Reconsidering Booker T. Washington and his Complicated Legacy in the Jim Crow South: a literature Review Abstract

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Reconsidering Booker T. Washington and his Complicated Legacy in the Jim Crow South: A Literature Review

Abstract: Nearly a century after his death, Booker T. Washington remains controversial. Washington was the most famous black leader during a critical moment in African American history. Yet the historical literature on his life and legacy is confusing and contradictory. Scholars continue to engage in heated debate over the impact and legacy of Washington’s views on “accommodationism,” “racial uplift,” and “industrial education.” This review traces the evolution of Washington’s image in the historical record – from black hero to opportunist and “Uncle Tom,” and finally to the more nuanced but contested position in the current literature. By focusing both on top-down histories of Washington and his contemporaries in the black elite as well as bottom-up accounts of broader black life during the Jim Crow era, this study explores Washington’s place in what historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has called “the long civil rights movement.” The intersection of top-down and bottom-up historical literature reveals a complicated and multi-layered political figure whose private work sometimes contradicted his public persona. But it also highlights the need for deeper research into Washington’s legacy after his death. Specifically, did his philosophy of “accommodationism” help or hinder the rise of a vigorous black freedom movement against the tyranny of Jim Crow?

I. Introduction

Booker T. Washington was the most famous African American of his time. But the literature on his life and legacy remains contradictory and confusing. Born into slavery, Washington devoted his life to the cause of black education and economic advancement. Yet nearly a century after his death, scholars still rise up in anger to debate the meaning and impact of his policies of “accommodationism,“ “racial uplift,” and “industrial education.”i That debate has evolved over the past three decades. New evidence has emerged that alters the historical record of Washington’s life and politics. Additionally, new historians have brought a fresh perspective to the study of the Jim Crow South. They have shifted the historical focus from political elites to everyday working people. The purpose of this review is to evaluate the literature on Washington – both the old and new – and reconsider where he fits in what historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has called “the long civil rights movement.” It is impossible to trace the path of the black freedom movement in the South without a nuanced understanding of the legacy of Booker T. Washington.

II. History Viewed from the Top Down and from the Bottom Up

Traditionally, history has been written from the top-down approach – the world as seen through the lives of elite political and/or intellectual leaders. Over the past three decades, however, a fresh wave of scholarship has tried to understand African American history from the bottom up. These scholars shifted the primary focus from black leaders to working people; they tried to view history at ground level to understand the actions and motivations of the larger African American population. For the bottom-up historian, Washington is a peripheral figure, not the primary focus. Because of Washington’s prominence, however, the black leader moves in and out of the frame regularly as bottom-up historians trace the lives of black working people trying to negotiate the constricted world of the Jim Crow South. In this study, I review both historical records – top down and bottom up – and then overlay the two, like one transparency placed atop another. The intersection of these two devices reveals a Washington figure whose public image has evolved dramatically over time. I argue the new bottom-up historical research has helped top-down historians re-imagine Washington as a more complicated figure who, in his own way, was carrying on the fight for black freedom and civil rights. The simplistic image of the “Uncle Tom” who kow-towed to white supremacists to further his own career has given way to a nuanced portrayal of a black leader struggling to help his people survive a dangerous moment in history.

The top-down approach has focused on Washington and the contest among black elites to shape African American strategy in confronting Jim Crow. The dean of Southern historians, C. Vann Woodward, helped shape the contours of that debate in 1951 with his seminal work, Origins of the New South. The book embraces what has been described as a Washington-Du Bois paradigm of black history and thought.ii This view depicted Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois as two opposing forces battling for control over black strategy in the fight against white supremacy and Jim Crow. Washington represented accommodation and acceptance of second-class status, while Du Bois argued for resistance and direct confrontation.

The Washington-Du Bois paradigm – the battle between accommodation and protest – seems to offer an ideal way to organize and understand the literature on Washington and his times. But a deeper reading of the scholarship, especially research published in the past three decades, reveals a more nuanced story. First, the Washington-Du Bois paradigm is not as clear-cut as it seems. While Du Bois did oppose Washington and call for direct confrontation, he also engaged in accommodation at times. Like Washington, he saw it as a necessary strategy, the best course available during certain moments in history. And while Washington did ask blacks to forego the dream of political and social equality, at least in the short term, research suggests he acted more forcefully behind the scenes to challenge Jim Crow than had been originally thought. Second, the Washington-Du Bois dichotomy is limited as well because it only provides a partial view of the way African Americans negotiated Jim Crow. It deals primarily with the battle between black elites, who were a tiny minority of the overall African American population. The new bottom-up scholarship broadens the focus beyond the elites. In Dark Journey, for example, Neil McMillen offers a detailed portrait of the daily lives of black Mississippians living through the age of Jim Crow – how they earned money, raised their families and negotiated a world severely circumscribed by oppressive white rule. In Race Rebels, Robin D.G. Kelley details the acts of what he describes as “everyday resistance” as practiced by the black working class in the Jim Crow South, especially in the new industrial center of Birmingham, Alabama.

A review of both top down and bottom up historical studies helps explain the evolution of Washington’s reputation in the literature. The intersection of these two historical techniques reveals a political figure whose public image has morphed dramatically in the past three decades. In the 1960s, black activists ridiculed Washington as the ultimate “Uncle Tom,” the black leader who craved white support. Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., eager to rally blacks to protest Jim Crow laws, summoned up an image of Washington that had been portrayed by early top-down historians. Those scholars had embraced the Washington-Du Bois paradigm and portrayed Washington as the weakling accommodationist, the man who opposed black confrontation with Jim Crow. In the three decades that followed, however, new bottom-up literature focused on the daily horrors blacks faced in turn-of-the-Century America. These historians emphasized the dangers all blacks faced every day in the Jim Crow South. Seen in this light, Washington’s actions, cautious as they were, appear bold and risky – a brave effort to fight back against overwhelming odds. This perspective claims Washington was doing the best he could in a bad situation and should not be judged under present-day standards. However, a review of both top down and bottom up historical work reveals one glaring gap in the research. Neither approach deals directly and extensively with the questions of long-term impact and legacy. Did Washington have influence beyond his death in 1915? Did his policies of accommodation and racial uplift help delay the rise of a confrontational black freedom movement in the Deep South? The top-down scholarship on Washington tends to stop at his death, while the bottom-up research skirts the issue of his legacy without confronting it directly and in depth. Reviewing the two forms of literature together still leaves unanswered the question of Washington’s impact on the rise of the black freedom movement in the Jim Crow South. The issue warrants deeper investigation.

III. The Literature on Washington

There is no dispute in the historical record over Washington’s remarkable rise to fame and political power. Fifteen years after founding a small school in Alabama’s rural black belt, Washington delivered one of the most influential speeches in African American history. His short address at the opening of the Atlanta Cotton States and Industrial Exhibition in 1895 transformed the former slave into a national political figure. In what came to be known as the “Atlanta compromise,” Washington outlined a strategy for African Americans confronting white supremacy in the south. He essentially proposed a peace offering in an undeclared war: Blacks would accept second-class political status – disfranchisement and social segregation – if white supremacists would allow blacks to live peacefully and participate in the economic growth of the “New South.” He illustrated his point through use of a now-famous metaphor: “In all things purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”iii Washington urged blacks to give up on political and social equality, at least for the time being, and focus instead on building the race through industrial education, economic progress and a strategy that came to be known as “racial uplift.” By 1895, whites in the North who were sympathetic to the former slaves had nonetheless grown weary of what whites referred to as “the Negro problem” in the South. Washington seemed to offer a solution, and they showered him with both praise and financial support. Conservative white paternalists in the South embraced Washington as well. And blacks seemed to accept Washington’s proposal as the best option in a bad situation. By 1901, Washington had become what his biographer, Louis R. Harlan, called “the most powerful black minority-group boss of his time.”iv From his base at his Tuskegee Institute, Washington used his newfound fundraising prowess to develop a powerful political network – the Tuskegee Machine – that he used to spread his philosophy of accommodationism, industrial education and racial uplift.

To gather past scholarship on this subject, I conducted database searches using the following keywords: “accommodation” and “accommodationism,” “Booker T. Washington,” “W.E.B Du Bois,” “Jim Crow” and “Jim Crow protests,” “civil rights movement” and “early civil rights,” “African American history,” “lynching” and “anti-lynching protests,” and “black protest” and “black opposition.” The databases I searched included: the catalog of the University of South Carolina libraries, Black Thought and Culture, Dissertations and Theses, Google Scholar, EBSCOhost, Humanities Citation Index, JSTOR, Project Muse and the Social Sciences Citation Index.

IV. Narrowing the Focus

To identify the relevant top-down scholarship, I selected books and articles that focused on Washington, his chief rival, W.E.B Du Bois, and the political history surrounding the rise of the Jim Crow era. The number of available books and articles on Washington and his time is enormous. For example, a simple search for “Booker T. Washington” in the University of South Carolina’s Thomas Cooper Library online catalogue reveals 312 books. A search of the JSTOR database reports 5347 articles with Washington’s name in the title. To refine the list of scholarship for this review, I focused on prominent works – those that have been heavily cited in historical literature, and those that have been widely reviewed in such respected academic history journals as The Journal of American History, The Journal of African American History and The Journal of Southern History. For the bottom-up literature, I focused on works dealing with the way African Americans negotiated the rise of White Supremacist political control and the imposition of Jim Crow laws across the Deep South between 1895 and 1920. This was the same time period when Washington rose to prominence and proposed that blacks follow his strategy of accommodationism, and I wanted to see how bottom-up historians depicted Washington and his impact. Again, I used number of times cited and academic journal reviews as filters to help identify prominent works concerning Washington, accommodationism and the rise of white supremacy and Jim Crow in the South.

V. Washington as Seen in the Top-Down Literature

The perception of Booker T. Washington in the prominent top-down historical literature has shifted dramatically over the past half century. That shift is clearly depicted in a simple graphic (see table 1 below). The scholarly works flow left to right along a straight-line continuum, from “CRITICAL” on the left end to “SUPPORTIVE” on the right. By critical, I refer to historians who believed Washington’s philosophies and actions damaged the black cause for freedom and civil rights. The supportive historians viewed Washington as a force for good who help further the black push for freedom and civil rights. Across this spectrum, I divide the literate into four groups: CRITICAL, CRITICAL BUT SYMPATHETIC, SYMPATHETIC and SUPPORTIVE.

Table 1.


Origins of the New South, C. Vann Woodward

Booker T. Washington, Louis V. Harlan Bios (2 Vols.)

The Souls of Black Folks, W.E.B. Du Bois

The Crucible of Race, Joel Williamson

Negro Thought in 20th Century America, August Meier

The Mind and Mood of Black America, S.P. Fullwinder
BTW: The Art of the Possible, Kevin Verney

Creative Conflict in African American Thought, Moses

W.E.B Du Bois, David Levering Lewis (2 Vols.)

Up From History, Robert Norrell

Critical Literature”

The top-down literature on Washington shifts over time from a deeply critical perspective through the early 1970s to a more sympathetic and eventually a supportive position by 2009. I argue this shift occurs for two reasons: The new perspective offered by bottom-up research on black life in the Jim Crow South, and a new emphasis placed on the evidence showing that Washington did more to confront the rise of Jim Crow laws than earlier historians had believed.

The data points under “Critical” represent three prominent voices that shaped perceptions of Washington in the second half of the 20th Century. The most famous Southern historian, C. Vann Woodward, and one of his students, Louis R. Harlan, wrote two influential historical studies. Those histories embraced the ideas of Washington’s contemporary rival, W.E.B Du Bois, whose collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folks, rallied the anti-Washington forces in black intellectual community in 1903 and has served as the primary evidence supporting the Washington-Du Bois paradigm of black history.

C. Vann Woodward helped shape the critical image of Washington in 1951 with his seminal work, Origins of the New South. Woodward’s book chronicled the brutal rise of white supremacist Democrats to undisputed political power in the South at the turn of the century. The white Democrats demonized blacks as an inferior and uncivilized race, and they launched a campaign of violence that threatened to erupt into a full-scale race war across the South. Into this cauldron stepped Booker T. Washington, a former slave who seemed to offer a way out. According to Woodward, Washington’s “Atlanta compromise” of 1895 was designed to appeal to Northern white industrialists and Southern white paternalists – both of whom thought blacks were an inferior race. Washington shaped his message, Woodward argued, so that he would become “the leader of white opinion” and the recipient of Northern white philanthropy.v It was telling, Woodward argued, that the fiery black abolitionist Frederick Douglass had died the same year as Washington’s emergence in 1895. The torch had been passed. Black political confrontation had been replaced by passive accommodation.

One of Woodward’s students, Louis R. Harlan, picked up the Washington story in 1972 with the publication of the first of a distinguished two-volume biography. Harlan depicts Washington as a complex man of enormous intelligence and self-discipline, but with equally enormous flaws as well. In Harlan’s view, Washington was an inspirational leader who fell in love with his own power – and who lost his way in trying to protect it. Like Woodward, Harlan believed Washington’s philosophies of accommodationism and racial uplift were tailored perfectly to fit the mood of white America at the turn of the century. At their core, however, Harlan saw little more than a “bag of clichés.” To study Washington as an intellectual or philosopher missed the point. “Power was his game,” Harlan wrote, “and he used his ideas simply as instruments to gain power.”vi Wealthy whites granted Washington his power, and to maintain it he maneuvered to stay in their favor. Washington carefully massaged his public message over the years to appeal to whites, losing sight of its long-term impact on his own race. For Harlan, this quest to remain the undisputed black leader, to keep the Tuskegee Machine humming, came to dominate his thoughts and actions. Washington may have urged his people to give up politics, yet he became the ultimate political player. He used his gusher of white financial donations “to buy black newspapers and bend their editorials to his viewpoint, to control college professors and presidents … to infiltrate the leading church denominations and fraternal orders.”vii Washington may have started with good intentions, but Harlan believed he ended up an opportunist, a man who cared about his career than his people. In Harlan’s view, Washington “’jumped Jim Crow’ with the skill of long practice, but he seemed to lose sight of the original purpose for his dance.”viii

Both Woodward and Harlan praised Du Bois effusively. A “poet and a prophet,” Du Bois was a sociology professor who wrote with “brooding passion and brilliant pen” about the mistreatment of blacks under Jim Crow rule.ix In The Souls of Black Folks, Du Bois published a series of essays that included one – “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” – that laid out the case against Washington and accommodationism. Du Bois believed Washington’s political acquiescence and disdain for liberal arts education would set back African American progress and lock in white supremacy rule for decades to come. Washington’s doctrine, Du Bois wrote, allowed whites in the North and South to “shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro’s shoulders and stand aside as critical and rather pessimistic spectators.”x Two years later, he founded the Niagara Movement, a group of black professionals determined to counter Washington’s influence. By the end of the decade he had joined the fledgling NAACP, and thus the “Washington-Du Bois” paradigm was firmly established.

Critical But Sympathetic Literature”

The harshness of the Woodward-Harlan view of Washington began to soften in the 1980s. Two books helped push this trend. August Meier’s Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915 – Racial Ideologies in the Age of Booker T. Washington actually came out in 1963 but received few scholarly references until the early 1980s, when it was cited by Joel Williamson in his landmark work, The Crucible of Race – Black-White Relations and the American South Since Emancipation. Both books moved away from the stark image of Washington as opportunist and instead painted him as a realist who was operating in an untenable situation. For Meier, Washington was a pragmatist who realized the political battle could not be won. Thus he turned to economics as what Meier called “an indirect route to solve the racial problem.”xi Meier said Washington’s focus on economic advancement “seemed like common sense” to most African Americans. In fact, Meier argued that black Southerners had begun to lose faith in politics well before Washington’s “Atlanta compromise” speech. They had grown weary of the political turmoil since the end of Reconstruction and had received little in return for their support of the Republican Party. For Meier, Washington’s emphasis on economic prosperity and deprecation of the political process “represented in large measure the basic tendencies of Negro thought in the period.”xii Neither Meier nor Williamson thought Washington particularly effective in furthering black civil rights or economic advancement. They saw flaws in his philosophy and his actions. But they were more sympathetic to his situation and understood the limitations under which he operated.

Sympathetic Literature”

Meier’s work played a key role in opening a new line of inquiry into Washington. Scholars began to question the deeply critical approach of Woodward and Harlan. In the past decade, historians Kevern Verney and Wilson Jeremiah Moses pushed out farther to the right on the continuum – not quite supportive, but edging closer – with books that reassess Washington and his impact. Verney positions his collection of essays as a gentle rebuttal to “the majority of modern historians … who have found Washington an unattractive figure.”xiii Verney summarizes his view of Washington struggle with his book’s title: The Art of the Possible. He sees Washington as a cagey political fighter who cared passionately about the fate of his people and took great risks on their behalf. He pushed back against the Woodward-Harlan critical image, but cautiously, almost politely. In Creative Conflict in African-American Thought, Wilson Jeremiah Moses takes the same approach in defending the “contradictions” in Washington’s political philosophies. Any adolescent can spot contradictions in another person’s thinking, Moses writes, but “It is the task of the historian to discover the process to reconcile … or rationalize their contradictions.”xiv In Washington, Moses finds at the core an “idealist” who pushes his philosophies of industrial education and economic advancement as a means for helping black American overcome white oppression.

At the same time, evidence that suggested Washington had done more behind the scenes to fight the rise of Jim Crow began began to receive more attention. Interestingly, it was Louis R. Harlan, Washington’s critical biographer, who published the new evidence as part of his ongoing research into Washington’s letters and papers.xv Several Washington letters revealed evidence of the Tuskegee principal working secretly in the 1890s to raise money for legal suits challenging black disfranchisement in Alabama and Louisiana. The biographer of Washington’s old nemesis, W.E.B Du Bois, writing in the first of a two-volume biographer of Du Bois in 1993, describes Washington’s “secret civil rights maneuvering” approvingly in colorful prose: The South’s “redneck populists went to their graves never suspecting that much of the organized resistance to the extinction of the African-American as a civil being originated in the upstairs study of Tuskegee’s principal.”xvi Lewis’ biography of Du Bois actually falls in the column of “sympathetic” treatments of Du Bois’s intellectual rival, Booker T. Washington.

Supportive Literature”

Historian Robert J. Norrell completes the top-down continuum by occupying the far-right position under “SUPPORTIVE” literature. Norrell delivers a full-throated defense of Washington as a great man maligned by historians who simply got the story wrong. He made his intentions clear in the title of his 2009 biography: Up From History. A play on Washington’s famous autobiography, Up From Slavery, Norrell set out to restore Washington’s reputation. He argued that historians – especially Woodward and Harlan – overstated Washington’s popularity with Southern whites and underplayed the threat he faced from white radicals. Relying on his immense self-discipline, Washington always managed to present the soothing face of accommodation, Norrell said, no matter how severe the personal humiliation or the racial injustice. Critics took Washington’s willingness to accept public humiliation from white supremacists as a sign of weakness – and a signal that he had given up his long-term goal of black economic, social and political equality. But for Norrell, Washington’s “response to his circumstances reflected a sophisticated mind that had contrived a complex means for achieving his ends against long odds during a horrific time in history. Civil rights activists who compared Washington’s cautious strategy with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for mass action were guilty of practicing a gross form of present-mindedness. They ignored the realities of Washington’s place and time, and they placed too much value on the efficacy of protest as the sole means of confronting injustice. Norrell believes this naturally led these black activists to canonize Du Bois as the moral center of African American intellectual life and demonize Washington as the quisling leader who sold his soul for a few shiny coins from his white masters.

VI. Washington as Seen in the Bottom-Up Literature

The shift in tone of the top-down treatment of Booker T. Washington over the past three decades ran parallel with the arrival of several bottom-up historical accounts of African-Americans during the Jim Crow era. The new perspective provided by close investigations of everyday black life helped inform and reshape the larger perception of Washington in the wider historical literature. Gritty historical reports like Neil McMillen’s Dark Journey and Leon Litwack’s Trouble in Mind brought home in vivid detail the dangers Washington faced as a black leader in the Deep South. From this perspective, his conservative politics and careful tone seem more understandable. Additionally, the emergence of new evidence showing his secret support for direct confrontation with white supremacy in the courts suggests Washington was a more complicated leader this the public record had revealed.

A review of how bottom-up literature may have altered the perception of Washington’s image can be clearly depicted in a simple graphic (see Table 2.) The scholarly works flow left to right along a straight-line continuum. On the far left, the continuum begins with “ACCEPTANCE” literature. These are bottom-up historical works that suggest blacks made the decision to accept white supremacy and second-class status because black leaders like Washington encouraged them to do so. As the continuum moves toward the right, the data points begin to represent works that argue blacks utilized “TACTICAL ACCEPTANCE” of white supremacy and Jim Crow. This means African Americans considered all options and made a rational choice not to confront Jim Crow directly during the early years of the 20th Century. These works suggest Southern blacks were responding pragmatically and chose discretion over valor to avoid a slaughter – but did not give up their hope for social and political equality. They saved that fight for another day. The line between “TACTICAL ACCEPTANCE” and the final category, “RESISTANCE,” is blurry; the two views can overlap. The “RESISTANCE” literature includes bottom-up works that spend a significant amount of time making the case that blacks did resist white supremacy and Jim Crow – but not directly, and not in ways that historians have traditionally acknowledged. In this literature, Southern blacks carried out an ongoing resistance effort that operated under the political radar of both the white supremacists of the day and of the historians who have written about the time period.

Table 2.


Black Tennesseans/Lamon

Trouble in Mind/Litwack

Dark Journey/McMillen

Making Whiteness/Hale

Righteous Discontent/Higginbotham
Black Culture & Consciousness/Levine

“Rethinking Black… Opposition”/Kelley

Time Longer than Rope/Payne, Green (eds.)

Acceptance Literature”

The most telling data point on this spectrum is the one that does not exist. There are no works listed under “acceptance” because none of the bottom-up historical literature published in the past three decades argues that Washington’s leadership convinced the majority of Southern blacks to accept white supremacy. As mentioned earlier, Washington is not the primary focus but instead moves in and out of the frame in these bottom-up accounts of black life during the age of Jim Crow. The black Southerners who occupy center stage in these narratives refer to Washington and consider his point of view. But these people were struggling in a daily battle to keep themselves and their families alive. As the literature on “tactical acceptance” explains, Washington was not saying anything new to these working class blacks. They accommodated white supremacy not because Washington told them to, but because they had no choice. They learned quickly during his period of Southern history that direct confrontation with white supremacy often meant instant death.

Tactical Acceptance Literature”

In Dark Journey, historian Neil McMillen tried to peel back the mask and reveal the inner lives of black Mississippians negotiating Jim Crow in the deepest of the Deep South states. The journey in his title, McMillen said, refers not only to “pigmentation and subjugation, to the burdens of color in a benighted age,” but also to a journey toward freedom. For McMillen, the freedom struggle unfolded in three stages, starting with the collapse of Reconstruction in 1877, followed by the imposition of Jim Crow in the 1890s and finally taking a slow turn toward a more robust freedom struggle after World War I. As the Jim Crow era dawned in the 1880s, McMillen found acts of direct resistance – but they ended badly. He recounted the story of Moses Weston, a Washington County black man who refused when ordered to leave a Greenville saloon in 1889. When a white man tried to force him out, Weston pulled his gun and opened fire, but he was immediately killed by the saloon’s owner.xvii Weston’s defiance was the exception, however. As McMillen put it, “a great many – perhaps the great majority – ultimately agreed with Booker T. Washington that accommodation was an acceptable alternative to an unrestrained racial conflict they would surely lose.” McMillen mined the oral histories of black Mississippians of the Jim Crow era to get a taste of what he calls “the resistance-accommodation debate.” In an interview conducted in the 1970s, Machen Box of Chickasaw County thought white supremacy “wasn’t so bad” if you knew you had no other option: “When a person know a thing he should not worry over it, ‘cause worry will kill you … in them times whites have things going they way.” Maxine Davis said simply: “It was just something you had to take.” But Lizzie V. Garner remembers the bitterness of riding Jim Crow on a Mississippi bus: “I remember vividly, I thought it was the worst thing. I didn’t have no other alternative.”xviii

Historian Leon Litwack opens Trouble in Mind, his powerful study of African-American life in the Jim Crow South, with a similar story of tactical accommodation. Charlie Holcombe is a black tenant farmer living with his family in turn-of-the-century North Carolina. An ambitious man, Holcombe wanted a better life, one not dependent on the whims of a white landlord. But every year, it seemed his crop wasn’t quite large enough to get out of debt. Finally, he thought he had made it. He had money left over after selling his crop and settling with his landlord. But the landlord returned a short time later to announce that he had made a mistake – he had underestimated the warehouse charges. Charlie Holcomb knew he was being cheated, but he could not read or write and thus had no way to prove it. “It made me so mad I jist hit him a de face as hard as I could. Den I kinda went crazy and might nigh beat him to death,” Holcombe said. He spent three years in jail, and when he returned to his farm he said he had learned a lesson: “I knowed it wasn’t no use for me to try to ever make anything but jist a living.” Charlie Holcombe made his accommodation, Litwack wrote, but the farmer still wanted something better for his oldest son, Willie. Holcombe managed to send Willie to college in Greensboro, where he graduated near the top of his class. But upon graduation, Willie found few opportunities around his rural home. He grew restive, and one day got in a fight with white men at the warehouse, probably over his father’s earlier crop dispute. The white men bashed in Willie’s head. They left his body in a pool of blood for Charlie Holcombe to collect and carry by mule and wagon back to his farm. After that, Litwack wrote, Charlie Holcombe gave up entirely. He blamed himself for his son’s death. He had pushed him to get an education, and because of that Willie Holcombe had “stepped outen his place.” That was the lesson Charlie Holcombe took from the tragedy. When black people get out of their place “dere is gonna be trouble.”xix

Charlie Holcomb’s lesson, Litwack said, is one that was learned often by African Americans living the Jim Crow South. Whites had enormous power to dominate your life. If you wanted to survive, you had to develop a strategy for negotiating and accommodating white power. “Every black child would come to appreciate the terrible unfairness and narrowness of that world – the limited options, the need to curb ambitions, to contain feelings, to weigh carefully every word, gesture, and movement when in the presence of whites,” Litwack wrote.xx Charlie Holcombe’s story provides one piece of context to help understand Booker T. Washington and his public face of accommodation. In his journey “up from slavery,” Washington had learned a version of the same lesson as Charlie Holcombe. Each had mastered the art of survival in a bitterly hostile white world. Both hid their inner feelings and larger goals behind a mask, a false front designed to block prying white eyes. And as Holcombe’s story indicates, both came to see a strategic debate between accommodation and protest as purely academic. If you wanted to survive in the New South at the turn of the century, you were going to find a way to accommodate.

The “tactical resistance” literature includes a close look at the impact of Washington’s call for racial uplift. The black leader said African Americans should accept white supremacy and second-class status and instead focus their energies on economic advancement and the improvement of the race. Washington defined racial uplift as adopting the middle class values of the surrounding white society, which he saw as hard work, self-discipline, thrift and community service. In her study of black women in the Baptist church during the rise of Jim Crow, historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham found a variation of this mindset in what she called the “politics of respectability.” For these black churchwomen, respectability “assumed a political dimension” and was used to combat white supremacy and fight for assimilation into the mainstream society. The black Baptist women condemned “negative practices and attitudes” among blacks that did not meet proper standards of behavior and thus, in their eyes, set back the black goal of full citizenship. “Their assimilationist leanings lead to their insistence upon blacks’ conformity to the dominant society’s norms of manners and morals,” Higginbotham wrote.xxi While these churchwomen embraced the black elite view of racial uplift, Higginbotham believes they split with Booker T. Washington over racial uplift, they ignored Washington pubic call for accommodation. They protested Jim Crow conditions openly through letters, boycotts and manifestos. In some ways, Higginbotham explained, they merged the self-help ideology of respectability with direct protest. In a manifesto adopted in 1913, a church Women’s Convention called for such basic civil rights as voting, equal treatment in courts an end to lynching and Jim Crow transportation laws. At the same, the women demanded “well-built, sanitary dwellings … and streets that are paved and kept just as clean as others in town are kept.” By including sanitation and cleanliness with civil rights demands, Higginbotham argued, the manifesto employed the politics of respectability to appeal to white middle-class values. The churchwomen insisted blacks of all classes confirm to “society’s norms and established rules,” and in doing so they “subverted the cultural logic of white superiority and condemned white America for failing to live up to its on rhetoric of equality and justice.”xxii

The politics of respectability may have moved beyond outright acquiescence to Jim Crow, Higginbotham argues, but like some aspects of racial uplift, it undermined the creation of a widespread black protest consciousness. The roots of the respectability strategy rested in convincing white society that blacks were ready for assimilation, that they had passed some threshold test that would allow them to achieve full citizenship. That strategy supposes Southern whites would willingly give up their dominant status. It assumes the white supremacists who imposed the culture of segregation in the South saw it as temporary, a transition period that blacks would use to prepare for full assimilation and citizenship. As Grace Elizabeth Hale argued in Making Whiteness, the opposite was true. Her study of the rise of the culture of segregation revealed a white society in the South buffeted at the turn of the century by the modernization of the American economy and the rise of the former slaves. Radical white supremacists created the myth of a deteriorating black race – intellectually and morally inferior, a threat to white civilization – to mask their real fear: the success of a growing black middle class. Hale portrays the rise of Jim Crow as the act of a confused and terrified white South desperate to identify its place in a modernizing nation – and equally desperate to prevent African Americans from achieving equality in the new economy. They wanted to restore some of the order of the antebellum South and lock in the African American’s “place” in Southern society. Given this reality, the strategies of racial uplift and the politics of respectability were unlikely to move majority white opinion. While both were well intentioned and may have benefited blacks through their support of education and racial solidarity, both misunderstood the real motivation behind the culture of segregation and failed to attack its root cause.

Resistance Literature”

Lester Lamon’s look at Black Tennesseans was published in 1977 and Neil McMillen’s study of Mississippi came out in 1990. They helped usher in a bottom-up approach that has been lauded by historians. But some believe their take on black accommodation and silence, particularly after World War I, still relied too heavily on articulate elite sources and thus interpreted the African American negotiation of Jim Crow too narrowly. Robin D.G. Kelley, for example, argued the new wave of bottom-up history overlooked what he called “everyday acts of resistance.” Kelley described these as “daily, unorganized, evasive, seemingly spontaneous actions” that reveal a “hidden transcript” of black resistance to Jim Crow. Outwardly, blacks presented a public face of accommodation and deference. But Kelley believed it was a face that was meant to conceal and deceive: “Beneath the veil of consent lies a hidden history of unorganized, everyday conflict waged by African-American working people.” For example, Kelley cited women factory workers who had otherwise been prohibited from talking to each other who break out in song on the shop floor; black domestics who staged “incipient strikes” by quitting or threatening to quit before important social affairs; and black bus riders who taunted a racist bus driver by ringing the bell to stop for an entire block, but no one would get off at the bus stop. At work, at home and at play, Kelley argued, black working-class people looked for opportunities to shed their mask to communicate their seething discontent with the indignities of their circumscribed worlds.

One outlet for that discontent was the blues club. The rise of blues music, created primarily as a form of entertainment, brought with it a new medium for blacks to communicate with each other outside the confines of the white world. In Black Culture and Black Consciousness – Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom, Lawrence W. Levine argued early blues music was a “rich repository” of African American commentary on Southern political conditions. Like Kelley, Levine believed scholars should broaden their definition of protest and resistance, “to make it less restrictive and more realistic.” Too often, group consciousness and a sense of self have been equated with political consciousness and direct protest, even armed rebellion. Because African Americans choose discretion over valor during Jim Crow did not mean they failed to develop a sense of group consciousness about their plight. Yet they had few outlets to communicate this racial consciousness candidly. With humor and pathos, blues lyrics offered one avenue for spreading the message. Consider this early work song:

I asked that boss-man for to gimme my time’

Sez he, “Ole Nigger, you’r a day behin’”

I asked him once, I asked him twaist;

Ef I ask him again, I’ll take his life.xxiii

Or these lyrics concerning black migration:

I been down so long, being down do not worry me no more,

I been down so long, being down do not worry me no more,

I’m goin’ pack my suitcase, an’ cross the way you know, I’ll go.xxiv

Going North, child, where I can be free

Where there’s no hardship, like in Tennesseexxv

Such lyrics, Levine argued, dispute the view that blacks internalized white supremacy during the Jim Crow period and accepted the values of the dominant culture. By choosing to focus on folklore – and specifically blues music – Levine emphasizes the black community’s resistance to Jim Crow rather than its full acceptance. By embracing what I call a “resistance” perspective, Levine looks for small ways that blacks signaled their discontent with the status quo. For Levine, Blacks used blues to communicate that discontent to each other and thus keep the freedom movement alive, even if only barely during the darkest periods of Jim Crow tyranny.

VII: Conclusion

The review of the literature on Booker T. Washington reveals a dramatic shift in the way he has been perceived by historians. Taking a top-down view that focused on the political and intellectual history of Washington’s time, scholars initially depicted Washington as a remarkable man but a misguided leader whose philosophy of accommodationism appealed more to whites than blacks. This view suggests Washington grew to love his position and power and became obsessed with protecting it. Because of this, Washington became a detriment to the long struggle for black freedom and civil rights. Over the past three decades, bottom-up histories of the time period have filled in the gory details of black life at the turn of the century, a time historian Rayford Logan has called “the nadir” of African Amercan life in the United States. I argue these works, appearing over the past three decades, have helped inform and shape the evolution of the top-down view of Washington. By placing the prominent top-down literature on Washington on a continuum from “Critical” to “Supportive,” we see a clear trend: The perception of Washington as honorable black leader grows through the years. Where he was once dismissed as an “opportunist” and even an “Uncle Tom,” historians writing in the past decade suggest that Washington and his many allies and protégés all took steps to try to subvert the Jim Crow system. These works have in turn helped inform and shape a new top-down view of Washington that is more sympathetic and even directly supportive of his works as a civil rights champion.

A thorough review of both the top-down and bottom-up history of the Booker T. Washington reveals a gap in the study of his long-term legacy and impact. Historians have not probed directly and extensively into the question of whether Washington and his policies played any role in the evolution of a widespread and confrontational black freedom movement in the South across the Jim Crow era. His most critical top-down biography suggests his influence stopped the day he died, but presents no evidence to support that view. Washington’s most recent – and most supportive biographer – uses his final chapter to settle old scores with the critical historians and does not pursue rigorously the question of long-term impact. This literature review reveals the need for more detailed research on Washington’s influence on the so-called “long civil rights movement” after his death in 1915. For example, did Washington’s call for “industrial education” delay the spread of liberal arts education among African Americans and thus limit the development of an educated black leadership in the South in the 1920s and 30s? Did his brand of “racial uplift” ideology emphasize white middle-class acceptance and denigrate militancy and protest? Did his call for “economic uplift” demoralize a black working class locked into poverty by a rigged economic system? Did his anti-union stance help prevent the rise of bi-racial working class alliances that could jump-started a black freedom movement much earlier during the Jim Crow era? All of these questions live at the intersection of the top-down and bottom-up review of Washington’s life and times. But none gets the deep focus it deserves.


i For example, see: Steven Hahn, “The Race Man,” The New Republic. October 26, 2009.

ii For example, see Thomas V. O’Brien, “Perils of Accommodation: The Case of Joseph Holley,” American Educational Research Journal, December 2007, Vol. 44, 4, 806-852.

iii Louis R. Harlan, Booker T. Washington. The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901 (Oxford University Press, 1972)

iv Louis R. Harlan, Booker T. Washington, The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915 (Oxford University Press, 1977), vii.

v C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (Louisiana State University Press, 1951), 356.

vi Harlan, Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, preface.

vii Harlan. Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, preface.

viii Harlan, Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, preface.

ix Woodward. Origins of the New South, 367.

x Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folks. (WalkingLionPress: West Valley City, UT; reprinted 2006), TBA.

xi August Meier, Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915: Racial Ideologies in the Age of Booker T. Washington (University of Michigan Press, 1963), 118

xii Meier. Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915, 102.

xiii Kevern Verney, The Art of the Possible: Booker T. Washington and the Black Leadership in the United States, 1881-1925 (Routlege. New York, 2001), 67.

xiv Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Creative Conflict in African American Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2004), xii.

xv Booker T. Washington, The Booker T. Washington Papers, Volume 5, 1899-1900, Geraldine McTigue, Louis R. Harlan, Raymond Smock, eds., (Oxford University Press, 1976) 464.

xvi Lewis. W.E.B Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 258.

xvii Neil R. McMillen, Dark Journey. Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (University of Illinois Press, 1989), 288.

xviii McMillen. Dark Journey, 289.

xix Leon Litwack, Trouble in Mind. Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Knopf, 1998), 3-6.

xx Litwack. Trouble in Mind, 7.

xxi Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent. The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. (Harvard University Press, 1993), 187.

xxii Higginbotham. Righteous Discontent, 222.

xxiii As quoted in Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness – Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (Oxford University Press, 1977), 252.

xxiv Quoted in Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, 266.

xxv Quotes in Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, 267

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