Booker T. Washington delivered the “1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech” at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta in front of a predominately white audience. Washington, who was born a slave in Virginia, went on to work as a child in the salt furnaces and coalmines of West Virginia. He was determined to receive an education where he later traveled to the Hampton Institute. Booker T. Washington would later become one of the most influential African-Americans between 1890 and 1915. His resume included educator, author, orator, advisor to Republican Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. He also founded the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute.
The Atlanta Compromise addressed Washington’s acceptance of social segregation as long as African-Americans were given the opportunity to advance economically and professionally. He attempted to coax his audience and the white population as a whole with his explicit message “cast down your bucket where you are.” Meaning to put trust in the same African-Americans that were loyal to care after their masters families and till their farms, to be able to contribute in areas such as agriculture, mechanics, and commerce to name a few.
Washington, being a former slave and working his way upward knew first hand the importance of African-Americans receiving an education but he also knew how manual labor played a major role in the South. He believed that “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem”. Although the idea of an African-American presenting at the Exposition was not warmly accepted among white southerners, they believed having a Black speaker would impress their Northern visitors; attempting to portray that the South was making racial progress.
The language of Booker T. Washington’s speech was constructed as if a white man had written it. In the past African-Americans were not looked at as being able to develop a speech of such magnitude and influence. The language he used in his speech illustrated that he was a well-educated African-American and that he was able to touch on topics that appealed to white citizens while including progression for Blacks. The document was prescriptive, Washington gave specific remedies for how and in what settings whites and African-Americans could work together to reap the most benefits for each group. “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the finger, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress”, is the perfect quote from his speech to summarize the perspective of the document as a whole.
I thought that Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” was a step in the right direction for African-Americans of the time. I feel that Washington wanted to work with the white citizens by not asking for so many changes in society at one time. I got the impression that he wanted to start by building on their trust in one another that had begun during slavery. This document impacted my idea of progressivism because it depicted how an African-American was able to give a speech amongst a majority white audience and bargain for basic rights for his people.