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Uncle Tom? Not Booker T.
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
It is hard to imagine how the book could have been more successful. Yet anyone who knows what the author left out cannot help realizing that it could certainly have been more candid. If Washington had told the whole story it would have been obvious that he was not solely an educator. And William Dean Howells could hardly have said, “By precept and by practice he counsels … a manly fortitude in bearing the wrongs that cannot now be righted and a patient faith in the final kindliness and ultimate justice of the Anglo-Americans. His counsel has been for the Afro-American to forego politics, at least for the present.”
Washington indeed saw nothing to be gained by an open fight over the Negro’s rights in 1900. The crucial word here is “open.” Washington believed in fighting—and, if possible, in winning. By iyoo he had already begun a secret battle to keep southern legislatures from denying the Negro the franchise. Howclls’ embarrassing praise—one of the many remarks that later helped give Washington a reputation as an Uncle Tom—was one of the crosses he had to bear. He was acutely sensitive to criticism as a leader, but he cared most deeply about results. Hc let everyone sec his main concern—the long-range program of educating the Negro for responsible citixenship. He felt that he could not let the readers of Up From Slavery see his hopes for the Negro’s final complete integration into American life—or his own more immediate fight for political justice—without endangering both prospects.
The “Negro problem,” as far as the audience gathered at Madison Square was concerned, was solely the result of the black man’s own illiteracy, immorality, and sloth, and Washington was going to solve it. Speaker after speaker assured possible patrons that their consciences could be cleared by giving money to Tuskegee. “There is no longer the old problem of what to do with the Negro,” said William Haldwin. “That question has been settled. The problem now is one of co-operation and help and work.” Baldwin was an unusual philanthropist, but he shared” the belief of most white Americans, as the new century began, that the passage of time meant inevitable progress.
It was not, however, a time of progress for the American Negro. In the grim nineties, when there were more lynchings than at any other time in American history, the South, with the connivance of a largely indifferent North, was rapidly taking away all the rights given the frcedman during Reconstruction. In iyoo the educated Negro minority could not help but sec its problem as primarily a political one. In the South, state after state was rewriting its Reconstruction constitution to disfranchise, by one device or another, its colored voters—who were thereby doomed to political impotence for the next fifty years. Mississippi had begun it in iSyo, followed by South Carolina in iSy^ and Louisiana in 1898. When Washington wrote Up From Slavery , he knew that Virginia and Alabama had constitutional conventions coming up in 1901.
At this critical time for the Negro, Washington’s position was unique. He was an ambassador—very much without portfolio and with little leverage—from a small, diffuse country-within-a-country. He was the one man whom the majority of both races trusted. From this perilous summit he was expected to protect the Negroes in the South and protest with those of the North, to rally the silent white southern moderates, and to stem the power of the racists as best he could—and in the North to get contributions from both white liberals and conservative businessmen for his school. He managed to do more of these things at once than anyone realized because inevitably some of his alignments were private. William E. B. DuBois, Washington’s chief antagonist in later years, said” in his review of Up From Slavery; “It is no ordinary tribute to this man’s tact and power that, steering as he must amid so many diverse interests and opinions, he today commands not simply the applause of those who believe in his theories, but also the respect of those who do not.”
The editors of the intellectual weekly the Outlook , who serialized Up From Slavery before it was published in book form, wanted Washington to comment more on the stormy contemporary racial scene. He refused. He was writing a personal, not a political, book. Reviewers inevitably noticed the omission, but as the Nation ’s critic said, “It is not as if Mr. Washington had not written elsewhere of Negro lynching and disfranchisment.”
He had done so in a successful little book called The Future of the American Negro , published shortly before the Madison Square— fund-raising meeting. (It was one of the unforeseen consequences of Up From Slavery ’s overwhelming popularity that so many readers in the future would never know that Washington had written anything else.) Washington included in this earlier book the substance of two open letters he had written—a strong protest against lynching, which he managed to have printed in every possible southern newspaper in the summer of i8gg; and an earlier letter to the Louisiana constitutional convention, which had met in i8g8 to consider how to keep Negroes from voting without actually saying so.