Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Marist Teacher Explores Booker T. Washington Legacy

By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 13, 2008

With his first book, Marist School teacher Michael Bieze focuses on Booker T. Washington, once the most famous black man in the nation and at the same time a divisive figure in American history.

Washington helped lead the Tuskegee Institute, now known as Tuskegee University, in Alabama and was seen as the country’s leading black educator. But others in black intellectual circles derided Washington as too willing to accept second-class citizenship.

Bieze said supporters and critics alike paint too simple a picture of Washington’s complexity.

According to Bieze, Washington carefully crafted his message for his different audiences.

He’d be a fiery orator in a “private black world” and a distinguished educator for a white audience. The nuanced messages allowed him to speak to different audiences, said Bieze.

“He was one of America’s first spinmasters,” Bieze said.

Bieze’s book “Booker T. Washington and the Art of Self-Representation” was released in February. The Peter Lang Publishing Group, an international company specializing in academic titles with a humanities focus, printed the 304-page paperback.

He is currently writing chapters for books two and three also about Washington.

About 50 Marist faculty and parents of students showed up for a book signing in February at the Atlanta History Center.

Bieze said the audience for the book is scholarly, but he wrote it so a broader audience could learn about the debate surrounding Washington.

Washington’s influence continues nearly 100 years after his death in 1915. Communities wrestle with character education, the role of the arts in learning, and adult education, said Bieze.

“His social and political positions on race are still debated in the public forum today,” he said.

Bieze’s 10-year effort to know Washington started with a two-hour road trip to see a sculpture on the campus of Tuskegee University.  He was reading “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, who studied at the school. The book mentions “Lifting the Veil,” a famous sculpture on campus. Bieze, an art historian by training, wanted to see it for himself and noticed it was done by Charles Keck, a renowned American sculptor. Seeing Keck’s work on the campus of what started as an industrial and vocational college intrigued him.

“That kind of opened up other ways to talk about Washington,” said Bieze, who has been the chairman of Marist’s fine arts department, teaching art history and studio art at the well-regarded Catholic school. He praised the school administration for allowing high school teachers the freedom to explore other area of interests.

The book came out of his work on his doctorate at Georgia State University in educational policy studies.

For 20 years as Washington’s popularity peaked in the early 1900s, he was seen as the spokesman for the black community across the United States.

Born a slave in Virginia, he received an education that emphasized self-help to improve the conditions faced by black people. As the leader of the new Tuskegee Institute, he designed an educational program that stressed agricultural and industrial training. His central point was first for blacks to succeed economically, and then civil rights would follow.

He gave one of his most famous speeches in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition.

At the park he said, “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”

His critics claim his Atlanta address approved of segregation and the second-class citizenship it granted to blacks.

“He’s like the third rail. He’s a divisive figure,” Bieze said. But Bieze said the arguments for and against Washington are often too simplistic. Instead, Washington needs to be read with the same subtlety with which he wrote and considering his audience, he said.

For instance, Bieze said Washington wrote three autobiographies, and two of the books circulated at the same time.

“Up From Slavery” told Washington’s story to the largely white philanthropists who donated money to support his Alabama school. On its front cover, a dapper Washington sat for a portrait by a photographer who shot the likes of J.P. Morgan and other members of the moneyed class during the Progressive Era. Washington was pictured as a refined Victorian gentleman just like the well-to-do donating to his college.

“The Story of My Life and Work” targeted a black audience. It had line drawings, illustrating his walk across Virginia to get to Hampton Institute for an education.

The choices were not accidental, said Bieze. They allowed Washington to reach different audiences with the message he wanted them to hear, he said.

The new photographic technology of the late 19th century allowed Washington to adopt different personalities, depending on the audience.

From Victorian gentleman to outspoken critic of a racist culture, Washington toward the end of his life made more of an effort to reach out to black audiences and boosted the profile of black photographers.

It took Bieze about 10 years to complete the book since his first campus visit to see the sculpture. Bieze scoured the archives at the Library of Congress for research. He struck up friendships with Washington survivors, including his oldest living relative, his granddaughter Margaret Washington Clifford. Soon introductions from the family lead to others with treasures of information not in public libraries.

“They were OK with me writing warts and all,” he said.

His research on Booker T. Washington and the visual arts has appeared in articles and been presented at several conferences.

Bieze, finds himself wading into the debate on the merits of the black educator. He said he confronts questions of how he as a white man can understand the issues surrounding Washington’s views and his critics.

“I think knowledge comes from two places. It comes from research, study, and analysis. The other is from experience. I would say to people, I cannot offer the experience. I don’t know what it is to be a black and I would never pretend to, but I think I can add from my experience as an art historian and educator some other possible reading (of Washington),” he said.