Booker T. Washington gave one of America’s most influential speeches in 1895 at the Cotton States and World Expo. I would paraphrase it this way, “We promise not to try to vote, we will accept an inferior place in society, if the white people will promise to stop killing us.”
No really, that was the gist of his speech
It became known as the Atlanta Compromise and was seen as the settling of the American social order regarding race moving into the 1900’s.
Now mind you this is Booker T. Washington, best selling author, president of the Tuskegee Institute, huge fund raiser for Black education and philanthropy, and he is saying “we” will settle for being subjugated because it would be an improvement.
I’m not sure we of today appreciate how bad it must have been for smart ambitious people to see subjugation as the best viable option.
Whatever the views of the day, and there were other opinions, this compromise was seen as the rule by those in power. It was the foundation for Southern for the next 50-60 years till a bunch of college kids started agitating.
Often times there are little bits of remarkable or fantastical things all around us and we pay them no mind. Sometimes it is because we aren’t paying attention. Other times we are simply unaware. We can look at things, walk right past them, and have no idea what they are. It isn’t always that we don’t stop to smell roses but more there is no one standing on the sidewalk saying, “excuse me, but were you aware that these plants right here are roses?”
That happened to me back in December.
I had a meeting to attend, a rather low key function, and I was emailed an address. Giving it no mind I punched it into the iphone/gps and hit the road. This is where it took me:
This was not the office park I was expecting and I spent enough time wandering around in awe that despite arriving 30 minutes early, I was ten minutes late to the meeting.
The Mission Inn was built, or rather begun, back in 1902. That was back in the day when people growing oranges starting making money in the venture and wanted nice stuff, or nice places, nearby. This place qualifies as nice.
The place is a decadent maze of arches and corridors. It changes styles and directions without warning but never fails to be interesting. It contains a cathedral, a collection of bells from across the world, and has a small museum of artifacts and items collected through the years. It has also collected quite the guest list; Booker T. Washington, Cary Grant, Einstein, Houdini, Barbra Streisand, W.C. Fields, Helen Keller, Joseph Pulitzer, Carnegie, Susan B. Anthony, Bancroft, and me of course.
Richard and Pat Nixon were married at the Mission Inn. Ronald Reagan honeymooned there. Presidents Taft, Roosevelt, Harrison, McKinley, Kennedy, Hoover, Ford and W. Bush have all visited. So did the Governator.
I had no idea the place existed. Not a clue. Well, mostly not a clue. I had heard about it, people had told me to go there before. I didn’t realize people had told me about it because no one told me to go see the hotel.
They all told me to go see the Christmas lights. “Hey did you go to that place in Riverside with all the lights?”
I went back later to look at the lights. They were impressive, maybe a little gaudy.
But if all you go for is to look at the lights, I would argue you only sniffed the stem.
I had driven an hour out of my way through winding country roads not passing any other motorists and finally reached the National Park around 7am. The sign announced the park would open at 8 and the gate wore a thick chain with matching padlock. It took a little bit of effort to crawl under the gate but I did so and started the mile walk up the road to the historic site.
Booker T. Washington was born a slave in 1856. He knew nothing of his father other than that he was a white man, a slave master from somewhere else. The plantation he worked was not the genteel manor like Monticello, but rather a simple and lonely tobacco farm some miles outside of Roanoke. Roanoke is closer to West Virginia than D.C. but not near anything.
On these sorts of plantations the owner and his family labor alongside the slaves. Booker tells of the day he heard the Emancipation Proclamation read from the porch of the “big house”; the one the master lived in. Booker did not stay but left to work in West Virginia that same year.
It had snowed earlier in the week and it crunched under my feet as I guided myself around the farm. It was not crisp, it was cold. The recreated cabin built on the foundation of Booker’s actual birthplace was small. Not small as in quaint but small in that the doors were shorter than I am.
I looked around at my surroundings. I could see no one or nothing other than the small collection of slave cabins, a ramshackle barn, the foundation of the “big house”, and the visitor center at the op of the hill. It was miserable.
Booker T. Washington was no descendent of our first president. He impulsively gave himself that last name once he finally attended school and realized everyone else had two names. I have read his works, thought about his philosophy and even lightly participated in the still ongoing debate between his and Du Bois’s ideas. I have usually sided with Du Bois. I have read and listened as he was criticized for being on the payroll of large white organizations while preaching concessions. I have disagreed with his “let’s just do the best we can with how things are,” leaning. I have always been in the Du Bois camp.
Standing in front of the building he lived in I was ashamed that I even had an opinion. I was tired having driven from West Virginia in bad weather, Washington had walked it.
I was born the child of parents who both had masters’ degrees, I coasted through school, and find some pride in that I worked my own way through college. That pride is gone.
Sometimes you have an intellectual knowledge of something. You read. Listen, and learn about history and ideas. You think critically and strain to come up with new ideas, better ideas, and progress. You can gain all this knowledge and learning and still not know anything. Standing there alone in the snow I felt something. I looked at a place that was worse than humble even in its own time period, and yet I have studied his writings 200 years later. What have I, or anyone I know, done worth studying 200 years from now? What would be expected from me if raised in this place? What would we expect from anyone? What were others able to do who came up similarly?
Mr. Washington turned schools into Universities. Mr. Washington stood up and spoke when others were content to listen. He thought and taught, and better yet, he did.
It doesn’t matter what I think of his ideas because 200 years later my kids, like him, have a white father and a black mother. But in some way thanks to him, my children’s lives and the circumstances of their creation are absolutely nothing like his.
I drove away without the radio on. I was still feeling things. I came to that place because of proximity to where I was and a sense of historical responsibility. I went there not as a real fan of the man. I left there touched. I, a person largely in control of my own emotions, was moved unexpectedly. I went, looked around, and left with a little perspective. That is what is missing in the debates of today, perspective. Not just the kind of perspective where one looks at things from all angles, but the kind that comes from feeling something. The kind that comes from the chest and not from text.