Robert J. Norrell

Where and when

Summary: At the time of Booker T. Washington’s death in 1915, the country widely acknowledged the esteemed orator and author of Up From Slavery, the tireless educator and founder of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, as the successor to Frederick Douglass. But failing health, a late career scandal and a sustained attack by Northern black enemies who deeply resented his preeminence had already dimmed Washington’s star, and his historical reputation has only continued to decline.

Amidst the poisonous racial climate of the post- econstruction era, Washington favored interracial engagement, stressing the
educational, moral and economic development of his people as the surest path toward resolving “the Negro Problem.” Washington disavowed any “artificial forcing” of social equality and eschewed overt political engagement, instead emphasizing self-help, group solidarity and education with real-world applications to establish an economic basis for racial harmony. His critics accused him of surrendering his dignity to the white industrialists and philanthropists who supported Tuskegee, of ignoble submission to the white politicians who occasionally threw him crumbs, of practically accepting the alleged inferiority of his race and of wanting to keep the Negro “a hewer of wood and drawer of water.”

During Washington’s last decade, the Niagara Movement and the NAACP had both emerged at least in part to counter his “Tuskegee machine,” to challenge his
seeming stranglehold on black opinion and to counter his gospel of racial conciliation.
The powerful pen and the fiery rhetoric of W.E.B. Du Bois began the work, still ongoing, of diminishing Washington’s achievement and his competing vision of black progress. In this measured and sympathetic treatment, Norrell restores some balance,
particularly with his detailed survey of conditions in the South.

Robert J. Norrell holds the Bernadotte Schmitt Chair of Excellence and is Professor of History at the University of Tennessee. Norrell was formerly professor of history and director of the Center for Southern History and Culture at the University of Alabama. He received undergraduate and graduate degrees in history at the University of Virginia. In 1984-85 he was the Mellon Fellow of American history at the University of Cambridge. He is a native of Hazel Green, Alabama.

Norrell’s new biography of Booker T. Washington, Up from History, is distinctly revisionist, placing the black leader and founder of Tuskegee in new and more sympathetic contexts than most other writers in recent decades.

Norrell’s first book, Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee, won the 1986 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. His 2005 book from Oxford University Press, The House I Live In: Race in the American Century, offered a vivid narrative of black-white relations in the United States from emancipation to the end of the twentieth century. It presented ideological explanations of the successes, and failures, of race reform and explained how popular culture and the mass media promoted both the success of the civil rights movement and its demise. Norrell is also the author of A Promising Field: Engineering at Alabama, 1837-1987, a study of technological education and its impact on economic development in Alabama, and Bowron: The Autobiography of a New South Industrialist, which explored Alabama’s industrial development and the problem of economic colonialism.