This post comes to us from Danna Bell-Russel of the Library of Congress.
As the United States entered the 20th century, African Americans faced a new and challenging landscape. A mere thirty-five years after the abolition of slavery, the majority of African Americans had learned to read and hundreds were heading to colleges and universities to continue their studies. The 1900 Paris Exposition created by W.E.B. DuBois showcased the gains that African Americans had made since emancipation.
However, many of the freedoms gained during the era of reconstruction were beginning to disappear. It became more and more difficult for African Americans to vote; the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling made segregation the law of the land; and groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camelia tried to reverse the successes of African Americans, sometimes using violence and lynching to strike fear in the African American community.
Many contributed to the debates on how best to secure and advance the rights of African Americans, but one of the major contributors was the educator Booker T. Washington. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, stated his views in a speech at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, in September 1895.
This speech, which is often called the “Atlanta Compromise,” was the first speech given by an African American man in front of a racially mixed audience in the South. In it, Washington suggested that African Americans should not agitate for social and political equality in return for the opportunity to acquire vocational training and participate in the economic development of the New South. He believed that through hard work and hard-earned respect, African Americans would gain the esteem of white society and eventually full citizenship.
After giving this speech Washington became an extremely popular speaker and gave speeches around the United States. He also helped found the National Negro Business League to support African American entrepreneurs, and was invited to the White House for dinner with President Theodore Roosevelt. Washington continued to give speeches and provide support to the African American community until his death in 1915.
- Have students read Washington’s speech. Who do you think was the audience for this speech?
- Ask students to investigate what was happening at the time the speech was delivered. Would the content of the speech be different if it had been delivered 10 years later? If it were delivered now?
- Visit the Chronicling America website and locate responses to Washington’s speech in the Washington Bee, one of African-American newspapers published at the time. Students can select one or more of the responses to defend or refute.
- Have students study the placement of articles about Washington’s speech in other newspapers within Chronicling America during the months of September and October 1895. Where were articles about the speech placed? Was the placement different in papers with majority white readers than in papers with majority African American readership?
- Look more specifically at the actual articles on the Cotton Exposition. What was said about Washington’s speech? Does it receive extensive coverage or is it a minor footnote within the larger article on the exposition?
- One of the people who spoke out against Washington’s view was W.E.B DuBois. Students can compare Washington’s speech and chapter three of the book The Souls of Black Folk, and identify points at which DuBois agree or disagree with each other. Have students consider if their debate is still relevant today.
- Review the drafts of the poem “Ballad of Booker T.” by Langston Hughes. What is Hughes’ opinion of Booker T. Washington? How did Hughes’ life experiences shape his writing? What do you think Washington would have thought of the poem?
You’ll find more primary sources from this era in the Library of Congress online exhibition NAACP: A Century in the Fight for Freedom.
How do you think historic speeches like the Atlanta Compromise could be incorporated into classroom teaching? If you have successful examples from your own teaching, please let us know in the comments.