A Boys' Life of Booker T. Washington/Chapter 10



Frederick Douglass and Booker Washington rank as the greatest orators the negro race has ever produced. This is a high place to occupy, for the race has produced many remarkable speakers.

Douglass was the great spokesman for the race just before the Civil War and during the troublesome days of reconstruction. Washington began his career just at the time that Douglass ended his. Douglass was a very eloquent man; perhaps more eloquent at times than Washington. On the other hand, Washington was a better educated man than Douglass and probably had a more lasting influence upon his generation.

Booker Washington made thousands of speeches in his life. He spoke to white and black; in the North and in the South; in Europe as well as in America. He spoke in churches; at school commencements; at conventions; at educational and religious meetings; at county fairs; and to every kind and condition of people. He spoke before kings and presidents; he spoke to the lowliest men of his own race in the heart of the black belt in Alabama. It is a wonderful thing to be an orator; to speak to men and women in such a way that they will be helped and inspired and made happier and more useful.

When Washington was at Hampton, he began to learn the art of speaking. You remember how he organized a debating society which met for the twenty minutes they had between supper and time to begin work. You remember how he spoke and spoke at these meetings, doing his best to learn how to express himself well. One of his teachers, Miss Mackie, knew of his ambition to become a good speaker, and she gave him a great deal of help, teaching him how to stand, how to pronounce his words, and how to control his voice and gestures. By much hard work he came to be the best speaker among the boys at Hampton.

You will recall, too, how General Armstrong invited him to deliver the alumni address in 1879, and what a big success he made of that. All this time he was speaking at Sunday schools, at churches, at educational meetings, and everywhere he had an opportunity. His trip North with General Armstrong gave him much valuable experience.

The first speech that he made that attracted the attention of all the people was at the National Education Association, in Madison, Wis. The most important thing he said in this speech was that the "whole future of the negro rested largely upon the question as to whether or not he should make himself, through his skill, intelligence, and character, of such undeniable value to the community in which he lived that the community could not dispense with his presence." He said that any one who "learned to do something better than anybody else—learned to do a common thing in an uncommon manner—had solved his problem, regardless of the color of his skin."[1] He also said that the two races ought to be brought closer together and cultivate the most cordial and friendly relations, rather than become bitter toward each other.

But the greatest speech of Washington's life was the Atlanta speech. In the year 1895 the people of Georgia determined to hold a great Cotton States Exposition, in Atlanta, which would set forth the progress of the South since the Civil War. In order to make the exposition a great success it was necessary to have the financial assistance of Congress. So a committee was appointed to go to Washington to confer with a committee from Congress. Booker Washington was appointed on this Georgia committee; and his speech in Washington before the Congressional committee was one of unusual force. Many said it was the best speech made. Congress gave the assistance asked.

When the authorities came to plan the exposition in detail, they decided to have a Negro Division. The negroes were asked to take part, and they gladly agreed to do so They built one of the best buildings on the grounds. This building was planned by a negro architect and was erected entirely by negro labor. It contained exhibits prepared altogether by negroes. It was one of the most interesting parts of the entire exposition.

When the exposition was formally opened in September, 1895, Booker Washington was invited to make an address as a representative of the negro race. James Creelman, a noted newspaper man, the correspondent of the New York World, heard that speech, and he wrote to the World about it. This is what he wrote:

"Mrs. Thompson, one of the other speakers on the program, had hardly taken her seat, when all eyes were turned on a tall, tawny negro, sitting in the front row of the platform. It was Professor Booker T. Washington, President of the Tuskegee (Alabama) Normal and Industrial Institute, who must rank from this time forth as the foremost man of his race in America. Gilmore's Band played the 'Star-spangled Banner,' and the audience cheered. The tune changed to 'Dixie' and the audience roared with shrill 'hi-yi's.' Again the music changed, this time to 'Yankee Doodle,' and the clamor lessened.

"All this time the eyes of the thousands present looked straight at the negro orator. A strange thing was to happen. A black man was to speak for his people, with none to interrupt him. As Professor Washington strode to the edge of the stage, the low, descending sun shot fiery rays through the windows into his face. A great shout greeted him. He turned his head to avoid the blinding light, and moved about the platform for relief. Then he turned his wonderful countenance to the sun without a blink of the eyelids, and began to talk.

"There was a remarkable figure; tall, bony, straight as a Sioux chief, high forehead, straight nose, heavy jaws, and strong, determined mouth, with big white teeth, piercing eyes, and a commanding manner. The sinews stood out on his bronzed neck, and his muscular right arm swung high in the air, with a lead pencil grasped in the clinched brown fist. His big feet were planted squarely, with the heels together and the toes turned out. His voice rang out clear and true, and he paused impressively as he made each point. Within ten minutes the multitude was in an uproar of enthusiasm—handkerchiefs were waved, canes were flourished, hats were tossed in the air. The fairest women of Georgia stood up and cheered. It was as if the orator had bewitched them.

"And when he held his dusky hand high above his head, with the fingers stretched wide apart, and said to the white people of the South, on behalf of his race, 'In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress,' the great wave of sound dashed itself against the walls, and the whole audience was on its feet in a delirium of applause.

"I have heard the great orators of many countries, but not even Gladstone himself could have pleaded a cause with more consummate power than did this angular negro, standing in a nimbus of sunshine, surrounded by the men who once fought to keep his race in bondage. The roar might swell ever so high, but the expression of his earnest face never changed.

"A ragged, ebony giant, squatted on the floor in one of the aisles, watched the orator with burning eyes and tremulous face until the supreme burst of applause came, and then the tears ran down his face. Most of the negroes in the audience were crying, perhaps without knowing just why.

"At the close of the speech Governor Bulloch rushed across the stage and seized the orator's hand. Another shout greeted this demonstration, and for a few minutes the two men stood facing each other, hand in hand."[2]

It was a wonderful speech. It contained much good advice both to the whites and to the negroes. It was fair to both. As Clark Howell, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, said, "It was a platform upon which both races, black and white, could stand with full justice to each other."[3] In the speech he told the following story: "A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal: 'Water, water; we die of thirst.' The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back, 'Cast down your buckets where you are.' A second time the signal, 'Water, water, send us water,' ran up from the distressed vessel, and was answered, 'Cast down your buckets where you are.' And a third and a fourth signal for water was answered, 'Cast down your buckets where you are.' The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River." Washington then appealed to his own people to "cast down their buckets where they were," by making friends with their white neighbors in every manly way, by training themselves where they were in agriculture, in mechanics, in commerce, instead of trying to better their condition by immigration. And, finally, to the white Southern people, he appealed to "cast down their buckets where they were," by using and training the negroes whom they knew rather than seeking to import laborers whom they did not know.[4]

Frederick Douglass had died only a few months before this great speech was made. At once from all parts of the country came the statement, "Here is the man who will take the place of Douglass as leader of the negro race." And from that time on, Booker Washington was the accepted leader of his people in this country.

He was immediately called upon to speak in all parts of the country. He was offered big sums of money to lecture. One speaker's bureau offered him fifty thousand dollars a year. He refused all these offers of money, saying that he must give his time to Tuskegee and to the interests of his people, rather than try to make money for himself.

Another of his great speeches was made at Cambridge, Mass., in 1896. Harvard University, the oldest and most famous university in America, conferred the honorary degree of master of arts upon Mr. Washington in 1896. This was the first time in the history of America that a college or university of such high standing had ever conferred an honorary degree upon a negro. Washington says this honor was the greatest surprise of his life. At the time the ceremony of conferring this degree took place, he made a speech that won great applause from the audience.

It is very interesting to read Washington's own account of his experiences. "People often ask me," he says, "if I feel nervous before speaking, or else suggest that, since I speak so o ten, they suppose I get used to it. In answer to this question I have to say that I always suffer intensely from nervousness before speaking. More than once, just before I was to make an impor ant address, this nervous strain has been so great that I have resolved never again to speak in public. I not only feel nervous before speaking, but after I have finished I usually feel a sense of regret, because it seems to me as if I had left out of my address the best thing that I had meant to say. . . . Nothing tends to throw me off my balance so quickly, when I am speaking, as to have some one leave the room. To prevent this, I make up my mind, as a rule, that I will try to make my address so interesting, will try to state so many interest ng facts one after another, that no one will leave."[5]

Washington made it a rule never to say anything to a Northern audience that he would not say to a Southern audience. He also made it a rule never to say to a negro audience anything that he would not say to a white audience. In this honest and fair way he kept close to the truth, and at the same time never offended fair-minded people of either race.

He was a capital story-teller, but he did not make a practice of telling jokes and funny stories in his speeches, just to make people laugh. He always had a serious purpose in his stories. He had two or three stories that he told frequently, because they were so full of meaning. This was one of them: One day he was going along the road, and he met old Aunt Caroline, with a basket on her head. He said, "Good morning, Aunt Caroline. Where are you going this morning?" And she replied, "Lor' bless yer, Mister Washington, I dun bin where I's er goin." "And so," he would then say, "some of the races of the earth have done been where they was er goin'. But the negro race is not one of them. Its future lies before it."[6]

Another of his stories was about a good old negro who accompanied Washington on one of his tours. At a certain city they found that they had several hours before the train left; so this old man decided to stroll about to see the town. Presently, he looked at his watch and found that it was just about time for his train to leave, and he was some distance from the station. He rushed to a hack stand, and called out to the first driver he came to, who happened to be a white man, "Hurry up, and take me to the station; I's gotta get the 4:32 train." To which the white driver replied, "I ain't never drove a nigger in my hack yit, an' I ain't goin' ter begin now. You can git a nigger driver ter take ye down."[7]

To this the old colored man replied with perfect good nature, "All right, my friend, we won't have no misunderstanding or trouble; I'll tell you how we will settle it; you jest hop in on der back seat an' do der ridin' an' I'll set in front an' do der drivin'." In this way they reached the station on good terms, and the old man caught his train. Like this old negro, Washington always devoted his energies to catching the train, and it made little difference to him whether he sat on the front or back seat.

Two other speeches of Washington attracted wide attention. One of these was delivered in Boston in 1897, at the time of the dedication of a monument to Robert Gould Shaw. Shaw was the Colonel of the famous negro regiment of soldiers from Massachusetts in the Civil War. It was in this regiment that Sergeant William H. Carney served,—the man who triumphantly carried the flag in the great battle of Fort Wagner, and exclaimed after the fight, "The old flag never touched the ground!" Colonel Shaw lost his life in the battle of Fort Wagner, while leading his negro regiment. The people of Boston erected a monument to his memory, and Washington's speech at its dedication was one of the greatest he ever made.

One other speech was delivered in Chicago in 1898 at a great Peace Celebration, following the close of the Spanish-American War. There was an enormous crowd—the largest he ever spoke to, Washington says. There were sixteen thousand people present. President McKinley was there, together with several cabinet members and other distinguished guests. "The President was sitting in a box at the right of the stage," says Washington. "When I addressed him I turned to the box, and as I finished the sentence thanking him for his generosity, the whole audience rose and cheered again and again, waving hats and handkerchiefs and canes, until the President arose in the box, and bowed his acknowledgments. At that the enthusiasm broke out again, and the demonstration was almost indescribable."[8]

The demands for him to speak were so great that it was impossible for him to meet them all. He often spoke three and four times a day. He was away from Tuskegee, making speeches, a large part of his time. He made extended tours, by special train, all over the states of Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. On these tours he spoke to thousands and thousands of people. Everywhere he went all the people, white and black, heard him gladly. The good that this man did through his oratory cannot be overestimated.

  1. "Up from Slavery," by Booker T. Washington, p. 202.
  2. "Up from Slavery," by Booker T. Washington, pp. 239–240.
  3. Ibid., p. 226.
  4. "Up from Slavery," by Booker T. Washington, p. 219.
  5. "Up from Slavery," by Booker T. Washington, pp. 242, 244.
  6. "Booker T. Washington: Builder of a Civilization," by Scott and Stowe, p. 30.
  7. "Booker T. Washington: Builder of a Civilization," by Scott and Stowe, pp. 30–31.
  8. "Up from Slavery," by Booker T. Washington, p. 255.