Up From History: The Life of Booker T. Washington

Robert J. Norrell, Belknap/Harvard, 508 pp., $35

Up From History is a rescue mission aimed at restoring Booker T. Washington’s tarnished reputation and repositioning him among the turn-of-the-20th-century’s pantheon of American pragmatists. Robert J. Norrell’s book scrupulously fulfills this mandate (and then some) with shrewd tactics and a composed demeanor that its subject would have recognized and appreciated as resembling his own. Even though the book doesn’t let Washington wriggle free from his own miscalculations and contradictory impulses, its calm tone is enough to extract Washington from the hysteria that too often greeted his actions during his life—and for decades afterwards.

Indeed, Washington’s name has for so long been used as an epithet, synonymous with the “Uncle Tom” label applied to any African American seen as being too conciliatory with white oppressors, that one needs this book, if only as a reminder of what was an extraordinary life. To be the most famous black man in America at a time when just being black (especially in the wrong place at the wrong time) was enough to get you killed would seem to have required an especially strong and supple alloy of steel. Such material was forged in Virginia, where Washington was born a slave before painstakingly working his way to Hampton Institute, one of the nation’s first black colleges.

Washington made the stoic, imperturbable pattern of his own uplift into a foundation of values for Tuskegee Institute, which under his direction became a model for educating ex-slaves and their descendants in a post-Reconstruction America that, for the most part, wasn’t sure it wanted to have them around, much less educated.

By keeping that forbidding context in focus throughout the book, Norrell reminds contemporary readers just how radical it was for Washington to insist on teaching African Americans vocational crafts as a means of economic development. Washington’s epochal “Cast down your bucket where you are” address at the 1895 Atlanta Exposition has since been regarded, in his rival W.E.B. Du Bois’ lasting characterization, as a “compromise” in diminishing political activism as an option for blacks. Nonetheless, it galvanized white and black audiences (including, at the time, Du Bois himself ) and began Washington’s tenure as unofficial “president of Negro America.”

Despite the often-virulent antagonism from both white supremacists and black radicals, Washington sustained his stature with cunning and charm; neither of which, as this book makes clear, was enough to keep him from being over bearing against his black enemies or from overestimating his golden connection with President Theodore Roosevelt. (Roosevelt didn’t seem to mind arousing Southern hysteria when inviting Washing ton to a White House dinner in 1901, but turned equivocating to the point of indifference five years later over the dis honorable discharge of three companies of black soldiers for allegedly covering up the shooting of two white men in Brownsville, Texas.) Washington himself was gradually seen by more and more black people as a symbol of equivocation, even before his death in 1915. Norrell’s book credibly argues that the callous, often horrific treatment of black people in the late 1800s and early 1900s gave Washington little choice but to treat white public opinion as a beast to be tamed rather than subdued.


Originally published in the June 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here