During the last couple of months I have been delving into black American history, reading two autobiographies of men who for long periods ranked as the leading spokesmen of their race. The first was Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington, published in the late 1890s, when he was beginning to reach the peak of his influence. The second was A Man Called White, by Walter White, who is largely forgotten now, but who was effectively he leader of the NAACP during most of its great period of influence, from the late 1920s until his death in the early 1950s. Together with the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Dubois, these books provide a remarkable perspective on race relations in the US from the 1840s until the late 1940s. Next on my list should be the autobiography of Roy Wilkins, who succeeded King, and whose autobiography got little attention. Martin Luther King Jr's "autobiography" seems to have been ghostwritten after his death by Claiborne Carson. I read Malcolm X's autobiography--a very different sort of document--many years ago.
Booker T. Washington was born on a Virginia plantation in about 1859 (he never knew exactly when, or who his father was.) After emancipation, his family eventually moved to an industrial area of West Virginia. He became a paid house servant to the Yankee wife of a leading coal operator. She hated dirt and dust of any kind, and taught him to clean to her standards. Washington managed to attend a primitive school, and determined to travel back across Virginia, despite an almost total lack of funds, to attend the Hampton Institute, on of the first postwar colleges for Negroes. Arriving with no money after some complicated adventures, he pled for admission with another northern woman. To test him, she asked him to sweep an adjoining room. His heart leapt: he knew what he was good at. He was accepted, and the rest is history. The school was the work of a retired union General named Armstrong who became one of the great men of Washington's life.
It was some years later that Washington decided to start Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which he planned as a vocational school for young colored men and women (using the term he would have used.) The students literally built the school from scratch, with the help of financial support from both northern and southern whites who heartily approved of what he was doing. Washington became a national and then an international figure after 1895, when he delivered a famous address at an Atlanta exhibition designed to showcase the recovery and progress of the South. That speech defined him forever.
It is fair to say, I think, that Washington ranks with Malcolm X among black leaders as the two who show the least inspiration from the basic principles of American democracy. Douglas, Dubois (for much of his long life at any rate) and White all loved the principles embodied in the U.S. Constitution and thus fought all the harder for their extension to black Americans. Washington became so revered in his time--especially among southern whites--precisely because he chose not to ask for political rights for his people. He is very frank about this in Up From Slavery, making it clear that he does not thing most members of his race are ready for full citizenship. He often quotes ordinary Negroes speaking a dialect and often criticizes their materialism and their inability to plan ahead. That was why discipline at Tuskegee was so fierce and why work requirements were so enormous: he wanted to train new types of colored men and women. And indeed, in one critical passage of the book, he says that most black Americans are not yet ready to vote--a view that many white southerners continued to hold well into the 1960s--and he endorses both educational and property qualifications for voting, while asking that they be applied equally to both blacks and whites. He insisted that black people had to make themselves indispensable to society by learning particular trades. He was surely the least intellectual of any of the great black leaders I am discussing, and he does not seem to have cared much about the liberal arts.
That is not the only way in which Washington echoed the values of the society into which he was born. He refers frequently and with great feeling to the affection many slaves had felt for the families that owned them. And to me, it seems that a certain plantation atmosphere found its way into Tuskegee, as well. At one point Washington remarks proudly that he cannot walk across campus carrying a package without students stopping to offer to do it for him, and that if it is raining, the surround him to offer the protection of their umbrellas. What shocked me was that he obviously enjoyed their attention and indeed fully approved of their attitude. I think that President Eliot, his Harvard contemporary in the late 19th century, would have been appalled by it.
Up from Slavery turned Washington into an international celebrity, and in the late 1890s he went to Europe (encouraged by friends who thought he was near collapse from overwork.) He spent some time in Great Britain, where he was presented to Queen Victoria, and he was hosted by some of Britain's leading families. In the most unbelievable passage in the book, for me, he praised the smooth operation of large British households and compared the attitudes of British and American servants. While American servants generally dreamed of rising to a higher station in life, he said, British ones knew they would be servants unto death, and thus worked with a better will. He explicitly declined to endorse one system or the other--a remarkable declaration, surely, for a man who was himself born a slave and rose to international fame and fortune after emancipation.
There was another reason for Washington's deference to established orders Washington was, essentially, a college president, and his life, sadly, was very similar to the lives of college presidents today. He, like they, was a professional beggar who spent most of his time traveling around the country trying to get rich Americans to contribute to his enterprises, often with considerable success. Stories of the big scores he made, including a very large gift from Andrew Carnegie, fill the book. Becoming a celebrity, he met many other celebrities--up to and including Queen Victoria--and he wants his readers to know all about the distinguished company that he has been keeping. But what that means, of course--then as in our own time--is that he cannot bring himself to say anything negative about anyone who might help him. One of the most striking and, to me, inspiring aspects of books by Douglass, DuBois, and White is their frank expressions of both the greatest disapproval and the greatest admiration of different white people with whom they had to deal. It is, obviously, one way in which they claimed equality for themselves, and it offers the hope, to quote King, that we all might be judged by the content of our character. But one very rarely if ever finds a harsh word about a white person in Up From Slavery, and references to the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, and other outbreaks of terror against Negroes are very rare and understated. Washington even writes that the Klan seems almost to have disappeared. In fact it was on the verge of a great revival which he lived to see.
And that leads me to the other aspect of Washington's leadership which he does not discuss--but certainly promotes--in Up From Slavery. His famous Atlanta address, which he quoted in full, cited the progress that the Negro had made, his hopes for more, and eschewed any desire to mix the races or strive for what white southerners called (negatively) "social equality." He even refrained from political demands. That, obviously, was the kind of black leader the white south, and much (though not quite all) of the white north, could live with, and they repaid him not only with support, but with the status as the go-to guy, as might say today, of his whole race. And as DuBois, whose budding academic career within black institutions was interrupted by Washington's hostility, discussed at length in Dusk of Dawn, by the first decade of the 20th century, no bright young black man could get anything from any white man, or from any other black man, if Booker T. Washington did not want him to have it. DuBois helped found the Niagara movement and the NAACP--both of which included prominent white members--as a result.
Washington and the Tuskegee Institute strike me as a parable of what often happens to racially or ethnically separate institutions in the United States. To begin with, their leaders become obsessed with consolidating their power within their own group. They then however forswear relations with the mainstream almost entirely, or curry favor with its leaders indiscriminately, without regard to what particular white people represent. Malcolm X described in detail how the same thing had happened inside the Nation of Islam, and although he was not yet in favor of interracial alliances by the time of his death, he was surely moving in that direction. Douglass on the other hand made his name working with white abolitionists. DuBois also worked across racial lines, although he remained ambivalent about white people for most of his life. Walter White, as I shall discuss in another post, built coalitions between the NAACP and the white-led labor movement that enormously benefited both. Since the late 1960s the separatist ethos has been powerful among many civil rights groups, and today young black people are again agitating for the redress of specific wrongs they feel have been suffered by black people, and by them alone, because of "institutional racism." That surely has some truth to it--although a majority of the people killed by policemen in the U.S. are white--but it is not clear that it is the best way to achieve meaningful results.
Washington's achievements were, by any standard, extraordinary. After the Republican Party largely abandoned the freed slaves after 1876, it would have been hard for anyone else to have done better. We should not be too quick to dismiss his emphasis on self-improvement, either. But his strategy, in the long run, could not have brought about the recognition of black Americans a full citizens. In a couple of weeks I shall try to show how the forgotten Walter White managed to take advantage of the circumstances he faced to come much closer to that goal.