?

  1. What is your understanding of the institution of slavery?
  2. Is it important to remember the stories of individual slaves like Booker T. Washington? If so, which slave stories do you know well?
  3. What part of Booker’s story resonates with you? What lessons did the autobiography teach you?

Dr. Rachel Slaughter earned her doctoral degree in Cognitive Studies in Reading at Widener University. Her dissertation explores multicultural literature in private schools through the lens of Critical Pedagogy. The books she has written include one for fathers and sons that provides fun activities to promote reading: “Daddy, REAd to Me (DREAM): The Virtual Trophy Abecedarium and Journal for Fathers and Sons.” To contact her, email For other multicultural literary suggestions, follow her on Google Plus or go to

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