Book Review: Norrell's 'Up From History' & Restoring Booker T. Washington To His Rightful Place As A Civil-Rights Hero
(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MAY 2009, BUT ONCE AGAIN APROPOS GIVEN THE TEA PARTY-NAACP CONTROVERY)
As a child of the 1960s, my view of Booker T. Washington was shaped by the contemporary belief that while the famous founder of Tuskegee Institute was a civil-rights trailblazer in some respects, he was an Uncle Tom for having acquiesced in the rampant racial discrimination that was now being challenged by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. But he did find an amazing number of things to make from peanuts.
That whites like myself -- and some blacks, as well -- confuse Booker T. Washington with George Washington Carver, the great botanist, is a symptom of how Washington's star has gone into eclipse and has remained so, with annual time-outs for Black History Month. This makes the recently published Up From History: The Life of Booker T. Washington by Robert J. Norrell a welcome corrective for a true American hero whose legacy changing attitudes about civil rights have distorted.
Norrell, a University of Tennessee history professor, cuts right to the chase at the outset of this very fine book in noting that Washington detractors of the 1960s and since -- including a goodly number of historians who accuse him of outright villainy because Dr. King's embrace of protest would have been anathema to him -- fall into the trap of applying contemporary expectations to a man who lived generations earlier.
Yet Washington also was vilified by some of his most prominent contemporary peers, notably W.E.B. DuBois, the leading voice for a bloc of northern blacks who believed Washington's emphasis on self help and refusal to embrace more militant actions to be antithetical to their cause. DuBois was to supplant the soft-spoken educator as the leading black voice of the early 20th century.* * * * *Washington was born into slavery in 1856 on a farm in Hale's Ford, Virginia. His mother was a slave and father a white plantation owner and his given name Booker Taliaferro, but during childhood he was only known as Booker.
With emancipation in 1865, he migrated with his mother Jane and brother and sister to Malden in Kanawha County, West Virginia, to join his stepfather, Washington Ferguson. Booker's mother was the major influence on his schooling, and although she couldn't read herself, she bought her son spelling books and enrolled him in an elementary school where he took the last name of Washington when he learned that other children had more than one name.
Leaving Malden at age 16, Washington enrolled at the Hampton (Virginia) Normal and Agricultural Institute, where he got his first lessons in personal hygiene, something that he was to tirelessly emphasize throughout his career as an educator.
"Many students lacked basic knowledge of conventional living standards: Issued two sets of sheets, Booker slept the first night on top of both and the second night under both before discovering the pleasure of rest between the two."
Washington excelled at Hampton as a student and then a teacher, and in the spring of 1881, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, who was president of Hampton and Washington's mentor, told him about a request from Tuskegee, Alabama, for a white man to organize and run a normal school. The general had replied that he knew of no good white candidates, but had "a very competent capable mulatto, clear headed, modest, sensible, polite and thorough teacher and superior man . . . the best man we ever had here."
At the time of his departure for Alabama, Norrell writes that:
"Booker had learned a lot about how the world worked. Experience had taught him that one job done well naturally led to a bigger and better assignment. Conflict was best avoided, and Booker was careful about expressing opinions that he knew would be rejected -- for instance, his abiding interest in politics in spite of General Armstrong's disapproval of black political engagement. He had learned that although government power had freed the slaves and protected them during Reconstruction, the bitter and unfair terms of the Reconstruction settlement had also made politics an unpromising, indeed dangerous, place for an ambitious young black man to focus his energy."
Washington also understood that while emancipation had been the major event of his life, black southerners had little freedom.
By the end of his first year at Tuskegee Institute, then nothing more than a cluster of shacks, 26-year-old Washington had experienced first hand the many ways that whites oppressed blacks in the rural South and he became determined -- and succeeded beyond his wildest dreams and to much future controversy -- in making it what for the time was a model community of race relations.
"Creating a path up from history at Tuskegee involved ignoring most of the past. The image of the model community, Booker Washington knew, had to be made compatible with southern white nationalists' fictions about the Old South, the Lost Cause, and Black Reconstruction, because those illusions were already fixed in the southern white nationalists' minds. The fiction of a model community encouraged the belief among whites that blacks had no reason to complain about racial conditions, and it prevented blacks from engaging in the dangerous actions of criticizing how they were treated. . . . The myth bought Booker the space and time he needed to do his work. He knew what he was doing, even if he never said it explicitly. He would become a master of indirection, of the hidden hand of action; but he did so because he had to."
Under Washington's deft leadership, Tuskegee grew by leaps and bounds. His students literally built the school, constructing classrooms, barns and outbuildings, growing their own crops and raising livestock while learning trades and academics that they could take back to rural black communities throughout the South. Most of the school's endowment came from wealthy northerners who literally bought into Washington's vision, including Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.
"Every black operator of a sawmill, brickyard, printing press, or tin shop made whites dependent on a black man rather than vice versa. Economic success led to property ownership, which would result in black landlords and black moneylenders. The white man whose mortgage was held by a black would not prevent that Negro from voting, and therefore through commercial life the Negro would realize all his rights in the South. Booker promised that 'a white man respects a negro who owns a two-story brick house.' "
Yet those white nationalists were unrelenting. As we are repeatedly reminded in Up From History, the disenfranchisement of blacks who had been granted their freedom with Emancipation and certain other rights after the Civil War continued apace throughout the South, while there was an epidemic of lynchings, some in the North.
In 1895, Thomas Harris, a black lawyer in Tuskegee, sponsored a visiting white preacher. Whites claimed that Harris was advocating equality between the races because the preacher had been seen around town with Harris's two young daughters. A white mob confronted Harris, shots rang out and the mob began chasing Harris to lynch him. He fled to Washington's house and begged for sanctuary. Washington had him hidden and then arranged to have him secretly transported to Montgomery.
While Harris was grateful for the help, Washington was bitterly criticized by some black newspaper editors and others -- none of them from the Deep South -- for not providing the lawyer asylum.
"No explanation was ever made, of course, because Booker simply could not afford for local whites to know that he had interfered with their vigilantism. Public knowledge of the actual events would not only have enraged local whites but would also have exposed as a lie the myth that both he and whites maintained about Tuskegee as a model community. If blacks far from Tuskegee chose to condemn his actions, Booker nevertheless had to live with the criticism, because it was simply too dangerous to tell the truth. His was a precarious existence, and his survival depended on never forgetting that white men could end it on a whim."* * * * *But Washington thought that there might be a way to defend blacks while gaining the respect of middle-class whites. Later in 1895, he sought to do just that in a keynote address at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta where, unlike previous national expositions and fairs, blacks had been included.
Washington, writes Norrell, suggested that goal near the end of an address that became known as the Atlanta Compromise speech:
"[H]e pledged to help 'work out the great and intricate problem which God had laid at the doors of the South.' He wanted to achieve a solution to the Negro Problem, indeed to end whites' discussion about erasing their enemies from their presence, to secure the survival of his race. . . . If he could halt the erosion of black rights, and the corollary degeneration of blacks' image in whites' minds, black progress remained possible. He did not acknowledge the converse: if the downward spiral continued, the pressure for a violent solution to the Negro Problem would only build to more dangerous levels. The survival of African Americans in the United States would be in real jeopardy.
"That day Booker T. Washington began trying to turn the momentum of history in a different direction -- indeed, upward -- and to give whites a new way of viewing blacks, a task that had become the main purpose of his life. The continued existence of his people depended on acceptance of his proposed settlement, and he started to work for it."
The speech made Washington a national celebrity overnight and with the death of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass earlier that year, he became the presumptive leader of American blacks.
Washington, whom Norrell notes had rarely sought the limelight to burnish his own image, accepted his new role without hesitation. To him it was simply a bigger and better assignment because of other jobs done well.
What he seems not to have been prepared for was how physically exhausting this new role would be -- he spent more and more of his life on trains, sometimes being forced to sit in so-called Jim Crow cars -- as well as how his every utterance was subject to bitter criticism. This was not just from otherwise sympathetic whites who incorrectly interpreted the Atlanta speech as an acceptance of permanent second-class status, but some members of his inner circle and outspoken northern black leaders, as well. The latter were typically Ivy League educated but lacked the brutalizing experiences that Washington and southern blacks had suffered. These leaders, of course, all believed in protest as the best course.
In 1898, mass lynching of blacks in the Carolinas drove home the reality that blacks lived only at the sufferance of white nationalists, a reality further hammered home as momentum built in southern states to repeal the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibits states denying a person the right to vote based on race. Washington entered the disenfranchisement fight, but did so surreptitiously.
People pressed Washington for his position on white terrorists and disenfranchisement and his responses often were defensive. He claimed that he said the same thing to audiences in the North as he did in the South, which was not true because the things he said in the North would anger white southerners.
"Washington's self-serving and partly untruthful response showed that he had yet to learn how to cope with a crisis. His unsteadiness had led him to lie publicly, always a dangerous strategy in the emerging modern age of mass communications. . . . Events showed Washington that the only role open to him was that of the fox. To play the lion was to invite disaster. It was a bitter lesson that showed the limits of his ability to lead his race. A black leader who could not speak freely was not able to pursue equal economic and educational advancement. But if he owned up to that fact, he would be accepting that blacks' hopes for improvement were futile, and he knew that progress would not grow from despair."In 1900 and 1901, Washington published two autobiographies that captured, albeit somewhat unintentionally, his two faces: The southern face that honored the Lost Cause and the northern face that was committed to racial equality.
The Story of My Life and Work is not unlike a slave narrative and told of his rise from humble beginnings to become the leader of his race, while Up From Slavery is a thoroughly revised version of the first book and, as Norrell notes, mimicks Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the most important African-American biography to date.
Up From Slavery quickly became a bestseller. A subsequent dinner invitation by Theodore Roosevelt made Washington the first African American to visit the White House as the guest of the president. Blacks took an immense pride in the symbolism of the event but southern bigots were horrified.
James K. Vardaman, the future Mississippi governor and U.S. senator, proclaimed that Roosevelt had insulted every white man in America: "President Roosevelt takes this nigger bastard into his home, introduces him to his family and entertains him on terms of absolute social equality. . . . [The White House is] so saturated with the odor of the nigger that the rats have taken refuge in the stable."* * * * *Washington would spend much of the last 15 years of his life in verbal fisticuffs with W.E.B. Du Bois, a man who was as prideful as Washington was humble.
The men had known each other since 1894, Du Bois had written approvingly of the Atlanta address and defended Washington from attacks from other blacks, but they were very different men and those differences became apparent by the early 1900s when Du Bois was unquestionably the most distinguished black scholar in the U.S. and began a campaign to supplant Washington as the leading black voice.
"Du Bois was vastly better educated than Booker Washington. Du Bois admired European culture, whereas Washington assumed that the American way of life was inherently better. Du Bois appreciated cities and universities as the places that fostered thought and culture. Washington was suspicious of urban life and assumed that the best places in America, especially for blacks, were rural."
In an essay titled "What Booker Would Tell Barack," history professor and blogger Jelani Cobb writes that Du Bois saw Washington's approach "as virtual race treason. . . . Economic accomplishments were meaningless, he argued, without the political power to protect them. There were always subtler shades to their positions but the higher decibels tend to kill nuance."
As Cobb further notes, "By any calculation, Du Bois not only won that argument but used the 20th century to run up the score."
Travel and Washington's obsessive dedication to Tuskegee took its toll. He suffered almost constant headaches and then collapsed in New York City in November 1915. Various New York physicians examined him, including one who announced to the press that he was showing signs of hardening of the arteries.
"Racial characteristics are, I think, in part responsible for Dr. Washington's breakdown," the doctor declared, a less than subtle declaration in the vernacular of the day that Washington had syphilis.
Washington was brought home to Tuskegee, where he died on November 14, 1915 at age 59. (The cause of death was not determined, but an examination of his medical records in 2006 with the permission of his descendants indicated that he died of hypertension with extremely high blood pressure.)
Three days later, thousands gather at the Tuskegee Institute chapel for a funeral where Washington's body lay in state.
Wrote a black magazine editor:
"No labored eulogies; no bastings of his great work; no gorgeous trappings of horses; no streaming banners; no mysterious ceremonies of lodges -- just the usual line of teachers, trustees, graduates, students and visitors which so often marched to the chapel just as it did Wednesday, and the simple and impressive -- impressive because simple -- service for the dead, said for the humblest, said so often for those who die, in all walks of life."
At his death, the school that Washington had single-handedly built had an endowment exceeded $1.5 million.* * * * *The ultimate achievement of Up From History is that Norrell deftly parts the sea of political correctness that has more recently defined Washington as The Great Equivocator by reminding us through meticulous research of the time and place in which he toiled. It is only in that context that he can be rightfully rehabilitated as an American civil-rights hero.
That rehabilitation does not come easily. Even after Washington's death Du Bois disparaged him, although ironically the next two great black leaders learned from his play book.
The first was Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, who like Washington emphasized self-help while adovacting racial nationalism, including a back-to-Africa movement.
Ironically, the second was Martin Luther King Jr., who at first invoked Washington's moral authority, quoting him in his early speeches as saying "Let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him." But King was criticized for praising Washington, his call for a Washington-like self-help program was condemned as "dolled-up Uncle Tomism," and he eventually dropped references to him.
Norrell reminds us of what the blacks of the modern civil-rights movement have forgotten: Washington's efforts to sustain black morale at the nadir of their post-Emancipation struggle has to be counted among the most heroic efforts in American history:
"Booker T. Washington told his people that they would survive the dark present and, as far as possible, he showed them how to do so. By building an institution that demonstrated blacks' potential for success and autonomy, he gave them reasons to have faith in the future. Indeed, his life itself was an object lesson in progress, providing hope that black people could rise to something better. His determination to shape his own symbolism, and that of blacks as a group, should be marked as a shrewd and valiant effort to help his people survive. At many levels he succeeded in his purpose, for indeed they did move up from history, from a time of degradation and despair to a time when the promise of equality in American life became a real possibility."