The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

IV. The New South: Lanier

§ 12. Booker T. Washington

No account of the New South in literature would be complete without notice of the life and writings of Booker T. Washington (1859–1915). He was not only a product of Reconstruction but he contributed much to the progress and prosperity of his section in the new era. Born two or three years before the war on a Virginia plantation, his mother a slave, his father he knew not who, he a few years after the war joined in that rush for an education which seized great numbers of the freedmen. The acuteness of that struggle, the inspiring tenacity with which it was maintained, form one of the bright pages in that dark period. When he had completed his studies in Hampton, he turned aside from the opportunities for political preferment which lured many of his race to destruction, and devoted his days and his nights to the upbuilding of his fellow freedmen. In 1881 he was called to the obscure village of Tuskegee in Alabama to take charge of what was to be a normal school for coloured people. Thereafter his name and Tuskegee became synonymous for negro progress. For he there worked out with dauntless persistence a scheme for education which would fit the negro to his actual surroundings. Consecrating all of his vast energy to that cause, he became long before his death the foremost representative of his race in the world, a writer known in every section of his own country, and one of the most eloquent speakers of his generation.

Of his addresses, typical is the five-minute speech delivered at the Atlanta exposition 17 September, 1895, which made him the recognized leader of his race. Aside from the fact that it presented a platform so simple, yet so fundamental in its assumptions, that both black and white could stand thereon, it illustrates well the guiding principles of his rhetoric, that every word shall mean something. There is in it little of that fatally easy use of superlatives, that sonorous succession of periods, which so tickled the ears of old-time audiences. There is little of the habitual resort to cunning balance and alliteration which even Grady constantly introduced to secure his effects. It is simple, direct, vivid, yet sustained by a high devotion to the future of his race. Not only in its message but in its style it speaks of the New South.

His writings display the same characteristics. Of these, his autobiography, consisting of Up from Slavery and Working with Hands, forms one of the noblest records America has to show. Up from Slavery in particular, the annals of his childhood and rise to fame, with its mingled pathos and humour, its etching of the past, its modest story of a quiet but heart-stirring achievement, has already become one of the classics of its type. Of his other voluminous writings, dealing almost exclusively with the colored race, weighty is The Future of the American Negro, which contains his views on the enigma which ever confronts the South. Not founding his argument on those lofty conceptions of right and justice which aroused such fanatical zeal before the war, but with a sanity of outlook upon the industrial situation in the South and an unclouded vision of the progress of his race in the past and of the necessary steps in future advance, he discusses the various aspects of the problem with a dispassionate but illuminating calm. Though his contact with the more steadfast and aspiring kind of negro may have filled him with undue hope, yet no reader can fail to admire his self-forgetful devotion to his race, or refuse to accord him a high place among the prose writers of the New South.