Douglass' grandmother did not explain to him their bondage in common, nor did she tell him that she was being sold away from him and the neighborhood. Douglass said that "it was a long time before I knew myself to be a slave."
During the last months of the Civil War, Washington learned of his being a slave by overhearing whispered conversations between his mother and other enslaved adults . Massachusetts having abolished slavery nearly a century earlier, DuBois did not fully understand that he was Black until he was about 12 or 13 years old: "I was as a boy long un-conscious of color discrimination in any obvious and specific way." As he approached adolescence, he became conscious of his old school mates manifesting a certain kind of reserve. The young girls whom he knew from school began avoiding him. Of the three, DuBois had the least to say about early racism and the most to say about his mother. In all of his autobiographies he boasted of the close tie between himself and Mrs. Mary Silvina Burghardt DuBois, his mother, saying, "I always went to bring her home at night and was never left alone." His affection for her is seen in the use of her maiden name as a part of his double surname.
In terms of physical conditions of early life, of the three, only DuBois began life in a good sized house in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. However, financial misfortune once had him and his mother living in two rooms above a horse stable. By contrast, Douglass and Washington were born in crowded slave cabins. Douglass said that his grandparents' "log hut or Cabin [was] built of clay, wood, and straw." Washington's first home also was a "typical log cabin, about fourteen by sixteen feet square" with a dirt floor. As adolescent houseboys for varying periods of time, they were introduced to relatively plush surroundings, Douglass with the Baltimore relatives of the slave-owning Auld families and Washington with the affluent mine-owning Ruffners of Malden, West Virginia. As the town prodigy, DuBois was permitted to visit the middle class homes of his white school mates. Before they reached their teens, they all had a first hand view of the material gap separating whites from Blacks in a land of plenty.