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REVIEWING

Booker T. Washington Rediscovered

Edited by Michael Scott Bieze and Marybeth Gasman

The John Hopkins University Press | 2012

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

michael scott

“Cast down your bucket where you are.” Booker T. Washington, 1895, in a speech before the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta.

  Once, when I was an undergraduate at New York University, I participated in a public debate. The question on the floor: Resolve, who was right, Booker T. Washington or Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois in regard to which direction Negroes should go?

Since I organized the debate, I assigned myself the role of Booker T. Washington, the second ever nationally known black leader in America, following in the giant footsteps of Frederick Douglass, and who has been called a founding father of African American education in the United States because he founded the famed Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in 1891.

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To this day, I am convinced that I could have won that debate if my opponent hadn’t gone Baptist Minister, and stomped all over me.

He quickly took over, and soon had the crowd in an uproar. My cool, impeccable logic meant little here.

Still, for most of my adult life, Booker T. Washington’s main message has stayed with me: blacks needed to keep producing things, like they were once forced to do in slavery; and now make it work for them. I chose to take the role of Washington in that debate because I had felt that Booker T. and I had reached the same conclusion: it was for very real reasons that black slaves were the most valuable people in the new world.

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Booker T. Washington Rediscovered is a very interesting way to present both the ideas and the man behind them: a mixed race ex-slave, who rose to become one of the most important figures in American life, and his fame became worldwide.

His book Up from Slavery, first published in 1901, has never gone out of print.

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“In 1895,” writes the online site historymatters.gmu.edu, “Booker T. Washington gave what later came to be known as the Atlanta Compromise speech before the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. His address was one of the most important and influential speeches in American history, guiding African-American resistance to white discrimination and establishing Washington as one of the leading black spokesmen in America. Washington’s speech stressed accommodation rather than resistance to the racist order under which Southern African Americans lived. In 1903, Washington recorded this portion of his famous speech, the only surviving recording of his voice.”

Washington’s many distracters, especially Dr. Du Bois, often cite this speech as proof that he had become the dreaded Uncle Tom, the turn coat, the sell-out, the person all African Americans have been taught, for good reasons, for generations, to hate and despised, even more than the Northern European settlers.

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We have none of this in Booker T. Washington Rediscovered. We meet Booker T. Washington by the many magazine articles he wrote, all in their original, printed form, typos and all; and the many speeches he gave.

“Booker T. Washington,” the editors write, “was once one of the Progressive Age’s most popular speakers on both sides of the color line. His public speaking gift first received acclaim when a New York Times reporter mentioned the young Washington’s skill in an article, after hearing Washington speak at his 1875 Hampton Institute graduation. Debating and public speaking became his passion.”

As I read this, I once more marveled at the role great public speaking has played in human history. To repeat myself, the speech, it seems, has always been more compelling than either the pen, or the sword.

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I would recommend this book to those who may have heard of the famed “Wizard of Tuskegee,” but know little of what he stood for. With Booker T. Washington Rediscovered, we hear directly from him, with no historians, or political types with an ax to grind, or even being celebratory, weighing in.

Booker T. Washington was once one of the most famous persons in the world. The school he founded still educates scores of black people, both men and women. And it has served a great need, welcoming everyone from newly freed slaves, to the famous Tuskegee Airmen of World War Two.

Singer/songwriter Lionel Richie grew up on the campus of Tuskegee; his grandfather's house was right across the street from the home of the president of the college. It was there, later as a student, that he helps form The Commodores, who went on to have many national hit records.

Richie became a single act as a singer/songwriter, and has had much success. But he is not done. In what is an excellent love kiss to the school, the region, and the kinds of music it produced, Richie has given us what I think is the CD of 2012, Tuskegee.

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I know personally, if I knew little about someone like Booker T. Washington, I would want to know more, and this book would be a great place to start.


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