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Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington. By Robert J. Norrell. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009. xi, 508 pp. $35.00. ISBN 978-0-674-03211-8. Booker T. Washington was the most powerful African American in the first half of the twentieth century. Even now, he stands among the most subtle politicians ever to spring from the soil of Virginia, a state that has produced such Machiavellian princes as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Woodrow Wilson. Washington achieved influence with European nobles, American industrialists, and two presidents, working his wizardry from the unlikely base of his Tuskegee Institute in rural Alabama. He was born in slavery and spent the first seven or eight years of his life on a dilapidated plantation, until his mother moved the family to Malden, West Virginia, where he lived until his mid-teens. Then he trekked, by foot, back to Virginia to attend Hampton Institute, where he received what was by today’s shrunken standards an excellent liberal arts education. He taught for a short time in a one-room schoolhouse in Malden, then returned to Hampton as an assistant to its founder, Samuel C. Armstrong, who recommended him to establish an industrial college at Tuskegee. Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901) is the standard authorized chronicle of his ascent to power. It has become an American classic, and also the starting point for any researcher who attempts to fathom the life and mystery of the Wizard of Tuskegee. The novelist Ralph Ellison, once a student at the Institute, referred obliquely to Washington’s epic as “the black rite of Horatio Alger.” Washington’s autobiographical writings , telling the story of his rise from rags to respectability, are the indispensable foundation for all subsequent treatments of his life. Both my parents’ high schools were named for him, and Booker T. became Review Essay W I L S O N J . M O S E S OF MR. ROBERT J. NORRELL AND OTHERS Wilson Jeremiah Moses is the Ferree Professor of American History at Penn State. He is the author of six books, including Creative Conflict in African American Thought and Afrotopia: Roots of African American Popular History, both published by Cambridge University Press. J A N U A R Y 2 0 1 0 63 the model for every gospel of uplift and self-help preached in African American communities in the United States. Washington capped his first fifteen years at Tuskegee by delivering his celebrated 1895 Atlanta Exposition Address, which catapulted him into national prominence. He gained influence with Theodore Roosevelt and achieved a degree of power unrealized by any African American until after World War II, and his advice was sought on race relations and labor conditions throughout the United States. Washington, through his agents in the North and his control of several black newspapers, achieved considerable power beyond the South, until he was effectively the ward boss of black America. Up from Slavery was largely ghost-written, as people of my parents’ generation were not aware. So, too, was Washington’s supplementary narrative My Larger Education (1911). Robert J Norrell’s Up from History makes no attempt to obscure these facts, which have long been known to American historians. Indeed, Norrell’s work brings together many twiceor thrice-told tales, making it an excellent one-volume study of the consensus within the historical profession on the meaning of Washington’s life and work. Norrell reveals that Washington’s approved versions of his life contain some inaccurate recollections, such as his all-too-modest description of his controversial supper with Theodore Roosevelt in the White House. It was not a spontaneous occurrence, but resulted from a specific invitation to dine. Nor is Norrell the first to note that Washington made every attempt to mitigate the evil effects of racism and discrimination in the period of American history that John Hope Franklin called “counter-reconstruction,” and Rayford W. Logan called “the Nadir.” Washington’s official narrative remains, even today, the best defense of its author’s role in American history. But as W. E. B. Du Bois candidly noted, when considering the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2166-9961
Print ISSN
0002-4341
Pages
pp. 62-71
Launched on MUSE
2012-07-11
Open Access
No
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