For the 50 years that followed its publication in 1901, Up from Slavery was the most widely known book written by an African American. The life of Booker T. Washington embodied the legendary rise of an American self-made man, and his autobiography gave voice for the first time to a vast group that had to pull itself up from nothing. In the well-documented ordeals and observations of this humble and plainspoken schoolmaster we find traces of Washington's other nature: the ambitious and tough-minded analyst. Here was a man who had to balance the demands of his fellow blacks with the constraints imposed on him by whites.
Nineteenth-century African American businessman, activist, and educator Booker Taliaferro Washington's Up from Slavery is one of the greatest American autobiographies ever written. Its mantras of black economic empowerment, land ownership, and self-help inspired generations of black leaders, including Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan. In rags-to-riches fashion, Washington recounts his ascendance from early life as a mulatto slave in Virginia to a 34-year term as president of the influential, agriculturally based Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. From that position, Washington reigned as the most important leader of his people, with slogans like "cast down your buckets," which emphasized vocational merit rather than the academic and political excellence championed by his contemporary rival W.E.B. Du Bois. Though many considered him too accommodating to segregationists, Washington, as he said in his historic "Atlanta Compromise" speech of 1895, believed that "political agitation alone would not save [the Negro]," and that "property, industry, skill, intelligence, and character" would prove necessary to black Americans' success. The potency of his philosophies are alive today in the nationalist and conservative camps that compose the complex quilt of black American society.