Remembering Booker T. Washington 100 Years After His Death

Booker_T_WashingtonA century ago today, Booker T. Washington died of hypertension at the age of 59. Founder of the Tuskegee Institute, author of Up from Slavery, Washington is remembered today as one of two major African-American voices of the turn of the twentieth century advocating different ways of addressing the rising threat of Jim Crow and lynchings. W. E. B. du Bois and his colleagues in what became the NAACP pushed for full recognition of civil rights. Washington has often been remembered as a conciliator, compromising with Southern segregationists in a futile effort for accommodation.

History has not been kind to Washington’s strategies, but history also deserves to give Washington understanding of what he saw and experienced in his life. Born a slave in 1856, he saw the Civil War bring abolition before his tenth birthday. Young Booker T. Washington then saw the upheaval of Reconstruction and, as he became an adult, violent, repressive rollback of civil rights for African Americans, joined by mob violence and lynching.

Lautz Brothers' soap ad. The slogan "beat that if you can" underlines the claim it can wash black skin white.

Lautz Brothers’ soap ad. The slogan “beat that if you can” underlines the claim it can wash black skin white.

A pernicious aspect of the racial subjugation Washington saw was an emerging stereotype of African Americans as somehow dirtier than native-born whites. In the halls of universities, in the rhetoric of politicians, and in the emerging advertising for soap and cleansers between 1880 and 1920, “white” skin was celebrated as fair, and as clean. Darker pigments were equated with dirt, even treated as dirt in some of the crudest soap advertisements of the time.

In this context, much of Washington’s work may be seen as resistance to a growing insult. His “gospel of the toothbrush” admission of African Americans to uphold the highest standards of personal hygiene, establishment of technical institutes with instruction in personal and civic hygiene, and work to create National Negro Health Week reflect an attempt to resist this emerging pseudoscientific claim to white supremacy as an extension of elevated sanitary standards.

C&WcoverSuch an attitude is jarring in 2015, but was commonplace during Washington’s life. How this attitude developed, how it was resisted by many affected people, and what consequences it has had for American society is the subject of my new book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States. Available now from NYU Press, the book contextualizes Waring’s work in a time when fears about waste and racial purity intertwined, producing new labor markets and spatial arrangements to manage the materials Americans classified as waste. Washington is one of the actors in a long history of Americans’ often troubled relationship with those wastes and with each other.

Washington’s death from hypertension happened as he saw white supremacy grow despite his work. The environmental dimension of American racism at the turn of the century both adds context to his differences with du Bois and rationale for his gospel of the toothbrush. He should be remembered for both his accomplishments and these complexities, and that is one of the goals of the book.

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