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The Heroic Effort of Booker T. Washington

By: Peter W. Schramm
May 16, 2010

A review of Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington, by Robert J. Norrell

It is almost certainly the case that Booker T. Washington was the best known and most popular black man America ever produced until the middle of the 20th century. And yet in his lifetime and afterwards, his main detractors were fellow blacks: upper-class Northern blacks lead by W.E.B. DuBois, who refused to acknowledge his amazing accomplishments or the constraints under which he was forced to operate in the South. The vast majority of blacks at the time, however, still lived in the South and were proud of Washington for giving them the chance at education, independence, and advancement in a society that at its best was ill-disposed toward them and at its worst terrorized them. Washington worked and thrived under the most difficult circumstances imaginable, only able to play the fox, never the lion, for that would have invited disaster.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s came out roaring like a lion, taking on segregation directly through political action and protest. Its leaders derided Washington's strength, prudence, and flexibility as cowardice, timidity, and foolishness. The late Louis J. Harlan, who won the Beveridge award for his two-volume biography of Washington, published in 1972 and 1986, accepted this view and added to the slanders. Washington's reputation was sealed as the villain in African-American history, an amoral and manipulative wizard, a sell-out and a mealy-mouthed moderate. Harlan's co-editor of Washington's papers, Raymond W. Smock, has published a new book, Booker T. Washington: Black Leadership in the Age of Jim Crow, which has a better appreciation of his subject's virtues (as a "bargainer, compromiser, conciliator"), but which doesn't come much nearer the truth than did Harlan.

It is too bad that Smock didn't have a chance to read Robert J. Norrell's Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington before putting the finishing touches on his own book. With Norrell's book, we finally have the discerning, sympathetic, and well-told story of Washington's walk on the tightrope between candor and survival. Norrell has come closer than any previous biographer to a full understanding of this powerful and influential man, to a full understanding of his virtues, purposes, and powerful American mind. It is gratifying to see this magnificent work persuade readers and reviewers alike that a reassessment of Booker T. Washington is long overdue.

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In 1895, just a few months after the death of Frederick Douglass, Washington gave a talk at Atlanta's Cotton States Exposition. He was the only black man invited to speak, and the talk he did givehis most famous and arguably most misunderstoodwas universally praised at the time. Almost everyone, black and white, thought that his words were fitly spoken. Until this speech, Washington was known as a great teacher, and the founder of the first school for blacks, run entirely by blacks. After the speech, he became the most prominent black American in the country, the spokesman for his race and for a decade its undisputed leader. As Washington was on his way to board the train to Atlanta, a white farmer reminded him of the immensity of his task:

Washington, you have spoken with success before Northern white audiences, and before Negroes in the South, but in Atlanta you will have to speak before Northern white people, Southern white people and Negroes altogether. I fear they have got you in a pretty tight place.

Norrell's fine biography in effect explains just how tight that place was and how much tighter it became over the years. A professor of history at the University of Tennessee, Norrell rightly emphasizes the "contextual constraints" of the times, when "public life was a minefield for anyone attempting to protect black interests." He shows in great detail how harsh and often ugly the political and cultural environment was, how that environment both limited Washington's freedom of speech and action, and yet how Washington was able to accomplish great things. Norrell's Washington is no villain, but a man who made a heroic effort on behalf of blacks during the worst of times.

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Born into slavery in 1856, Booker T. Washington never knew his father. His demanding but loving mother moved the family to West Virginia after emancipation, and there Booker developed a real thirst for an education. While working in the mines, he learned that there was a school for blacks some 500 miles away, and in 1872 he traveled there, largely on foot. He put himself through the school by doing menial labor. He was such a fine student that he was chosen to found a new black school in Tuskegee, Alabama.

On July 4, 1881, he opened the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, then nothing but a few acres of land and a few shacks. But this was the first educational facility staffed entirely by blacks, the vast majority of whom were ex-slaves. The school went from 30 students to over 800 by 1895. It had the largest enrollment among institutions of higher education in Alabama, and produced more black teachers than all white normal schools together in the state. By the time of Washington's death in 1915, the school consisted of a 2,300-acre campus with over 1,500 students. Although Tuskegee was both a trade school and an institution of higher education, Washington often gave the "false impression" that the students were receiving only an education in a trade. In part this was for the sake of many of his donors, who were more interested in having blacks trained for the work force.

Norrell understands that the school's real purpose was "the training of teachers and businessmen and not industrial workers." Washington was interested in creating free human beings, ever less dependent on others and willing to do the hard work necessary not only for the sake of some prosperity, but also for their own dignity and self-respect. This character-building (the education of "head, hand, and heart" is how Washington put it) was especially difficult because ex-slaves had an understandable bias against manual labor, equating it with the degrading labor they endured in bondage. Washington taught students "some practical knowledge of some industry, together with the spirit of industry, thrift, and economy." He connected self-discipline and what he called "severe training" to the idea of freedom, and said that the final aim of all education "must be that influence which softens the heart, and brings to it a spirit of kindness and generosity; that influence which makes us seek the elevation of all men, regardless of race or color." In all of his public teaching, speaking, and writing, he assumed that there was something in human nature that would always recognize merit, and that that recognition would soften prejudice.

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In the midst of lynchings, disfranchisement, race riots, and segregation, Washington wanted to build something lasting that would help his people overcome slavery, become self-reliant, and thereby show both whites and themselves what they could accomplish. The Tuskegee Institute not only became a symbol of black achievement and competence, but boosted black morale at a critical time. "The Negro is not yet sure of his own ability," Booker wrote privately. He also maintained that "[n]othing helps and encourages a Negro so much as to see one of his own number succeed," which meant that failure was not an option for Washington, and this made him into a man who wielded power with ease. This also meant that even some blacks would become his adversaries.

It goes almost without saying that racism was raw, crude, and omnipresent, and that Southern whites did not think that blacks were capable of self-government or of participating in the promise of American constitutionalism. The founding and maintaining of Tuskegee under such conditions was an extraordinary achievement and, as Norrell puts it, "was compelling testimony to what black people could do on their own."

Because Washington traveled the country to "preach his gospel of racial progress and to raise money for Tuskegee Institute," he became a nationally known figure. He was an intelligent man, a fine speaker, indeed, a gifted rhetorician, and it shouldn't surprise anyone that he crafted his message differently in the North than in the South, and to white audiences and black audiences. As Norrell puts it, he was "too practical" to say everything he thought or knew in public. Indeed, he often was compelled by circumstances to be silent. People helped him in his purposes and befriended him for different and often contradictory reasons, and Washington was aware of this fact. The "racial diplomacy" he practiced consisted in persuading whites that blacks were improving themselves, that they could survive in freedom while remaining in the South, and it consisted in persuading blacks that they should be hopeful about the future by showing them that through hard work they could become independent.

But his racial diplomacy became even more complicated as public opinion, in both the North and South, turned ever more hostile to blacks a few years into the new century. Ironically, his famous and popular autobiography, Up from Slavery, full of optimism and hope, was published only months apart from (and by the same publisher as) Thomas Dixon, Jr.'s The Leopardís Spot: A Romance of the White Man's Burden, an extraordinaryand very popularracist tract arguing that blacks should leave the country. Washington's work and purposes were more difficult than ever.

Norrell makes clear that Washington was in favor of civil rightsagainst segregation and disfranchisementand shows in detail how involved he was, both in private and often in public, in these issues. The author is also unwilling to condemn Washington for not acting when he could not. Norrell has a much deeper understanding of his subject's judgment than other historians. Washington was able, most of the time, to mask the implications of his view of the worldbased on interest, economics, work, and dignitythat everyone, and this included whites, needed to look up to what he called the American standard. There is no question that in the end Washington's purpose was to bring about a free society that did not recognize color as a bar to any achievement. In 1899 Washington wrote: "I do not favor the Negro giving up anything which is fundamental and which has been granted to him by the Constitution of the United States."

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Norrell understands that the Atlanta speech was much more sophisticated than is generally thought, and in its most quoted statement"In all things that are purely social we can be separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress"Washington did disavow any claim to social equality, no doubt, in part because the whites were unwilling to give it. That social equality was vehemently unwanted by whites is proven by the episode of the dinner at the White House, which the author properly dwells on.

Within days of becoming president, Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to the White House for dinner. Washington accepted the invitation, and he dined with Roosevelt, his wife, three sons, and his teen-aged daughter, Alice. Two days after the event, a kind of hysteria overtook white Southerners at such a display of social equality. Norrell lays out in great detail the ravings that occurred: South Carolina Senator Ben Tillman called for the killing of a thousand blacks so "they will learn their place again." Both Washington and Roosevelt came to regret their decision to formally dine together, as their reputations declined drastically in the South. A few years after the event, Washington was on a trip in Florida when a local white farmer asked to meet him. As they shook hands the farmer said: "You are the greatest man in the country!" Washington replied that surely the greatest man in the country was the president, to which the farmed answered: "Huh! Roosevelt! I used to think that Roosevelt was a great man until he ate dinner with you. That settled him for me."

By 1906 Washington privately admitted that "matters are going backwards," and his standing as the leader of his race was placed in question as Northern blacks, fueled by W.E.B. DuBois's personal animosity, launched progressively more viciousand misleadingattacks on his purpose and person. Northern blacks were demanding more political action and agitation than Washington wanted, and his authority waned. Washington lived long enough to see the civil service re-segregated by executive order under Woodrow Wilson and to hear about Wilson's praise for Birth of a Nation (which includes a heroic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan), the first motion picture shown in the White House. Washington died at the age of 59, due to exhaustion and high blood pressure. He collapsed in New York, but insisted on being brought home to Alabama, to die at his home in Tuskegee.

Robert Norrell observes that "[a]lthough Washington's approach was appropriate to the harsh circumstances of his world, it by no means changed his world. In that sense he was a heroic failure." And yet, Norrell understands that Booker T. Washington's effort to sustain blacks' morale at a terrible time "must be counted among the most heroic efforts in American history." With Up from History, Norrell has given back to America one of its true heroes, and for that we should be grateful.