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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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Norrell devotes ample attention to showing the extent to which Washington was vindicated in life and in death, dutifully informing readers that the post-World War II era evidenced how blacks' demonstration of hard work, skill, thrift, integrity, and loyalty to their country actually led to tangible benefits, including the lifting of segregation in the armed services by President Harry Truman. In this connection, Norrell also adduces as evidence some pivotal political maneuvering in Macon County, Alabama, during the 1950s, by which blacks organized politically to reclaim power taken away by whites, a move made possible by the economic independence they enjoyed as a result of having implemented Washington's economic program calling for self-reliance in their own lives.

Almost comically, though, Norrell at times appears guilty of a variant of the anachronistic mistake of which he accuses certain contemporary critics of Washington. Discounting 1920s-era opinions dissenting from Washington's, for example, Norrell judges Du Bois' developing opposition to Washington as overbroad and unfair, ignoring that during the first half of the 1900s the white power structure dominating the critical institutions essential to black advancement tended to view black leadership as a zero-sum game and thus would freeze out initiatives of productive, progressive, and strategic leaders such as Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson in favor of the whites' favored partner, Washington. No wonder Du Bois openly and bitterly complained that Washington's virtual monopoly of the public discourse as the leading black voice in the country resulted in undermined support for the classically oriented Atlanta University among the big philanthropies. Understanding the uncompromising Harvard PhD in the context of his experiences during his times might have led Norrell to a less strident dismissal of Du Bois' opposition to Washington.

Such minor shortcomings do not diminish the great contribution Norrell has made through Up From History. He freshly portrays a powerful symbol of the last generation of black leaders born into slavery as a transformative proponent of education for freedmen in the post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow South—a man justifying his standing among a nationwide network of core supporters from many different kinds of communities.

Amos N. Jones practices law in Washington, D.C.

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