Steinbock-Pratt on Zimmerman, 'Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South'

Andrew Zimmerman
Sarah Steinbock-Pratt

Andrew Zimmerman. Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. 416 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-12362-2.

Reviewed by Sarah Steinbock-Pratt (University of Texas) Published on H-German (May, 2014) Commissioned by Shannon Nagy

A Global New South: a Transnational History of Race, Social Science, Empire, and Labor

The rise of transnational history over the last ten to fifteen years has been one of the most important developments in the field, opening up new avenues for research and presenting new perspectives on older, state-bound narratives about the past. The particular strength of transnational history lies in its ability to illuminate the global movement of people, objects, and ideas. Challenging the exceptionalist and nation-focused imperial histories of Germany and the United States, in Alabama in Africa Andrew Zimmerman examines the global histories of social science, racialized labor, and colonial strategies of control.

Using an impressive array of sources from archives in Germany, the United States, Slovenia, and Tanzania, Zimmerman's work essentially functions both as a micro and macro history. Delving into the Tuskegee expedition to Togo to teach the growing of cotton at the turn of the twentieth century, Zimmerman examines the transnational links of three primary arcs of change: the influence of German social science on the development of American sociology; the transition from precolonial Togo's various independent political economies to an export-based cash crop system of agriculture; and the influence of the racial system of the New South on an emerging global South.

Exploring the end of slavery, the rise of sharecropping and the New South in the United States, the end of serfdom and the response to an increasing Polish migrant labor force in east Germany, and the beginning of German colonization in Togo, Zimmerman argues that Germany was inspired by the racialized labor system of the New South, attempting to institute a program of internal colonization in eastern Germany, and to institute an export-based agricultural system to Togo as both a source of revenue and a method of control. The importation of cotton growing was part of a broader attempt to suppress Togolese aspirations of upward mobility, extend control over the lives of their colonial subjects, and gain raw materials for the burgeoning cotton industry in Germany. In his discussion of missionaries in Togo and mission schools, however, Zimmerman demonstrates the limited control that some Togolese were able to exert over the type of education they received. More broadly, Zimmerman argues that advocates of industrial education for nonwhites in both colonial Africa and the New South, while justifying their programs through a rhetoric of nonwhite uplift, were more dedicated to preserving a laboring subclass than improving the lives of those they purported to help.

Evan as the importation of cotton growing and the coercive methods employed by the Tuskegee experts and their successors fundamentally changed the political economy of Togo, Zimmerman claims that both industrial education in the United States and the development of American social science were heavily influenced by German thought and colonial praxis. Tuskegee Institute, Zimmerman argues, began scaling back its already limited academic curriculum in the wake of the Togo expedition, focusing increasingly on industrial programs and portraying itself as the global authority on black education and labor. At the same time, interactions between American scholars and German social scientists deeply influenced the development of the field of sociology in the United States. This field, pioneered by the University of Chicago, advocated for a sociological over a biological understanding of race and racial difference. While this shift has been hailed by some historians as antiracist, Zimmerman describes its theories as a form of "neoracism" which upheld notions of white supremacy and allowed for the continued exploitation and subordination of people of color (pp. 205-206).

In Alabama in Africa, Zimmerman has taken on a project of breathtaking scope, bringing together the histories of three countries and the international movement of ideas about race, labor, and the control of workers in a system of free (or semi-free) labor. For the most part, Zimmerman succeeds admirably. By taking such a broad view, however, he sometimes overlooks important context. Zimmerman spends relatively little time actually describing the Tuskegee expedition to Togo, focusing more on the intellectual and economic transformations of the United States and Germany. In addition, the inauguration of formal American overseas empire beginning in the late nineteenth is mentioned only fleetingly in the last chapter of the book. This is a serious omission, partially because the same year that the faction from Tuskegee arrived in Togo, the United States government sent hundreds of government teachers to the Philippines to Americanize the Filipinos, a mission which was informed by previous educational efforts aimed at African Americans and Native Americans, and which involved pedagogical battles over whether to provide a liberal arts or industrial education. A small number, moreover, of these teachers were African American (Carter G. Woodson himself taught in the islands from 1903 to 1908), who developed their own ideas about America's imperial mission and their own role within empire. 

Finally, failing to fully explore the role of American empire places too much emphasis on the influence of European empire in shaping the thought of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois. In a useful examination of the evolving political attitudes of the two men, Zimmerman argues that the rift between Washington and DuBois emerged as a result of their engagement with European imperialism. It seems likely, however, that this transition had as much, if not more, to do with the American annexation of formal colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific (and the strengthening of informal spheres of influence in those regions), and with rising domestic racial tensions and violence, than with European empires. This is perhaps the most problematic aspect of Zimmerman's otherwise impressive work--in focusing on the transnational links of labor and race, he at times overstates the causal role of these global currents and perhaps of the Tuskegee expedition itself.

Overall, however, Zimmerman has made a valuable contribution to the fields of transnational and imperial history. Drawing together multiple and disparate narrative strands, he deftly weaves a compelling story about the importance of the migration of ideas about race, labor, and education. Of equal importance, Zimmerman provides a useful roadmap for historians seeking to broaden the horizons of the past.

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Citation: Sarah Steinbock-Pratt. Review of Zimmerman, Andrew, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South. H-German, H-Net Reviews. May, 2014. URL:

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