IN 1972 LOUIS R. HARLAN'S Booker T. Washington: Volume I: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901 was published to a chorus of rave reviews. The following year it received the coveted Bancroft Prize, Columbia University's award for the best history book of the year. A decade later our vigil for the long-awaited second (and final) volume is finally over, and Booker T. Washington: Volume II: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915 more than fulfills our high expectations. Combining the skills of a born storyteller, a tireless researcher, and a shrewd critic of men and events, Harlan has written the definitive biography of Booker T. Washington. Indeed, with the completion of this beautifully crafted and elegantly conceived book, he has produced one of the most important biographies of our time.
Reducing anyone as complex as Booker T. Washington to paper is an intellectual challenge of the first magnitude. More than any other black leader in our past, his name is enshrouded in controversy. In his first volume, Harlan traced Washington from his birth as a mulatto slave to his emergence as the undisputed leader of black Americans at the beginning of our century. An ambitious and hardworking youth, Washington had to struggle to escape poverty, obtain an education, and achieve dignity and respectability, tasks that impressed upon him the burden he bore by being black.
In fact, race became the dominant issue of Washington's life. Rather than lash out at racial discrimination, Washington pursued a more pragmatic, if less heroic, strategy of reform. Beginning in his boyhood and continuing to his death, he courted the favor of powerful white people (whether liberal, moderate, or conservative); he accommodated himself, at least outwardly, to segregation; and he worked tirelessly to instill racial pride, solidarity, and self-help in American blacks.
Washington built his career in education. As the founder and principal of the famed Tuskegee Institute, a secondary school located in the heart of Alabama's "Black Belt," he became the nation's leading proponent of industrial education for blacks. Admirers praised the Institute for teaching blacks marketable skills that would enable them to become self-sufficient. Detractors, however, dismissed the Institute as little more than a trade school, a place that trained blacks to fill the blue-collar jobs of the new industrial order, or, more to the point, a place that trained black hands but ignored black minds. Thus, to the handful of reformers who favored racial equality, the Tuskegee Institute was a powerful instrument of oppression for socializing blacks into a permanent underclass.
As Harlan showed in the earlier volume, Booker T. Washington became the center of the controversy regarding the proper place for blacks in American society. In 1895 he delivered the speech in Atlanta, Georgia, that catapulted him into national prominence. Addressing a biracial (though segregated) audience, he proposed a triple alliance among northern capitalists, white leaders of the New South, and blacks, volunteering on behalf of his race to accept social inequality in exchange for economic assistance and opportunity. Moderate and liberal whites, along with most blacks, immediately proclaimed Washington a statesman and a sage. Whites embraced him precisely because his formula for racial progress was consonant with their deeply engrained racism. Blacks supported him because he worked for change without provoking potentially disastrous confrontations, and because he was the only black leader who seemed to have any influence with the white power structure. Washington's critics, however, were appalled by the so-called "Atlanta Compromise." To them he was the "Great Accommodationist," a Judas-goat, a moral coward who had betrayed his race.
Harlan avoids such simple-minded, polarized views. He brings to life a man of enormous complexity, an enigmatic figure who offends our era's sensibilities and refuses to meet our preconceived notions of how a great leader should behave. And precisely because Harlan's lens is not obscured by present- mindedness, he succeeds both in recreating the world in which Washington lived and in understanding him on his own terms.
The second volume opens with Booker T. Washington's celebrated dinner in 1901 as Theodore Roosevelt's guest at the White House, an event that placed the presidential stamp of approval on Washington as the leader of black Americans. Harlan uses the dinner to launch his central argument that the key to understanding Washington is to view him as a political boss not unlike the white politicos who dominated the politics of turn-of-the century America.
In sharp contrast to his public demeanor, Washington was neither meek nor apolitical. A tough behind-the-scenes fighter, he adored politics, reveling in the machinations and power brokering of boss rule. He built a network of black lieutenants in northern and southern cities called the "Tuskegee Machine." And like any other political boss, Washington maintained his power through patronage. He used his influence in the White House (a modest amount over Teddy Roosevelt, less over William Taft, and practically none over Woodrow Wilson) to secure federal posts for his supporters. Most of the positions were quite minor and hardly seem worth the cajoling, scheming, and incredibly hard work required to obtain them for black men, but one of this book's themes is that Washington specialized in fighting for crumbs.
Harlan does an excellent job of placing Washington in the context of his age. What for him personally was the best of times was for other blacks the worst of times. Washington's rise to power coincided with the nadir of American race relations, a fact that goes a long way toward explaining why he honestly believed that accommodation and self-help were the only approaches to improving the situation of blacks that stood any chance of being accepted by white Americans. The beginning of the 20th century saw black disenfranchisement in the South, the nationwide spread of Jim Crow laws and residential segregation, gross economic exploitation of black workers, and a general atmosphere of white racial hatred and violence that came to be symbolized by the lynch mob.
No one expected Booker T. Washington to change America single-handedly. Rival black leaders, however, denounced him for failing to criticize publicly the white leaders who permitted these outrages, for issuing Polyanna statements that conditions for blacks were improving, and for not adding his voice to the rising chorus of blacks and liberal whites who were demanding equal justice and equal protection under the law for blacks. In short, Washington's critics charged he had access to the levers of power because he never pulled them.
No doubt Washington's stock in history would have risen if he had heeded his critics, but as Harlan argues convincingly, then Washington would not have been Washington. The politics of confrontation had no place in his scheme of things. Simply put, Washington's accommodationist philosophy was as binding as his skin. Constitutionally incapable of expressing (at least to their faces) righteous indignation or moral outrage where whites were concerned, Washington recoiled from public criticism and worked quietly behind closed doors for redress of grievances. Because he viewed his relationship with the white establishment as inherently fragile, he molded both the style and the substance of his leadership to fit his audience. In that sense, he was never his own man but a constantly shifting version of the man others expected him to be.
Not that he allowed himself much room to maneuver. Washington made requests, not demands; he asked for small, symbolic concessions, not equality; and regardless of how often or how hard he got kicked, he licked his wounds in silence and came back for more. Not even the tragedies of the Atlanta race riot of 1906 or the Army's unjust treatment that same year of three companies of black soldiers involved in a shoot-out with whites in Brownsville, Texas, could budge Washington from his blind support for Teddy Roosevelt, despite the fact that Roosevelt sided against blacks in each epanisode.
Washington vented his fighting spirit on people who challenged his leadership for black Americans. As the high priest of accommodation, he regarded the explanatory fix coming here Niagara Movement and the rise of the NAACP as racial heresies. The man he feared most was W.E.B. Du Bois, who represented the future of American race relations just as surely as Washington had come to symbolize its past. Indeed, Harlan's extended analysis of the contrasts between these two men can only be described as masterful.
Publicly, Washington maintained a pious, dignified posture toward college-educated black critics like Du Bois, but Washington's true feelings were anything but heroic. People who dealt in abstractions left him cold. He never liked men of ideas, especially black intellectuals who lived in the North and pontificated about race relations in the South. Here Harlan probes a private, heretofore unknown side of Washington's character, revealing an utterly ruthless, two-faced scoundrel who treated opponents as enemies and indulged in espionage, provocation, and sabotage against them. Rather than try to minimize this part of the story, Harlan tells all and lets the facts speak for themselves, however damaging to Washington's place in history.
Despite his dislike of intellectuals, Washington was not opposed to higher education for blacks. He supported industrial education because he believed that the vast majority of blacks, at least for the foreseeable future, had no real chance of attending college and must be taught a trade in order to live. But he sent his own children to college and did more than his share to train a generation of black professions. As Harlan shows, Washington served on the boards of several black colleges and worked hard (and successfully) at fund raising for each of them. Indeed, no less than the Tuskegee Institute, Fisk University and Howard University had Booker T. Washington to thank for much of the support they received from white philanthropists.
Readers who are curious about Washington's internal space will be disappointed by this book. A confirmed "workaholic," Washington apparently did not have much of a private life, either with his third wife, Margaret, who had to force herself to call him by his first name, or with his three children. Because Washington did not leave behind the evidence with which to construct a cogent analysis of his private world, Harlan states what the evidence allows and no more. He does not employ psychoanalytic theories or other social science explanations about human behavior.
Harlan's approach to biography is essentially behavioral, insisting that the best indication of what people feel and think is what they do. What he offers is an incredibly rich and detailed account of Washington's actions, along with sustained and well-reasoned analysis of the consequences of those actions. It is an old-fashioned way of doing history, one that is essentially modest and restrained. Would that more historians felt equally bound by their evidence.