Up from History

Early in the twentieth century, Booker T. Washington was the most famous African American in the United States. He was highly esteemed as an outstanding orator, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, and the author of an inspiring autobiography, Up from Slavery (1901). Nevertheless, by the time he died in 1915, his prestige had already declined, primarily because of the sustained attacks by northern African American critics who resented his preeminence and disagreed with his policies. Particularly controversial was his educational philosophy and his refusal to agitate openly for the civil rights of African Americans. Since the 1950’s, moreover, numerous historians, perhaps a majority, have tended to agree with these critics. Waldo Martin, for instance, observed that “the tar brush of Uncle Tomism has stuck to Washington.” Some historians have even suggested that he indirectly contributed to the deterioration in civil rights during his lifetime.

In Up from History, Robert J. Norrell presents a strong defense of both Washington and his ideas. Norrell argues that modern critics have been guilty of the “fallacy of anachronism,” of applying the expectations of the late twentieth century to an earlier period of legally enforced segregation called Jim Crow. Washington lived and worked at a time when proponents of “Southern white nationalism” did not hesitate to utilize lynchings and other forms of intimidation against African Americans who dared to challenge the status quo. While acknowledging that Washington did not publicly confront white racism, Norrell writes that he secretly used his influence to oppose discriminatory policies, even helping raise money for court challenges. He also insists that Washington’s emphasis on practical training and basic education was the most appropriate means for improving the terrible conditions faced by the oppressed population that he served.

Norrell’s laudatory views are not entirely unprecedented, and he somewhat exaggerates the degree to which all contemporary scholars have disparaged the subject of his biography. Although he correctly quotes the early historical writings of Louis R. Harlan, for instance, he fails to observe that Harlan presented a more positive and nuanced account of Washington in the second volume of his biography, Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915 (1983), arguing that Washington manifested “multiple personalities to fit his various roles.” Criticizing Washington for not giving more support to “civil rights champions,” Harlan nevertheless recognizes that he “worked unceasingly for black pride, material advancement, and every kind of education.” More recently, improvements in race relations appear to have boosted the reputations of moderates such as Washington. For example, David H. Jackson offers another very positive evaluation in Booker T. Washington and the Struggle Against White Supremacy: The Southern Educational Tours, 1908-1912 (2008).

Norrell begins his biography by describing the extremely difficult conditions of Washington’s early life. In the latter days of slavery, he witnessed his uncle “stripped naked, tied to a tree, and struck repeatedly with a leather whip.” Like other slaves at the time, he found that it was often necessary to dissemble. Humble circumstances, however, did not prevent the development of his ambition, determination, and stubbornness, as exemplified by his reaction to being told that slaves were not supposed to learn to read: “From that moment I resolved that I should never be satisfied until I learned what this dangerous practice was like.”

Before emancipation in 1865, Washington’s mother Jane stole food to feed the family, but thereafter she “enforced a strict code of honesty of all things.” In contrast to many African Americans, Norrell observes, Washington “benefited from positive relationships with whites.” As a teenager, he worked for four years for a moderately liberal woman, Miss Viola Ruffner, who emphasized dependability and attention to detail. Then, while at Hampton Institute, its founder and director General Samuel Chapman became Washington’s role model and mentor.

Washington’s building of the Tuskegee Institute, which was the first “exclusively African-American experiment,” was certainly one of the most impressive achievements in American history. When he took over the institute in 1881, it had no land or buildings, but only two thousand dollars in state funds. Initially, Washington had to travel by foot to recruit students, and he was largely responsible for raising the necessary funds from private sources, increasingly from wealthy white donors such as Andrew Carnegie.

Washington exercised personal control over most aspects of the institute. Most mornings, he would “saddle a horse and ride over the Institute farm and note the conditions of the crops, the livestock, the buildings, and the equipment.” By 1905, when President Theodore Roosevelt visited the school, it had grown to two thousand acres of land and...

(The entire section is 2081 words.)