In 1909, that power shift was a delicate business.
It’s no secret that the NAACP was founded and led by well-born white liberals. One of them was journalist Oswald Garrison Villard, grandson of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
Villard’s father, Henry Villard, was railroad rich... and he owned the New York Evening Post and The Nation, which provided a platform for young Oswald’s political writing.
A self-described “radical” when it came to the Negro question, Oswald Villard authored a “call” to meet – signed by 60 prominent blacks and whites – which would result in the formation of the NAACP. This meeting was labeled the National Negro Conference.
In planning that meeting, Villard was in a tricky spot. How could there be a “Conference on the Status of the Negro” without the most influential black man in America – Booker T. Washington – taking part? Prof. Washington rubbed elbows with U.S. presidents!
But Villard envisioned an “aggressive” new movement... a watchdog group for black people’s rights. And ascending Negro leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois had already rejected Booker T. Washington’s “accommodationism.”
Villard “realized that Washington could have little influence with a gathering of men and women such as were behind the coming conference,” according to NAACP historian Charles Flint Kellogg.
Complicating this ideological schism was the fact that Oswald Garrison Villard had been a friend of Prof. Washington’s and a supporter of his work at the Tuskegee Institute.
Here’s an excerpt from Kellogg’s “NAACP: A History of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People” (1967):
CHARLES FLINT KELLOGG: A few weeks before the conference, Villard visited Tuskegee to talk to the students. He felt that he was much too radical and outspoken for Washington’s comfort and that Washington disapproved of what he said.
[Villard] was critical of the school. He complained of its lack of coordination and of the need for expert educational supervision and deplored the “essentially commercial” tone. ...
Although Villard never broke with Washington completely, his growing relationship with the more “radical” group [of black activists] contributed to his disillusionment. ...
Aware as he was of the presence of two factions in the Negro world – one headed by Booker T. Washington, the other by Atlanta University Professor William E.B. Du Bois – Villard was nevertheless determined not to let this controversy interfere with the conference nor with the formation of a permanent organization.
It was in this spirit that he wrote a frank but cordial letter to Washington, inviting him to attend the conference, but tactfully making it possible for him to decline.
It was not to be a Washington movement or a Du Bois movement, he explained. It was to be an aggressive organization, ready to strike hard blows for the rights of the colored people.
Because of Washington’s educational affiliations, Villard understood the delicacy of his position. Washington would be welcome at the conference, but his absence would not be misinterpreted.
In turning down the invitation, Washington showed insight not borne out by his subsequent actions. “I fear that my presence might restrict freedom of discussion and might, also, tend to make the conference go in directions which it would not like to go.”