Reconsidering Booker T. Washington’s ‘Atlanta Compromise’

A recent conversation with a friend regarding the current status of African-American males, particularly our current economic plight, prodded my reflection upon where we “went wrong” in regards to economics within the Black community. Such matters are significant when one considers that the initial, and some would argue the most significant, duty that a Man does is provide for his family in a tangible material way. Put simply, he is a provider.

While reflecting upon such matters, my mind reverted back to this speech given by ‘The Wizard of Tuskegee’ Booker Taliafero Washington in 1895 at the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition. Washington’s utterances and constructs from the stage on that day positioned him to be the leading “race man” of his time. More importantly, it highlights several contemporary issues facing African-American males. Such matters are increasingly important in the new millennium when one considers that African-American males are attending, and graduating, college at a slower pace than their female counterparts and have had their employment niche usurped by newly arriving immigrants.

After reviewing this piece, I am certainly wondering if Booker T. Washington’s industrial education model was the correct path for building a solid foundation upon which we could have built other pillars of our community. Take a moment and consider exactly what Washington was positing and let me know your thoughts.

Dr. James Thomas Jones III,

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…

Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour, and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful.

No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities…

There is no defense or security for any of us except in the highest intelligence and development of all. If anywhere there are efforts tending to curtail the fullest growth of the Negro, let these efforts be turned into stimulating, encouraging, and making him the most useful and intelligent citizen. Effort or means so invested will pay a thousand per cent interest. These efforts will be twice blessed—blessing him that gives and him that takes.

Nearly sixteen millions of hands will aid you in pulling the load upward, or they will pull against you the load downward. We shall constitute one-third and more of the ignorance and crime of the South, or one-third [of] its intelligence and progress; we shall contribute one-third to the business and industrial prosperity…or we shall prove a veritable body of death, stagnating, depressing, retarding every effort to advance the body politic…

The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.

Booker Taliaferro Washington (Atlanta Georgia, 1895)

One thought on “Reconsidering Booker T. Washington’s ‘Atlanta Compromise’”

  1. The big debate has always been, how to bring our people up from slavery that we can take our rightful place. 90 % of A.A. needed a skill, while 10 % were to be trained in leadership.

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