Uncle Tom? Not Booker T.


“I entreat you,” Washington wrote the Louisiana lawmakers, “not to pass such a law that will prove an eternal millstone about the neck of your children.” In Up From Slavery he wrote one strong prophetic paragraph. Unless literacy tests, or any other changes in the franchise, were applied “without double dealing or evasion to both races alike … [it] will be, like slavery, a sin that at some time we shall have to pay for.” He made no public comment then on the device the Louisiana convention had, in spite of his letter, finally chosen—the so-called “grandfather clause,” which could not possibly be administered fairly to both races. In effect, the clause restricted the privilege of voting to all whose grandfathers had enjoyed it; this included nearly all white men, even illiterates. But for Negroes, most of whose grandparents had been slaves, it was virtual disfranchiscmcnt.

There is a story behind the conclusion of Up From Slavery that shows clearly what Hooker Washington thought—and did—about the grandfather clause. The way he wrote that conclusion illustrates, as nothing else can, the different levels of his life at that critical moment: “As I write the closing words of this autobiography I find myself—not by design—in the city of Richmond, Virginia … where, about twenty-five years ago, because of my poverty I slept night after night under the sidewalk.” He had been asked to speak, lie went on, before an integrated audience in a hall which Negroes had never before been allowed to use. “Jn the presence of hundreds of coloured people, many distinguished white citizens, the City Council, the State legislature and state officials, I delivered my message, which was one of hope and cheer; and from the bottom of my heart I thanked both races for this welcome back to the state that gave me birth.”

On a personal level, Washington’s conclusion was certainly sincere. Hc was moved by the occasion and by the public rapprochement between the races which he had brought about. However, he never mentioned what actually brought him to Richmond. The aesthetics of the book would have made a recital of the facts inappropriate, but more important, the whole truth would have been politically indiscreet.

The facts were that the man who urged Washington to come to Richmond was a Negro lawyer named Giles Jackson—and Negro lawyers were at that time usually regarded as either ludicrous or suspect. Jackson was neither. He was a city leader and vice president of the National Negro Business League (founded by Booker Washington the year before), whose local chapter had issued the formal invitation. Giles Jackson was also a link between Washington and the white moderates in the city of Richmond, who had good reason to respect the Negro community. Not long before, when the city had needed money to keep the schools open, no white bank had been able to lend them fifty thousand dollars, but a Negro bank had been able and willing to lend them double the amount.

One provision of Virginia’s proposed constitution divided money to schools by race—white tax money to support white schools, Negro taxes to support Negro ones. This would obviously result in Negro schools getting less per pupil than white schools and considerably less than they had been getting. White leaders with troubled consciences urged Jackson to get Booker Washington to come to speak out on this; there was a chance he might have some influence. But as for the primary purpose of the new constitution, the disfranchisement of the Negro by a grandfather clause or some other such device, Jackson wrote Washington confidentially that neither he nor anyone else could stop it: “This they will do at all hazards.”

Washington had no reason to doubt it. The Louisiana legislature had paid little attention either to Washington’s open letter of 1898 and the editorial support it got in the South, or to their own United States senators, both of whom had publicly stated that the grandfather clause was obviously unconstitutional. But no test case had yet reached the Supreme Court. Since 1899 Washington had been the leader of a small group of Negroes who were raising money to finance such a court test. Jackson, in urging Washington to speak in Richmond on the school issue, promised him that a large share of the proceeds from his speech would be donated to his anti-grandfather-clause fund. As a result, the distinguished audience, including the Virginia legislature, unwittingly helped contribute one hundred dollars to a fund designed to disallow its own proposed disfranchisement legislation.

From 1901 on, Booker Washington’s political involvements became more important, and secrecy was therefore even more essential. For in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became President. Within hours after he was sworn in, he was writing to Booker Washington,”… I must see you as soon as possible.” Washington’s new role as arbiter of all Roosevelt’s Negro appointments and even of some southern white ones (a role carried on under TaIt as well, although with diminished inlluence) had constantly to be concealed from a hostile Democratic press.