Around 20 years ago when we lived in the Atlanta area, twice our home school group had Booker T. Washington’s granddaughter as a guest speaker. I’m sorry to say that I can’t remember her name or what she spoke about, but I do remember very much enjoying hearing her. Washington’s Up From Slavery was one of several books in the back of my mind to be read some time, and for whatever reason, I decided the time was now. As I searched for an audiobook version, I came across Uncle Tom or New Negro?: African Americans Reflect on Booker T. Washington and UP FROM SLAVERY 100 Years Later, edited by Rebecca Carroll.
I mentioned when I reviewed Uncle Tom’s Cabin that I was surprised when I heard “Uncle Tom” used as a derogatory term, because my pastor had called him “the kind of Christian you always wanted to be.” One reason I was motivated to read the book, besides its being one of many classics I wanted to catch up with, was to discover just who Uncle Tom was and why there could be two such opposite opinions of him. After reading the book, I felt he was a Christian character trying to live out Jesus’s command to “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) in some of the worst circumstances ever. But unfortunately that came across to some as weakness or passivity or kowtowing to his master. When I reviewed Roots I contrasted Kunta Kinte a bit with Uncle Tom and theorized that the former is regarded as heroic, as opposed to Tom, because he was angry, fought against his circumstances as much as he could, and when he got too comfortable, hated himself for it.
I was similarly astonished when I saw this title referring to Booker T. Washington as an “Uncle Tom,” thinking, “Isn’t his the quintessential American success story? Why would anyone refer to him in a derogatory way?”
Well, Rebecca Carroll tries to cover that in her book. She writes in the introduction:
My goal with this particular project was to find out, if possible, who Booker T. Washington was and moreover, to find out if talking with contemporary black figures about him might do one or all of several things: reflect the impact that Washington has had on black people throughout history; invoke closer scrutiny of a man already quite scrutinized (by those who actually know who he is to begin with); help a younger generation of black Americans understand the ways in which we often create and then tear down our black historical leaders all by ourselves; and simply serve as a reintroduction to Washington’s classic autobiography, Up from Slavery, which appears in its entirety following the interview portion of the book.
The first part of the book contains essays by twenty African-Americans successful in various walks of life: politics, education, music, industry, law, films, business, writing, and others. Some are very pro-Washington, some are very against him (using words like “evil” and “buffoon”), and a great many have mixed thoughts about him.
The second part of the book contains the text of Washington’s Up From Slavery which I am going to discuss first.
Up From Slavery
Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in Virginia in the late 1850s. He lived with his mother, brother, and sister in a slave cabin on a plantation where his mother was the cook. She had very little time or opportunity for instructing her children. They were put to work at the earliest possible age. He knew almost nothing about his father. The black children were not schooled, but on occasion when he carried his mistresses’ books to the school door, “The picture of several dozen boys and girls in a schoolroom engaged in study made a deep impression on me, and I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise.”
He discusses the news about the Civil War filtering into their community and his mother’s fervent prayers that Lincoln would be successful. One day all the slaves were called to assemble before the big house, and a stranger read the Emancipation Proclamation and told them they were free. “For some minutes there was great rejoicing, and thanksgiving, and wild scenes of ecstasy,” but “by the time they returned to their cabins there was a change in their feelings. The great responsibility of being free, of having charge of themselves, of having to think and plan for themselves and their children seemed to take possession of them…In a few hours the great questions with which the Anglo-Saxon race had been grappling for centuries had been thrown upon these people to be solved…questions of home, a living, the rearing of children, education, citizenship, and the establishment and support of churches.” Some of the older people contracted to stay on with their former masters.
Booker’s step-father had belonged to different owners, and he sent for the family to join him in Malden, West Virginia. He worked in the salt mines and had Booker and his brother work with him. Booker had a thirst for learning, and when someone came to town with some degree of education, the folks contracted with him to teach the children (and adults as well who wanted to learn) and took turns boarding him. But Booker’s step-father wanted him to continue working in the salt mines, one of the “keenest disappointments” of his life. After a while he arranged with the teacher to have lessons at night, and during some months of the year he was allowed to go to day school for a few hours in the middle of the work day. After some time he had to begin work in the coal mines, a dangerous and scary place. But there he overheard talk of a school for colored people in Virginia and the opportunity for students to work in exchange for some of the costs of their learning (he used black, Negro, and colored interchangeably; I’m using whatever word he used in the context of what I am quoting). Immediately he “was on fire with one ambition” to go to that school, Hampton Institute, even though at the time he knew nothing else about it. An opening became available in the household of the owner of the mines, so his mother applied for him to work there, and he was hired. He came to regard the lessons he learned there “as valuable to me as any education I have ever gotten anywhere since.”
He was still set on going to Hampton, though. Some considered it a “wild goose chase” while others sympathized and even helped in whatever way they could. It’s hard to imagine a boy making his way alone 500 miles with very little money, riding the train sometimes, “begging rides in both wagons and cars” other times, finding himself unwelcome in hotels due to his skin color, sleeping under a sidewalk in one city, finding work for a few days to finance the rest of his trip. When he arrived in a bedraggled state after traveling the way he had to, it can be imagined what the teacher interviewing him might have thought. She asked him to clean a room, and his work at the mine owner’s home stood him in good stead. He cleaned it several times over and passed his unusual entrance exam.
He worked his way through for several years, learning not only much he wanted to know educationally, but also hitherto unknown aspects of life like regular bathing, brushing teeth, and sleeping between sheets. He found many there to learn from in both knowledge and example, particularly General Armstrong, the principal.
After graduating and teaching at home for a while and then back at Hampton, he was recommended by Armstrong to take on the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He developed it from the ground up and worked there the next 30 years. It’s amazing that they had any students remain in the first few years, conditions were so primitive.
One policy with which several students and parents disagreed was that every student was required to work in various capacities on campus. They planted vegetables, built the buildings, the furniture, did the laundry, eventually learned brickmasonry and all manner of other work. There were several reasons for this. He doesn’t mention that this was less expensive than hiring the work out, but it seems like it had to have been a factor since money was at a premium. But mainly his philosophy was that there is dignity in honest labor, and he didn’t want students to lose sight of that in their aspirations. One of his most famous sayings is, “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.” Many understandably thought an education would give them a life of ease, but he wanted them to appreciate the value of hard work and its rewards. Plus he wanted the students to lean a trade they could rely on as well as teaching them self-help and self-reliance.
There is so much that could be said both of his education and his efforts and philosophy at Tuskegee, but this review is long already and there is much I still want to say.
He had to spend much of his time traveling and speaking to raise funds for the school. From his student days he developed a growing skill and reputation as a speaker among both black and white audiences . Eventually he had opportunity to speak at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in 1985, which thrust him into national attention and proved to be a historical moment. He writes of the pressure he was under both due to his own busyness plus the diverse audience he would be addressing. A farmer told him, “Washington, you have spoken before the Northern white people, the Negroes in the South, and to us country white people in the South; but in Atlanta, to-morrow, you will have before you the Northern whites, the Southern whites, and the Negroes all together. I am afraid that you have got yourself into a tight place.” Booker added, “This farmer diagnosed the situation correctly, but his frank words did not add anything to my comfort.”
Reviews were mixed. One newspaper reported, “It is the first time that a Negro has made a speech in the South on any important occasion before an audience composed of white men and women. It electrified the audience, and the response was as if it had come from the throat of a whirlwind.” Many people across the country who heard of it thought highly of the speech and speaker. A lot of other black leaders at the time disagreed with parts of it (more on that later.)
He goes on to tell of his family (he was married three times: his first two wives passed away. He had three children), of receiving an honorary doctorate from Harvard, a trip to Europe paid for and urged on him by friends, further work at Tuskegee, a visit to the school from the Present of the United States. He continued to receive invitations to speak but tried to keep them balanced and secondary to his work at the school. At the time of this writing he had been working at Tuskegee for 20 years.
He speaks of accolades he received at the end, but not, I don’t think, at least, to glorify himself. I think he included it to show how far the black race had come since the days of slavery. He mentions in one place while on a ship to Europe that he was reading Frederick Douglass’s account of traveling in the same way and being told he had to stay below deck. Washington contrasted that with the cordial way he was treated to show the difference a relatively few years had made.
I enjoyed reading his account and can’t help but admire his initiative and diligence. He worked hard all his life, whether in the fields, the mines, the classroom, or behind the lectern. He was highly optimistic, perhaps overly so (more on that later). I’m very glad to have gotten to know him better in his own words.
Uncle Tom or New Negro?
At first I wondered why Carroll put the commentaries before the reprint of Up From Slavery, but I ended up being glad she did, because I could then keep those comments in mind as I read. Most of them agreed that Washington’s success and drive were impressive. Some, as I said, had high opinions of him and his legacy.
The differences of opinion come in a few areas.
1. Some felt that he de-emphasized higher education for black people. Others said that he wanted them to be able to pursue any avenue of education they desired eventually, but that, right out of slavery, they needed practical training first. He says:
[While some] “could locate the Desert of Sahara or the capital of China on an artificial globe, I found out that the girls could not locate the proper places for the knives and forks on an actual dinner-table, or the places on which the bread and meat should be set.
I had to summon a good deal of courage to take a student who had been studying cube root and “banking and discount,” and explain to him that the wisest thing for him to do first was thoroughly to master the multiplication table.
One of the saddest things I saw during the month of travel which I have described was a young man, who had attended some high school, sitting down in a one-room cabin, with grease on his clothing, filth all around him, and weeds in the yard and garden, engaged in studying a French grammar.
He believed the need for other kinds of education would come eventually.
The individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of his race. One man may go into a community prepared to supply the people there with an analysis of Greek sentences. The community may not at that time be prepared for, or feel the need of, Greek analysis, but it may feel its need of bricks and houses and wagons. If the man can supply the need for those, then, it will lead eventually to a demand for the first product, and with the demand will come the ability to appreciate it and to profit by it.
One of the commentators pointed out that he did teach literacy as well as vocational skills, and that would spread as students went home or pursued jobs and taught others as well.
2. He did not feel that politics was the way to advance the causes of his people, and some disagreed with that. Some felt his desire not to agitate for political rights was indicative of passivity or kowtowing to the whites in control. He felt that, instead of demanding rights, they should learn and grow and develop skills to prove that they were worthy; others said they shouldn’t have to prove their worthiness. Some of his comments in this:
I tried to emphasize the fact that while the Negro should not be deprived by unfair means of the franchise, political agitation alone would not save him, and that back of the ballot he must have property, industry, skill, economy, intelligence, and character, and that no race without these elements could permanently succeed.
My own belief is…that the time will come when the Negro in the South will be accorded all the political rights which his ability, character, and material possessions entitle him to. I think, though, that the opportunity to freely exercise such political rights will not come in any large degree through outside or artificial forcing, but will be accorded to the Negro by the Southern white people themselves, and that they will protect him in the exercise of those rights. Just as soon as the South gets over the old feeling that it is being forced by “foreigners,” or “aliens,” to do something which it does not want to do, I believe that the change in the direction that I have indicated is going to begin. In fact, there are indications that it is already beginning in a slight degree.
I believe it is the duty of the Negro—as the greater part of the race is already doing—to deport himself modestly in regard to political claims, depending upon the slow but sure influences that proceed from the possession of property, intelligence, and high character for the full recognition of his political rights. I think that the according of the full exercise of political rights is going to be a matter of natural, slow growth, not an over-night, gourd-vine affair
His views on political involvement may have been shaped as well by the fact that in his experience, some of the first blacks to hold offices weren’t qualified to do so yet. He writes that early on, “I saw coloured men who were members of the state legislatures, and county officers, who, in some cases, could not read or write, and whose morals were as weak as their education.” He also said:
I felt that the Reconstruction policy, so far as it related to my race, was in a large measure on a false foundation, was artificial and forced. In many cases it seemed to me that the ignorance of my race was being used as a tool with which to help white men into office, and that there was an element in the North which wanted to punish the Southern white men by forcing the Negro into positions over the heads of the Southern whites. I felt that the Negro would be the one to suffer for this in the end. Besides, the general political agitation drew the attention of our people away from the more fundamental matters of perfecting themselves in the industries at their doors and in securing property.
3. His Atlanta Exposition speech was objected to by some due to his urge for cooperation rather than agitation. The following section from it, especially the last sentence, seemed to raise the most negative reaction:
As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, in nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defence of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one. In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.
This site has the text of the speech, more information about it, and a partial recording of it, the only recording of Washington’s voice.
4. Another quote of his that many object to is “Notwithstanding the cruel wrongs inflicted upon us, the black man got nearly as much out of slavery as the white man did. The hurtful influences of the institution were not by any means confined to the Negro.” But taken in context, he explains that he means that the slaves were trained to work hard, to get by with little, and had been taught skills that they could then use to find jobs, all of which helped them in the next steps of managing life after slavery. Conversely, the plantations owners, by and large, had deemed physical labor as “a badge of degradation, of inferiority,” and their children had often not been taught any skills, even basic cooking or caring for a home. Some got into severe financial straits after slavery ended.
5. Another quote that flummoxes some is, “As a rule, not only did the members of my race entertain no feelings of bitterness against the whites before and during the war, but there are many instances of Negroes tenderly caring for their former masters and mistresses who for some reason have become poor and dependent since the war.” Other accounts of slaves do express bitterness. But in another place in the book where he makes a similar assertion, he adds the qualifier that lack of bitterness was true “where the Negro was treated with anything like decency.”
6. There is a lot of discussion, comparison, and contrast between Washington and his contemporary W. E. B. DuBois, much more than I can touch on in this already-long post. One person described them as the “vocational tech guy” and the “art intellectual guy,” but it wasn’t that simple. In one of the essays, James Clingman says:
I feel that this idea of Washington as a sellout, which I find among mostly older folks, is not based on any real facts but more so on word of mouth. There is this division between the older folks—and I’m talking fifty years and up—and the younger folks on the subject of Washington, particularly in relation to Du Bois. I wrote a paper a few years ago in which I suggested that we had made a mistake in forcing ourselves to choose between these two black men. We should have taken the best from both of them. Older folks say about Washington, “Oh, he was an Uncle Tom, he was a sellout,” but they don’t even know the things that he did behind the scenes, particularly in regard to supporting some of the activities and strategies of Du Bois.
7. Many of them commented that you have to take Washington in the context of his times. He describes being present at an incident where there was physical conflict between blacks and the Ku Klux Klan, about a hundred on each side, and the white people were even attacking other whites who were trying to help the blacks. Though he didn’t seem to live in in a lifelong fear of the Klan, he does admit that “the acts of these lawless bands made a great impression on me.” (Inexplicably, he wrote later that “To-day there are no such organizations in the South, and the fact that such ever existed is almost forgotten by both races. There are few places in the South now where public sentiment would permit such organizations to exist.” I don’t know if the Klan went through a period of decline and activity when he wrote that, but unfortunately they are still around.) It’s understandable that being a witness to that kind of conflict and animosity, plus the realization that black people were outnumbered, would affect his views of how black people should go about gaining their footing as a people. But I don’t think he was primarily motivated by fear. He wanted the races to cooperate and be friends and felt that “forcing” change would only cause bad feelings.
8 Some objected to his asking for and taking money from white people for his school. Others pointed out that black people didn’t have money then to contribute, and that even the NAACP received contributions from white people.
One of the commentators asserted that you can’t really know Washington and his philosophies without reading all of his books, and that’s a fair statement. But both parts of this book were quite helpful in understanding him as a person and his continuing influence even today. I think he and those who opposed him in the black community ultimately wanted the same things, but had different philosophies of how to go about it. I have wondered if any of his philosophies would have been different if he had lived in the 1950s or 1960s. I don’t think that he would ever have advocated militancy, but I think maybe he would have recognized by that time that some things would not change without political intervention and new laws.
During election seasons I’ve always chafed at comments or speculations about “the black vote,” “the women’s vote,” “the Hispanic vote,” etc., as if everyone in those categories thought and voted exactly alike. The first part of this book is a demonstration that all African-Americans don’t think just alike. The commentaries were enlightening to me in many ways. I was a child during the 60s in a nonpolitical family, our schools were integrated and we interacted fairly easily, so I was pretty much unaware of a lot that was going on in the larger world until I became an adult. Though of course I’ve become more informed and aware since then, a lot of the discussion was new and eye-opening to me.
I think that words like “evil” and “buffoon” certainly don’t apply to Washington, nor do accusations that he “got drunk on the fawning of white people” or said primarily what they wanted to hear. Most of the writers were much more generous than that, even while not agreeing with everything about him.
Again, there is so much more that could be said about both parts of this book, and so many more quotes that I have marked than I can share. But both parts were enlightening, informative, and helpful.
Objectionable elements: A smattering of words like “damn” and “hell” in the first part of the book, a couple of vulgar and profane references in chapter 17.
My rating: 9 out of 10