February 26, 2002
Every year, during Black History Month, we celebrate the triumphs of Martin Luther King Jr., and retell the Gospel According to the Civil Rights Movement. And yet another, politically incorrect black history, once much better known, goes untold. To the degree that that history is silenced or revised out of existence, black American history, and hence American history, are both diminished, and falsified.
One such politically incorrect hero was Booker Taliaferro Washington (1856-1915). Washington, born into slavery in Virginia to an illiterate but immensely practical and supportive mother, rose to become the unofficial leader of Negro (the term used until well into the 1970s) America.
Upon being emancipated, little Booker Washington (then unaware of his middle name) lacked access to a school, didn't know anyone who knew how to read, and for obvious reasons, did not ask any white folks to teach him to read. So, he taught himself! Washington used the same kind of classic, "blue-back," Webster's spelling book that Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) had used. Eventually, Booker T., still a little boy, was able to attend school, when he wasn't working in the local salt mine to help support his mother, stepfather, and siblings.
Eventually, Washington was able to attend Virginia's Hampton Institute, one of America's first black colleges. Traveling by stagecoach, hitching rides on wagons, and traveling by foot; going days at a time without eating or sleeping; and in Richmond, Virginia, finding work unloading a ship's cargo of pig iron, while sleeping nights under a wooden sidewalk, it took weeks for Washington -- who could not bathe or change clothes -- to reach Hampton. At Hampton -- today Hampton University -- the penniless young man earned his keep doing janitorial work for the school. The plucky workhorse not only graduated from Hampton, but was asked to stay on as a teacher.
Soon thereafter, in 1881, the 24-year-old Washington was asked to found the Tuskegee Institute in the Alabama backwoods. Starting with the burnt-out husk of a plantation "big house," Washington built the buildings that for a generation made Tuskegee -- today Tuskegee University -- America's most influential black institution of higher education. Washington built Tuskegee the old-fashioned way -- with his own bare hands.
Possessing perhaps enough money to contract to have an outhouse built, Washington told his students that they would have to help him erect the school's buildings. Seeing as he had neither bricks nor money with which to buy them, Washington resolved to build a brick-baking kiln. This shocked his students, many of whom had gone to Tuskegee to escape such "common" labor.
The first kiln collapsed on its maiden firing. A second attempt resulted in ... abject failure. The third go-round, too. Fortunately for Tuskegee, Washington did not believe in "three strikes and you're out." While all around him wallowed in despair, Booker T. built a fourth kiln, AND IT WORKED! Not only were all of Tuskegee's early buildings built by Tuskegee students and faculty using the bricks they had baked, but when word got around in the neighboring region as to the superior quality of Tuskegee bricks, white businesses got in line to buy them. Tuskegee became the biggest local supplier of bricks.
(Tuskegee also has a central place in American literary history. One of its most famous alumni, Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), depicted Tuskegee in several early chapters of his seminal novel, Invisible Man. Referred to always as "The Founder," Washington's shadow loomed large over the often surreal proceedings.)
With Washington's successful, 1895 Atlanta Exposition Address before a mixed (if physically segregated) crowd, and the 1901 publication of his inspirational memoir, Up from Slavery, as told to white ghostwriter Max Bennett Thrasher, he became the unofficial leader of black America. Washington's doctrine of self-reliance involved asking little of whites, and saw blacks gaining economic success, and eventually the respect of whites, through their own businesses.
Based on his ability to placate white and black audiences alike, Washington became known as "the Wizard of Tuskegee." Nowhere was that talent more in evidence than in his Atlanta address, where many of his critics and supporters alike had expected him to offend one or both of the races. Instead, Washington propounded the accommodationist doctrine, which the vast majority of Americans of both races accepted, that "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."
While Washington was an accommodationist, he was anything but the "Uncle Tom" that his detractors paint him as having been. Consider the following words from Up from Slavery:
I do not believe that any state should make a law that permits an ignorant and poverty-stricken white man to vote, and prevents a black man in the same condition from voting. Such a law is not only unjust, but it will react, as all unjust laws do, in time; for the effect of such a law is to encourage the Negro to secure education and property, and at the same time it encourages the white man to remain in ignorance and poverty. I believe that in time, through the operation of intelligence and friendly race relations, all cheating at the ballot-box in the South will cease. It will become apparent that the white man who begins by cheating a Negro out of his ballot soon learns to cheat a white man out of his, and that the man who does this ends his career of dishonesty by the theft of property or by some equally serious crime. In my opinion, the time will come when the South will encourage all of its citizens to vote. It will see that it pays better, from every standpoint, to have healthy, vigorous life than to have that political stagnation which always results when one-half of the population has no share and no interest in the Government.
As a rule, I believe in universal, free suffrage, but I believe that in the South we are confronted with peculiar conditions that justify the protection of the ballot in many of the states, for a while at least, either by an educational test, a property test, or by both combined; but whatever tests are required, they should be made to apply with equal and exact justice to both races.
His public persona notwithstanding, Washington also secretly funded civil rights lawsuits. Note, however, that in Washington's day, such lawsuits were a serious matter, and not the routinely frivolous exercises in extortion they have in recent years become.
Washington's philosophy, which many whites found unthreatening, and thus pleasing, was anathema to the founder of the civil rights movement, W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963). In 1903, in DuBois' literary masterpiece, The Souls of Black Folk, he fired his first salvo against Washington. A socialist (and later, communist) who in 1909 was the sole black co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), DuBois believed that black progress lay in the government immediately granting them full political rights, and providing them with social welfare programs. DuBois' model was the Reconstruction-era (1865-1877) federal Freedmen's Bureau in the South.
DuBois also favored giving blacks a classical education, which Washington had derided as a waste of time for people who did not know how to earn a living. DuBois obsessively attacked, as a pedagogy for Uncle Toms (though without using that phrase), the vocational ideal with which Washington was inextricably linked. As long as Washington was alive, DuBois' attacks on any educational notions favoring vocational over classical education were also thinly veiled, personal attacks on Washington. Consider a famous DuBois quote from 1908:
But if ... the standards of a great Negro college are to be set by schools of lower and different object, whither are the ideals of this University falling? If you find that you cannot give technical courses of college grade, then give high-school courses or kindergarten courses and call them by their right names. There may often be excuse for doing things poorly in this world, but there is never any excuse for calling a poorly done thing, well done.
The times are perilous. A stubborn determination at this time on the part of the Negro race, to uphold its ideals, keep its standards, and unceasingly contend for its rights, means victory; and victory a great deal sooner than any of you imagine. But a course of self-abasement and surrender, of lowering of ideals and neglecting of opportunity -- above all, a philosophy of lying in word or deed for the sake conciliation or personal gain, means indefinite postponement of the true emancipation of the Negro race in America, for the simple reason that such a race is not fit to be freed.
Such attacks ceased with Washington's death in 1915, and DuBois' subsequent ascendance. As reported in 1993 by Stephen G. Thompkins of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and in 1995, by Tony Brown in Black Lies, White Lies: The Truth According to Tony Brown, during World War I, DuBois offered his services to the U.S. Army's Military Intelligence Division (MID) to spy on prominent blacks. MID offered DuBois a position, but withdrew its offer, when the story was leaked to the public.
DuBois, who loved the centralized, unlimited power of the totalitarian state, praised Hitler's national socialism in pre-war Germany, and embraced Stalin's Soviet Union.
W.E.B. DuBois was one of America's most brilliant thinkers, and surely would have beaten Booker T. Washington in an IQ test. Indeed, DuBois' vision of a black university, and the educated, black opinion-makers (who would comprise what he called "the talented tenth") those universities would produce, was beyond the means of the greatest white universities, and all but a handful of the most brilliant whites of his day. The more humble Washington, however, possessed that unquantifiable virtue that DuBois sorely lacked: Wisdom. Washington's notions were educationally, economically, and politically of much greater benefit to the blacks of his day, and beyond.
Since DuBois' followers control the writing of history textbooks, and the media's coverage of black affairs, we get a sanitized version of his place in American history, and often as not, no version at all of Washington's. In spite of the DuBoisians' alternate neglect and disrespect of Washington, Washington's memoir, Up from Slavery, has continuously been in print since its 1901 publication, and is available in cheap paperback editions. (My favorite version is the Penguin Classics version, which has an introduction by historian Louis R. Harlan). More recently, Louis R. Harlan wrote a splendid, two volume biography of Washington, Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901, and Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915.