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Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington
Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington
Robert J. Norrell
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009
528 pp., $35.00

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Reviewed by Amos N. Jones


The Leader of the Race

A biography of Booker T. Washington defends his life and legacy.

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He was born in Virginia in 1856 to a black slave mother and a white master father, but bootstrapped his way out of servitude to economic independence, with hardly a boot or a strap. He held his first jobs in West Virginia salt furnaces and coal mines, but eventually matriculated through Hampton Institute in Virginia and Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C. (now Hampton University and Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va.), despite an evolving conviction that the greatest avenue for the advancement of the black masses was through technical training. As the first principal of Tuskegee Institute—a position he held from the age of 25—he guided the locally oriented teacher-training center into a bona fide regional institution of higher learning, overcoming hostile neighbors in the foothills of an ex-Confederate bastion and erecting a sprawling, well-endowed incubator of black educators, farmers, and professionals. He was an influential consultant to U.S. presidents but found popularity among black audiences of humble standing as well. He died at age 59 in 1915, a man of considerable means, universally recognized as the leader of black America. Today, the institute he built in the Black Belt of Alabama is rated as one of the South's best universities.

He was Booker Taliaferro Washington, a now-controversial figure whose life has been chronicled and interpreted and dissected and fought over in hundreds of books, many of them comparing and contrasting him with other black leaders and finding him wanting. In Up From History—the title alludes to Washington's 1901 autobiography, Up from Slavery—University of Tennessee historian Robert J. Norrell sets out to accomplish nothing short of "reinstat[ing] this extraordinary historical figure in the pantheon of black leaders, illuminating not only his mission and achievement but also, poignantly, the man himself." Norrell's greatest contribution is his frank but fair critique of how scholars, commentators, and activists have characterized and evaluated Washington's legacy.

How does Norrell do it? By masterfully framing Washington as a complicated and crafty man operating within tight constraints at a turning point backward in American history. During Washington's adolescence, slavery was ending and the country was being reassembled. During his early adulthood, Reconstruction in his native South was providing stunning socio-political mobility for blacks. During his mid-twenties, hundreds of schools were being opened for blacks across the South. During his midlife, white good will was giving way to the imposition of Jim Crow segregation across much of the country.

Through all of this upheaval, Washington believed that education was the pivotal force by which black citizens would rise within the social and economic structure of their country, regardless of the white majority's vacillation. In his quest to lift his race, "education" included learning oriented to useful and marketable ends, such as training in agricultural techniques to produce profitable enterprises in the rural areas to which many of his students, including mothers and fathers, would be returning. Focused on a gradual accumulation of property, income, wealth, and then power, blacks would demonstrate their commitment to American ideals of hard work and loyal citizenship, eventually showing skeptical whites (who far outnumbered the blacks and ran virtually everything, including all but a few of the other black colleges) that black folk, too, were entitled to equal protection under the law.

Acting upon this vision and having accepted leadership at Tuskegee, Washington rose into a nationally prominent role as black spokesman and race leader. His non-confrontational approach was sharply criticized by some blacks, most notably W. E. B. Du Bois. That New Englander, the first black Harvard PhD, scornfully labeled Washington "the Great Accommodator"; the more Washington achieved success in building relationships with major philanthropists, the harsher Du Bois' criticism became. On the other hand, champions of Washington's approach included Sears, Roebuck & Company's Julius Rosenwald and the Rockefeller family, who contributed millions of dollars for education at Hampton and Tuskegee while also supporting legal challenges to segregation and disfranchisement.

Re-examining Washington's life and legacy, Norrell is careful in presenting the viewpoints of Washington's contemporaneous critics and those who have appeared over the years since he died, nearly a century ago. In the final chapter of Up From History, Norrell sketches an instructive intellectual history of commentary about Washington, from A to Z. "The first assessments of his life by black scholars in the 1920s," Norrell writes, "affirmed that popularity … among the masses of southern Blacks that Washington had gained through direct contact with them." He singles out noted black sociologist Charles S. Johnson's 1928 defense of Washington's way as "the most sophisticated defense of Washington's career" for its perceptiveness in concluding that Washington saw that white fears were a threat constantly on the verge of explosion and had to be abated or at least controlled if blacks were to make progress. Unfortunately, Norrell observes, Johnson's assessment "hardly registered, in part because the Great Depression, signaling as it apparently did the demise of capitalism, led scholars to question Washington's acceptance of capitalism, his emphasis on black agriculture, and his skepticism about unions."

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