"Up From History": Booker T. Washington Revisited

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.

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.

Part 2

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.)

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.

Read More: Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

SOURCE: David Frum
The Daily Beast
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