Exploring a century of historical scholarship on Booker T. Washington.

Author:Dagbovie, Pero Gaglo
Position:Critical essay

"Easily the most striking thing in the history of the American Negro since 1876 is the ascendancy of Mr. Booker T. Washington," W. E. B. Du Bois remarked in The Souls of Black Folk, "But Booker T. Washington arose essentially as the leader not of one race but of two,--a compromiser between the South, the North, and the Negro ... Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission," his "programme practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro race," and he "withdraws many of the high demands of Negroes as men and American citizens." (1) More than a decade later in an obituary for Washington in The Crisis, Du Bois continued his critical assessment of his former adversary. "The death of Mr. Booker T. Washington marks an epoch in the history of America. He was the greatest Negro leader since Frederick Douglass, and the most distinguished man, white or black, who came out of the South since the Civil War.... On the other hand, in stern justice, we must lay on the soul of this man, a heavy responsibility for the consummation of Negro disenfranchisement, the decline of the Negro college and public school, and the firmer establishment of color caste in this land." (2)

Since the dawning of the 20th century, generations of scholars and historians have dissected, celebrated, and further conceptualized more than a few of Du Bois's enduring ideas, especially his theories of the "talented tenth," "double consciousness" or "two-ness," and "the problem of the color-line." (3) Equally noteworthy, many scholars of the African American experience have embraced and expanded upon Du Bois's critical stance towards Booker T. Washington. With few exceptions, since the early 1970s historians have largely concurred with Louis R. Harlan's conclusion that the most important dimension of Washington's life was "the sources, nature, uses, and consequences of his power." (4) In various ways historians have unpacked the meticulous details of Washington's public persona and identity, his shrewd racialized political tactics, and his role as the token black leader and spokesperson during the era described as "the nadir." On the other hand, less controversial issues such as Washington's hands-on programs for black farmers have received significantly less serious attention. In the late 1970s one scholar observed in Callaloo that "Washington's current standing among scholars is fairly low." (5) Raymond Hedin's observation seems fitting for more recent times as well. With few exceptions, since the mid-1990s, more than a few leading African American public intellectuals, figureheads, and spokespersons, as well as one of the most recent Washington biographers, have tended to oversimplify Washington's leadership and legacy by largely focusing on the negative dimensions of his strategy of conciliation. (6)

While he has suggested a useful paradigm for understanding "the Tuskegee Institute approach to black development," Manning Marable has blamed Washington for African America's future economic, educational, and political predicaments. "Many social dilemmas confronting black American universities and educators today, a century later, are rooted in the conceptual and programmatic contradictions of Washington's educational and economic paradigms." (7) Similarly, in his controversial broadside against black public intellectuals, Adolph Reed, Jr. grouped the Tuskegeean with Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., bell hooks, Michael E. Dyson, and Robin D. G. Kelley. For Reed, Washington, like his 20th-century public intellectual disciples, was a "freelance race spokesman; his status depended on designation by white elites rather than by any black electorate or social movement." (8) In the 2005 Black History Month volume of Black Issues in Higher Education, Julianne Malveaux similarly dismissed Washington by placing him in direct opposition with the protest tradition: "Celebrating protest, beginning with the Niagara Movement, means celebrating those folks who refused to go along to get along, refused to smile and take the payola that Washington was offering. It means celebrating the Black Panther Party and its breakfast programs created to feed Black children so they could learn." (9)

In one of the most recent monographs on Washington, The Art of the Possible: Booker T. Washington and Black Leadership in the United States, 1881-1925, Kevern Verney, who acknowledges Washington's complexity, describes Washington as being a self-centered, conservative, greedy, dictatorial, black conscious-less despot who remained ideologically static between 1895 and 1915. Verney suggests what Washington could have done and assigns him various denigrating labels, such as the "rustic-minded Tuskegeean," a man of "bucolic character," and a "turn of the century Forrest Gump." (10) On the other hand, W. Fitzhugh Brundage's and Jacqueline M. Moore's 2003 studies present a more complex portrait of Washington. The essays in Booker T. Washington and Black Progress: Up From Slavery, 100 Years Later are especially unique and unpredictable, recognizing the "multi meanings and polyvocality" of Washington's autobiography. (11)

Viewed in its totality, the historiography on Washington is almost a century old, is dynamic and fascinating, consists of many key transformations, developments, and debates; has been shaped by a wide variety of scholars; and serves as a revealing window into not only current perceptions of Washington, but also into the epistemology of African American history and the evolution of African American leadership. The historical studies on Washington have been compelling enough to attract the attention of numerous scholars. (12) These scholars' analyses of Washingtonian scholarship, however, need to be updated and assessed.

This essay critically explores significant scholarship on Washington published since the early 20th century. This historiography can be subdivided chronologically from the immediate aftermath of Washington's death on 15 November 1915 to the middle of the century; and from the mid-20th century to the present. The 1970s stands out as an especially dynamic, revisionist decade in Washingtonian scholarship. Thematically, scholars have analyzed Washington on many levels, focusing on his life story, leadership, autobiographical writings, educational theories and programs, relationships with his opposition, views on Africa, and his pragmatic outreach programs. I analyze both the chronological and thematic evolution of this historiography, and explore the predominant ways we have been encouraged to view Washington. Incorporating the wide range of scholars' interpretations and findings, I offer the beginnings of a framework with which historians can assess Washington, and teach "millennials"--today's college and university students--about his role as a black leader. (13)


From 1915 to 1950 there were eight biographies of Washington published. During the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s he was the only African American featured in white authored books about "great" American reformers, educators, and leaders. He was also the topic of a diverse range of articles pertaining to education and the history of African American leadership. Booker T. Washington: The Master Mind of a Child of Slavery (1915) by Frederick E. Drinker, "former city editor of the Philadelphia Record and an advertising agent," is the first major biography of Washington. Based upon the standards of the Progressive era historical profession, Drinker's study is well-documented and quite comprehensive, drawing extensively on lesser known, but invaluable primary sources. He also included a rich collection of authentic photos. According to Drinker, Washington's educational outlook was "a radical idea" and a pioneering educational experiment, especially for its variety of outreach activities. (14) The second and more widely recognized biography of Washington, The Life and Times of Booker T. Washington by Benjamin Franklin Riley, was published in 1916. Carter G. Woodson praised Riley's effort, noting that the book was "of incalculable value in the study of the Negro during the last quarter of a century." (15) Though Riley's study received more attention than Drinker's, it did not supercede Drinker's in terms of analysis or information.

In January 1917 "The Crisis Advertiser" praised Emmett J. Scott's and Lyman Beecher Stowe's Booker T. Washington: A Builder of a Civilization as being the "authorized biography of Booker T. Washington." (16) Woodson also welcomed their study, "deeming it an appropriate estimate of the man." (17) Scott and Stowe cited extensively from Washington's lesser known writings, including many unpublished documents. Unsurprisingly, they defended Washington from his opposition and highlighted his extension work for the black farmers of Macon County. "Mr. Washington was the kind of leader who kept very close to the plain people," Scott and Stowe insisted. "He knew their everyday lives, their weaknesses, their temptations ... he knew exactly what they 'were up against' whether they lived in the country or city." (18) As Washington's personal secretary and close confidant, Scott remained dedicated to Washington throughout Scott's lifetime. (19)

Between 1917 and 1939 five biographies on Washington were published. (20) In 1932, Washington's son, E. Davidson, offered scholars another window into his father's worldview by publishing a collection of his speeches. (21) None of these studies, however, surpassed those written by Drinker, Riley, and Scott and Stowe. Of the early biographies on Washington, Scott and Stowe's study appears to be the most widely read, whereas Drinker's study has been the most overlooked. From the 1920s until the 1940s, white authors such as Lyman Abbott, M. A. De Wolfe, M. S. Fenner, and Eleanor C. Fishburn included Washington as the representative token...

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