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Up from Slavery: An Autobiography
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Early Days At Tuskegee
During the time that I had charge of the Indians and the night-school at Hampton, I
pursued some studies myself, under the direction of the instructors there. One of these
instructors was the Rev. Dr. H.B. Frissell, the present Principal of the Hampton Institute,
General Armstrong's successor.
In May, 1881, near the close of my first year in teaching the night-school, in a way that I
had not dared expect, the opportunity opened for me to begin my life-work. One night in
the chapel, after the usual chapel exercises were over, General Armstrong referred to the
fact that he had received a letter from some gentlemen in Alabama asking him to
recommend some one to take charge of what was to be a normal school for the coloured
people in the little town of Tuskegee in that state. These gentlemen seemed to take it for
granted that no coloured man suitable for the position could be secured, and they were
expecting the General to recommend a white man for the place. The next day General
Armstrong sent for me to come to his office, and, much to my surprise, asked me if I
thought I could fill the position in Alabama. I told him that I would be willing to try.
Accordingly, he wrote to the people who had applied to him for the information, that he
did not know of any white man to suggest, but if they would be willing to take a coloured
man, he had one whom he could recommend. In this letter he gave them my name.
Several days passed before anything more was heard about the matter. Some time
afterward, one Sunday evening during the chapel exercises, a messenger came in and
handed the general a telegram. At the end of the exercises he read the telegram to the
school. In substance, these were its words: "Booker T. Washington will suit us. Send him
There was a great deal of joy expressed among the students and teachers, and I received
very hearty congratulations. I began to get ready at once to go to Tuskegee. I went by
way of my old home in West Virginia, where I remained for several days, after which I
proceeded to Tuskegee. I found Tuskegee to be a town of about two thousand inhabitants,
nearly one-half of whom were coloured. It was in what was known as the Black Belt of
the South. In the county in which Tuskegee is situated the coloured people outnumbered
the whites by about three to one. In some of the adjoining and near-by counties the
proportion was not far from six coloured persons to one white.
I have often been asked to define the term "Black Belt." So far as I can learn, the term
was first used to designated a part of the country which was distinguished by the colour
of the soil. The part of the country possessing this thick, dark, and naturally rich soil was,
of course, the part of the South where the slaves were most profitable, and consequently
they were taken there in the largest numbers. Later, and especially since the war, the term
seems to be used wholly in a political sense--that is, to designate the counties where the
black people outnumber the white.