UP FROM HISTORY by Robert J.  Norrell


The Life of Booker T. Washington
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A comprehensive reassessment of the life and career of an African-American whose importance has been almost criminally neglected.

At the time of Booker T. Washington’s death in 1915, the country widely acknowledged the esteemed orator and author of Up From Slavery, the tireless educator and founder of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, as the successor to Frederick Douglass. But failing health, a late career scandal and a sustained attack by Northern black enemies who deeply resented his preeminence had already dimmed Washington’s star, and his historical reputation has only continued to decline. Amidst the poisonous racial climate of the post-Reconstruction era, Washington favored interracial engagement, stressing the educational, moral and economic development of his people as the surest path toward resolving “the Negro Problem.” Washington disavowed any “artificial forcing” of social equality and eschewed overt political engagement, instead emphasizing self-help, group solidarity and education with real-world applications to establish an economic basis for racial harmony. His critics accused him of surrendering his dignity to the white industrialists and philanthropists who supported Tuskegee, of ignoble submission to the white politicians who occasionally threw him crumbs, of practically accepting the alleged inferiority of his race and of wanting to keep the Negro “a hewer of wood and drawer of water.” During Washington’s last decade, the Niagara Movement and the NAACP had both emerged at least in part to counter his “Tuskegee machine,” to challenge his seeming stranglehold on black opinion and to counter his gospel of racial conciliation. The powerful pen and the fiery rhetoric of W.E.B. Du Bois began the work, still ongoing, of diminishing Washington’s achievement and his competing vision of black progress. In this measured and sympathetic treatment, Norrell (History/Univ. of Tennessee; The House I Live In: Race in the American Century, 2005, etc.) restores some balance, particularly with his detailed survey of conditions in the South.

A thoughtful biography that, perhaps, signals a new scholarly appreciation of a remarkable man.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-674-03211-8
Page count: 420pp
Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2008


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