Booker T. Washington, “Atlanta Exposition Address” (18 September 1895)
- The Atlanta Exposition Address was a speech delivered on a special occasion—namely, the opening ceremony of the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia. What characteristics of the speech distinguish it as a ceremonial speech? How might that occasion have shaped what Washington could or should say?
- What were Washington’s goals in the Atlanta Exposition Address? Did Washington achieve those goals? Why or why not?
- What do you believe is the most significant passage in the speech? A significant passage can be something powerful, something challenging, something revealing, something that is stylistically interesting, and more. Once you locate what you believe to be a significant passage, explain why you identified the passage and what it means.
- What does the phrase “social equality” (paragraph 13) signify to you? What might it have meant to Washington?
- On December 5, 1908, Washington recorded an excerpt of an altered version of his Atlanta Exposition Address. You can listen to that recording (the only known audio recording of Washington) here: https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/civil-rights-act/multimedia/booker-t-washington.html. Based on this recording, would you consider Washington a great orator? Why or why not? How would you describe his voice and delivery?
- What was your opinion of Washington (if any) before reading this speech? How did you arrive at that opinion? Has the interpretive essay on the Atlanta Exposition Address changed your opinion about Washington? Why or why not?
- Many libraries have subscriptions to electronic databases containing newspapers and periodicals from the late-nineteenth century. Notable examples include ProQuest Historical Newspapers, African American Newspapers (Readex), and 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. Another database, accessible without a library subscription, is the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov). Using one or more of these databases, research the reception of Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Address in 1895. How did news stories at the time discuss the speech? Were there common themes across the coverage? Does the news coverage influence your understanding of the speech?
- Booker T. Washington’s ideas for racial uplift are often juxtaposed to the ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois, especially those presented in chapter 3 of Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015054058881?urlappend=%3Bseq=55). Compare and contrast Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Address with chapter 3 of The Souls of Black Folk. How are Washington’s and Du Bois’s views similar and different on the project of advancing African Americans? Is Du Bois’s characterization of Washington accurate and fair? Whose ideas do you find most compelling?
- Research what historians have called the “nadir of race relations” in the U.S., which occurred around the time Washington gave his speech. Why is this period known as the nadir of race relations? How might it have influenced what Washington could or should say in Atlanta?
- Washington was head of the Tuskegee Institute (now known as Tuskegee University), one of many historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) created after the Civil War. Research the history of HBCUs. Why were they created? What kind of education did they offer students? What are some of their contributions to American society?
- During his lifetime, Washington was considered the heir to the legacy of Frederick Douglass, at least in terms of race leadership. Research the relationship between Washington and Douglass. What was their personal relationship like? What did they think of each other? Is Washington rightly considered the heir to Douglass’s legacy?
- Some critics charge that Washington promoted economic solutions at the expense of political solutions in his push for the civil rights of African Americans. How would you rank the importance of economics and politics in the ongoing push for civil rights? Is one area more important than the other? Can we ever separate economics and politics?
- On the campus of Tuskegee University is a famous statue of Booker T. Washington entitled “Lifting the Veil of Ignorance,” dedicated in 1922. You can see the statue here: http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/m-7019. How does this statue shape our memories of the past? How does the statue shape our understanding of the present and future? In general, what roles do statues play in civil society?
- How might you compare Washington to other Black leaders in American history? Do you see connections between his advocacy and the work of subsequent civil rights advocates, including A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X? What about Washington’s connection to Black leaders today, including Barack Obama? Are there other leaders you see carrying on Washington’s legacy?
- Washington lived in the rural South at a time when violence against African Americans was horrifyingly common. Today, of course, there is still violence against African Americans, prompting numerous social movements, including Black Lives Matter. How do you think Washington would respond to ongoing violence and the Black Lives Matter movement if he were alive today? What are the similarities and differences between the racial injustice of Washington’s day and the racial injustice of today?