Booker T. Washington Biography Reexamines Legacy

A discussion with a scholar who would resurrect Washington's reputation

On a Friday morning one century ago this month, an entourage of about 20 black men and a few whites arrived together, trailing a posse of reporters from big-city newspapers like the New York Evening Post, and rode in cars from Knoxville College to Market Square. Along the way, Knoxvillians of both races craned for a glimpse of the most famous black man in the world.

Half of the usually busy Market Hall had been cleared for the event, which, despite a Friday-morning hour hardly ideal for working people, drew 2,500-3,000 people, both blacks and whites.

Several well-known people were on the stage, including Emmett J. Scott, author and later, during Woodrow Wilson's administration, the first black to have a formal role as a cabinet advisor. One was Robert E. Park, the author and well-known urban sociologist.

They'd arrived in the middle of the night, on a special train. On Market Square, a black vocal group named the Ford Quartet sang inspirational hymns. Though well known in Knoxville's black community, the group was "a revelation to the white people present."

Knoxville Mayor John Brooks introduced the main attraction, "the leader of his race and perhaps the foremost Negro in the world."

And up stepped a former slave named Booker T. Washington. He'd been to Knoxville before, and would come again, but his visit in 1909 was a front-page sensation.

On Market Square, Washington gave a talk calling for equal justice for blacks and emphasizing the fact that black people had a right to live forever in the South, their American home. But his talk might sound disconcertingly retrograde to modern audiences. "We are going to live together here in the South as black people and white people. We can live separately socially, and are going to do so. No sensible Negro desires to have social intermingling with the white people of the South."

Language that seemed to accommodate racial segregation was a much more conservative message than that conveyed by civil-rights activists a half-century later, and has led to some undergraduate shorthand characterizing Washington as a complaisant conservative. Often compared to the more strident tones of the younger activist W.E.B. Du Bois, he's been characterized as an "Uncle Tom." Freshmen jot notes about Washington as bland accommodationist, and turn the page.

On the centennial of Washington's visit to Market Square, I found myself at an outdoor table on the Square with Jeff Norrell, sharing a drink in the afternoon sunshine. Known to the nation as Robert J. Norrell, the University of Tennessee history professor is a historian of Southern civil rights and most recently author of a much-talked-about book called Up From History. The only full-length biography of Washington published in the last 25 years, it takes a fresh and sometimes controversial look at the man in context of his times.

The book's title is provocative: Washington's 1901 autobiography was called Up from Slavery. Norrell's title suggests that Washington's legacy has been in bondage to bad history.

"Washington's objective was to reduce the hostility of whites to blacks in general," says Norrell, "at a time when there was extreme hostility to black existence in the United States." Norrell emphasizes the word existence. Lynching had reached a peak in the South a few years earlier, and several powerful white Southerners who may have considered themselves compassionate were insisting the only solution to the racial divide was to force blacks to leave the South, perhaps like the removal of the Cherokee. Separate movements supported by white supremacists in Nashville and Atlanta proposed moving the South's 10 million blacks to new homes in the Midwest, the West, or back to Africa.

"Those kinds of attitudes had to be redirected and defused before blacks had a chance to rise," says Norrell. "The whole idea of progress is queered by people talking about sending them back to Africa." Washington said about the same thing on Market Square. He insisted blacks belonged right here.

In Knoxville, Washington made his point with sly irony: The black man "is right here in the South, and he is going to stay. The white man gave him a cordial invitation to come over here. They sent big ships after them, and gave them free passage to this country, and now that they are here, they are going to keep right here... the Negro is the only race that has ever been given so urgent an invitation to this country."

Much of Washington's speech demanded equal justice—"What the Negro is interested in is to be sure that his life, liberty, and property are protected by the officers of the law"—and emphasized black potential for higher education and home ownership. The message that success in America was possible even for blacks inspired black audiences and surprised white ones. And enraged some.

The white nationalists of his era, some of whom perhaps had never even heard of the more radical Du Bois, despised Washington. Popular Southern novelist Thomas Dixon declared Washington would start a race war.

But Washington was the first black political figure whom hundreds of thousands of Southern whites had paid much attention to, and he used that power to redefine black potential for American success.

"It's astonishing that nobody has put Washington's career in context" of his hateful and dangerous times, Norrell says. Norrell thinks Washington had a stronger positive effect than Du Bois, whose influence on middle America, black and white, was slight—and unlike Du Bois, Washington concentrated his efforts in the South, where the bulk of American blacks, and their most extreme white antagonists, lived.

Norrell's book has stirred some pots. A few reviewers denounced it, but the big ones—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal—seem awed. In the Times, Shelby Steele wrote that Norrell's book "gives back to America one of its greatest heroes." Norrell mentions Jonathan Yardley, the often-scathing Pulitzer-winning critic who raved about the book in The Washington Post. "Yardley said what every writer wants to hear: ‘He changed my mind.'"