This Day (Booker T. & The Fingers Edition)

Published:September 18, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day in 1895, Booker T. Washington addressed the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, giving his famous and controversial “Atlanta Compromise” speech urging racial accommodation.

As he describes it in his autobiography, Up from Slavery (1907), “this was the first time in the entire history of the Negro that a member of my race had been asked to speak from the same platform with white Southern men and women on any important National occasion.” His speech represented black economic opportunity as a potential success story for both the South and the nation. It reinforced images of African Americans as faithful servants during slavery and promised that, “in our humble way, we shall stand by you … ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours.” The climax of the speech—the most famous words Washington ever authored, in fact—involved a metaphor of the hand: “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”

Given his own biracial identity, Washington was perhaps aware at some level of the irony of the metaphor, which segregated the races along “social” lines while interlacing them on most others. It drew an ovation from the Atlanta audience, however, and was reproduced in newspapers around the country, transforming Washington almost overnight into national celebrity.

Washington even got a nice note (above) from W. E. B. DuBois, who would go on to forcefully challenge Washington’s ideas.

You can go here to listen to an audio recording of Washington delivering his speech.

IMAGES: First page of transcript of Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Exposition” speech (Booker T. Washington Papers); note from W. E. B. DuBois to Booker T. Washington congratulating him on his “Atlanta Exposition” speech (Library of Congress)