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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 then turns to influential arguments against Washington's legacy. Here the historian serves up an all-out indictment of Du Bois' most influential critique of Washington, which first appeared in Du Bois's 1903 work The Souls of Black Folk and was recycled and amplified in his 1940 memoir Dusk of Dawn. Norrell summarily accuses Du Bois of having "focused selectively on the ideological differences between himself and Washington," of having asserted that "the Tuskegee public-relations efforts were aimed only at advancing Booker's power and defeating his critics," of having "claimed that Washington had excused the South's discrimination," and of having "remained angry about him" twenty-five years after Washington's death. Of these slights, Norrell remarks, "Few men in an open society get to set the terms for the historical memory of their avowed enemy, but W. E. B. Du Bois was one who did."

To be sure, in Washington's famous 1895 Atlanta Exposition Speech given at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta (and known today as the infamous Atlanta Compromise address), he celebrated the industrial education oriented toward the jobs then available to the majority of blacks, in contradistinction to Du Bois' desire for blacks to have access to the same liberal arts education that most whites enjoyed. Du Bois and like-minded activists envisioned that an élite cadre whom Du Bois had dubbed the Talented Tenth would advance to lead the race to a wider variety of occupations. Declared Washington to the whites in the middle of his 1895 address: "As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, in nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one. In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."

This passage, music to the ears of many whites and blacks of the period, subsequently has been regarded widely as mere shucking and jiving accommodationism. Yet, as Norrell implies, readers must be careful not to fall into the trap of the anachronistic fallacy; by 1895, it was clear that Reconstruction was over, with black political power and economic mobility being withheld to a degree not experienced since the days of slavery into which Washington had been born. Washington's white father had not freed him or his mother; they were read their rights by a soldier who articulated the Emancipation Proclamation to his mother and siblings on the plantation, according to his recollections in Up From Slavery. Facing an increasingly powerful and ubiquitous Ku Klux Klan alongside diminished black political clout at the turn of the century, Washington understood that the blacks would have to go along to get along. As they did, however, he continued to build Tuskegee while secretly funding legal challenges to Jim Crow segregation and other direct confrontations of racial injustice.

Like all of the so-called race men of his time, Washington was willing to work with the whites to achieve his objectives, even when those objectives were distinct from those of the whites. Tuskegee Institute had been founded, after all, as a result of the collaboration of Lewis Adams, a former slave who had achieved prominence in Tuskegee, with George W. Campbell, a local white banker and former slaveholder who assisted in brokering a deal with white state Senate candidate W. F. Foster. A school for blacks would be built with the state Senator's backing in exchange for the newly freed blacks' votes for him in the upcoming election. This kind of interracial cooperation was not uncommon across the South, even decades after Reconstruction was dismantled. In the 1920s, the blacks of Louisville, Kentucky, were decisive in defeating a bond issue for the all-white University of Louisville and conditioned their support in the subsequent re-balloting upon the agreement by local officials to fund and open the Louisville Municipal College for Negroes. The blacks did their part the next time around, the whites' bond issue passed—and the blacks' college was opened, succeeded, and eventually merged into the University of Louisville following the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision in the 1950s.

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