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Up from Slavery: An Autobiography
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The Struggle For An Education
One day, while at work in the coal-mine, I happened to overhear two miners talking
about a great school for coloured people somewhere in Virginia. This was the first time
that I had ever heard anything about any kind of school or college that was more
pretentious than the little coloured school in our town.
In the darkness of the mine I noiselessly crept as close as I could to the two men who
were talking. I heard one tell the other that not only was the school established for the
members of any race, but the opportunities that it provided by which poor but worthy
students could work out all or a part of the cost of a board, and at the same time be taught
some trade or industry.
As they went on describing the school, it seemed to me that it must be the greatest place
on earth, and not even Heaven presented more attractions for me at that time than did the
Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, about which these men were
talking. I resolved at once to go to that school, although I had no idea where it was, or
how many miles away, or how I was going to reach it; I remembered only that I was on
fire constantly with one ambition, and that was to go to Hampton. This thought was with
me day and night.
After hearing of the Hampton Institute, I continued to work for a few months longer in
the coal-mine. While at work there, I heard of a vacant position in the household of
General Lewis Ruffner, the owner of the salt-furnace and coal-mine. Mrs. Viola Ruffner,
the wife of General Ruffner, was a "Yankee" woman from Vermont. Mrs. Ruffner had a
reputation all through the vicinity for being very strict with her servants, and especially
with the boys who tried to serve her. Few of them remained with her more than two or
three weeks. They all left with the same excuse: she was too strict. I decided, however,
that I would rather try Mrs. Ruffner's house than remain in the coal-mine, and so my
mother applied to her for the vacant position. I was hired at a salary of $5 per month.
I had heard so much about Mrs. Ruffner's severity that I was almost afraid to see her, and
trembled when I went into her presence. I had not lived with her many weeks, however,
before I began to understand her. I soon began to learn that, first of all, she wanted
everything kept clean about her, that she wanted things done promptly and
systematically, and that at the bottom of everything she wanted absolute honesty and
frankness. Nothing must be sloven or slipshod; every door, every fence, must be kept in
I cannot now recall how long I lived with Mrs. Ruffner before going to Hampton, but I
think it must have been a year and a half. At any rate, I here repeat what I have said more
than once before, that the lessons that I learned in the home of Mrs. Ruffner were as
valuable to me as any education I have ever gotten anywhere else. Even to this day I
never see bits of paper scattered around a house or in the street that I do not want to pick
them up at once. I never see a filthy yard that I do not want to clean it, a paling off of a
fence that I do not want to put it on, an unpainted or unwhitewashed house that I do not