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‘Miserable, Desolate and Discouraging’
Booker T. Washington’s Sketch of a Boy’s Plantation Life

The following text has been extracted from Washington’s first chapter in his book Up From Slavery. My notes are italicized at the relevant point. The purpose of this annotation is three-fold:

1. To sketch the servile life that has been predominantly the lot of boys in civilized settings since the late Stone Age. Booker’s life as a child has been shared by millions of extinguished souls lacking the literacy to leave a trace in our collective mind. His view of the world as a child was essentially medieval

2. Since Booker lived on a rural subsistence plantation at the forested margins of civilization, his conditions were much more similar to those experienced by the mostly English and Irish slaves who toiled in Virginia and Maryland through the 1600s and 1700s, rather than the lot of the cotton and sugar slaves that made up most of enslaved humanity in the Western Hemisphere in the early 1800s..

3. To contrast conditions for 17th and 18th century Caucasian slaves under English rule with those of the 19th century African and mixed-race slaves under American rule.

Chapter I.

A Slave Among Slaves

The Setting

I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia. I am not quite sure of the exact place or exact date of my birth, but at any rate I suspect I must have been born somewhere and at some time. As nearly as I have been able to learn, I was born near a cross-roads post-office called Hale's Ford, and the year was 1858 or 1859. I do not know the month or the day. The earliest impressions I can now recall are of the plantation and the slave quarters—the latter being the part of the plantation where the slaves had their cabins.

My life had its beginning in the midst of the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surroundings. This was so, however, not because my owners were especially cruel, for they were not, as compared with many others. I was born in a typical log cabin, about fourteen by sixteen feet square. In this cabin I lived with my mother and a brother and sister…

This dwelling was the very size of most family homes throughout the vast span of history, the precise living space of the “privileged” Caucasian frontiersman that won the west and was squalor only in comparison to the planter’s mansion and the merchant’s row home.


The cabin was not only our living-place, but was also used as the kitchen for the plantation. My mother was the plantation cook. The cabin was without glass windows; it had only openings in the side which let in the light, and also the cold, chilly air of winter. There was a door to the cabin—that is, something that was called a door—but the uncertain hinges by which it was hung, and the large cracks in it, to say nothing of the fact that it was too small, made the room a very uncomfortable one. In addition to these openings there was, in the lower right-hand corner of the room, the "cat-hole,"—a contrivance which almost every mansion or cabin in Virginia possessed during the ante-bellum period. The "cat-hole" was a square opening, about seven by eight inches, provided for the purpose of letting the cat pass in and out of the house at will during the night. In the case of our particular cabin I could never understand the necessity for this convenience, since there were at least a half-dozen other places in the cabin that would have accommodated the cats. There was no wooden floor in our cabin, the naked earth being used as a floor. In the centre of the earthen floor there was a large, deep opening covered with boards, which was used as a place in which to store sweet potatoes during the winter. An impression of this potato-hole is very distinctly engraved upon my memory, because I recall that during the process of putting the potatoes in or taking them out I would often come into possession of one or two, which I roasted and thoroughly enjoyed. There was no cooking-stove on our plantation, and all the cooking for the whites and slaves my mother had to do over an open fireplace, mostly in pots and "skillets." While the poorly built cabin caused us to suffer with cold in the winter, the heat from the open fireplace in summer was equally trying…

The cooking arrangements and the fact that these people lived in a craft space was identical to the living conditions of most Europeans from 500 through 1800. The American Negro’s identification with the Planter class and the worship of the big house utterly skewed their perspective, leaving that race with no contextual idea of their high place as the chronological princes of chattel slave peoples.

…I cannot remember having slept in a bed until after our family was declared free by the Emancipation Proclamation. Three children—John, my older brother, Amanda, my sister, and myself—had a pallet on the dirt floor, or, to be more correct, we slept in and on a bundle of filthy rags laid upon the dirt floor.

The most common living arrangement for the Caucasian slaves who cleared the land Booker’s people were later brought to, was to sleep, as Mary Sprigs did, on a bare barn floor like an animal. Booker had a house, Mary slept with the animals in the barn.


Of my ancestry I know almost nothing. In the slave quarters, and even later, I heard whispered conversations among the coloured people of the tortures which the slaves, including, no doubt, my ancestors on my mother's side, suffered in the middle passage of the slave ship while being conveyed from Africa to America.

Caucasian slaves were transported under much harsher conditions than Africans, but over a shorter distance, resulting in the exact same rate of loss, generally between 25-30% but sometimes as high as 80%.


I have been unsuccessful in securing any information that would throw any accurate light upon the history of my family beyond my mother. She, I remember, had a half-brother and a half-sister. In the days of slavery not very much attention was given to family history and family records—that is, black family records. My mother, I suppose, attracted the attention of a purchaser who was afterward my owner and hers. Her addition to the slave family attracted about as much attention as the purchase of a new horse or cow. Of my father I know even less than of my mother. I do not even know his name. I have heard reports to the effect that he was a white man who lived on one of the near-by plantations. Whoever he was, I never heard of his taking the least interest in me or providing in any way for my rearing. But I do not find especial fault with him. He was simply another unfortunate victim of the institution which the Nation unhappily had engrafted upon it at that time.

Caucasian slaves in America generally had no practicing father. Whether orphans sold by mothers and siblings, starving boys sold by fathers, kidnapping victims or boys sold into 14 years of slaver for stealing an apple, there was rarely a father in the life of the original Virginia slaves.


The early years of my life, which were spent in the little cabin, were not very different from those of thousands of other slaves. My mother, of course, had little time in which to give attention to the training of her children during the day. She snatched a few moments for our care in the early morning before her work began, and at night after the day's work was done. One of my earliest recollections is that of my mother cooking a chicken late at night, and awakening her children for the purpose of feeding them. How or where she got it I do not know. I presume, however, it was procured from our owner's farm. Some people may call this theft. If such a thing were to happen now, I should condemn it as theft myself. But taking place at the time it did, and for the reason that it did, no one could ever make me believe that my mother was guilty of thieving. She was simply a victim of the system of slavery.

The penalty for stealing a chicken in England, during the 1600 and 1700s was death or 14 years slavery.

I was asked not long ago to tell something about the sports and pastimes that I engaged in during my youth. Until that question was asked it had never occurred to me that there was no period of my life that was devoted to play. From the time that I can remember anything, almost every day of my life had been occupied in some kind of labour; though I think I would now be a more useful man if I had had time for sports.

This was the typical lot of every English or American boy of the Plantation Era. They were merely economic units in the family business of survival. Sport, from deepest antiquity, was the pleasure of barbarians and masters, not slaves.

During the period that I spent in slavery I was not large enough to be of much service, still I was occupied most of the time in cleaning the yards, carrying water to the men in the fields, or going to the mill to which I used to take the corn, once a week, to be ground. The mill was about three miles from the plantation. This work I always dreaded. The heavy bag of corn would be thrown across the back of the horse, and the corn divided about evenly on each side; but in some way, almost without exception, on these trips, the corn would so shift as to become unbalanced and would fall off the horse, and often I would fall with it. As I was not strong enough to reload the corn upon the horse, I would have to wait, sometimes for many hours, till a chance passer-by came along who would help me out of my trouble. The hours while waiting for some one were usually spent in crying. The time consumed in this way made me late in reaching the mill, and by the time I got my corn ground and reached home it would be far into the night. The road was a lonely one, and often led through dense forests. I was always frightened. The woods were said to be full of soldiers who had deserted from the army, and I had been told that the first thing a deserter did to a Negro boy when he found him alone was to cut off his ears.

Booker’s boyhood tasks were normal for all Caucasian boys of the Plantation Era who were not the sons of planters or merchants. His dread of Confederate deserters in the forest was no different than the Caucasian slaves of the 1600 and 1700s dread of Indians, rogues and vagabonds who likewise haunted the woods.

Besides, when I was late in getting home I knew I would always get a severe scolding or a flogging.

Booker was beaten by his mother, not an overseer, just as Melville was beaten daily by his step mother, and children throughout the English-speaking world were brutalized on a weekly if not daily basis by their cruel slave mothers. Slaves make wicked mothers, especially under slave institutions descended from Germanic Thralldom.

I had no schooling whatever while I was a slave, though I remember on several occasions I went as far as the schoolhouse door with one of my young mistresses to carry her books. The picture of several dozen boys and girls in a schoolroom engaged in study made a deep impression upon me, and I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise.

Thanks to those whites who were fervent campaigners for the abolition of African American chattel slavery, many men such as Booker rose up out of slavery to write of their experiences. However, since there were no calls campaigning for the ending of Caucasian slavery from literate Caucasian humanitarians, there were few written records of that evil institution that devoured millions of souls.

‘The Grapevine Telegraph’

…news was usually gotten from the coloured man who was sent to the post-office for the mail. In our case the post-office was about three miles from the plantation, and the mail came once or twice a week. The man who was sent to the office would linger about the place long enough to get the drift of the conversation from the group of white people who naturally congregated there, after receiving their mail, to discuss the latest news. The mail-carrier on his way back to our master's house would as naturally retail the news that he had secured among the slaves, and in this way they often heard of important events before the white people at the "big house," as the master's house was called.

The word-of-mouth means of communication in Booker’s era gave his people hope of outside emancipation. However, the extreme isolation of earlier Caucasian slaves on savage frontiers, separated from all news that did not first come through the planter- and merchant-dominated ports drove many to seek sanctuary among the Indians, or with their own folk in the hills and mountains, where their jilted masters and their negro slaves would scorn them as Hillbillies.”


I cannot remember a single instance during my childhood or early boyhood when our entire family sat down to the table together, and God's blessing was asked, and the family ate a meal in a civilized manner. On the plantation in Virginia, and even later, meals were gotten by the children very much as dumb animals get theirs. It was a piece of bread here and a scrap of meat there. It was a cup of milk at one time and some potatoes at another. Sometimes a portion of our family would eat out of the skillet or pot, while some one else would eat from a tin plate held on the knees, and often using nothing but the hands with which to hold the food. When I had grown to sufficient size, I was required to go to the "big house" at meal-times to fan the flies from the table by means of a large set of paper fans operated by a pulley.

Caucasian slaves, since most were not owned for life and must be worked to the bone in 3 to 14 years, were not given meat to eat. Caucasian slaves ate only corn, with no record of any other kind of food provided for them being found and the evidence of pellagra reflected in the terms “redneck” and “redleg” indicating that deliberate malnourishment of term slaves was a general policy.

Of course as the war was prolonged the white people, in many cases, often found it difficult to secure food for themselves. I think the slaves felt the deprivation less than the whites, because the usual diet for slaves was corn bread and pork, and these could be raised on the plantation; but coffee, tea, sugar, and other articles which the whites had been accustomed to use could not be raised on the plantation, and the conditions brought about by the war frequently made it impossible to secure these things. The whites were often in great straits. Parched corn was used for coffee, and a kind of black molasses was used instead of sugar. Many times nothing was used to sweeten the so-called tea and coffee.

Molasses is an important source of potassium, something utterly denied to the Caucasian slaves who cleared the forests that made Booker’s relatively cushy life possible.


The first pair of shoes that I recall wearing were wooden ones. They had rough leather on the top, but the bottoms, which were about an inch thick, were of wood. When I walked they made a fearful noise, and besides this they were very inconvenient, since there was no yielding to the natural pressure of the foot. In wearing them one presented and exceedingly awkward appearance.

From 1609 through 1740, a far colder period than the relatively warm years of Booker’s life in bondage, shoes were rarely provided for Caucasian slaves and were among the most common stolen items listed as having been taken by runaways.

The most trying ordeal that I was forced to endure as a slave boy, however, was the wearing of a flax shirt. In the portion of Virginia where I lived it was common to use flax as part of the clothing for the slaves. That part of the flax from which our clothing was made was largely the refuse, which of course was the cheapest and roughest part. I can scarcely imagine any torture, except, perhaps, the pulling of a tooth, that is equal to that caused by putting on a new flax shirt for the first time. It is almost equal to the feeling that one would experience if he had a dozen or more chestnut burrs, or a hundred small pin-points, in contact with his flesh. Even to this day I can recall accurately the tortures that I underwent when putting on one of these garments. The fact that my flesh was soft and tender added to the pain. But I had no choice. I had to wear the flax shirt or none; and had it been left to me to choose, I should have chosen to wear no covering. In connection with the flax shirt, my brother John, who is several years older than I am, performed one of the most generous acts that I ever heard of one slave relative doing for another. On several occasions when I was being forced to wear a new flax shirt, he generously agreed to put it on in my stead and wear it for several days, till it was "broken in." Until I had grown to be quite a youth this single garment was all that I wore.

The type of cheap cloth issued to slaves of all races was identical in its coarseness.


The whole machinery of slavery was so constructed as to cause labour, as a rule, to be looked upon as a badge of degradation, of inferiority. Hence labour was something that both races on the slave plantation sought to escape. The slave system on our place, in a large measure, took the spirit of self-reliance and self-help out of the white people. My old master had many boys and girls, but not one, so far as I know, ever mastered a single trade or special line of productive industry. The girls were not taught to cook, sew, or to take care of the house. All of this was left to the slaves. The slaves, of course, had little personal interest in the life of the plantation, and their ignorance prevented them from learning how to do things in the most improved and thorough manner. As a result of the system, fences were out of repair, gates were hanging half off the hinges, doors creaked, window-panes were out, plastering had fallen but was not replaced, weeds grew in the yard

All chattel slave societies were descended from nomadic conquests of cattle herding people over farming people, with the master class retaining the pastoral skills of war, hunting and herd management. Caucasian Plantation America was sundered because the coexistence on a frontier with hunting people forced war early and often upon the slave class, forging them into a warrior class eventually known as the frontiersmen. The only measure in which African American slaves had it worse than Caucasian American slaves was a lack of a wild frontier sheltering savages who were not enemies of their race, but instead, being like a European serf, simply the slave of one lord, whose land bordered on that of another slave lord, for the so-called free-Sates remained heavily complicit in keeping Africans slaves on American plantations all the way up to the year of Booker T. Washington’s birth.


The rereading of Booker T. Washington’s balanced, bitterness-free, and upward looking account of slavery after conducting a three-year study of Caucasian American slavery, has exposed the horror that was African American slavery as a softer, gentler version of its predecessor, the trafficking of English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Cornish children as human seeds for the sowing of a tax base.

To support this project and view some graphics go to:

The Lies That Bind Us

The Foundational Falsehoods of the American Dream

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