The Atlanta Exposition commenced with a short address from the Governor of Georgia. There were some other opening events, including an invocation, a dedicatory ode, and addresses by the president of the Exposition. After these events, the Governor introduced Washington by saying, “We have with us today a representative of Negro enterprise and Negro civilization.”
By recounting the other types of addresses given—an introductory address by the Governor, a dedicatory ode, and a presidential address by the Exposition president—Washington is illustrating the magnitude and nature of his speech. It must be dignified enough to seem natural on such a lofty occasion.
As Washington rose to speak, he was met by many cheers by black audience members. He felt that he needed to open with a statement that fostered unity and friendship between the races as a sign of good faith. Washington then gives a transcription of the contents of his speech.
Washington is continuing to build suspense to highlight the high racial and cultural stakes of the event.
Washington opens his address by thanking the members of the Exposition board and saying that their invitation for Washington to speak is a great stride forward in finding peace in race relations. Washington also suggests that the United States can never find success if it denies the welfare of the black race, which consists of one third of its population. Washington also is hopeful that his opportunity to speak will open up an era of new industrial progress for both black and white Americans.
This statement is carefully crafted to appeal to both black and white audience members. Black members would be appeased by the call to account for the welfare of the black race, and white members would be appeased by the suggestion that such an event is inherently a step forward for race relations.
Washington then begins telling a parable of a ship lost at sea for an extended period of time. The sailors, dying of thirst, were desperate for a fresh drink of water. They spotted another friendly ship and began desperately calling out for the ship to bring them fresh water. The ship called back, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” Confused, the sailors lowered a bucket into the waters below them and were shocked that the water below them was fresh and drinkable. The sailors unknowingly had sailed right into the mouth of the Amazon River! According to Washington, this parable represents the status of race relations in the United States. Rather than striving toward progress in legal, medical, and political professions, black Americans should excel “where they are,” in professions like agriculture, mechanics, and commerce, to prove their worth. Washington claims that as much dignity can be found in these professions as can be found in the “higher” callings, and that black Americans can only find progress once they engage in industrial labor.
This now infamous parable is used as an emblem of Washington’s educational and social ideology. It encapsulates his belief that community and the local are the most important institutions, and that race relations and economic concerns can be found if people find satisfaction where they are. This promotion of black people to “stay where they are” is deeply problematic, however, because it is reminiscent of the racist belief that calls for black people to “stay in their place.” This ideology suggested that black Americans should only hold subservient roles in economics, politics, and society. Because of this connection, Washington was widely criticized by black leaders who thought such an ideology was too conservative and harmful for the true progress of black people.
Washington then pivots, directing this same advice to the white audience members, exhorting them to “cast down their bucket” with black Americans by expressing fidelity and love as their neighbors. Washington urges his white audience to accept their black neighbors and to work alongside them toward racial harmony and industrial progress. While Washington accepts that black and white Americans could live separate social lives, he believes that they must intermingle in the public and economic spheres.
While the invocation for black people to “cast down their bucket” was problematic, this pivot helped Washington to win over some of his more skeptical black audience members. Washington here tries to show that his ideology calls for a valuation of community for whites as well as blacks, and whites need to treat blacks as neighbors.
Washington continues, suggesting that society only progresses when its members work together for the betterment of all its citizens. According to Washington, those who work to help black Americans will be blessed in return, and those who aim to inhibit black Americans will suffer from a lack of social progress.
Washington yet again reiterates his belief that white Americans suffer more from racism than black Americans—because individual morality and dignity is more important than social or economic progress.
Washington argues that black Americans will constitute one-third of the South’s population regardless of their white neighbors’ acceptance of them. These black Americans can thus either constitute one-third of the South’s ignorance and crime or one-third of the South’s intelligence and progress. Therefore Southern white citizens should do whatever they can to ensure the progress and security of the race.
Washington argues that black people are going to be in the South whether white people like it or not, so white people should go ahead and accept black people into society. He believes that this acceptance will lead to great strides in societal and economic progress. Such a message was very attractive to Southern whites in the audience, for they were still in a state of economic and political depression following the Civil War. Any prospect of the restoration of the South’s perceived greatness was both attractive and desired by white Southerners.
Washington then credits both Southern states and Northern philanthropists in conjunction with the effort of black Americans for the progress showcased in the black culture exhibit at the institution.
Washington tries to demonstrate that his call for unity is for Northerners and Southerners as well as blacks and whites.
Washington continues, saying that the “wise” members of the black race know that political agitation is “folly” and will accomplish no progress for the black American. To Washington, such action is largely alienating and will only secure guaranteed exclusion and racial strife.
This is another deeply problematic statement, as “political agitation” is what freed black people from slavery in the first place. Asking black Americans to “stay in their place” promotes racist ideologies of black inferiority. This is also another promotion of respectability politics.
Washington concludes by saying that the Exposition is one of the greatest opportunities for racial progress, and that his invitation to speak draws black Americans much closer to racial reconciliation with white Americans. Washington pledges that as long as white Southerners continue to put effort forth to heal the racial divide, black Americans will prove their worth through labor in the industries. Such action will rejuvenate the South and establish a new and harmonious society. With this the speech ends.
While this speech was indeed a milestone in race relations in the United States, it did not quite have the intended effect that Washington wished for. Southern and Northern whites were more than happy to see blacks laboring for the economy, but as soon as black people began to try to move up the social ladder, both the South and North passed racist laws to try to suppress black political and social uplift. White Americans were not so eager to see the merit of black people outside of the institution of labor, which refuted Washington’s philosophy that merit is recognized by all humanity as a universal virtue. It seems that white Americans were willing to see the merit of laboring African Americans, but not the merit of a powerful and prominent black middle or upper class.
Washington says that the first thing that he remembers after the speech is the Governor and other Exposition speakers on stage rushing over to shake his hand. Washington was elated and honored, but he did not realize the full effect that his speech had on his audience until his return trip to Tuskegee, in which people crowded the train at each stop, wishing to congratulate and shake hands with him.
As is the case throughout the other portions of the narrative, Washington presented a problem with the racial stakes of his speech and the struggle in his preparation of the material. His solution, or at least resolution, comes in the form of his universal congratulations by the audience members, the Exposition members, and the citizens of surrounding areas.
Papers all over the United States published the full address, and Washington was overwhelmed by the positive reception of critics. Washington immediately began receiving propositions to lecture permanently or to write editorials for magazines, but he believed that his life work was at Tuskegee. His only speaking engagements would be in the interest of the Institute.
Washington tries to reiterate that he has not accepted his speaking engagements for the fame, but that he his doing so for the betterment of Tuskegee and black people in general.
After his speech, Washington sent a copy to the President of the United States, Grover Cleveland. President Cleveland deeply appreciated Washington’s speech, and eventually the two met when the President visited the Atlanta Exposition and the “Negro” exhibit. Washington deeply admired the President’s interest in black Americans’ lives, and Cleveland repeatedly demonstrated his friendship through personal and financial interest in the Tuskegee Institute. Washington claims that Cleveland was a man of rare and excellent character, who cared deeply for those around him and particularly his constituents.
Like his descriptions of Olivia Davidson and General Armstrong, Washington romanticizes his interaction with President Cleveland, claiming that he is a man of impeccable and selfless character who is only interested in equality for all.
Washington philosophizes that any person whose vision is colored by race cannot truly experience the greatest things in the world. He believes that those who do the most for others are the happiest and that racism is the greatest impediment for social progress. Washington claims that the highest joy in the world is making someone else’s life easier or happier.
Washington reiterates his idea that merit and labor can erase racial differences because they are universal human values.
Immediately after Washington’s address, black newspapers and black people in general were widely supportive of his speech, but after the initial excitement, black critics became skeptical of some of Washington’s ideas. Some critics, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, felt that Washington had been too kind to white Southerners and had not been strong enough in his stance against the poor treatment of blacks in the South. Washington calls these critics “reactionary,” and he claims that he won them over after they saw the wisdom in his approach.
Washington misrepresents reality in this passage. While many black institutions cast their support for Washington, he also encountered a great deal of strong resistance. Other major educational thinkers, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, claimed that Washington’s ideology would only further racial inequality and cause the continued oppression of black people. These critics did not change their mind, as Washington claims they did.
These critics remind Washington of another event in which his comments garnered criticism. About ten years before the Exposition address, Washington was asked by a newspaper editor about his opinions of the status of black clergy in the South. Washington responded that the clergy was in a quite poor condition and that black Americans had not had sufficient time to develop a “competent” clergy. Black ministers were outraged, and many religious organizations condemned Washington, his ideology, and his Institute. Washington, however, did not respond to clarify or explain his remarks because he felt that he was right. Washington claims that this belief was confirmed when one of the oldest bishops in the Methodist Church agreed with him. According to Washington, public sentiment turned and his remarks catalyzed a widespread purge of incompetent clergy. Because of this, Washington decided that if he feels he has done the right thing, he will stick by his actions regardless of the social or political consequences.
Washington tries to show that in his opinion, truth and goodness are always exposed if one sticks with one’s beliefs. Washington believes that his detractors are simply misinformed, and they will see their error after time exposes the fault in their logic. Washington believes that personal conviction is more important than larger political consequences.
As a result of the Exposition address, Washington also received an invitation from the President of Johns Hopkins University, requesting that he serve as a Judge of Award for the Department of Education in Atlanta. Washington was shocked because as a juror, he would be asked to judge not only black schools but also white schools. Washington spent a month serving his duty as a judge for this organization, and he felt that he was treated with respect and dignity in both white and black schools.
Washington sees this appointment as evidence that his speech had positive effects on race relations, since he was treated with dignity in both white and black schools.
Reflecting upon the nature of race relations in the South, Washington proposes that in due time, all black Americans will be awarded the political rights that their ability, character, and material possessions will allow. These rights will not be accorded because of political agitation or government action but by Southern white people themselves, because of the merit demonstrated by black Southern citizens in their own individual communities. Washington suggests that if his position as speaker at the Atlanta Exposition came about because of the demands by Northerners or black Southerners, it would not have had the same positive effect for race relations as it did. According to Washington, he was given the opportunity to speak based on his merit, not on any artificial racial reconciliatory project.
Again, Washington’s worldview did not prove to work, as race relations worsened in the 20th century until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Contrary to Washington’s theory, the only effort that made effective strides toward equality was political and legal agitation and intervention.
Washington proposes that it is the duty of black citizens to not pursue political power or high positions in society until they demonstrate their worth and merit through labor in industry. He believes that true political equality will not occur immediately, It will be slow, not an “overnight, a gourd-vine affair.” However, black Americans should continue to vote, but they should do so only based on their discernment and intelligence, not based on their race. Washington thinks that it is unwise for black Americans to ignore the political and economic opinions of white Southerners, since white Southerners are very similar to them in their political and economic concerns.
The phrase “overnight, gourd-vine affair” refers to the Biblical story of the prophet Jonah, who ministered to the sinful city of Nineveh. Jonah was very hesitant to minister to the city because of its reputation, so to teach Jonah a lesson in obedience, God suddenly wilted all of the plants outside of Nineveh so that Jonah would have nowhere to find shade, and would have to enter the city and follow God’s commands. Once Jonah began following God’s command to prophesy to the city about its wickedness, God provided shade overnight in the form of a quick-growing gourd vine. Washington feels that race relations will not be fixed in this swift manner, and rather racial reconciliation will come from slow and deliberate progress through labor and merit.
Although Washington rejects the idea that a poor and ignorant white man should be allowed to vote while a poor and ignorant black man is prohibited from the ballot, he does suggest that an educational or property test for the ballot may be a good solution to protect the integrity of the institution. However, such a test ought to be applied evenly to black and white Americans, and the white American should not be allowed to cheat the black American out of a vote. According to Washington, such practice promotes thievery and dishonesty and lowers the general moral stature of society.
The ballot test is an infamously racist tool used to prevent newly enfranchised black voters from going to the polls. Some polls had a land-owning requirement for voting, some had an educational test, and others had a tax associated with them. Since black Americans were largely poor and uneducated, these rules as a whole prevented many black voters from going to the polls. While Washington thinks that singling out black people with this practice is immoral and harmful, his proposition that the ballot test could ensure the integrity of the ballot is problematic in its exclusionary purpose.