ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Compiled By Rudolph Lewis
Booker T. Washington Receives an Honorary Master’s Degree from Harvard, 1896
More than once I have been asked what was the greatest surprise that ever came to me. I have little hesitation in answering that question. It was the following letter, which came to me one Sunday morning when I was sitting on the veranda of my home at Tuskegee, surrounded by my wife and three children:
Harvard University, Cambridge, May 28, 1896
PRESIDENT BOOKER T. WASHINGTON,
MY DEAR SIR: Harvard University desires to confer on you at the approaching Commencement an honorary degree; hut it is our custom to confer degrees only on gentlemen who are present. Our Commencement occurs this year on June 24, and your presence would he desirahie from about noon tilt about five o’clock in the afternoon. Would it be possible for you to be in Cambridge on that day?
Believe me, with great regard,
Very truly yours,
CHARLES W. ELIOT
Charles William Eliot
American educator and president of Harvard
18341926b. Boston, grad. Harvard, 1853.
Excerpt continued (Booker T. Washington,
Up from Slavery. New York, Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1938), pp. 295-302)
This was a recognition that had never in the slightest manner entered into my mind, and it was hard for me to realize that I was to be honoured by a degree from the oldest and most renowned university in America. As I sat upon my veranda, with this letter in my hand, tears came into my eyes. My whole former life-my life as a slave on the plantation, my work in the coal-mine, the times when I was without food and clothing, when I made my bed under a sidewalk, my struggles for an education, the trying days I had had at Tuskegee, days when I did not know where to turn for a dollar to continue the work there, the ostracism and sometimes oppression of my race,-all this passed before me and nearly overcame me.
At nine o’clock, on the morning of June 24, I met President Eliot, the Board of Overseers of Harvard University, and the other guests, at the designated place on the university grounds, for the purpose of being escorted to Sanders Theatre, where the Commencement exercises were to be held and degrees conferred. Among others invited to be present for the purpose of receiving a degree at this time were General Nelson A. Miles, Dr. Hell, the inventor of the Bell telephone, Bishop Vincent, and the Rev. Minot J. Savage. We were placed in line immediately behind the President and the Board of Overseers, and directly afterward the Governor of Massachusetts, escorted by the Lancers, arrived and took his place in the line of march by the side of President Eliot. In the line there were also various other officers and professors, clad in cap and gown. In this order we marched to Sanders Theatre, where, after the usual Commencement exercises, came the conferring of the honorary degrees.
When my name was called, I rose, and President Eliot, in beautiful and strong English, conferred upon me the degree of Master of Arts. After these exercises were over, those who had received honorary degrees were invited to lunch with the President. After the lunch we were formed in line again, and were escorted by the Marshal of the day, who that year happened to be Bishop William Lawrence, through the grounds, where, at different points, those who had been honoured were called by name and received the Harvard yell. This march ended at Memorial Hall, where the alumni dinner was served. . .
Among the speakers after dinner were President Eliot, Governor Roger Wolcott, General Miles, Dr. Minot Savage, the Hon. Henry Cabot Lodge, and myself. When I was called upon, I said, among other things:-
It would in some measure relieve my embarrassment if I could, even in a slight degree, feel myself worthy of the great honour which you do me to-day. Why you have called me from the Black Belt of the South, from among my humble people, to share in the honours of this occasion, is not for me to explain; and yet it may not be inappropriate for me to suggest that it seems to me that one of the most vital questions that touch our American life is how to bring the strong, wealthy, and learned into helpful touch with the poorest, most ignorant, and humblest, and at the same time make one appreciate the vitalizing, strengthening influence of the other. How shall we make the mansions on yon Beacon Street feel and see the need of the spirits in the lowliest cabin in Alabama cotton-fields or Louisiana sugar-bottoms? This problem Harvard University is solving, not by bringing itself down, but by bringing the masses up.
If my life in the past has meant anything in the lifting up of my people and the bringing about of better relations between your race and mine, I assure you from this day it will mean doubly more. In the economy of God there is but one standard by which an individual can succeed-there is but one for a race. This country demands that every race shall measure itself by the American standard. By it a race must rise or fall, succeed or fail, and in the last analysis mere sentiment counts for little. During the next half-century and more, my race must continue passing through the severe American crucible. We are to be tested in our patience, our forbearance, our perseverance, our power to endure wrong, to withstand temptations, to economize, to acquire and use skill; in our ability to compete, to succeed in commerce, to disregard the superficial for the real, the appearance for the substance, to be great and yet small, learned and yet simple, high and yet the servant of all.
As this was the first time that a New England university had conferred an honorary degree upon a Negro, it was the occasion of much newspaper comment throughout the country. A correspondent of a New York paper said:-When the name of Booker T. Washington was called, and he arose to acknowledge and accept, there was such an outburst of applause as greeted no other name except that of the popular soldier patriot, General Miles, The applause was not studied and stiff, sympathetic and condoling; it was enthusiasm and admiration. Every part of the audience from pit to gallery joined in, and a glow covered the cheeks of those around me, proving sincere appreciation of the rising struggle of an ex-slave and the work he has accomplished for his race.
A Boston paper said, editorially:-In conferring the honorary degree of Master of Arts upon the Principal of Tuskegee Institute, Harvard University has honoured itself as well as the object of this distinction. The work which Professor Booker T. Washington has accomplished for the education, good citizenship and popular enlightenment in his chosen field of labour in the South entitles him to rank with our national benefactors. The university which can claim him on its list of sons, whether in regular course or hononis causa, may be proud….
Another Boston paper said:-It is Harvard which, first among New England colleges, confers an honorary degree upon a black man. No one who has followed the history of Tuskegee and its work can fail to admire the courage, persistence, and splendid common sense of Booker T. Washington. Well may Harvard honour the ex-slave, the value of whose services, alike to his race and country, only the future can estimate.
The correspondent of the New York Times wrote:-All the speeches were enthusiastically received, but the coloured man carried off the oratorical honours, and the applause which broke Out when he had finished was vociferous and long-continued. . . .Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery. New York, Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1938), pp. 295-302. For Washington’s views on the education of the Negro, see his The Future of the American: Negro (Boston, Small, Maynard and Company, 1999). pp. 18, 23-24, 25-26, 32-34, 41, 68-69, 73, 77, 79, 93,106-08, 137,153, 173, 181, 182-83, 195, 205-06, 240, 243-44.
* * * * * Sources:
Chapter VI. “The Instruction of Negroes.” In Edgar W. Knight.. A Documentary History of Education in the South before 1860. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, 1953
Chapter 10 “Up From Slavery: Educational and other Rights of Negroes.” In Edgar W. Knight and Clifton L. Hall. Readings in American Educational History. New York Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1951.
Many states had laws prohibiting the education of blacks; here black youngsters are turned away at the school door
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Robert J. Norrell. Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington
Illustrated. 508 pp. The Belknap Press / Harvard University Press
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)
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By Barbara Ransby
Skip Gates “End the Slavery Blame-Game” Nonsense
By Dr. Ron Daniels
Professor Charles Ogletree on Profiling to Beergate to the Obama
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By Jack Johnson
African American historian Gerald Early refers to Jack Johnson (18781946), the first African American heavyweight champion of the world, as the first African-American pop culture icon. Johnson is a seminal and iconic figure in the history of race and sport in America. My Life and Battles is the translation of a memoir by Johnson that was published in French, has never before been translated, and is virtually unknown.
It covers Johnsons colorful life, both inside and outside the ring, up to and including his famous defeat of Jim Jeffries in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910, in one of the iconic ring battles of the early twentieth century. In addition to the fights themselves the memoir recounts, among many other things, Johnsons brief and amusing career as a local politician and provides portraits of some of the most famous boxers of the 19001915 era.
Johnson comments explicitly on race and the color line in boxing and in American society at large in ways that he probably would not have in a publication destined for an American reading public. The text constitutes genuinely new, previously unavailable material and will be of great interest for the many readers intrigued by Jack Johnson.
In addition to providing information about Johnsons life, it is a fascinating exercise in self-mythologizing that provides substantial insights into how Johnson perceived himself and wished to be perceived by others. Johnsons personal voice comes through clearlybrash, clever, theatrical, and invariably charming. The memoir makes it easy to see how and why Johnson served as an important role model for Muhammad Ali and why so many have compared the two. With a foreword by Geoffrey C. Ward. Translated from the French by Christopher Rivers
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By Geoffrey C. Ward
Johnson (18781946), boxing’s first black heavyweight champion, was a lightning rod for controversy in early 20th-century America. Even many of his fellow African-Americans resented his unapologetic dominance of the ring and steady succession of white girlfriends and wives, viewing his behavior as a setback to race relations.
Ward (A First-Class Temperament) depicts the fear and resentment Johnson spurred in white Americans in voluminous detail that may startle modern readers in its frankness. Contemporary journalists regularly referred to Johnson as a “nigger” and openly advocated his pummeling at white hands, though ample quotations from supporters in the Negro press balance the perspective.
Ward first documents the obstacles the boxing world threw in Johnson’s path (including prolonged refusals by top white boxers to fight against him), and then probes the government’s prosecution of the champ under the Mann Act (which banned the interstate transport of females for “immoral purposes”) for taking his girlfriends across state lines. Ward brings his award-winning biographical skills to this sympathetic portrayal, which practically bursts with his researchat times almost every page has its own footnote. Though the narrative drags slightly in Johnson’s declining years, the champion’s stubborn, uncompromising personality never lets up. Even readers who don’t consider this a knockout will concede Ward a victory on points. Photos Publishers Weekly
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By Manning Marable
Years in the making-the definitive biography of the legendary black activist. Of the great figure in twentieth-century American history perhaps none is more complex and controversial than Malcolm X. Constantly rewriting his own story, he became a criminal, a minister, a leader, and an icon, all before being felled by assassins’ bullets at age thirty-nine. Through his tireless work and countless speeches he empowered hundreds of thousands of black Americans to create better lives and stronger communities while establishing the template for the self-actualized, independent African American man. In death he became a broad symbol of both resistance and reconciliation for millions around the world.
Manning Marable’s new biography of Malcolm is a stunning achievement. Filled with new information and shocking revelations that go beyond the Autobiography, Malcolm X unfolds a sweeping story of race and class in America, from the rise of Marcus Garvey and the Ku Klux Klan to the struggles of the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties.
Reaching into Malcolm’s troubled youth, it traces a path from his parents’ activism through his own engagement with the Nation of Islam, charting his astronomical rise in the world of Black Nationalism and culminating in the never-before-told true story of his assassination. Malcolm X will stand as the definitive work on one of the most singular forces for social change, capturing with revelatory clarity a man who constantly strove, in the great American tradition, to remake himself anew.
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By H. W. Brands
In Greenback Planet, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands charts the dollar’s astonishing rise to become the world’s principal currency. Telling the story with the verve of a novelist, he recounts key episodes in U.S. monetary history, from the Civil War debate over fiat money (greenbacks) to the recent worldwide financial crisis. Brands explores the dollar’s changing relations to gold and silver and to other currencies and cogently explains how America’s economic might made the dollar the fundamental standard of value in world finance. He vividly describes the 1869 Black Friday attempt to corner the gold market, banker J. P. Morgan’s bailout of the U.S. treasury, the creation of the Federal Reserve, and President Franklin Roosevelt’s handling of the bank panic of 1933. Brands shows how lessons learned (and not learned) in the Great Depression have influenced subsequent U.S. monetary policy, and how the dollar’s dominance helped transform economies in countries ranging from Germany and Japan after World War II to Russia and China today. He concludes with a sobering dissection of the 2008 world financial debacle, which exposed the power–and the enormous risks–of the dollar’s worldwide reign. The Economy
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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updated 22 July 2008