David's Bookclub: Up from History

02.06.13

Booker T. Washington's Message for 21st Century America

Editor's note: We've pulled the five part review of Up from History into a single post. Read, ponder, and critique at will.

Up From Slavery, the autobiography by Booker T. Washington, is a book one sees so often quoted in other histories that it's easy to develop the illusion that you have actually read it. But I hadn't, not until this past January. With Black History Month looming, I decided to rectify the lapse. Up From Slavery is a comparatively short book, and it took only a few long runs to listen to it all the way through.

The overwhelming impression through the pages of that book is one of studied artificiality. Up From Slavery was published in 1901. The decade of the 1890s had been the worst decade in American history for lynchings of black people, according to statistics compiled by Washington's own Tuskegee Institute. The voting rights of black people had been brutally curtailed across the South. The 1890s were the decade in which Jim Crow had been formalized; in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to the segregation of public conveyances and inscribed the phrase "separate but equal" into American law. The very year that Up From Slavery was published, Washington's own state of Alabama adopted a constitution that would effectively terminate black political rights for the next six and a half decades.

Yet in his memoirs, published while all these things were happening, an obviously sensitive and astute man could write again and again of how "pleasant" race relations had become in the South and of how the controversies of the unspecified past had been left behind. Could he really mean it? His story seemed at utter defiance of reality - and yet at the same time, this pioneering educator stressed again and again the importance of realism and of taking people and things as they are.

An enigmatic man, you might say - and not only might you say it, but one of the greatest of black American poets did say it, in an 1896 poem that more than one person has suggested was inspired by the life and career of Booker T. Washington:

WE wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

How to lift the mask from Booker T. Washington? In biography and fiction, many writers have tried, from W.E.B. DuBois onward. Their verdict was overwhelmingly hostile. In life, Booker T. Washington had gained more admiration from black Americans than any other contemporary. In memory, he was reviled as a servile race traitor, a cringing sycophant to white wealth and power. DuBois - at one point a Washington protege - offered a lengthy negative assessment Washington in "The Souls of Black Folk," published in 1903. Washington, according to DuBois

put enthusiasm, unlimited energy, and perfect faith into this program me [defined elsewhere as "industrial education, conciliation of the South, and submission and silence as to civil and political rights"], and changed it from a by-path into a veritable Way of Life. …

It startled the nation to hear a Negro advocating such a programme after many decades of bitter complaint; it startled and won the applause of the South, it interested and won the admiration of the North; and after a confused murmur of protest, it silenced if it did not convert the Negroes themselves.

A black poet from a later generation, Dudley Randall, summarized the harsh posthumous assessment in a stinging satire published in 1952:

"It seems to me," said Booker T.,
"It shows a mighty lot of cheek
To study chemistry and Greek
When Mister Charlie needs a hand
To hoe the cotton on his land,
And when Miss Ann looks for a cook,
Why stick your nose inside a book?"

"I don't agree," said W.E.B.
"If I should have the drive to seek
Knowledge of chemistry or Greek,
I'll do it. Charles and Miss can look
Another place for hand or cook,
Some men rejoice in skill of hand,
And some in cultivating land,
But there are others who maintain
The right to cultivate the brain."

"It seems to me," said Booker T.,
"That all you folks have missed the boat
Who shout about the right to vote,
And spend vain days and sleepless nights
In uproar over civil rights.
Just keep your mouths shut, do not grouse,
But work, and save, and buy a house."

"I don't agree," said W.E.B.
"For what can property avail
If dignity and justice fail?
Unless you help to make the laws,
They'll steal your house with trumped-up clause.
A rope's as tight, a fire as hot,
No matter how much cash you've got.
Speak soft, and try your little plan,
But as for me, I'll be a man."

"It seems to me," said Booker T.--

"I don't agree,"
Said W.E.B.

‘Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington’ by Robert J. Norrell. 528 p. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. $13.57. ()

But no assessment of a great man is ever quite final. Four years ago, there appeared yet another Booker T. Washington biography, under a title adapted from Washington's memoir. Up from History offers an audacious revision of Washington's reputation. To add to the audacity, the revision comes from a white scholar, Robert Jefferson Norrell. Norrell is a native of Alabama. Central to his understanding of Washington is his understanding of the place and times in which Washington lived: a place and time in which leading Americans - governors and senators - talked as casually of outright genocide against black Americans as we today would talk about balancing budgets and reforming entitlements.

In the year 1900, 90% of black Americans still lived in the states of the former Confederacy.

Since the withdrawal of federal troops in the 1870s, these states had asserted an increasingly extreme white domination over the former slaves. State governments had deprived freed blacks of the right to vote and sit on juries. They had sliced contributions to black education to pitiful fractions of the small enough investment in the education of white children. They had adopted increasingly formalized rules of racial subordination in public places. This system of domination was enforced by violence and the threat of violence. The violence was usually informal - "racial terrorism" as Robert Norrell aptly calls it - but not always. Local authorities actively connived in it. State governments accepted it. And while the federal government might occasional issue some deploring statement, it seldom if ever did anything to prevent the violence.

Norrell offers a vivid description of how the system of white domination worked. Until the late 1890s, North Carolina blacks retained some of their Reconstruction era legacy political rights. 120,000 blacks still voted; blacks still served on the Wilmington city council and even worked as policemen - a profound taboo elsewhere in the South.

But time was running out for the Wilmington black community. Blacks had benefited from the disunity of the state's whites. In the late 1890s, however, conservative white Democrats and radical white Populists sank their differences in time for the election of November 1898.

Here's what happened next, according to Norrell:

Alfred Waddell, an out-of-favor politician remaking himself as a white-nationalist leader, became the most vitriolic nativist firebrand. 'You are Anglo-Saxons,' Waddell told a crowd. 'Go to the polls tomorrow, and if you find the negro out voting tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks.' In early November tens of thousands of black men were too frightened to vote, and the Democrats regained control of North Carolina. Two days after the election, Waddell led a mob in destroying [Wilmington's leading black newspaper]. They gathered the resignation of all Republican city officials at gunpoint, and Waddell was named mayor.

Waddell's mob swelled to 2,000 men, including whites from all classes and vocations. When a shot hit one of them, the mob raged through Wilmington, with whites hunting down blacks in running gun battles through the city streets. The gunfire alerted militias and vigilante groups from outside the city to join the attack. Literally thousands of blacks ran for their lives. As many as 300 African Americans may have been killed. Eyewitnesses later recounted seeing wagon carts piled high with dead black bodies being removed from the city. … The riot depopulated Wilmington of its large black majority.

(pp 162-163.)

Video screenshot

The 1904 recording of Booker T. Washington's "Atlanta Compromise" speech from 1895.

This was not a reality in which the black protest advocated by people like WEB DuBois was likely to succeed. When judging of the controversy between DuBois and Washington, this is the reality that Robert Norrell would like us to keep in mind

Against this dismal and deteriorating landscape, Booker T. Washington struggled valiantly to build one of America's great educational institutions, Tuskegee.

Starting with one dilapidated cabin, whose roof leaked so badly that a student had to hold an umbrella over Washington's hand when he lectured on wet nights, Washington built Tuskegee into the largest and wealthiest school in Alabama by 1900, attended by more students than attended any of the state's own (all-white) universities. He raised funds for buildings and to acquire land. Tuskegee's main business was to train teachers for segregated black primary schools. It also offered instruction in advanced farming techniques, brick making, and other skilled trades. Unusually for the era, Tuskegee was coeducational from the first.

Tuskegee's students could hardly afford the cost of tuition. Washington threw himself into the work of fundraising, achieving spectacular success by gaining the confidence of the richest industrialists of the North. They were impressed by results, and reassured too by the conservatism of Washington's philosophy.

Education, skills acquisition, capital accumulation: these accomplishments, not political protest, were Washington's path to black progress. As black Americans became indispensable, so they would overcome animosity and achieve progress. Years before Gary Becker won a Nobel Prize for the idea, Washington was already convinced of the economic irrationality of discrimination. He wrote in Up From Slavery:

[T]he whole future of the Negro rested largely upon the question as to whether or not he should make himself, through his skill, intelligence, and character, of such undeniable value to the community in which he lived that the community could not dispense with his presence. I said that any individual who learned to do something better than anybody else—learned to do a common thing in an uncommon manner—had solved his problem, regardless of the color of his skin, and that in proportion as the Negro learned to produce what other people wanted and must have, in the same proportion would he be respected.

It's true, as WEB DuBois and other later critics contended, that Washington avoided direct criticism of the prejudices around him. This was policy, not cowardice.

I early learned that it is a hard matter to convert an individual by abusing him, and that this is more often accomplished by giving credit for all the praiseworthy actions performed than by calling attention alone to all the evil done.

- Up From Slavery 

It was Washington's method to seek allies and friends - to avoid fights he could not win - and to pursue his more controversial goals indirectly and discreetly. As Norrell reminds us, later researchers have discovered that Washington and Tuskegee financed the most important court challenges to segregation in the 1890s and 1900s - almost all of them tragically unsuccessful. Washington worked covertly because he needed to protect his university from real and violent danger.

Booker's keen sense of modern mass communications led him to engage the services of a professional photographer, Frances Benjamin Johnston, of Washington, D.C., to make a visual record of life on the Tuskegee campus, which the school would use in promotional efforts. WHen that work was done, Booker sent Johnston to make photographs of some of the little Tuskegees [i.e., schools launched by Tuskegee alumni]. She traveled by train to the Ramer Colored Institute School, ten miles south of Montgomery, where late one evening she was met by George Washington Carver and Nelson Henry, the Ramer school's founder and principal for the past six years. As Ramer drove the attractive young Johnson from the station toward his house, they were accosted by a group of white men who drew the conclusion that Henry had breached racial etiquette and shot at the couple three times. Henry fled Ramer as white patrols declared their intention of beating him to death. Carver walked all night to get away. Somehow Johnston escaped on a train. An investigation by the governor of Alabama concluded that the incident was the work of a few hotheads …. But Henry was unwilling to risk a return to Ramer, notwithstanding the years invested there. Blacks in Ramer had advised him not to come back. The school closed ….

(Norrell, p. 271)

Washington himself lived at constant risk of assassination.

Contra his critics, Washington understood very well the world around him. He died at 60, and it's hard to escape the feeling that his death was accelerated by the stress and strain of wearing the "mask that grins and lies." If he did not challenge that world as later critics wished he had, it was because he was working to change it.

The protest narrative by which Washington was later criticized makes two mistakes: it underestimates black weakness in the post Civil War South - and (more seriously) it grossly overstates white goodwill. The protesters of the 1950s and 1960s made headway by shaming white America into changing its behavior. They were supported by white America's reaction against Nazi racism and - much more - by the imperatives of Cold War competition. A federal government that felt itself to be competing for influence against the Soviet Union in Latin America, Africa, and Asia could not afford to indulge apartheid and racial violence home.

That, however, was not the world of 1900. The world of 1900 was a world in which Southern whites (and many Northern whites too) rejected Washington's pre Gary Becker vision of gains from trade in favor of a proto-fascist vision of a racial struggle for existence.

Norrell references an article published in 1905 by Thomas Dixon, one of the bestselling authors of the time, whose novels would inspire the movie, Birth of a Nation. In the Saturday Evening Post - the "60 Minutes" of its day - Dixon outlined a fierce critique of Washington's philosophy of black self-betterment.

The real tragedy would begin when black men and white men began competing in the industrial workplace. Would the southern white man allow the Negro to master his industrial system, take the bread from his mouth, and place a mortgage on his house, as in fact Booker had promised? Dixon emphatically answered "no": "He will do exactly what his white neighbor in the North does when the Negro threatens his bread - kill him!"

(Norrell pp. 325-326)

Booker T. Washington was the first black man to dine in the White House. As Norrell tells it, the invitation from President Theodore Roosevelt was an impulsive one, and one that Roosevelt soon regretted.

The dinner invitation originated in the complex internal politics of the national Republican party after the assassination of President McKinley. Roosevelt had been given the vice presidency in order to remove him from New York, where he was annoying local party leaders. Now "that madman" had inherited the top job, and regular Republicans immediately began to scheme to remove him from the ballot in 1904. Roosevelt's best hope to defeat them was to build himself a political following in the Republican parties of the South: precisely because those parties were so weak, they could be most influenced by presidential patronage. The South's few white Republicans were beholden to Roosevelt's enemy, Mark Hanna. Roosevelt relied on Booker T. Washington to recruit a machine of his own - including anti-Populist Democrats who held paternalistic rather than white-nationalist attitudes toward Southern blacks.

Booker T. Washington made two trips to the capital in the fall of 1901 to meet with the president. In advance of the second meeting, he received the invitation to dine.

Norrell quotes TR's later rueful reflection. The president had talked so much to Booker Washington that "it seemed to me that it was natural to ask him to dinner to talk over this work, and the very fact that I felt a moment's qualm on inviting him because of his color made me ashamed of myself and made me hasten to send him the invitation." It did not occur to him that the invitation would have any political "bearing one way or the other, either on my own future or on anything else."

Booker T. Washington was far more open-eyed about the invitation and its consequences:

He had a day to think about it and count the costs. He decided that it represented "recognition of the race and no matter what the personal condemnations it brought upon my shoulders I had no right to refuse or even hesitate."

(Norrell, p. 243.)

When the story broke, the reaction was savage.

"The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger," [South Carolina's U.S. Senator] Ben Tillman announced, "will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again." James K. Vardaman [soon to be elected governor of Mississippi and then Mississipp's U.S. senator] proclaimed that Roosevelt had insulted every white man in America. "President Roosevelt takes this nigger bastard into his home, introduces him to his family, and entertains him on terms of absolute social equality." Rebecca Felton [a popular Georgia journalist] said that although Washington was reputed to be a level-headed Negro, at the White House he had thrown off the mask and revealed himself as a "disintegrator and disorganizer of both races." … The Nashville American said that despite Booker's respectability, "A leak in a dam is dangerous to the dam's safety," and giving Washington such privileges would cause other blacks to demand the same privileges. "Miscegenation would follow and a mongrel race would be the result." Governor Oates [governor of Alabama and a friend and quiet ally of Washington's] reiterated the point: "No respectable white man in Alabama of any political party would ask him to dinner nor go to dinner with him.

(Norrell, pp. 246-247)

The Atlanta Constitution later editorialized that no political event had so moved the white South in twenty years.

After securing his re-election in 1904, Roosevelt would edge away from Washington, hoping to gain white Southern support for a possible try at a third term in 1908. In his annual message to Congress in 1906, Roosevelt suggested that lynching - although criminal - could also be seen as an understandable reaction to black criminality and urged better black cooperation with local law enforcement as the best safeguard against lynching. Yet Booker T. Washington and Roosevelt remained allies. Roosevelt continued to rely on Washington for appointments advice; Washington's access to the president secured his position both as the nation's pre-eminent black leader and as a man who - true to his own philosophy of life - could offer southern white leaders "something they wanted."

The succession to the presidency of William Howard Taft weakened Booker Washington's position. Taft reverted to the old McKinley-Hanna reliance on the South's few white Republicans rather than its now almost completely disenfranchised blacks. Then Woodrow Wilson's election in 1912 seemed to mark the final end of all political hopes for black Americans. A man of the South had won the presidency for the first time since the Civil War. Democrats gained ascendancy in Congress as well. Blacks were systematically purged from all but the lowliest jobs in government. Southern-style segregation was imposed on the city of Washington D.C. for the next half century.

At this same time, northern whites and blacks launched the NAACP as a self-conscious rival to Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee operation.

As a final blow, Washington himself was caught in a scandal for the one and only time in his career. On March 19, 1911, Washington paid a call on an apartment building on West 63d Street. He got into an altercation that ended with a white man savagely beating him. As the police investigated the attack, Washington's explanation of his visit progressively disintegrated. Many became convinced that he was at the apartment house to see a woman, although this was never proved or even substantiated.

Washington was married three times. His first two wives were genuine intellectual companions, who both died young. He seems to have been much less close to his third wife. In public, Washington upheld a strict sexual creed. He had dismissed from Tuskegee a professor suspected of sexual involvement with women students. Now he was stained with a question about his own to-date unblemished personal conduct. The scandal accelerated his physical decline and speeded his way to his tragically premature death in 1915.

So was Booker T. Washington a failure?

It would be easy to say so, and perhaps Washington himself died thinking so. And yet … think again.

Washington urged these lessons upon black Americans:

* To think of themselves as Americans first and foremost, not to succumb to the racial illusions that distorted the minds of their white fellow-citizens - or to follow future false messiahs into some mystical back-to-Africa fantasy.

* Not to allow bitterness over the past to distract them from their prospects for the future.

* To emphasize education, work, and capital accumulation as their path to success.

* To seize the opportunities provided by a free, competitive economy.

* To believe the best of their country - and of their place in it. Despite living at the moment when race hatred came to its fiercest boil in all American history, fiercer than anything expressed even under slavery, Washington remained serenely convinced. His ideas remain potent today. Hear Maya Angelou:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

It was a message that an oppressed and despised black America welcomed in 1900. It was a message rejected as too plaintive and apologetic by the black America of 1950. But it's a message that is looking truer and truer in the post-racial America of the 21st century.