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Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington Paperback – May 30, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


Norrell has provided us with a fascinating portrait of one of the most influential Americans of his age. Rather than the charlatan, enigma, or Uncle Tom that previous biographers have depicted, Washington emerges as a gifted, creative, and flawed activist who struggled for racial uplift while perched precariously on the knife-edge of American racism. Up from History deserves a place beside the very best American biographies. (W. Fitzhugh Brundage, author of The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory)

By carefully and consistently assessing Washington within the context of his own extraordinarily difficult and dangerous time, Norrell not only explodes the still-prevalent civil-rights-era stereotype of Washington as a self-serving accommodationist, but he demonstrates how quickly and thoroughly we lose historical perspective when we begin to impose the expectations of the present without regard for the realities of the past. (James C. Cobb, Spalding Distinguished Professor of History, University of Georgia)

Instead of viewing Booker T. Washington from the vantage point of the modern civil rights era, Robert J. Norrell has placed him squarely in the violent context of late nineteenth-century Alabama (and American) race relations. The result is a compelling new biography that should lead apologists and critics of Washington to see him in a new light. A first-rate read. (Dan Carter, Professor Emeritus, University of South Carolina)

This well-written and forcefully argued book will be hotly debated in the profession. (Clarence E. Walker, Professor of History, UC Davis)

A thoughtful biography that, perhaps, signals a new scholarly appreciation of a remarkable man. (Kirkus Reviews 2008-10-15)

To the extent that Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) is remembered at all today, he is usually misremembered, which is a travesty...His unwillingness to practice protest politics, however, has earned him the scorn of many modern-day critics, who dismiss him as too meek in his dealings with whites...In Up From History, a compelling biography, Robert J. Norrell restores the Wizard of Tuskegee to his rightful place in the black pantheon...Many criticisms of Washington in more recent decades have echoed those of his contemporary black nemesis, W.E.B. Du Bois…Much has been made of this rivalry, but the relevant point is that the two men differed mainly in emphasis, not goals...Putting their differences into proper perspective is yet another way that Up From History serves as a useful corrective. (Jason L. Riley Wall Street Journal 2009-01-23)

Few great Americans have been more cruelly treated by history than Booker Taliaferro Washington. He has been mocked, vilified and caricatured, yet by any reasonable measure his life was extraordinary...To see him as anything less than heroic borders on the incomprehensible...No, he wasn't the leader for 1940 or 1960 or today, but it is unfair to him, indeed it is unfair to history itself, to expect him to have been. Robert J. Norrell understands this and has written the story of his life as it actually was lived, not as we might wish it had been lived. Up from History is in all respects an exemplary book, scrupulously fair to its subject and thus to the reader as well. (Jonathan Yardley Washington Post Book World 2009-01-18)

In the age of Obama, Washington seems more than ever like a precursor: a beloved barrier-smasher, sensitive to the rigorous demands of being America's favorite black person. In short, Washington seems due for reappraisal, and in Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington the historian Robert J. Norrell aims to push him back up onto his pedestal--or, at any rate, to pick him up off the floor...Norrell reframes the picture of Washington by emphasizing the extent and ferocity of [white] hostility; he shows how Washington and his critics conspired to make the Tuskegee project seem less controversial, and less brave, than it really was. (Kelefa Sanneh New Yorker 2009-02-02)

The much-misunderstood Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), the most prominent African American leader of his time, is brought back to life in riveting fashion. (Carlin Romano Philadelphia Inquirer 2009-01-23)

It is hard to think of a historical figure more in need of biographical rescue. Yet Washington is an awkward challenge for the contemporary scholar. He is so thoroughly stigmatized as politically incorrect that rescuing him could seem a political act in itself, and even a balanced book could be dismissed as a polemic. But Robert J. Norrell, in his remarkable new biography, Up from History, gets around this problem the old-fashioned way: by scrupulously excavating the facts of his subject's life and then carefully situating him in his own era...Today the brilliance with which he achieved the near impossible is forgotten, while the unfair presumption of his racial capitulation is ubiquitous. Up from History will go far in correcting this. I thought I knew something of Washington's complexity before reading this book. And I had always been fascinated by Dr. Bledsoe in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, a darkly ironic sendup of Washington as a merciless pragmatist. But here we see the real man at his interminable labors: incessantly fund-raising for Tuskegee in the North, mapping out political strategy with liberal white philanthropists in Boston and New York, fighting with Northern black elites one day and with white nationalist Southerners the next, and then, back at Tuskegee, riding out on horseback in the early morning to micromanage the college's agricultural operations... Washington understood that his people also dwelled inside a crucible. Norrell's rich portrait makes clear that Washington never stopped seeing himself as the leader of his people. How to help them live in such circumstances? His informing idea was that responsibility--hard work, education, the moral life--brought a degree of freedom and independence even in oppression. The pursuit of excellence would bring blacks an economic currency in the larger world, and thus, ultimately, respect and equality. With more fearlessness than any '60s black nationalist, he saw black Americans as a free-standing people and asked them to compete openly with all others...Washington understood that the loss of good faith was the worst of all things, and when black America was at risk of this, he was the shepherd. Up from History gives back to America one of its greatest heroes. (Shelby Steele New York Times Book Review 2009-02-15)

Robert J. Norrell's Up from History rescues Washington from the most calumnious reputation in black history, revealing him as Race Man extraordinaire. (John McWhorter 2009-02-06)

[Norrell's] book is timely, demonstrating how a man whose father was white and whose mother black, who rose from humble circumstances to achieve great prominence, can tumble to obscurity, his reasonable views drowned out by louder, more radical voices, voices no doubt strained with envy. (Barbara Bamberger Scott Curled Up with a Good Book 2009-02-13)

A fine new biography. (John M. Taylor Washington Times 2009-02-22)

About the Author

Robert J. Norrell is Professor of History and Bernadotte Schmitt Chair of Excellence at the University of Tennessee.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; Reprint edition (April 30, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674060377
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674060371
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #169,867 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Marion H. Smith on January 17, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This intriguing biography of Booker T. Washington provides much needed balance to the cartoon-like image that has been built of him in the past fifty years. BTW unquestionably was a complex man whose successes fueled education and prosperity for African-Americans that would never have occurred otherwise. Dr. Norrell shows that Washington was shrewd, not foolish, and that he acted with cold calculation to improve tangibly the lot of black people in a part of the South that was susceptible to no other approach.

In the Age of Obama, this book may be the first important sign that politically-correct thought does not have to dominate scholarship.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By TS Lloyd on March 5, 2009
Format: Hardcover
My own views of Booker T. Washington have been shaped by the writings of W.E.B. Dubois and other recent scholars. Norrell's autobiography has helped to change my perspective. By viewing Washington from the environment and times he lived in, I came to understand why his actions were what they were. Growing up as a slave and a poor Southern rural freeman who, with the assistance of well-meaning, but condecending whites, was able to pull himself up he wanted other blacks to also pull themselves up. But he knew, first hand, that the process undertaken by Reconstruction, was a road to failure. DuBois and Trotter, on the other hand, grew up as "free" Northern educated elite. They saw a different way to equality based on their own experiences and fostered in the somewhat isolated environment of upper academia. Norrell does an addequate job of demonstrating the conflict between these two camps and how it was based, in part, on personality conflicts,misconceptions and jealousy over BT's ability to get funding from wealthy Northern whites.
Washington, like DuBois, is not guiltless in his actions. He made many mistakes that had grave consequenses. DuBois, slide into Marxism carried grave consequences for him as well and his views became promenient only after Washington's death. Dispite his faults,Washington was the leader of ex-slaves and the immediate post slavery generation of rural Southern blacks. The values he stood--hard work, good hygiene, honesty, self respect--for are still espoused in many balck churches. And for that he should be honored by all.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Arthur L. Slotkin on February 24, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I am in the process of writing a book about Auburn University, just up the road from Tuskegee. I am familar with Washington and Dubois and thier arguement. I found that this book gave me another prespective about the role of Washington at his time. We are told as historians to place the actors in their time and place, yet we continue to fail to do that when it comes to Washington and issues of race in general. Norrell's book reminded me to think about what it was like in Alabama in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Knowing what Alabama was like in the mid twentieth century, I can only imagine his stress.

Excellent book, should be read by anyone interested in Washington, southern history and race in the nineenth century.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By James W. Crawford on April 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This work by Professor Robert J. Norrell provides the reader a triple offering. You will, in the first place, find here a biography of Booker T. Washington. You will, secondly, review the times, cirumstances, opportunities and obstacles surrounding and shaping Washington's life. You will, lastly, encounter a courageous historian arguing BTW's seminal place in civil and human rights progress in the USA.

First of all, the biography. The details of Washington's life, including his early years, his marriages, children, the founding and nurturing of Tuskeegee, the challenge of administering the school, his astounding capacity for optimism and hope, the decisive speeches and perspectives he offered on education, race relations, economic advancement and political participation give a relatively full reading on the character and depth of the man. The author uses personal reflections of those who knew and were acquainted with Washington, material from letters, news articles and other intimate references giving us a rounded picture of this very private yet very public human being.

Secondly, you'll discover (rediscover?) the milieu and ethos of Booker T. Washington's life and achievement. Jim Crow rode in the saddle. Jim Crow fought Booker T. at every juncture. Jim Crow and "his" demagogic advocates, like Pitch Fork Ben Tillman, James Kimball Vardaman, their disciples, cultural allies and impact threatened Black education, Black political and voting rights, Black social progress. Lynching anyone considered out of step with Jim Crow norms and oppression served as social contraint. Amid these conditions you will meet the Yankee philanthropists whom BTW solicited for contributions.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Karl Helicher on March 11, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Norrell's terrific biography places Washington in his historical context: the spokesperson for Negroes (the accepted term during Washington's time), following the death of Frederick Douglass. The author shows that history has not been kind to Washington, and his reputation was besmirched by such intellectual luminaries as W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, his previous biographer, John Harlan, and C. Vann Woodward. Other reviewers have expressed better than I could the false dichotomy of DuBois the intellectual firebrand and Washington the obsequious Uncle Tom, so I will not elaborate.

The author destroys this myth and shows that Washington fought courageously for civil rights during an era when funding for African-American schools in the South was never certain. Washington eventually had to hire security guards and to take extended trips from Tuskegee to protect the lives of himself and his family.

Washington spent his first nine years alive as a slave while DuBois grew up in the relative safety of New England, where he excelled in university, while Washington graduated from Hampton Institute, which due to poor funding and its inhospitable Southern surroundings, offered an education little better than middle school.

Much of Washington's work for civil rights was behind the scenes because of the rise of the KKK, backlash from Reconstruction, and the mercurial President Theodore Roosevelt who turned his back on Washington because he needed support from Southern politicians. To confront racism and lynchings directly was a sure way to lose your credibility and life.

Washington died from kidney failure and hypertension, likely attributed to a bad diet and stress. He literally died fighting for civil rights.
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