Jonathan Yardley on "Up From History"

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, January 18, 2009

UP FROM HISTORY

The Life of Booker T. Washington

By Robert J. Norrell

Belknap/Harvard Univ. 508 pp. $35

Few great Americans have been more cruelly treated by history than Booker Taliaferro Washington. He has been mocked, vilified and caricatured, yet by any reasonable measure his life was extraordinary. He was born into slavery in Virginia in 1856. He never knew who his father was -- though it was generally assumed that the man was white -- and was reared by his demanding but loving mother. After emancipation the family moved to West Virginia, where the boy developed a thirst for education so powerful that in 1872 he traversed the 500 miles to Hampton Institute in Virginia -- this at a time when "travel for an almost penniless young Negro was fraught with stress and uncertainty" -- and soon became an outstanding pupil.

Upon graduation he went to Alabama and founded the Tuskegee Institute, which he shaped into "one of the largest institutions of higher education in the United States" and a beacon of hope for African Americans everywhere. From the pulpit this provided him, he preached self-discipline, education, moral improvement and restraint in the face of implacable white hostility that often took violent, indeed murderous, form. For many years, beginning in the early 1890s, he was "the most famous and respected black man in America." Yet for all that, by the late 1890s Washington came under steady, often virulent attack that continued almost uninterrupted until his death in 1915. His most vocal critics were not white but black, led by a small but vocal and well-situated group of "educated, middle-class New England blacks who refused to acknowledge the constraints imposed on southern blacks" and demanded that Washington follow a far more aggressive, confrontational course. In 1901 they were joined by William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, who was rapidly on the way to becoming the country's leading black intellectual and who wrote a stinging review of Washington's immensely popular autobiography, Up from Slavery. Du Bois said that Washington's emphasis on industrial training for blacks at Tuskegee was a denial of their potential for intellectual growth and a capitulation to "triumphant commercialism and the ideals of material prosperity." Washington was admired by Southern whites, he said, but "among the Negroes, Mr. Washington is still far from a popular leader."

The first charge was an oversimplification of Washington's strategy for black advancement, and the second was patently untrue -- in 1901 Washington was not merely admired but venerated by American blacks -- but Du Bois's eloquence and his high position among the black and white intelligentsia carried the day. Washington came to be viewed as an "Uncle Tom" who was more interested in appeasing Southern whites than in confronting them, who believed that "racial conflict was so clearly destructive of the interests of black people that it made little sense to engage in it," who emphasized education, deportment and cooperation as the most effective strategies for blacks.

Norrell, who is professor of history at the University of Tennessee and the author of numerous well-regarded books and articles on race relations in the United States, believes that Washington has been a victim of what goes by the awkward name of "presentism," the human tendency to view the past in terms of present assumptions and expectations. Thus, when the civil-rights movement flowered in the 1960s, Washington, with his acceptance of gradualism and his willingness to seek the favor of prominent whites, was dismissed as "an unworthy hero, one who had sold out his people to racist white power." This view already had found its way into the history departments, largely because of the mocking depiction of Washington ("the master of Tuskegee") in C. Vann Woodward's hugely influential Origins of the New South (1951), a view adopted by "a large continent of admiring students who became the next generation of influential historians of the South." Norrell continues:

"Many academic historians had themselves been activists, and certainly nearly all admired the achievements of civil-rights protest. Activism became an imperative among many historians who came of age in the 1960s, and activism dictated protest driven by idealism, not measured appeals to slow prescriptions based on material and educational improvement. A presumption entered the thinking and writing that protest was the correct, and for most the only legitimate, means of improving minority conditions. By the mid-1960s Washington was understood to have been the enemy of activism, the Uncle Tom who delayed the day of freedom. From then on, the present-mindedness of historians writing about race went mostly unquestioned."

As one who came of age in 1960, who shared the movement's impatience for change, and who greatly admired Vann Woodward's work, I reflexively accepted the received opinion of Washington. Norrell persuades me that I was wrong. He has granted Washington what Du Bois, Woodward and so many others have willfully denied him: He sees Washington in the context of his own times and declines to judge him by the ostensibly more enlightened moral assumptions of our own. Certainly, Washington was not a perfect man; his fascination with politics led him into alliances and commitments of questionable value to his cause, and at times his willingness to curry the favor of whites led him into embarrassing self-abnegation. But he was the great African American leader of the day, a man who gave inspiration and hope to millions and played no small role in altering white perceptions of blacks, a remarkable accomplishment at what may have been the worst time for blacks in American history.

Apart from his mother, probably the two most important people in Washington's early life were white. One was a woman named Viola Ruffner, a New Englander living with her husband in West Virginia who hired him as a houseboy and, once she recognized his abilities and ambition, "helped him become the intelligent, responsible, hard-working, independent young man he wanted to be"; she instilled in him "what the German sociologist Max Weber later called the Protestant ethic, which taught that the values of industry, sobriety, thrift, self-reliance, and piety accounted for success in modern capitalist societies."

These lessons were powerfully reinforced by Samuel Chapman Armstrong, a former union general and an "unabashed paternalist" who founded Hampton Institute, a college for black students, and "might have represented for Booker the white father who had never claimed him." Among the instructions he issued to students were "Be thrifty and industrious," "Command the respect of your neighbors by a good record and a good character," "Make the best of your difficulties" and "Live down prejudice." He "emphasized the evils of slavery and the essential goodness of the American republic," but he "demonstrated no ill will toward white southerners" and preached reconciliation. His influence on Washington was incalculable:

"Hampton reinforced his experience that a job well done resulted in new and larger opportunities. Just as good performance as a houseboy for Mrs. Ruffner had led to the opportunity to be her fruit salesman, and an excellent performance of janitorial work had got him admitted to Hampton, so did diligent schoolwork earn him the opportunity to shine at commencement. His personal experience validated his faith in the Protestant ethic. Hampton proved again that some whites would help a young black to rise in the world. He had a hero in General Armstrong and other role models in white teachers who opened new worlds of knowledge to him and wanted him to succeed."

Today that may seem dated and even demeaning, but it wasn't today. It was a distant and unimaginably difficult yesterday in which the barriers to a young black living in poverty were so high as to seem insuperable and the animosity of whites was so intense as to shrivel the soul. The historical truth is that the help of whites was essential to Washington's rise, a truth that explains his lifelong pursuit of white mentors, allies and benefactors. His creation of Tuskegee Institute is one of the epic accomplishments in American history, and the students whom he sent out to other places to establish institutes of their own spread the message of black education and determination throughout the country, the South especially. To see him as anything less than heroic borders on the incomprehensible.

Nothing that he did was easy. He walked forever on "a tightrope between candor and survival," between whites and blacks. He learned "that the only role open to him was that of the fox. To play the lion was to invite disaster. It was a bitter lesson that showed the limits on his ability to lead his race. A black leader who could not speak freely was not able to pursue equal racial and educational advancement. But if he owned up to that fact, he would be accepting that blacks' hopes for improvement were futile, and he knew that progress would not grow from despair." Still, he was the leader to whom blacks across the nation looked for guidance and inspiration, and he provided as much of both as circumstances permitted at an incredibly difficult time.

No, he wasn't the leader for 1940 or 1960 or today, but it is unfair to him, indeed it is unfair to history itself, to expect him to have been. Robert J. Norrell understands this and has written the story of his life as it actually was lived, not as we might wish it had been lived. Up from History is in all respects an exemplary book, scrupulously fair to its subject and thus to the reader as well. ยท

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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