Photo: Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama
Review by John Augustine
A good biography of a famous person doesn't just reinforce our previous convictions about the person. It tells us things we didn't know, forces us to re-evaluate our earlier impressions, and perhaps even change our mind. Such a book is Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington by Robert Norrell.
In his day, Book Washington was one of the most respected African Americans in the United States, perhaps the most respected. But he was also one of the most hated. Born in slavery, his accomplishment was not only to raise himself to a position of prominence, but thousands of others as well. His classic autobiography, Up From Slavery, is the inspiration for this biography's title. He became one of America's most famous educators, founding and administering the Tuskegee Institute of Alabama.
The children of freed slaves faced not only a social but an economic crisis. As an outcast group, how could they find an economic niche in the South, work that would bring them dignity and the opportunity to support themselves? Where could they receive the training for such occupations, given their impoverishment and the school doors that were closed to them? Tuskegee provided that opportunity.
Briefly, Washington's plan was to prepare Black students for an agricultural or industrial trade, a practical training that would give them a place in the postwar South. Tuskegee was also a teacher's college, preparing a generation of black schoolteachers for the South's segregated school systems.
His plan was impressive enough to attract funding from Northern philanthropists, but Washington still had to spend most of his professional life struggling to raise funds to keep the school alive. His efforts won national admiration, but local resentment and disdain. Still, Tuskegee survived, and survives today.
Norrell does a fine job of describing one famous episode: an invitation to dinner at the White House from Theodore Roosevelt. This honor turned out to be about the most controversial event in his difficult career. The South was horrified. That a Black man would be allowed to sit down for dinner in the White House with the President and his family, his wife and daughters? You never heard such vituperation. Honestly, the virulent racism reported in this book, particularly from the mouths of prominent Southern politicians, is plain painful to read.
So what happened? Washington's reputation has fallen into serious decline for a couple reasons. In his day, his educational philosophy was publicly challenged by W.E.B. Dubois, the leading black intellectual of that time, and a formidable opponent. By the way, there's a very impressive two-volume biography
of Dubois and his career by David Levering Lewis, which I highly recommend, especially if you're unfamiliar with this man.
Dubois didn't want schools that turned out farmers, carpenters and shopkeepers. He wanted African American doctors, lawyers, authors and architects. He put Washington on the defensive.
The second blow to Washington's reputation was the Civil Rights movement. To these activists, Washington appeared to be an accomodationist, an educator whose goals had been shaped by the white community. He had gone along, instead of fighting; he was guilty of insufficient protest. His position as a highly regarded leader of the race withered.
Well, read this book. It's clearly Norrell's intention to revive Washington's reputation and raise him up again, up from history, which has treated him shabbily. This biography makes clear his courage, his struggle, his perseverance, and to my mind returns Booker T. Washington to a figure of heroic proportions. If we have discounted this man, or even forgotten about him, that is our mistake. Dubois was an important leader himself for African American progress, but in this case he was wrong. Martin Luther King's dream was not the only dream. Long before, in the dangerous Jim Crow South, one man made a nearly impossible dream come true for thousands of disenfranchised American citizens.
Up from History:The Life of Booker T. Washington, by Robert Norrell, published by Harvard University Press, 2009.
Lifelines is hosted by John Augustine, long-time English and Literature teacher at Delta College, now Professor Emeritus. Lifelines is a production of Delta College quality Public Radio.