Uncle Tom? Not Booker T.

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We’ll soon be free, When de Lord will call us home.

The momentous news was brought by a stranger who rode down the lane one summer morning. All the slaves were told to gather around the little front porch of the Burroughs home. Booker, Amanda, and John stood close to their mother. Members of the Burroughs family were ranged on either side to listen as the stranger read from a paper what Booker Washington remembered as the President’s own Proclamation: that they were then, thenceforward, and forever free. When he had finished reading, the stranger turned to the Negroes and translated in simple terms. They could go now, when and where they pleased. Booker’s mother, with tears running down her face, leaned down and kissed him and explained the incredible again—that “this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.”

That Promised Land which presumably lay all about Jane Ferguson and her family, and nine million other freed slaves, was full of cruel disappointment—and of hope. The long, patient job of making ex-slaves into citizens in fact was the one her son Booker undertook to begin. He did not think that progress would be swift, although he did all he could to hasten it. He knew it would go on after his own lifetime. Before Booker Washington died in 1915, the perceptive journalist Ray Stannard Baker, who knew only part of Washington’s work for his race, said of him: “Measured by any standard, white or black, Washington must be regarded today as one of the great men of his country; and in the future he will be so honored.” The simple truth is that he has not been honored as he should have been, because his whole story has never been fully known. In the emotional climate of America’s most grievous social upheaval, it is time for everyone concerned to consider him again.

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