“To those of my race who… underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man, who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: ‘Cast down your bucket where you are’ – cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded. …”
You know I love peculiar media artifacts. Especially those that make American history come alive (such as narratives by ex-slaves).
Well, imagine my shock and awe to come across an actual voice recording of Booker T. Washington from 1906! (It was recorded on an Edison cylinder, and it’s the only known record of Washington’s voice ever made.)
Washington, as president of the Tuskegee Institute, became the most prominent black American of his era. He rubbed elbows with U.S. presidents. Himself born a slave, Booker T. Washington advocated an up-by-the-bootstraps self-improvement philosophy that has resonated in the black community ever since.
On September 18, 1895, Prof. Washington addressed a largely white audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. That speech is now known as the “Atlanta Exposition speech” (or, by some, as the “Atlanta Compromise”).
It’s the speech that made Booker T. Washington a national figure.
Because he didn’t push for “social equality” with whites, he was later attacked by W.E.B. Du Bois, who declared: “Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission. ... [His] programme practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races.”
But most black leaders at the time praised the Atlanta Exposition speech.
White folks really praised it. President Grover Cleveland sent Booker T. Washington a congratulatory letter. The New York World newspaper called him “the Negro Moses.”
“As Prof. Washington strode forward to the edge of the stage,” wrote James Creelman in the New York World, “the low, descending sun shot fiery rays through the windows into his face. A great shout greeted him.”
The journalist continued: “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 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.”
Creelman also reported: “Most of the Negroes in the audience were crying, perhaps without knowing just why.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Levering Lewis calls the Atlanta Exposition speech “one of the most consequential pronouncements in American History.”
The voice recording I stumbled upon isn’t from the Atlanta Exposition itself. Washington recited parts of his speech 11 years later, in 1906, to make a phonograph record for reasons unknown.
Still, it’s a thrill to hear the words in his own voice (notwithstanding the surface noise of a 100-year-old cylinder).
To hear a three-and-a-half-minute streaming mp3 of Booker T. Washington’s speech, click here.
You can purchase it for download here, on eMusic. There’s also a shorter (and cleaner-sounding) version available on iTunes, from a CD titled “Every Tone a Testimony.”
You can read the entire Atlanta Exposition speech here, or read more about it here.