Booker T. Washington and the Atlanta Compromise

This post comes to us from Danna Bell-Russel of the Library of Congress.

Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Exposition speech, September 18, 1895.

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 leader of Tuskegee Institute, stated his views in a speech at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, in September 1895.

Booker T. Washington c1917.

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.

Teaching Ideas

  • 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?

Additional Resources

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.

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 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.

Teaching Ideas

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. [c1] 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 [c2]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. //lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/mcc:@[email protected]%28mcc/024%29%29 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?

Additional Resources

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.


[c1]If we’re naming a specific paper, it might be useful to indicate why that one is important. If the specific doesn’t matter, it’ll save the teacher time and frustration to point more generally to the Booker T. topics page: //www.loc.gov/rr/news/topics/bookertwashington.html

[c2]not sure they can answer this from the Bee…

8 Comments

  1. Jen
    August 8, 2011 at 10:19 am

    Hi,

    Great resources here on Booker T. Washington.

    One thing that I couldn’t find–you recommended using the Washington Bee, an African American newspaper, but when I clicked through to the newspapers, I found only other Washington papers, and one called The Bee but out of Earlington, Kentucky. Which is the correct DC-area African American newspaper?

    Additionally, the next step you suggest is to compare coverage of the speech in white v. black majority readership newspapers, but none of the newspapers are labelled as to their readership. Which are majority white, and which majority black?

    Thank you!

  2. Stephen Wesson
    August 8, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Thank you for the questions.

    First, we’ve added a link to the Washington Bee in the post itself.

    Second, the Chronicling America site makes it easy to search newspapers by ethnicity. Just go to chroniclingamerica.loc.gov, select “All Digitized Newspapers”, and use the drop-down menu “Ethnicity”.

    I hope this helps.

  3. Meagan
    October 26, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    I really enjoyed the teaching ideas included with the post — I teach in a very rural area in which students aren’t exposed to much diversity, and this would be a great way to incorporate worldviews that they may have not known existed before. I also like the fact that they could practice writing skills and provide evidence to back up their ideas.

    Thanks for this!

  4. paula
    February 19, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    Hi,
    I hope you may can help me I puchased an antique photo and frame stored it and finally got it out opened the back and the back of the photo has Atlanta expo Davis galleries on it. Could this be an advertisement for the gallaries the man on front looks to be ajudge and of wealth. Thanks so much!

  5. Danna Bell
    February 19, 2014 at 2:26 pm

    Hi Paula,

    The Library of Congress can’t appraise items or determine if those items are real or not. You will need to find an appraiser in your community for assistance. Information can be found at the FAQ from the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the American Library Association. Our Prints and Photographs Division also supplies links to other resources. Good luck on your research.

  6. Liz Coursen
    September 2, 2015 at 9:52 pm

    I want to point out that the person who dubbed this speech the “Atlanta Compromise” was W. E. B. Du Bois; its proper name is the Atlanta Address.

  7. Liz Coursen
    September 2, 2015 at 9:56 pm

    “…one of the major contributors was the educator Booker T. Washington. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute…”

    I also want to point out that Mr. Washington was not the “founder” of the Tuskegee Institute.
    http://www.tuskegee.edu/about_us/history_and_mission.aspx

  8. Danna Bell
    September 3, 2015 at 10:10 am

    Thanks for your comment. We’ve updated the post.

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