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Atlanta Exposition Speech of 1895

The Atlanta Exposition Address of 1895 or the Atlanta Compromise Speech was given on Sept. 18, 1895. Booker T. Washington spoke before a predominantly white audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. It has been said that the organizers of the exposition were nervous about inviting a black speaker, but decided that Washington’s presence would provide evidence of racial progress in the South. The speech outlines Washington’s belief in industrial education in addressing the concerns of the African American community and is seen as an attempt by Washington to ease the concerns of whites. In it he attacks the efforts of Reconstruction by stating that blacks began their new lives at the top instead of at the bottom by taking seats in Congress or in State legislatures instead of learning industrial skills or seeking real estate. Washington believes in blacks working from the bottom up, but refrains from suggesting that blacks could or should reach the top in the first place. After the speech, Washington became a much sought after national figure. The reception among African Americans was more complex. For example, just after the speech was given, W. E. B. Du Bois writes Washington a letter showing his support, but with time Du Bois began to change his views and began referring to the speech as the Atlanta Compromise.

In the speech Washington argues: “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. Now should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities?”

Washington’s famous line from the speech: “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” stating before that black Americans “in our humble way…shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one.”

In response to many of his critics, Washington asserts that, “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….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.”

“I pledge that in your effort to work out the great and intricate problem which God has laid at the doors of the South, you shall have at all times the patient, sympathetic help of my race….Yet far above and beyond material benefits will be that higher good, that let us pray God, will come, in a blotting out of sectional differences and racial animosities and suspicions, in a determination to administer absolute justice, in a willing obedience among all classes to the mandates of law. This coupled with our material prosperity, will bring into our beloved South a new heaven and a new earth”

For more information on Washington and Du Bois, please visit The Special Collections and University Archives on Credo.

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