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The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow A Century of Segregation
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The Atlanta Compromise Speech (1895)
Booker T. Washington

In 1895 Booker T. Washington, deeply troubled over the racial fury unlashed in the South, searched for a solution. Invited to speak at the Cotton Exposition States in Atlanta, Georgia, a fair that promoted Southern commerce, Washington was encouraged by a display of seeming good will on the part of whites. One of the highlights of the fair was the construction of a Negro Building containing exhibits demonstrating the scientific, cultural, and mechanical achievements of African Americans. For Booker T. Washington, the exposition was an opportunity to promote his agenda rather than protest racism. He had been extremely anxious as he made the trip from Alabama to Atlanta, knowing that one false note in his speech could jeopardize everything he had built at Tuskegee. His audience would be mixed: Southerners, Northerners, and black people. James Creelman, a correspondent for the NEW YORK WORLD, observed the crowd's reaction when Washington appeared: "When among them a colored man appeared, a sudden chill fell on the whole assemblage. One after another asked, 'What's that nigger doing on the stage?'" But when Washington rose to speak, and began by criticizing his people for seeking political and economic power during Reconstruction, the crowd suddenly became very attentive. Washington prclaimed, "In all things that are purely social we can be as seperate as the finger yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."
"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 our mind that we shall prosper as we learn to dignify and glorify common labor. It is at the bottom of life we should begin and not the top."
Creelman described what followed. "And when he held his dusky hand high above his head, with the fingers stretched apart, and said to the white people of the South on behalf of his race, '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,' a great sound wave resounded from the walls and the whole audience was
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Booker T. Washington's
speech in Atlanta and its immediate impact.

on its feet in a delirium of applause." The ATLANTA CONSTITUTION described his triumph in glowing terms. "When the Negro finished, such an ovation followed as I had never seen before and never expect to see again. Tears ran down the face of many blacks in the audience. White Southern women pulled flowers from the bosom of their dresses and reigned them upon the black man on stage." The white press throughout the nation unanimously acclaimed his speech. Former abolitionists, black leaders, railroad tycoons, political leaders, and President Grover Cleveland wired their congratulations. Many blacks and whites felt a new era had begun, although some blacks raised voices of dissent. The race question had seemingly been settled. Blacks would forgo their civil and political rights. They would get justice and economic rights. It was a dream that was not to be.

-- Richard Wormser

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Historical Documents
The Atlanta Compromise speech
Read the text of Booker T. Washington's controversial "Atlanta Compromise" speech.
Related Pages
Booker T. Washington
Tuskegee Institute
Reconstruction
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