Sunday, February 22, 2009

By Robert J. Norrell
Harvard University Press, $35, 508 pages, illus.

In the middle decades of the last century, a visitor to most towns in the American South could count on seeing two things: A courthouse square, with the inevitable statue of a Confederate soldier, and a humble motel on the edge of town called the Booker T. The name was an abbreviation of Booker T. Washington — for decades the acknowledged leader of America’s black community — and it meant that blacks were welcome there. Washington, whose career has long been eclipsed by those of more radical black leaders, is now the subject of “Up From History: The Life of Booker T. Washington,” a fine new biography by University of Tennessee historian Robert J. Norrell.

Washington was born in western Virginia in 1856, the offspring of a slave named Jane and an unknown white father. Washington would later acknowledge that his mother stole eggs to feed her children. He and his siblings gained their freedom after the Civil War, and the young black man who had chosen “Washington” as a surname found work in the salt shafts and coal mines of West Virginia. Although his mother was illiterate, she bought her son spelling books and encouraged him to read.

A woman for whom Booker worked as a houseboy was impressed by him and encouraged him to go to school. Leaving western Virginia at 16, Washington enrolled at the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Va., on a full scholarship. There he so excelled in his studies that when the president, Samuel Armstrong, was asked to recommend someone to head a new school at Tuskegee, Ala., he chose Washington.

Booker T. Washington would be associated with Tuskegee for the rest of his career. Starting with a few dilapidated shacks, Washington created an institute designed to provide black males with the trade skills in demand in the rural South. His core belief was that blacks would gain full acceptance in American society when they proved themselves to be responsible, productive citizens. “A major goal at Tuskegee,” Mr. Norrell writes, “was to instill the Protestant ethic of strict morality.”

As Tuskegee prospered, Washington became the acknowledged leader of America’s black community. In just one year, 335 black infants were named Booker, most of them Booker T. The Tuskegee educator also became a celebrity in the North. He socialized with white bankers and industrialists and charmed many of them into donating to Tuskegee; steel magnate Andrew Carnegie gave $600,000.

But becoming the favorite Negro of rich whites was not without peril.

In 1895, at a time of high racial tension in the South, Washington delivered a speech in Atlanta that had a significant effect on his long-term image. Insisting that “the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands,” Washington added, “the wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly.”

Washington knew whereof he spoke; in Alabama, he was repeatedly the target of racial threats. But his Atlanta speech spurred the growth of more militant black groups in the North. Washington’s nemesis was W.E.B. Du Bois, a Harvard-educated reformer who, in Mr. Norrell’s words “had a romantic radicalism at odds with Booker’s practical assimilationism.” In one article Du Bois denounced Washington as a black leader chosen by whites, whose program accepted the notion of black inferiority. Nevertheless, Washington’s autobiography, “Up From Slavery,” published in 1901, became a best-seller.

One of Washington’s admirers was President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1901, Roosevelt took the unprecedented step of inviting the black educator to dinner at the White House, and for months America talked of nothing else. Although Lincoln had conferred with Frederick Douglass, Douglass had not been invited to dinner. It was a courageous act on Roosevelt’s part, but it did not put the president fully in the corner of those who worked on behalf of black Americans. When, in 1906, unidentified black soldiers triggered a riot in Brownsville, Texas, Roosevelt — over Washington’s protests — directed that some 170 black soldiers be dishonorably discharged.

According to Mr. Norrell, Washington believed that blacks “in time would earn and receive full equality in American life and that the average black child and white child had equal intellectual ability.” At the same time, Washington believed that blacks were inevitably losers when racial strife occurred, and for that reason strife was to be avoided.

Today, there is no national holiday marking the birthday of Booker T. Washington. He was a transitional figure in the struggle for black equality, despised by advocates of Black Power and rap music. But if his dream was more modest than that of Martin Luther King Jr., his course was honorable and his labor unceasing. He died at age 59, widely respected by much of America but shunned by black radicals and white racists.

Washington would have been amazed if anyone had forecast that America would have a black president within a century of his death. But he would have been gratified at the outcome of our last presidential election.

Historian and biographer John M. Taylor lives in McLean, Va.

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