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Uncle Tom or New Negro? A Black Episcopalian’s Reflections on Booker T. Washington

Robert Norrell’s Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington (2009) was the first full-length biography of the late 19th- and early 20th-century Black American educator and community leader published in a generation.[1] Before reading it, like many Black Americans, I did not have a completely favorable view of Washington. As a native Alabamian, I first knew of Washington as the founder and wizard of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Macon County in the state’s Black Belt region. Tuskegee was the successful example of Washington’s industrial education philosophy, endeavoring to instill in Black students of the rural South self-reliance through the attainment of practical skills that would lead to dignified work and living. Yet his 1895 Atlanta Exposition Speech, in which he said how “in all things purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress,” made me uneasy about Washington’s legacy. Like W.E.B. DuBois, Monroe Trotter, and others of the early 20th century Niagara Movement, I saw Washington’s “accommodationist” views as troubling and a setback to full racial equality.

After an Alabamian Episcopal priest recommended Norrell’s book a decade ago, I was brought back to something Victor Lee Austin told me a couple of years before: “To be a fair student of history, one must willingly seek to fully understand where the person one is studying was coming from.” With Austin’s sage advice in mind, I read Norrell’s volume seeking to better understand why Washington advocated for gradual and not immediate racial integration in the Jim Crow South. Reading Norrell’s book proved enlightening.

DuBois, his primary intellectual rival, had been born free during the early Reconstruction Era in Massachusetts; Washington lived his first nine years in bondage in Southwestern Virginia until he was freed via the Emancipation Proclamation as Union forces occupied the region. Thirty years later, DuBois, from a racially integrated New England, was granted opportunities to receive a quality liberal arts education. Washington, a former slave, was laboring hard in the South, where racial tensions were at an all-time high. Black agitation of whites for immediate racial equality was one of the causes of the 4,000-plus known Black lynchings that occurred from 1877 through 1950.

As one of America’s last slaves, and seeing violence being inflicted on Black Southerners all around him, Washington aimed for a solution that would both end the violence and encourage Black empowerment. Thus, as Norrell says, Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” was not the pandering of an Uncle Tom, but an acceptance of the reality of the South’s social situation and an endeavor to provide a means for Blacks’ attainment of full social and political rights without any further violence. Norrell’s book helped me see Washington in a whole new light. Washington, like DuBois, helped prepare the way for the “New Negro,” albeit through a different strategic mode.

More recently I read Rebecca A. Carroll’s Uncle Tom or New Negro? African Americans Reflect on Booker T. Washington and Up from Slavery 100 Years Later (2006). Including essays by contemporary Black scholars, politicians, business leaders, filmmakers, and writers, it seeks to “reflect [on] the impact …Washington has had on black people throughout history,” with the aim of rehabilitating his image. As John Bryant, the founder, chairman, and CEO of Operation Hope, says in the book’s closing words:

Was he perfect? Of course not, we all have errors in judgment. We are born broken and are all sinners. But a saint is a sinner that got up. Booker T. Washington should be credited for doing what he did—for doing something when others did nothing. (p. 163)

In matters of religion, Jonathan Reavis asserts that Washington was much affected by the “Protestant ethic,” which emphasizes that work produces diligence, discipline, and frugality. Originating from the late 19th and early 20th century work of German sociologist Max Weber, the Protestant ethic teaches that common workers, like business professionals, have a call from God that can be fulfilled through a dedication to their work. Hence, Washington’s ascribed statement, “If a black man is anything but a Baptist or a Methodist, someone has been tampering with his religion,” makes sense, considering his educational thought. Further, many of the Episcopal Church’s Reconstruction Era institutions for Southern Blacks failed due to the racial majority’s persistent mistreatment of its Black members.[2] Thus, Anglican theology was not, for Washington, pragmatic for the Black American masses. It can be argued that Washington regarded Anglicanism as too idealistic and not at all conducive to Black social and economic progress.

Washington’s ascribed statement is not totally far-fetched. American Anglicanism’s racial majority in Washington’s time lent believability to his thought. As I said in a review of Gayle Fisher-Stewart’s Black and Episcopalian: The Struggle for Inclusion:

Human sin is what has made the Episcopal Church complicit with racism. That complicity has been passed down to successive generations of Episcopalians. Sometimes the complicity was intentional; sometimes it was unconscious. Nonetheless, the complicity has marred the experience of many.

Where I disagree with Washington is his notion of Anglicanism not providing a sound theological work ethic leading to diligence, discipline, and frugality. Anglicanism’s rootedness in apostolic tradition passed down from Jesus Christ to the apostles to us lends itself to these fundamental values. This makes me think of Absalom Jones, the Episcopal Church’s first Black priest, whose life and ministry decades before Washington’s birth in many ways foreshadowed what Jones would seek to do for Black Americans. Jones acknowledged the Episcopalians’ compromise — for his parish, St. Thomas African Episcopal Church of Philadelphia, to not have seat, voice, and vote in the Diocese of Pennsylvania Convention in exchange for his access to ordination and the parish to govern its own affairs. It was his reluctant acceptance of the reality before him, yet the best way to minister to his people. Like Washington’s Atlanta Compromise, this compromise was the fervent hope that all Black Episcopalians coming after him would in time experience from the larger Episcopal Church the full equality he had been denied. The faithfulness of Black Episcopalians throughout the years and their greater acceptance throughout the larger church is a testament of his commitment to fight the good fight, no matter how long. In this way, his late 18th-century compromise with the Episcopal Church can be seen as a model for Washington’s with the Southern racial majority one century later.

What I find most unfortunate when it comes to Washington’s story is not the Atlanta Compromise, but how he and DuBois could not find common ground on which to support one another. Paul says:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. … For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. … But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. … As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (1 Cor. 12:12, 14-15, 18, 20)

How good it would have been if Washington and DuBois could have said to each other, “We may have different views on things, but our goals are mutual. Therefore, as my colleague, I support you.” If they could have discovered common ground, a better understanding between the “Tuskegee Machine” and the “Talented Tenth” would have perhaps been possible. Pejoratives like “Uncle Tom,” “house negro,” and “sellout” could have been spared from the lips of future generations of Washington’s and DuBois’s supporters against each other. The Black community could have seen much earlier how the struggle for full equality needs both the technically minded and the intellectual and how one’s pull toward the other does not determine if one is “Black enough.” But that was not the case. How unfortunate.

During the early days of my ordained ministry in Alabama, there were a few occasions when I was called to offer supply service to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Tuskegee, the only Episcopal parish in all of Macon County. I remember on each of those occasions driving onto the Tuskegee University campus to pay my respects at Washington’s gravesite and to gaze upon Lifting the Veil of Ignorance, Charles Keck’s 1922 monument to the revered educator. Keck’s memorial shows Washington lifting a veil from the face of a former slave, seated on a plow and anvil and holding a book, pointing him toward a better life through the opportunities of an industrial education. “He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry,” read the inscription. “Have faith in God,” Jesus says. “Whoever … does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him” (Mark 12:22-23). I believe this has shown itself true for Booker T. Washington, both in his time and still even now. And as he labored toward the goal of full equality for his people and greater cooperation among all the races, may we all press on toward God’s eternal and peaceable kingdom.

[1] Before Norrell’s volume, Louis Rudolph Harlan’s two-volume biography (Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901, Oxford University Press, 1972; Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915, Oxford University Press, 1983) was considered the main authoritative text on the black educator’s life.

[2] Jonathan Reavis, “To See the Negro Saved: The Religious Pragmatism of Booker T. Washington,” Lucerna (University of Missouri–Kansas City Honors College, 2015), p. 50; Richard Swedberg, The Max Weber Dictionary: Key Words and Central Concepts (Stanford University Press, 2005), pp. 348-49; Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, “Report of the Committee of the House of Deputies on the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society,” Journal of the Proceedings of the Bishops, Clergy, and Laity of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America Assembled in a General Convention, in the City of Boston from October 3rd to 25th, Inclusive, In the Year of Our Lord 1877 (Alfred A. Mudge & Son, 1878), p. 491; Harold T. Lewis, Yet With a Steady Beat: The African American Struggle for Recognition in the Episcopal Church (Trinity Press International, 1996), p. 1, 55-56.


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