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Heroic effort

Books | Booker T. Washington's movement through history

Issue: "Between Hell and Hope," Feb. 12, 2011

For a long time I've found Booker T. Washington fascinating. (See my columns in WORLD on Feb. 1, 8, 15, and 22, 1997.) Gene Edward Veith and I listed his book Up from Slavery (1901) as one of Top 100 books of the 20th century (Dec. 4, 1999). A new biography, Robert J. Norrell's Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington (Harvard University Press) shows how historians have either angelized or demonized him, often unaware of how twisting a racetrack he had to run on to keep from being run over.

First, a little background, which (sadly) is more than most students will get during February, Black History Month: Liberal historians for decades have echoed the contention of his radical rival, W.E.B. Du Bois, that Washington (1856-1915) was "the Great Accommodator." That's because, as Norrell shows, Washington's game plan for black progress included hard work (see pages 54 and 61), morality (p. 65), and even cleanliness (p. 66: No student could stay at Washington's Tuskegee Institute who did not keep and use a toothbrush).

Du Bois up North favored political agitation, but Washington in Alabama rightly saw that as suicidal. Given that white lynch mobs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries roamed parts of the South with little or no legal restraint, Washington could not admit publicly that in 1895 he had hidden from one mob a black lawyer, Thomas Harris, who was injured in a shootout with pursuing whites. Washington had to remain silent when one black newspaper criticized his "refusal to admit a wounded man." As Norrell writes, Washington "could not afford for local whites to know that he had interfered with their vigilantism" (p. 114).

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Washington found the mainstream press even more frustrating. "If a colored man gets into a fight, or steals a chicken," he said, "it appears in the papers in glaring headlines. [But if he] buys a hundred acres of land or builds a home, or his son graduates from a school, it is not mentioned" (p. 86). Sadly, Washington's belief that material progress among blacks would increase white regard for them-"a white man respects a negro who owns a two-story brick home" (p. 99)-was not always vindicated: In some race riots, high-achieving blacks were most in danger. As one white Atlanta railroad worker put it, "When the skilled negro appears and begins to elbow the white man in the struggle for existence, don't you know the white man rebels and won't have it so?" (p. 382).

The language of that railroad worker-"struggle for existence"-indicates one reason why relations between blacks and whites often worsened during the 1890s. Some historians emphasize rapid change resulting from urbanization, industrialization, immigration, and economic depression: Norrell over-generalizes but is right to speculate that "perhaps the insecurity of whites caused them to persecute more viciously the perceived enemy in their midst." But "struggle for existence" language came right out of Charles Darwin: Norrell notes that "Darwinian thought fostered the widespread belief that competition among races would inevitably bring the demise of blacks," seen as inferior (p. 117).

Often the biggest distress for Washington was the opposition not only of Du Bois but of other black intellectuals (pp. 151, 321), especially some who built strong bonds with socialists (p. 387). In essence, they adopted an all-or-nothing strategy that demanded political, economic, and cultural equality, and they called Washington a coward because he wanted all but would take something.

Norrell's closing summary of Washington's leadership is judicious: "Though largely overlooked, his effort to sustain blacks' morale at a terrible time must be counted among the most heroic efforts in American history. Booker T. Washington told his people that they would survive the dark present and, as far as possible, he showed them how to do so. . . . He succeeded in his purpose, for indeed they did move up from history, from a time of degradation and despair to a time when the promise of equality in American life became a real possibility" (pp. 441-2).

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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