From the issue dated November 28, 2003

The Tactical Life of Booker T. Washington

It is easy to envy Booker T. Washington. One of the most famous and respected men of his time -- white or black -- for 20 years he was the bellwether of progressive race relations in America, his opinions cited weekly in the national press. After his epochal address to the Atlanta Exposition in 1895, pundits proclaimed him Leader of His Race, the Wizard of Tuskegee. Rarely would he arrive in a city without reporters crowding the platform, begging for his observations on the events of the day. 

With an honorary degree from Harvard and access to the purse strings of Rockefeller and Carnegie, Washington enjoyed a wondrous intellectual prestige in a wildly racist world, and everyone but the most hardened white supremacist honored his person. Before traveling to Boston to commemorate the monument to Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, for example, another scheduled speaker, the eminent philosopher William James, sent Washington his speech and wondered, "Possibly you may have critical suggestions to make. If so pray make them frankly -- they will be of great help to me."

Washington's power didn't stop with intellectual matters. With the backing of white benefactors and officials, he was the topmost supervisor of black politics and advancement. The school he managed, Tuskegee Institute, was one of the wealthiest seats of learning in the South, and a network of graduates, employees, and operatives ("Bookerites") spread across the nation as the Tuskegee Machine, an affiliation mighty enough to control hiring, suppress opposition, and funnel monies accordingly. As W.E.B. Du Bois put it years later, "Not only did presidents of the United States consult Booker T. Washington, but governors and congressmen; philanthropists conferred with him, scholars wrote to him. ... After a time almost no Negro institution could collect funds without the recommendation or acquiescence of Mr. Washington. Few political appointments of Negroes were made anywhere in the United States without his consent."

But how did Washington use his power? From our perspective two generations past civil rights, abominably. From 1890 to 1910, an era of Jim Crow mania, twice-a-week lynchings, and disfranchisement codes, Washington offered African-Americans a message of, at best, hard work and consumer thrift, and, at worst, conciliation and self-reproach. As a race advocate he hailed rising black land ownership, small business start-ups, and taxable income, and centered the Tuskegee curriculum on "industries at which our men and women can find immediate employment."

But when Southern politicians denounced the black vote as a corrupt bloc on sale to the highest bidder, Washington advised his brethren that it was better not to vote than to antagonize white neighbors. When hysterical racists such as Thomas Edward Watson accused black men of degenerate lust for white women, Washington merely softened the notion, saying that some black vagrants indeed preyed on white women and should be rooted out of black communities. When militant African-Americans demanded boycotts and protests against white violence and unequal facilities, Washington treated them as enemies, editorializing (anonymously) against them, planting spies in their ranks, and steering white donors elsewhere. Activism should wait, he maintained, for "the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly." The same goes for culture: "The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house."

To militants such as Du Bois, and to us today, Washington's accommodationism is an abasement. After Washington's death, Du Bois wrote, "we must lay on the soul of this man, a heavy responsibility for the consummation of Negro disfranchisement, the decline of the Negro college and public school, and the firmer establishment of color caste in this land." The verdict stuck, and Washington's memory faded with every subsequent call for equal rights.

In our own time Washington stands as but a curiosity, the culpable antagonist of Du Bois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and the NAACP. In 1990, when Publications of the Modern Language Association issued a special number on African and African-American literature, Washington earned but two glancing citations. About a year ago, at an American-studies conference, a distinguished scholar delivered a talk on the paradigm of the post-Reconstruction black intellectual, Du Bois serving as model. In the discussion, when I asked how Washington fit into the scheme, the lecturer replied, "I can pretty much do without Booker T."

That characterization is too simple -- not wrong, but too easy and extreme. It satisfies our belief in equality, but marks a failure of historical imagination. For to cast Washington as a post-Reconstruction Uncle Tom toadying to wealthy whites and checking rival blacks is to ignore two contexts: first, the complex, heated circumstances in which Washington moved; and second, the many activist efforts Washington fostered on the sly. Both issued from a milieu foreign to our own, a bizarre medium of sectional resentments, racial/sexual fantasies, and naked power politics. To appreciate Washington's tactics, we must return to the 1890s social scene, when lynch law was an open question, the black vote a harbinger of Negro rule, Negro education a dubious good, and Reconstruction a bitter memory. In that setting he occupied a unique post: the polestar of racial dispute, the public appeaser and private troubleshooter. Each controversy, it seemed at the time, every white critic and black rival, jeopardized his life's work, and sometimes his life.

The first context, Washington's circumstances, combines the horrid realities of Jim Crow with the Wizard's fate as the locus of people's racial hopes and phobias. To recognize it in full, consider the following scenarios:

* On October 16, 1901, Booker T. Washington entered the White House to talk with President Theodore Roosevelt. A month earlier, on the day William McKinley succumbed to an assassin's bullet and Roosevelt became chief executive, Roosevelt had sent a note to Tuskegee imploring, "When are you coming north? I must see you as soon as possible." 

Routinely, whenever the two men communicated, they canvassed different federal appointments, and pondered a Southern strategy for the Republican Party. Washington would propose candidates for jobs -- moderate whites or Bookerite blacks -- and explain the tricky and tortuous race politics in the Black Belt, while Roosevelt weighed the moral claims and political consequences of each federal action. This time, though, Roosevelt added a social element, leading Washington into the White House dining room where his wife, daughter, and three sons awaited.

Southerners were outraged. The headline in the Atlanta Constitution blasted, "President Roosevelt Proposes to Coddle Descendants of Ham." When Roosevelt accepted the "learned negro" at his table, the Chattanooga Times grumbled, he "went out of his way to offend the American idea of propriety and social distinction." The New Orleans Times-Democrat complained that Roosevelt had acted as if "the negro is the social equal of the white man," and the Richmond Dispatch declared, "We do not like Mr. Roosevelt's negrophilism at all." Republican Senator Foraker of Ohio cited the Washington dinner and called Roosevelt a man "of whom we may all be proud," but Ben Tillman, future senator for South Carolina, thundered, "Social equality means decadence and damnation." Alabama leaders thought Washington "had better sense than to share a meal with the president's wife and daughter," and one Southern congressman grumbled, "I confess, Booker Washington is a smart 'nigger' and way above the average, but at the same time he is a 'nigger' just the same."

* Five months later, Washington received a package from Thomas Dixon Jr., a controversial Baptist minister in Virginia. It contained an advance copy of his first novel, The Leopard's Spots. He wrote, "I hope that you will enjoy it, and if you can find time to say a word in review I will appreciate it very much." 

This was a strange offering, for the novel is a classic specimen of race-baiting. In its Reconstruction-era setting, defeated North Carolina whites endure marauding bands of Negroes armed to the teeth terrorizing the country, stealing, burning, and murdering. Dixon has conniving scalawags wrest power from honorable secessionists, while ignorant "darkies" swill whiskey and seize white women. At the end of the book, the hero declaims in a rousing stump speech, "Shall the future North Carolinian be an Anglo-Saxon or a Mulatto?" The answer: "This is a white man's government ... and by the God of our fathers it shall be ruled by white men until the archangel shall call the end of time!"

Washington ignored Dixon's plea, but the book became a best seller and Dixon helped foment a surge of Negrophobia through the South. Another novel, The Clansman (1906), dedicated to Dixon's uncle, a founding member of the original Ku Klux Klan, was a national sensation, and later recast as D.W. Griffith's blockbuster Birth of a Nation, whose release in 1915 inspired a revival of the Klan in a lurid midnight ceremony atop Stone Mountain. But Dixon didn't forget Washington's slight. In 1905, he wrote a Saturday Evening Post article accusing Washington of "silently preparing us for the future of amalgamation" -- "amalgamation" signifying the fusion of races into a population of mixed-blood citizens. A third novel on Reconstruction he planned to call The Fall of Tuskegee. Once, he offered the institute $10,000 if Washington declared himself opposed to social equality, and several times he challenged him to public debate on race relations. Washington avoided him.

Such episodes reveal the high-stakes, pressure-packed terms of Washington's everyday existence. He strode the corridors of power and wealth, yet had to maintain an inferior pose. He preached humility and played down his own ego, but Bookerites and philanthropists made an idol of him, and white supremacists and black militants obsessed over his deepest intentions. The only way to sustain Tuskegee, increase federal appointments for African-American people, and, most importantly, carve out in American society a space in which they may gain an economic foothold, he reasoned, was to appease the factions. Dixon called him "the greatest diplomat his race has ever produced," and Du Bois marveled at his "tact and power ... steering as he must amid so many diverse interests and opinions."

Conciliation was Washington's public pose. The other context mentioned above, his activist maneuvers, he kept quiet. Here are just a few of them:

* In the face of Jim Crow segregation, Washington openly discouraged anything but sober accommodation and going about one's business. Protests and boycotts, he argued, only made things worse. But when W.E.B. Du Bois filed a lawsuit against the Southern Railway for denying him a sleeping-car berth, Washington acted as a silent partner. He prodded Pullman Company President Robert Todd Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln's son) to revise company policy, and coaxed Bookerites in Virginia and Tennessee to initiate similar lawsuits. In late 1902 Washington assured Du Bois, "if you will let me know what the total expense will be [for the court case] I shall be willing to bear a portion of it provided I can hand it to you personally and not have any connection with your committee."

* Publicly, Washington disapproved of any show of black force. But when Southern states began to disband colored militia in 1905, he asked Secretary of War William Howard Taft to intervene. And when President Roosevelt dismissed colored troops in Brownsville, Tex., after a skirmish with town residents, Washington lobbied him to reverse his decision, repeating his demand to the point of risking his support.

* The Tuskegee Machine was a domineering monolith, intent on turf preservation, gobbling up Negro-directed philanthropy and litmus-testing everyone. But it was also a financial distribution center. Through Tuskegee, monies could be collected en masse, then dispensed accordingly -- a court case here, a newspaper there -- the beneficiaries sometimes having no relation to Tuskegee interests. Moreover, it served as the major African-American research apparatus of the time. Starting in the 1880s, Tuskegee compiled information on race issues, including lynchings, and Tuskegee lieutenants monitored the national press with zeal. Francis J. Garrison, son of William Lloyd Garrison remarked, "You seem to keep as closely in touch with the Southern press ... as if you were an editor. I am constantly surprised by the way in which you sweep the field and the horizon North and South with your telescope." Today, the Tuskegee clippings files form a rich archive of historical materials.

One could list many more clandestine deeds and fill out the record of Washington's achievement. Nobody can deny his periodic groveling, but a reasoned accounting of his import must include these activist plots, however covert they were. Historians like Louis R. Harlan have documented Washington's complex situation and progressive actions, but they haven't saved him from censure and oblivion. Perhaps we find Washington's accommodationism too offensive to be contextualized by 1900s-era pressures, too glaring to be balanced by his civil-rights maneuvering. The equivocations, the secrecy, the unctuousness with white people and competitiveness with black people -- they're too much to abide. True, but that makes Washington a gauge of our historical consciousness, of our capacity to interpret black/white relations as a historical problem as well as a moral one.

It is easy, and mighty tempting, to judge figureheads of the past by standards of the present. Indeed, it is unavoidable. But that does not mean that we cannot reconstruct the circumstances that shaped their decisions. People may worry about the labor of understanding sliding into a mode of rationalization or justification, but in Washington's case they need not. Our sensitivities over black/white relations are sufficiently exquisite to secure our moral scruples. But sometimes the opposite happens, and moral judgment reduces the historical record to right-or-wrong allegories.

Canny and inscrutable, Booker T. Washington puts our historiography to the test. He kept comrades and allies at a distance, and Du Bois himself never quite figured him out. He manipulated people, played with high ideals, and hedged on our country's most fraught social issue. The more it is worthwhile, then, to study him -- not to plead for Washington's virtue, but to resurrect him as a historical personage, a man politically compromised and morally mixed. In his contradictions, duplicities, stratagems, and prestige we may grasp more about race relations then and now than we do by celebrating heroes and vilifying knaves.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University and a researcher at the Arts Education Partnership and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 50, Issue 14, Page B12