Book excerpt: Up From Slavery

Booker T. Washington, circa 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Booker T. Washington, circa 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Last week’s book excerpt recommended a new biography of Winston Churchill, claiming that you need to know Churchill to know Western Civilization.

This week we offer an excerpt from Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, a foundational writer who must be read (but not in isolation) in order to understand the history of Blacks in the United States. In particular, he should be compared and contrasted to his contemporary W.E.B. DuBois.

Here is an excerpt from the final chapter, “Last Words”:

More than once I have been asked what was the greatest surprise that ever came to me. I have little hesitation in answering that question. It was the following letter, which came to me one Sunday morning when I was sitting on the veranda of my home at Tuskegee, surrounded by my wife and three children.

Harvard University, Cambridge,
May 28, 1896

President Booker T. Washington

My Dear Sir:

Harvard University desires to confer on you at the approaching Commencement an honorary degree; but it is our custom to confer degrees only on gentlemen who are present. Our Commencement occurs this year on June 24, and your presence would be desirable from about noon till about five o’clock in the afternoon. Would it be possible for you to be in Cambridge on that day?

Believe me, with great regard,

Very truly yours,
Charlies W. Eliot

This was a recognition that had never in the slightest manner entered into my mind, and it was hard for me to realize that I was to be honored by a degree from the oldest and most renowned university in America. As I sat upon my veranda, with this letter in my hand, tears came into my eyes. My whole former life — my life as a slave on the plantation, my work in the coal mine, the times when I was without food and clothing, when I made my bed under a sidewalk, my struggles for an education, the trying days I had had at Tuskegee, days when I did not know where to turn for a dollar to continue the work there, the ostracism and sometimes oppression of my race — all this passed before me and nearly overcame me.

And, yes, he did indeed attend Harvard University’s 1896 commencement and receive an honorary degree.