- Historic Sites
Uncle Tom? Not Booker T.
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
In 1901 when Booker Taliaferro Washington’s memoir Up From Slavery was published, William Dean Howells called him “a public man second to no other American in importance.” He was also a very private man. His life was far more complicated than the readers ol his most famous book could imagine—then or even today, sixty-seven years afterward. Almost hidden within his vast correspondence is the evidence that the soft-spoken man who won such public recognition as an educator was actually waging a secret fight for the Negro’s civil rights. Politically, he managed to do more and do it earlier than the militants of his day who scornfully dismissed him as an Uncle Tom.
Eighteen months before the publication of Washington’s autobiography, Howells had seen the public man impressively honored. On the night of December 4, 1899, Howells had put on full evening dress and gone to the Madison Square Garden Concert Hall in New York to a fund-raising meeting for Booker Washington’s school, Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. Howells represented literary New England in a gathering that drew not only editors, ministers, and descendants of early abolitionists, but New York’s oldest society and America’s newest wealth. Men such as August Belmont, William Dodge, Jacob Schiff, Collis Huntington, John D. Rockefeller, and ]. P. Morgan crowded the hall, and the presiding speaker of the evening was ex-Senator and former Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz.
Although the list of box holders was a fund raiser’s dream, no one was so crude as to pass a tall silk hat that night. William H. Baldwin, president of the Long Island Railroad and treasurer of Tuskegee’s board of trustees, asked the audience to go home and consider what they had heard. He gave the facts and figures of the achievement that had brought such a luminous assemblage to hear a speech by a former slave. Eighteen years before, the Alabama legislature had appropriated $2,000 to pay teachers’ salaries in a non-existent normal school for Negroes. When a young mulatto named Booker Washington was appointed to manage this ironic appropriation, he pledged his own salary to buy an abandoned plantation called the Old Burnt Place and started the school with seventeen students. Now, Baldwin told his audience, Dr. Washington (who had subsequently been awarded an honorary degree by Harvard) was educating 1,200 Negro boys and girls in forty-two buildings on more than 2,000 acres of land. The institution by then was worth $300,000.
Washington had seen to it that students built those buildings, paying for their education and learning a trade as they did so. He had raised the money—dollar by dollar—to expand and run a school which now needed nearly $65,000 a year just to keep going. The state of Alabama had been more than willing to let him do all the work. Its yearly appropriation by 1899 was 84,500, and Washington had to ask northern philanthropists to donate the rest of the operating expenses. Now he was asking lor an endowment fund of a million dollars. Former President Grover Cleveland, who had planned to preside at the Madison Square fund-raising meeting, sent a letter when illness prevented his coming—and a promise of $25,000 from an anonymous donor in the Middle West.
Yet the chief drawing card of the evening—the reason for standees in the packed concert hall—was Booker Washington, public speaker. He was not only an earnest Negro educator, a self-made man who answered all the popular requirements; he was also a great orator. As Howells later recalled:I heard Mr. Washington speak at a meeting which had been addressed by several distinguished white speakers. When this marvelous yellow man came upon the platform and stood for a moment, with his hands in his pockets, and with downcast eyes and then began to talk at his hearers, the clearest, soundest sense, he made me forget all those distinguished white speakers.… It was somewhat the manner of [Othello] when he defends himself to the Venetian Senate.
Common sense, Howells thought, was the dominant mood of Up From Slavery. “He has lived heroic poetry and he can, therefore, afford to talk simple prose. Simple prose it is, but of sterling worth.” Readers in 1901 thought so—and so did successive generations. In the sixty-seven years since its publication it has become a recognized American classic and is available in five different editions. This was not Washington’s intention when he wrote his book. He was a man of action and never considered himself a writer. He took time out from the consuming job of raising funds for Tuskegce to tell his own story because he had been persuaded that it would bring in money for the school, which indeed it did. Andrew Carnegie, who met the endowment goal almost singlehancled three years after the Madison Square meeting, was relatively unimpressed by Washington until he read Up From Slavery .