A Figure of Controversy

By the time he died at age 59, Booker T. Washington inspired devoted admirers and fierce detractors, whose words together depict yet another “two-sided man.”

As quoted in Robert J. Norrell’s 2009 biography Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington, Madame C. J. Walker, the first female American self-made millionaire called Washington “the greatest man America ever knew.” The African American aviator Charles Anderson wrote to Washington’s former personal secretary, Emmett Scott that his boss had “the rare gift of keeping his eyes fixed on the goal and not the prize, and of steadily urging his way onward, while the hounds of Acteon were in full cry and baying at his heels.”

During his life, Washington had to contend with a small but vociferous band of opponents, most of them based in the North and most notably his contemporary W.E.B. Du Bois. After Washington’s death, Du Bois, writing in The Crisis, the magazine he’d founded five years earlier, blamed Washington for “the consummation of Negro disenfranchisement, the decline of the Negro college and public school and the firmer establishment of color caste in this land.” What Du Bois had called the principal problem of the 20th century, that of “the color line,” he now identified squarely as Washington’s problem.

The black editor of the Boston Guardian and an ally of Du Bois’s and fellow member of the anti-Washington Niagara Movement, William Monroe Trotter, attacked Washington as “the Benedict Arnold of the Negro Race,” “the Great Traitor,” “the Black Boss,” “the Exploiter of all Exploiters,” a “miserable Toady” and “the Imperial Caesar.”

And what about black Americans – 99 percent of whom, until the great migration to the North began, still lived in the South – what did they think? The overwhelming majority of them appear to have greatly esteemed Booker T. (also commonly known as “Uncle Booker”), and many at the time named their sons after him. “At the height of the attacks from the Niagara Movement, Booker seemed to be gaining in popularity among southern blacks,” Norrell writes. “The number of black babies named Booker in 1905 represented eleven times the number of black men who attended the founding of the Niagara group.”

In the decades after Washington’s death, however, particularly after the Civil Right’s Movement of the 1960s seemed to make him a prophet, Du Bois’s negative opinion of his rival would become increasingly influential, in part, surely, because he was born a decade after Washington and outlived him by more than 40 years. When it came to his opinion of Washington, then, time was on Du Bois’s side. Is it still?

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