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Booker T. Washington and the Politics of Accommodation Previous Next
Digital History ID 3183

 

As the plight of African Americans in the South was beginning to worsen, Booker T. Washington, principal of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, was invited to speak before a bi-racial audience at the opening of the 1895 Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition--a celebration of the "new" industrializing South. A former slave who had toiled in West Virginia's salt mines and earned a degree from Hampton Institute, Washington was the first African American to ever address such a large group of Southern whites. Frederick Douglass had died several months earlier, and Washington would immediately take his place as the spokesperson for his people.

In his ten-minute oration, which is often termed the "Atlanta Compromise," Washington called for patience, accommodation, and self-help. He played down political rights and emphasized vocational education as the best way for African Americans to advance. "In all things that are purely social," Washington said, "we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress. African Americans should accommodate themselves to racial prejudice and concentrate on economic self-improvement.” To his critics, this was capitulation to segregation.

From 1895 to 1915, Washington was viewed as African Americans' leading spokesperson. His autobiography, Up From Slavery, became a best seller. He was the first African American to dine at the White House, and he had an audience with Britain's Queen Victoria.

Yet, he also received bitter opposition from critics led by W.E.B. DuBois, the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard and a co-founder of the National Association of Colored People. DuBois, born in Great Barrington, Mass., believed that the only way to defeat segregation was through protest and agitation.

Washington was harshly criticized for failing to ask President Theodore Roosevelt to suppress a race riot in Atlanta (in which ten blacks died) or to condemn the President's dismissal of three companies of black soldiers after a riot in Brownsville, Texas. What Washington's critics did not know was that he sometimes worked quietly behind the scenes. He secretly bankrolled legal challenges to disfranchisement and segregation on railroads.

At his death, a commentary in the Nation criticized Washington for failing to demand full civil and political equality for African Americans:

He had failed to speak out on the things which the intellectual men of the race deemed of far greater moment than bricks and mortar, industrial education, or business leagues--the matter of their social and political liberties.

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