When 'Uncle Tom' Became an Insult?

Posted by Adena Spingarn...A graduate student in English literature at Harvard University. – Article is from THE ROOT

Today nobody wants to be called an Uncle Tom, but 150 years ago, it was a compliment. In Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist 1852 novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Uncle Tom is a martyr, not a sell-out. His devotion to his fellow slaves is so unshakable that he sacrifices a chance for freedom and, ultimately, his life to help them. 


How did a term of high praise become the ultimate black-on-black insult? Until recently, scholars believed that "Uncle Tom" was first used as an epithet in 1919 by Rev. George Alexander McGuire, a supporter of the radical black nationalist Marcus Garvey.

Addressing the first convention of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, McGuire declared, "the Uncle Tom nigger has got to go, and his place must be taken by the new leader of the Negro race … not a black man with a white heart, but a black man with a black heart." In the event‘s opening parade, marchers held protest signs that hopefully proclaimed, "Uncle Tom's dead and buried."


The irony of Uncle Tom's change in meaning was how far whites lagged behind. At the same time that Uncle Tom was becoming an undesirable model for many in the black community, the Daughters of the Confederacy lobbied Southern legislatures to outlaw performances of Uncle Tom's Cabin, because, they ins