One of several recent books reevaluating Booker T. Washington, this work is an attempt to describe the influences and development of his entrepreneurial strategies for racial advancement. Boston has chosen a worthy subject; most previous biographies have focused largely on his political stances and ignored the content of his business philosophy. His goal is to take Washington at his word and envision him as a progressive business leader. Using materials from the Tuskegee archives as well as drawing from newspapers and the published Washington papers, the author argues that Washington was not an accommodationist but was a wise leader who believed blacks would need to advance economically to be accepted by whites as equals.
Boston divides the book into two parts: the influences and experiences that shaped Washington's entrepreneurial philosophy [End Page 110] and the ways in which he implemented these ideas. Seven chapters include a discussion of the larger historical context, the people and events that influenced him, an explanation of his philosophy, and an examination of Washington's influence on leaders who followed. The strongest chapters are those on the Negro Farmer's Conference and the National Negro Business League which draw on less commonly mined materials. His discussion of Washington's leadership of Tuskegee is also interesting.
Nonetheless, as a whole Boston does not achieve his purpose. He frequently argues that historians have not taken Washington at his word, but then he explains away seeming conservatism in Washington's views. For example, he excuses Washington's statement in the wake of the Springfield Riot of 1908 that there were too many idle and disreputable blacks causing such racial tension by arguing that Washington obviously did not mean Springfield because that riot was the result of the attempted lynching of an innocent man. At times, Boston takes Washington's words too literally. He seemingly takes at face value the assertion that one of the common causes of black debt was that sharecroppers were buying clocks, pianos, and other unnecessary items.
Boston has a tendency to overstate his points throughout the book, creating paper tigers to fight. While there is a definite need for more work on Washington's economic philosophies, even the standard biographies have never denied his complexity of character, his spectacular fundraising for the black community, or his creation of a network of black businessmen across the country. Boston also misinterprets W. E. B. Du Bois's concept of the Talented Tenth to mean that only an elite few would be allowed access to higher education. Moreover, the author tends to gloss over important points that might challenge his interpretation that Washington's entrepreneurial ideas were progressive. He correctly cites Samuel Armstrong as a major influence on Washington's economic philosophy but completely overlooks Armstrong's own conservatism. It is hard to argue that Washington was progressive without addressing the conservative [End Page 111] nature of his influences. Boston comes closest to detailed analysis of Washington's philosophy in his discussion of the Negro Farmer's Conference. Acknowledging that historians have generally argued that it had negligible impact, Boston cites the improved appearance of attendees and growth in extension programs as evidence that it did have a widespread effect. But even then he dismisses the essential question of the effectiveness of the programs as irrelevant. Unfortunately, these holes in the author's reasoning leave the reader unconvinced of his overall argument. Ultimately, this book makes only minor contributions toward a more complex view of Booker T. Washington.
Jacqueline Moore is professor of history at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. She is the author of Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the Struggle for Racial Uplift (2003). She is a visiting Fulbright lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University for 2010-11.