BOOKER T. WASHINGTON: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915 by Louis R. Harlan
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BOOKER T. WASHINGTON: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The second and concluding volume of Harlan's superb biography of Booker T. Washington (1856-1916) shows the Great Conciliator in both a more positive and a more negative light than heretofore: less wholly detrimental to black interests, more unscrupulous toward his black critics--and condemned, at the bar of history, for failing to meet them half-way. As a record of Washington's embattled ascendancy (and a relatively few, crowded years), the book is astutely set up. The first chapter treats of Washington's political partnership-of-convenience with Teddy Roosevelt, and demonstrates how Washington's lobbying skills and persistence, coupled with TR's stubbornness, achieved the symbolically important appointment of a black as collector of the port of Charleston, S.C.--against the tide of Southern disfranchisement of blacks and to the benefit of Washington's Tuskegee Machine. We also see his efforts to block all-white Southern delegations to Republican national conventions, as well as the limitations of his secretive, arm's-length methods, his failure to confront issues head-on. After TR's summary injustice to blacks in the Brownsville riot (1906), Harlan will write that he lacked ""one essential attribute for the leader of an oppressed minority--the capacity for righteous public indignation."" (And, in one of the few, measured bits of psychological analysis: ""somewhere back in his life the power to lose his temper with a white man had been schooled out of him."") The second chapter then takes up the growing challenge to Washington's meliorist leadership by educated, mostly Northern blacks (the vitriolic Trotter, the sober Du Bois), and his ""panicky overreaction""--which not only cost him talented cohorts (forcing him to rely on whites and yes-men), but fueled his ruthlessness and self-deceiving optimism. (The details of his secret plotting against the Niagarans and later the NAACPers culminate in the previously-untold story of how Washington arranged the lurid press coverage of a mixed-race, mixed-sex 1911 NAACP dinner.) Woven into this drama are separate, shaded chapters on other aspects of Washington's life-and-work: from his family (he was attentive yet remote) through his raising and use of philanthropic contributions (not only for Tuskegee) to his relations with Africans and other people-of-color (on which Harlan has done much original research). Then, two months after the subverted NAACP dinner, Washington discovered his own vulnerability to racism in the still-inexplicable Ulrich affair (BTW, hanging about in a shady district, was assaulted by a white)--after which he ""spoke out publicly, as he had long done privately, against the inhumanity of facial injustice."" A work of scholarship, insight, and muted, cumulative power.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1983
ISBN: 0195042298
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press