- Historic Sites
Uncle Tom? Not Booker T.
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
It was also in 1901 that .Washington’s home state of Alabama rewrote its constitution, complete with a grandfather clause and, as one delegate said with satisfaction, “enough traps to catch every Negro in Africa.” Washington, who had lobbied against it with every subtle maneuver he could devise, undertook secretly to challenge it in the Supreme Court almost as soon as it was ratified. The case was eventually lost, but it was the first of a series of landmark cases that Booker Washington initiated. That southern white moderates sometimes helped him in these litigations was kept so secret that often even in his private correspondence he used assumed names. If he had worked openly in these legal fights—against disfranchisement, segregation, and peonage, and on behalf of the rights of Negroes to sit on juries—he would have been run out of the South.
Undoubtedly some of the inaccuracy in Up From Slavery was quite unintentional—the hi vied recollection of a busy man who did not take u je to look up old records and simply got mixed up on his own chronology, as most people do. Some of it was the dramatic exaggeration of a fluent speaker trying to make a point. And if in his memoir he could make comments about slavery in general through himself, he did so—even though specific facts might hot have strictly applied to his own life.
However, other facts were clearly omitted by editorial choice. There had been an earlier version of his memoirs—a book called The Story of My Life and Work —consisting mainly of press clippings strung together by a narrative that was partly ghostwritten. It was published by a midwestern firm which sold its books by subscription only, primarily to Negroes, but Washington’s white patrons saw it and Lyman Abbott, editor of the Outlook , told Washington he not only could, but should, do better. Wide distribution of a better biographical reminiscence, Abbott told him, would “do good to the cause you have at heart.” This time Washington wrote his story himself. He recorded his early life as he wanted the whole world to see it, and this is the version which has been uncritically accepted ever since.
The story started with a very human deception: Washington concealed his real age. It was understandable that he might be unsure, because many slaves did not really know exactly how old they were—and that was a point he wanted to make. Apparently, however, Washington did know. He had told his teachers at Hampton Institute in Virginia, where he went to school and later taught, that he was born in 1856, which was true. In 1899, when he was struggling with his first autobiography, he wrote to “correct” Hampton’s record: “I am not sure of the year I was born, but recent investigations tend to show that it was about 1858 or 1859.” In the same year, when he sent in his first entry to Who’s Who , he made it “about 1859,” thus admitting to forty rather than forty-three.
Forty as a male landmark was even more pronounced back in the nineties, in days of earlier mortality. He had been almost a prodigy, one of the youngest in his class at Hampton—so young that when in 1881 he was proposed as principal of Tuskegee the trustees didn’t know whether to accept him. But now, in 1900, constant newspaper exposure had made it seem that Washington had been around for quite some time. He was even beginning to be called “the veteran leader.” But probably more than personal pride was behind his concealment of his tru^^^ge: he was constantly driven by a feeling that he had not yet done enough. As he said in the first paragraph of The Story of My Life and Work: “I hope that my life work, by reason of my present age, lies more in the future than in the past.”
1856 was actually a vintage year. A number “of babies were born in it who were to be heard from later—Sigmund Freud in Vienna; George Bernard Shaw in Dublin; and in Staunton, Virginia—not far away from Booker’s birthplace—Thomas Woodrow Wilson. Unlike the other new arrivals, Booker had only one name. It was all that was required when his owner, James Burroughs, a planter near rural Halesford, Virginia, noted the birth in the family Bible and then rode over to the Rocky Mount courthouse and registered the birth of a child to his slave Jane, on April 5.
Despite the fact that Booker was a common Virginia surname, used often for a first name, the clerk spelled it Bowker at first. So did the man who recorded James Burroughs’ estate when he died in 1861, by which time the baby had grown to be worth four hundred dollars.
The child was known as Burroughs’ Booker. He was now a member of the close-knit household of a small rural slaveholder in which black and white worked together and considered themselves one family in a feudal sense. When the Burroughs daughters wrote to Washington years later they filled their chatty letters with news of all the relatives. At their best, little Booker’s white owners were simple, direct, and kindly. He said that they were not “especially cruel… as compared with many others.”