Walkabout: Booker T. Washington and Brooklyn, Part 2

On March 15, 1892, Booker T. Washington gave a talk about his school, the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School, to a group of South Brooklyn residents who were interested in advances in Negro education. He was one of several speakers at the Second Unitarian Church on the corner of Congress and Clinton streets, and he spoke eloquently and at length about his school, founded in 1881 in rural Tuskegee, Ala. The meeting was covered by a reporter from the Brooklyn Eagle. His was the first story to mention Mr. Washington’s visit to Brooklyn to speak about African Americans in the South, specifically, and education, jobs and the strivings of black people in America, only thirty-something years after the end of slavery in the United States. The audience found the story of the founding of the school and the progress of its students to be fascinating, especially since Brooklyn’s African American population was also striving for that elusive ideal of that most American goal: the pursuit of happiness.

Booker T. Washington had been born a slave, and was a child when that awful institution ended with the close of the Civil War. He was able to get an education through perseverance, hard work and sacrifice, and the mentoring of General Samuel C. Armstrong, the white president of Hampton Normal and Industrial School in Virginia, one of America’s first Negro colleges. Please read the entire story in Part One of our series. It was Armstrong who recommended Washington to the Tuskegee Committee, and he became that institution’s first president and its life-long booster and fundraiser.

After the school was up and running, Booker T. Washington took to the road, spreading the word about the wonderful works of the school, and fundraising for the cause of Negro education. He went all over the country, speaking at churches, civic clubs, schools and wherever he had a willing audience. They especially loved him in our Northern cities; he was a popular speaker in the Republican halls of government and at functions and in Republican clubs. He was a guest at the White House several times under three presidents during his long career.

In 1895, he gave a popular but controversial speech at the Cotton States and Exhibition in Atlanta. That speech became known as the “Atlanta Compromise,” and was the foundation of Washington’s philosophy of how black people could get ahead in this country. It’s also at the foundation of why so many people, from the day he spoke up through today, have relegated Washington to the “Uncle Tom” category of black leaders.

Washington, and many other black leaders of the day, believed that it was necessary to compromise with white Southerners in order to get anywhere in the post-Reconstruction South. Jim Crow laws had effectively barred black people from voting, from an education, segregated or otherwise, from due process under the law, and had basically kept a large part of the black population in the same condition as when they were slaves on the plantations: ignorant, illiterate, and forever in thrall to the land and plantation, and the subjugation of a racist society. Washington was willing to put up with the social inequality, provided that Southern whites allowed blacks to receive necessary educational opportunities and justice under the law. Rich white Northerners would also provide money to fund separate black schools.

He was not going to rile up the white Southern populace with demands that blacks run for office, vote, look a white man in the face, or sit at the same table as equals, but he did want schools like Tuskegee to train better black farmers, domestics, craftsmen, cooks, seamstresses, shoemakers, mechanics and other tradespeople. These occupations would provide the South with a trained and eager black workforce, people who would be willing to forego social and civic equality until it could slowly be eased into the society, as whites realized how loyal and necessary their black workers were. Equality could be earned, but not now, and not by demanding it.

As can be imagined, there were vast parts of the North and South that embraced that philosophy wholeheartedly, in both the white and black community. Here in the large Northern cities, this especially resonated well with the wealthy white Republican social activists, businessmen and politicians, who saw the Tuskegee model as a perfect model not only for the South, but also the North as well.

The end of the 19th century was seeing a vast influx of European immigration, and northern blacks were feeling the economic pinch, as traditionally “black jobs,” like domestic service, dock-working and others were going to people who barely spoke English, if at all, and literally just got off the boat. Tensions were rising. Many ethnic groups found themselves being compared to blacks, usually in the worst ways possible, and racism was becoming more and more prevalent in our cities. On top of that, Northern blacks were demanding better education and opportunities to work in white collar fields, attend white colleges, and rise as equals in American society. Washington’s philosophies of a willing workforce that knew its place were comforting to many Northerners too.

Mr. Washington brought his message to cities like Brooklyn, asking for donations to Tuskegee and for privately funded schools for Negroes throughout the South. He raised a lot of money. In January of 1896, Washington found himself on the podium of the Alexander Hamilton Club in Brooklyn Heights, with a cast of the day’s luminaries. He shared the stage with Civil War generals, wealthy businessmen like Chauncey Depew, Robert Roosevelt, plus Woodrow Wilson, the well-known professor at Princeton, as well as the president of Hampton College, his alma mater.

The Hamilton Club almost didn’t get Washington on their roster, as he was also scheduled to speak at a dinner at the Union League Club. He spoke at the Hamilton, and ended up speaking at the Union League Club for Lincoln’s birthday, where he shared the stage and podium with some of Brooklyn’s movers and shakers. The two clubs actually had to rearrange their schedules so that both could get Booker T. at their events. That’s pretty remarkable.

In October of that same year, Washington came back to Brooklyn to speak again at the Hamilton Club, and he spent a couple of days in Brooklyn touring trade schools, meeting with civic leaders, both black and white, and doing the town. He was supposed to stay at the Hamilton Club, but instead accepted an offer from T. McCant Stewart, a prominent Negro lawyer, and former member of the Brooklyn Board of Education. These Brooklyn and New York City visits would continue well into the first decade and a half of the 20th century.

While he was being feted by prominent wealthy New York businessmen and receiving accolades from a great deal of the black community, not everyone was happy with Mr. Washington’s message of giving up much in order to achieve a little. The loudest critic was W.E.B. DuBois, the leader of the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP. This institution was founded by both blacks and whites in 1909, against the advice of Booker T. Washington, who saw the institution as too much too soon.

The NAACP advocated equal rights for African Americans, not later, but now, advocating that black people everywhere in the country immediately gain full access to all of the rights and privileges being enjoyed by white people, as guaranteed by the Constitution and Bill of Rights. DuBois and others vehemently disagreed with Washington’s Atlanta Compromise. They pointed to the increased lynching and violence in the South, and the lack of opportunity for blacks just about everywhere, as proof that America, especially in the South, was not going to honor its side of the deal, that black people’s rights should not be on hold, that they should not exist as the passive receivers of a hopeful white largesse. The two men would never see eye to eye, and as two of the most prominent African-American men in the country were at polar ends of the spectrum, and always would be.

Booker T. Washington enjoyed a unique place in America’s Northern white society. He was respected, consulted and treated as an equal by his wealthy and influential hosts. He was used to being recognized by much of the general population, if not by sight, then by name and reputation. In the North, he rarely experienced any discrimination. In 1911, he was an elegantly dressed handsome middle-aged man with what people of that age called a “fine carriage.” On March 19, 1911, he was about to experience what it meant to be an average, ordinary black man in a white society on New York’s Upper West Side.

On the evening of that night, Washington went to the apartment house of an acquaintance, a Mr. D.C. Smith. As he walked past the building several times, and looked for Smith’s name on the doorbells, he was seen by a Mrs. Albert Ulrich, a resident of the apartment building, who told her husband that a Negro was suspiciously checking out the building. Ulrich went out and verbally accosted Washington, demanding to know why he was in the neighborhood and in the building, and told him to get out. Washington ignored him, and continued his search for Smith’s apartment.

This caused Ulrich to chase Washington down the street, along Central Park West. This happened right when many people were on their way to dinner and the theater, so there was a big crowd. The 55-year-old Washington, who was not in the greatest of health, fell several times in the altercation, during which time he was kicked and punched by strangers who only saw a black man being chased down the street by a white man. A crowd gathered around the men, and Washington was scraped up, bruised, bloody and covered in mud. The police came and both men were taken to the nearby precinct station.

Ulrich told the police that he had been chasing a suspicious black man who was in the hallway of his building, frightening his wife. He wanted him charged with illegal entry. At this point, Washington had not said a word. When questioned, he drew himself up, dusted himself off, and said, “This man is mistaken, I am Booker T. Washington.” The room stepped back. He showed identification, and explained why he had been in the building, saying that he had forgotten the exact address he was looking for, and was checking the names on the bells when Mrs. Ulrich had seen him. He went on to drop some prominent names, as well, as character references.

The lieutenant in charge wanted to then arrest and charge Ulrich for assault, but Washington advised against it, and wouldn’t press charges, even though the blood was still running down his face at the time. Other witnesses came forth to corroborate his story. A still shaken Washington presumably was released into the care of his friends, and the incident was over, except for the press coverage. The New York Times, in the same story of the event, told of his life and accomplishments, noting that Booker T. Washington had received an honorary degree from Harvard in 1906, and had consulted with Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. The general feeling that a black man in the “wrong place” could be assaulted without provocation, or that passersby could righteously join in, was not addressed. Washington would certainly not be the last person to be accosted for walking while black in neighborhoods others thought he should not be in.

Four years later, Booker T. Washington died of congestive heart failure; he literally worked himself to death. He died at his desk and is buried on the campus of his beloved Tuskegee Institute. His legacy today is mixed, but there is no doubt that he was one of the most influential men of the 20th century, and through his efforts, thousands of students who would not have received any kind of education became more able to negotiate upwards in society. His personal story of dedication and perseverance is inspiring. In the later years of the 20th century, he was dismissed as an appeasing Uncle Tom by many activists and historians, but slowly, people are once again giving him credit where credit is due.

Here in Brooklyn and New York City, his speeches and presence raised the consciousness of wealthy New Yorkers, causing them to give to Tuskegee and Negro education in general. Not all of the funds went down South. Northern blacks supported the Republican Party until after World War I. W.E.B DuBois and the NAACP would call for racial equality in full measure, with no compromise, and this call would guide race relations throughout the 20th century and beyond. We’re still working on it.
(Above: Booker T. Washington and President Theodore Roosevelt at Tuskegee, 1905. Photograph: Yale University.)