The Atlanta Expo Speech 1895
Following is the first section of the most famous, and in some quarters the most infamous speech ever made by Booker T. Washington. It was originally known as the Atlanta Exposition Speech given at the the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, GA, but has since become better known as the Atlanta Compromise Speech by Dr. Washington's detractors. Those who would criticize, however, fail to recognize the heart and soul of Dr. Washington and his message. In the weeks and months ahead we want to share a fresh analysis of this speech and others, from our own and other people's perspective.
As I mentioned, this is but the first portion of the speech, and we hope to add and analyze one section per week. We hope that a fresh look at this speech and it's content, will cause many to reconsider the true message contained there in, for the time and environment in which it was given, as well as how it relates to the state of Black America today and our future direction. We also hope that your comments will add to the discourse in a meaningful way. ---------------------------------------
Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Board of Directors and Citizens:
One-third of the population of the South is of the Negro race. No enterprise seeking the material, civil, or moral welfare of this section can disregard this element of our population and reach the highest success. I but convey to you, Mr. President and Directors, the sentiment of the masses of my race when I say that in no way have the value and manhood of the American Negro been more fittingly and generously recognized than by the managers of this magnificent Exposition at every stage of its progress. It is a recognition that will do more to cement the friendship of the two races than any occurrence since the dawn of our freedom. Not only this, but the opportunity here afforded will awaken among us a new era of industrial progress.
Ignorant and inexperienced, it is not strange that in the first years of our new life we began at the top instead of at the bottom; that a seat in Congress or the state legislature was more sought than real estate or industrial skill; that the political convention or stump speaking had more attractions than starting a dairy farm or truck garden.
In the beginning of the speech Dr. Washington wanted to express express that as blacks compromised one third of the population of the South, that region could not afford to ignore the black race, if it wanted to prosper. He also wanted to show due respect to the Governor of Georgia who was in attendance, and Board of Directors of the Expo, who had put on the exposition. One reason Dr. Washington felt that respect and honor were due was that the board had gone to great lengths to recognize and include the efforts and accomplishments of ex-slaves in all aspects of the exposition. At this time, almost 10 years after reconstruction had ended, a sincere effort had been made to rebuild the devastated American South by both the black and the white race. This Exposition was meant to showcase and honor that common effort. Black Southerners were included from the beginning in the planning, and construction of the Expo all the way through to their inclusion in the expositions and their attendance at the magnificent event. This event was was seen by all as a hopeful time and as a rebirth of the South. It was an exciting time for black and white people alike and was a period full of hope.
What followed next in the speech, however, was a taking stock of reality and a forewarning to our people. When Booker T. Washington said that we were "ignorant and inexperienced," he was not meaning this in a derogatory way. He was speaking of the reality that in the mere 30 years since the end of slavery we were still learning, or needed to be learning, how to live as free people and how to value what is really important vs. what looks important.
Sadly, while ignorance and inexperience were a valid excuse in 1885, in the 111 years since this speech we still seem to have failed to learn the lessons Dr. Washington was speaking of. We still appear to respect and value a congressional seat over an understanding of real estate or property ownership and acquiring an industrial skill. To the overvaluing of a congressional seat, we can today add entertainer and athlete. We still have too many of those who believe it is of more value to make speeches or have large conventions and gatherings than starting and building a successful career and business.
While politics, entertainment, sports, conventions and gatherings each have their value, these are not foundational to the sure success of a people. These, if sought prematurely and without the proper foundation will not provide for lasting success, and may in fact cause failure to achieve the lasting success of a society.
We must understand one thing in order to keep all of Booker T. Washington's writings and ideas in proper perspective. He loved the pure value of work. He worked tirelessly himself and taught that a job well done was reward enough in itself. But he also understood and taught that:
The man who has learned to do something better than anyone else, has learned to do a common thing in an uncommon manner, is the man who has a power and influence that no adverse circumstances can take from him.
I believe that we are still at the starting point, but that leaves me full of hope. It is never too late to learn a good lesson, if we learn it correctly. Neither the South, nor the nation at large, can ignore the Black race and hope to prosper. But we desperately need those in our Black communities, who hear and understand what Booker T. Washington knew and tried to impart, to unite in will and in action in order to take what was offered to us then and still awaits us today. Can we learn the lesson of finding work and finding it gratifying? Can we learn to value establishing and estate of value, whether it is in real estate, owning stock, or owning a business. These ideas will take a reconditioning process for many. It may not be easy, but it is crucial. If we succeed it will usher in a new era in our nation. One in which the Black community can take the lead.