When ‘Uncle Tom’ Became an Insult

New research shows the label took a derogatory turn much earlier than previously believed.

Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images
Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

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.”