The injustices of the Jim Crow era of separate economic and social circles for whites and blacks, have been well-documented. Signs such as “No Negroes allowed” and “Whites Only” are familiar symbols of a time when Black people were forced to trade among themselves, patronizing Black-owned stores and businesses. Under such constraints, we made economic advances in the decades after slavery that are striking today.
One of the most important speeches in American history was made by Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskeegee Institute, at the opening of the Cotton States and International Exposition, in Atlanta, Ga., on September 18, 1895. Dubbed the “Atlanta Compromise”, Mr. Washington seemed to acquiesce to the injustices but his speech must be seen in the context of its time, when terrorists, who at the most visible, lynched an average of more than one hundred Black people per year from 1882-1901. One hundred and thirty-four are known to have been lynched only a year before Mr. Washington spoke.
In that context, we can see that Mr. Washington had his work cut out for him as he spoke in the Negro Building at the Exposition. He had his personal safety and that of his institution to think about. He had Northern philanthropists Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller on his mind, men who were vital to Tuskeegee’s mission of educating a people. And he had his fellow newly-freed people on his mind also, people who were recovering from the trauma of the slave experience while still under daily attack.
Mr. Washington’s call for Black people to concentrate on industrial skills and education rather than social integration was resoundingly received by the first two constituencies, but many blacks, W.E.B DuBois being the most prominent, were not happy with the appearance of retreat from social progress. But Mr. Washington’s approach was more of a strategic withdrawal than a retreat: time for the enemy to become civilized, time for people to be educated and strengthened.
The Jamestown Exposition of 1907, took place twelve years after Mr. Washington’s speech. The following account, written at the time, is a window on the advances made by black people under severe circumstances and following Mr. Washington’s model.
As we look around Brooklyn today, with “civil rights” laws giving full access to venues such as Marriott and the Waldorf, we have to ask, “How far have we come economically in the last ninety-six years and what would Mr. Washington think of our ‘progress’?” DG