Purdue University Graduate School

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History Will Be My Judge: A Cultural Examination of America's Racial Tensions Presented Through the Symbolization of Booker T. Washington

posted on 2019-12-06, 01:09 authored by Keturah C NixKeturah C Nix
History Will Be My Judge: A Cultural Examination of America's Racial Tensions Presented Through the Symbolization of Booker T. Washington is an interdisciplinary study about the emergence of Booker T. Washington as a black cultural hero. By the turn of the twentieth century, Washington had become the most prominent African American educator, economic reformer, entrepreneur, and race leader in the United States. He is most recognized as the founder of Tuskegee Institute (now University) and his highly acclaimed autobiography, Up From Slavery, which recounts his life growing up enslaved to becoming an international icon. Since his death in 1915, several monuments, memorials, landmarks, and commemorative tributes have been established in his honor. During the 1940s, Washington became the first African American pictured on the United States postage stamp and minted silver half-dollar. Additionally, he was spotlighted in a series of media campaigns called "Famous American Firsts," and was the first African American inducted into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. Moreover, amidst the presidential transition between Barack Obama and Donald Trump, black popular media has alluded to Washington's economic philosophy through music videos, documentaries, and television programs. I argue that each of these posthumous commemorations belong to larger social justice movements, namely, the Civil Rights movement and Black Lives Matter movement. Throughout these eras, Washington's legacy has served to counter white supremacy and symbolize the rise of integration, the black middle class, economic justice, black self-made, black education, and the legacy of slavery.
The purpose of this study is to examine how during periods of racial unrest, African Americans leverage Booker T. Washington's image to counter racist stereotypes and reaffirm black citizenship. The primary framework applied in this study is William L. Van Deburg's theory of the black cultural hero. Two emergent theories from this research are my developing frameworks called Black Hustle Theory and nostalgic tension. Using literary and visual analysis, I assess historical archives from popular press, black literature, American memorabilia, and black popular culture to examine Washington's commemorative legacy through a black radical lens. Specifically, I explore how the following four people have connected Washington's legacy to the Civil Rights movement and Black Lives Matter movement: Major Richard Robert Wright, Sr., founder of Savannah State University; Langston Hughes, famed Harlem Renaissance poet and author; Stanley Nelson, award-winning producer; and, Beyonce Knowles-Carter, singer and pop mogul. I put Washington's legacy in conversation with each of these cultural producers to simulate a call-and-response between his lifework and the generations after him.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • American Studies

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Dr. Venetria K. Patton

Additional Committee Member 2

Dr. Rayvon Fouche

Additional Committee Member 3

Dr. Cornelius Bynum

Additional Committee Member 4

Dr. Marlo David