A Problematic White Influence on Young Black Minds: Examining “A Boy’s Life of Booker T. Washington” by Walter C. Jackson

By Rawan AbbasiHumanities, Special Issue: Pandemics & Politics, 2020



This paper examines the problematic nature of Walter C. Jackson’s children’s book, A Boy’s Life of Booker T. Washington (1922), and argues that Jackson wrote the text in an act of performative allyship to instill in Black children that success lies in appeasing white America. By examining Jackson’s career in race relations and history, his book, and varied perceptions about Booker T. Washington, the author contextualizes Jackson’s choice to highlight a controversial figure such as Washington and show that Jackson’s literature is problematic at its best and severely harmful at its worst. Support for her arguments were collected from archives, newspapers, and scholarly articles. This paper challenges the idea that any representation is good representation. Some may view Jackson’s book being one of the few narratives about Black historical figures at the time as productive for inspiring Black youth, but Jackson’s work instead reinforces racist stereotypes and tropes about Black Americans. It is as important now as it was then to uplift Black voices on Black matters to empower Black children – not degrade them as Jackson does in A Boy’s Life.


Walter C. Jackson was a prominent, white educator in the South, “Beloved always by faculty and students alike” (Craig). In 1922, he authored A Boy’s Life of Booker T. Washington, a children’s biographical book, to serve as inspiration to Black children. As a historical figure, Booker T. Washington had quite a complex perception in scholarship often criticized for being submissive to white people well before the publication of A Boy’s Life. At the time, there were plenty of Black works to uplift Black children, and many in the community were doing just that. So why might Jackson have written this book on Washington? I argue that Walter C. Jackson’s background as a white, Southern educator influenced his desire to teach Black children about Booker T. Washington as example of how Black Americans can exist to appease white people in the United States. In this paper, I will introduce Jackson’s career in education and race relations, describe opposing receptions of Washington by Black and white audiences, and examine Jackson’s motivations in writing A Boy’s Life of Booker T. Washington – to promote a Black identity that was appeasing to the white power establishment. 

Walter C. Jackson

Jackson’s career in education largely developed in NC where he briefly worked at UNC Chapel Hill (Craig), was the chancellor of UNC Greensboro’s Woman’s College for 25 years, and was a professor and head of the history department for 23 years (Special to the New York Times). Jackson held a long-time interest in issues faced by Black Americans, exemplified by his status as “a trustee of Bennett College,” a private HBCU. Jackson was also the chairperson of the Guilford unit for North Carolina’s Commission on Interracial Cooperation (NCCIC) for 15 years (Craig), further demonstrating his involvement in the Black community. The NCCIC worked “toward improved race relations in the state,” according to Wilson Library’s special collections, and was “initially made up of a small group of prominent individuals, both African American and white, and mostly ministers and educators” (“North Carolina Commission”). It is important to note that there were some Black members, though it is unclear how much power they held compared to Jackson.

A Boy’s Life was not the only work Jackson produced on Black lives; he also authored Poetry by American Negroes (Special to the New York Times). Though Jackson, a prominent white man, wrote A Boy’s Life, the book still required approval from the Guilford County Negro Teachers’ Association before “negro schools” could incorporate it into curriculum. Assembly passed a resolution in 1924 to allow it (Special to the Journal and Guide). Still, his work – rather than works of Black authors – was accepted, and he was considered “a pioneer in the field of racial relations,” according to one 1942 news article (Craig). His leadership as a professional in this field reveals his investment in the matters of Black people, making his desire to write on a Black historical figure as controversial as Booker T. Washington all the more questionable.

Washington’s Reputation

Opinions on Washington were not uniform, as he played a complex role in Black history. When historian Carter Woodson reviewed A Boy’s Life in the 1920s, he felt that despite its oversights and the fact that it was written by a white man, the book held value. Woodson believed Jackson should be praised for trying to popularize an inspiring historical figure like Washington for Black children (Dagbovie, “The Function and Responsibility of the Black Intellectual,” 179). He also praised Booker T. Washington as a historic figure, saying as an educator, “he stands out as the greatest of all Americans, the only man in the Western Hemisphere who has succeeded in effecting a revolution in education” (Dagbovie, “The Function and Responsibility of the Black Intellectual,” 180). Yet, Woodson’s praise of Washington was a minority opinion among his contemporaries; most agreed with W.E.B Du Bois on the matter after Washington died (Dagbovie, “The Function and Responsibility of the Black Intellectual,” 178). 

Du Bois stated in 1915 “Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission” (Dagbovie, “Exploring a century,” 239). Note that Du Bois’ words came well before Jackson’s A Boy’s Life was published in 1922, which establishes that some Black Americans had quite negative attitudes towards Booker T. Washington. In fact, even earlier, in the late 19th century, Ida B. Wells also publicly criticized Washington, particularly for his failure to denounce lynching (Dagbovie, “Exploring a century,” 242). Dagbovie makes it clear that remarks against Washington by his Black contemporaries were explicit, yet he is exactly who Jackson chose to write on as an inspiration to young Black boys. In fact, in the preface of A Boy’s Life, he states that this book is intended for “negro youth especially” (Jackson VI). The variability in Washington’s perception highlight the complexity of his memory supporting that Jackson had less regard for Black empowerment and more for enforcing white-appeasing Black identity.

Jackson’s Intention

This bring us to the question of why a white educator might have wanted to write about Washington. Dagbovie writes that “During the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s [Washington] was the only African American featured in white authored books about “great” American reformers, educators, and leaders” (“Exploring a century,” 241). It was not even until 1935 when the first white scholar openly criticized Washington; for the most part, “white scholars tended to applaud Washington, while Black scholars and historians variously criticized and defended him,” according to Dagbovie (“Exploring a century,” 242). So, perhaps Jackson wrote on Washington because he was becoming a popular figure among white educators. But Jackson was not the average white historian in this case. Knowing Jackson’s involvement as a trustee of an HBCU and long-term role as chairperson of the aforementioned Negro Teachers’ Association, it is reasonable to assume Jackson knew the complexities of Washington’s perception by the time he wrote A Boy’s Life. Jackson’s disregard for this history further proves his aim to promote Washington’s character as amiable to the white power establishment for Black children.

For white scholars such as Jackson, Washington was more than an example of Black achievement and inspiration. In 1968, Emma Lou Thornbrough, a prominent Black historian, discussed this in her paper, Booker T. Washington As Seen by His White Contemporaries, writing that Washington’s positive reputation as a great man in African American history was given to him by white people (161). Thornbrough’s paper reveals an overwhelming support of Washington by whites, who were “assuaging guilt feelings over discrimination against a race, while at the same time permitting themselves to continue to discriminate with clear consciences” (181).  Jackson was most likely in this same camp, where he, in his performative activism, absolved himself of being a racist at the time – but nevertheless imposed harmful ideas, like undermining Black struggles, onto Black children with A Boy’s Life.  

In examining the Jackson’s preface and foreword alone, his intentions in writing on Washington become more contradictory. In the preface, he makes it explicitly clear that this book is intended for “negro youth especially,” (Jackson vi) yet he goes on to say Washington was “born of an ignorant and backward race” in the foreword (Jackson vii). Coming from someone who was as interested and involved in Black lives as Jackson, it is surprising that he would speak about the Black race in this way and simultaneously deem it suitable for Black children to read. Jackson then goes on to characterize Washington as fair among both white and Black people, honest, wise (vii). He also describes Washington as one who believed the United States was the greatest country, one who practiced “self-control,” and was “not ashamed” of his race (Jackson viii). These words and phrases are indicative an anti-Black narrative written by a seemingly well-intentioned white author.

While Jackson was able to publish such harmful work, there were, Black contemporaries working across barriers to get Black works recognized, including the “Father of Black History,” Carter Woodson. In a 1930 news article, Black journalist Eugene Gordon listed “The Thirteen Most Important Negroes in the United States,” and among them was Woodson. As creator of the Associated Publishers Inc. in 1921, he published works about Black matters that were not accepted by most publishers (Donaldson 81). “As every Negro writer knows, there is a wealth of stuff that white publishers will not touch,” wrote Gordon, highlighting the entrenched publishing landscape Black writers had to deal with (“The Thirteen”). Woodson was working to make Black history available to everyone, publishing 14 volumes of “The Journal of Negro Life and History,” which were “packed with facts that few Negroes and fewer Caucasians [had] ever heard of” (“The Thirteen”). He also had to invent his own publication platform to do it. In contrast, Jackson likely faced no barriers to publish work that instilled racist ideals in young Black children. 

At a surface level, it may seem that Walter C. Jackson was a well-intentioned historian who wanted to contribute to the Black community in the early twentieth century by inspiring young Black children with the story of Booker T. Washington, one of the most famous figures in African American history. Yet, upon researching negative reception of Booker T. Washington by his and Jackson’s Black contemporaries, one begins to question Jackson’s intentions. This suspicion is exacerbated by his problematic, anti-Black messaging in A Boy’s Life. While his contemporary, Carter Woodson, praised both his book and Booker T. Washington, Jackson was most likely aware of the complicated perceptions of Washington. It’s probable that Jackson intentionally chose to write on Washington for Black children because he, like an overwhelming majority of white people in the 20th century, saw Washington as a non-threatening African American and wanted to see more of that behavior from the Black community. Today, we know this pattern of behavior as performative allyship – people marketing themselves as being in-line with the goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but never working to actually listen to and implement the ideas of Black Americans. Instead, they seek what feels comfortable in addressing race issues, which is exactly what Jackson did. As America is once again at a stage of reckoning when it comes to our history of racism, it is imperative that we seek to uplift works about Black identity by Black writers to equip the next generation to build a more just society.



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Dagbovie, Pero Gaglo. “Exploring a century of historical scholarship on Booker T. Washington.” The Journal of African American History, vol. 92, no. 2, 2007, p. 239+. Gale Literature Resource Center, https://link-gale-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/apps/doc/A166016931/LitRC?u=n…. Accessed 9 Sept. 2020. 

Dagbovie, Pero G. “The Function and Responsibility of the Black Intellectual as Personified and Dictated by Carter G. Woodson and Lorenzo Johnston Greene: A Comprehensive Historiographical and Critical Assessment,” Michigan State University, Ann Arbor, 1999. ProQuest, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/304520351?accountid=14244. 

Donaldson, Bobby J. “”CIRCLES OF LEARNING”: EXPLORING THE LIBRARY OF CARTER G. WOODSON.” The Journal of African American History, vol. 93, no. 1, 2008, pp. 80-87. ProQuest, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/194515204?accountid=14244. 

Jackson, Walter Clinton. A Boys’ Life of Booker T. Washington. New York, The Macmillian Company, 1922. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/boyslifeofbooker00lcjack.

“North Carolina Commission on Interracial Cooperation Records, 1922-1974.” The Southern Historical Collection at the Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, 2012, https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/03823/. 

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Special to the Journal,and Guide. “A Boy’s Life of B. T. Washington may be Put in Schools.” New Journal and Guide (1916-2003), Oct 25, 1924, pp. 5. ProQuest, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/566912189?accountid=14244.

“The Thirteen Most Important Negroes in the United State Well Known Essayist.” Plaindealer, MORNING ed., vol. XXXIII, no. 23, 5 July 1930, p. 2. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANX&docref=image/v2%3A12A7EF1A AC47F2D%40EANX-12CCEC22A8964A10%402426163-12CCEC22B0262FE8%401 12CCEC22DEE06F28%40The%2BThirteen%2BMost%2BImportant%2BNegroes%2Bi %2Bthe%2BUnited%2BState%2BWell%2BKnown%2BEssayist. Accessed 14 Sept. 2020. 

Thornbrough, Emma L. “Booker T. Washington as Seen by His White Contemporaries.” The Journal of Negro History, vol. 53, no. 2, 1968, pp. 161–182. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2716490. Accessed 29 Sept. 2020. 


Rawan Abbasi

Rawan Abbasi is a Fall 2020 graduate of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she majored in public policy and minored in English. She currently works in the field of communications and has a passion for promoting racial justice and equity. At Carolina, Rawan was managing editor and writer for the 2020 edition of Carolina Passport Magazine, a student-led publication produced through the Global Partnership and Programs office. 

Rawan Abbasi

Rawan Abbasi is a Fall 2020 graduate of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she majored in public policy and minored in English. She currently works in the field of communications and has a passion for promoting racial justice and equity. At Carolina, Rawan was managing editor and writer for the 2020 edition of Carolina Passport Magazine, a student-led publication produced through the Global Partnership and Programs office.