The discovery of a letter from Booker T. Washington in the archives of the Rye Historical Society led to my writing an article about the noted African-American educator at the start of Black History Month last year.
By Paul Hicks
The discovery of a letter from Booker T. Washington in the archives of the Rye Historical Society led to my writing an article about the noted African-American educator at the start of Black History Month last year. The recipient of the letter was John E. Parsons, a longtime Rye resident, in appreciation for his gift to Tuskegee Institute, which was then gaining wide recognition under Washington’s leadership.
By chance, I recently uncovered an account in an early issue of the Rye Chronicle of an address made by Washington at Rye Presbyterian Church on January 26, 1910. It reported that, “Despite inclement weather, eight hundred people were present…on Wednesday evening to listen to the great colored speaker, Booker T. Washington, on the occasion of his first visit to Rye.”
The reporter noted that “Mr. Washington’s itinerary takes in the large cities,” and that “his coming to Rye was a compliment to the village pastor [Rev. Douglas P. Birnie] and the trustees of the local church.” There was no other indication given of who was instrumental in getting Washington to speak in Rye. It is quite possible that John E. Parsons was involved, as he and many members of his family were active in Rye Presbyterian Church for decades.
Just two days before his visit to Rye, Washington had addressed an audience of two thousand people at a meeting in Carnegie Hall, chaired by former New York City mayor, Seth Low. The purpose of that meeting was to screen a film, entitled “A Day at Tuskegee,” which showed the students and facilities of the Institute and Washington’s program of “industrial education” in action.
Although the film was not shown at the meeting in Rye, the Chronicle article said that Washington described Tuskegee’s “remarkable growth from an old cabin to its present size, having 96 buildings and three thousand acres of land, all of which were erected by the scholars themselves…More than 6,000 colored people have been graduated from Tuskegee, and under the practical training received there, they are doing much to solve the race problem in the south.”
The account went on to comment that, “In describing the relations of the black and white man as neighbors, Mr. Washington was a consummate diplomat by the skillful manner in which he handled that thorny subject. He had nothing but praise for the white man’s treatment of his black neighbor, although it is a well-known fact that our treatment of him is by no means as praise-worthy as it might be. No open mind can hear Mr. Washington without feeling a desire to help him and his worthy cause. This help need not necessarily reach Tuskegee; it can be directed to good advantage to our nearest negro neighbor.”
There was no mention in the article of the debate (or clash) that was then going on between Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, a leading African-American activist and early civil rights advocate. DuBois criticized Washington for what he called his “accommodation” approach to race relations, as well as his emphasis on practical rather than academic education.
Washington countered that having risen to leadership from slavery, he represented the masses of black people far better than “artificial” men like DuBois (the first African-American to receive a doctorate from Harvard). He also had achieved great support for his educational programs by cooperating with both northern and southern whites.
There is no better time than Black History Month to learn more about the polarizing Washington/DuBois debate, which still has lingering effects in the continuing efforts to end racism in the United States. For those who are interested, a good place to begin is at the webpage for a “Frontline” program, entitled “Booker T. & W.E.B.: The Two Nations of Black America.”