What better way to celebrate Black History Month than to discover a letter signed by Booker T. Washington while doing research in the Rye Historical Society’s archives at the Knapp House.
By Paul Hicks
What better way to celebrate Black History Month than to discover a letter signed by Booker T. Washington while doing research in the Rye Historical Society’s archives at the Knapp House. Handwritten in September 1904, the letter was sent to John E. Parsons, a prominent New York lawyer, who had country homes in Rye and Lenox, Mass.
Washington wrote to thank Parsons for his check of $500 (equivalent to about $12,000 today). As head of Tuskegee Institute (now called Tuskegee University) he wrote: “I want to have the privilege of letting you know with my own hand how much we appreciate your generous gift and how greatly it helps us.”
Born into slavery in 1859, Washington graduated from Hampton Institute. While teaching there in 1881, he left to start a new school in Tuskegee, Ala., whose primary mission was to train African-American students to become teachers. He remained head of Tuskegee until his death in 1915 and built it into a leading educational and vocational institution.
Washington also achieved a national reputation because of his skills in improving race relations and developing job opportunities for blacks. Although he was criticized by W.E.B. Du Bois and others for being too conservative and “accommodating” to whites, Washington’s success in raising funds for Tuskegee and other black schools gave him national prominence.
In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt shocked many Americans when he invited Booker T. Washington to dine with the First Family in the Executive Mansion. Not only was it the first time that an African-American (and a former slave) had dined at the White House, but it demonstrated Roosevelt’s high regard for him.
John E. Parsons was mentioned in Washington’s autobiography as one of the prominent people who attended a large meeting on education for blacks and other racial issues held at the old Madison Square Garden in February of 1904. The meeting was chaired by Andrew Carnegie and featured a speech by Washington.
It appears, however, that Washington did not meet Parsons until 1904, since his thank-you letter to Parsons mentions that, “I want to let you know also how much I valued the privilege of meeting you at dinner while in Stockbridge.”
An article in The New York Times of September 4, 1904, headlined “Events at Lenox,” reported that, “Booker T. Washington is a guest of Alexander Sedgwick of New York at Mr. Sedgwick’s country house. Mr. Sedgwick has invited several prominent Stockbridge and Lenox cottagers to meet and lunch with Mr. Washington Monday afternoon [including] John E. Parsons…”
Among the subjects that Parsons and Washington are likely to have discussed was St. Helen’s Home near Lenox, a country retreat established by Parsons to provide summer vacations for poor children from New York City. Under the auspices of the New York Tribune’s Fresh Air Fund, St. Helen’s welcomed hundreds of underprivileged city children each summer for stays of two weeks.
Another topic that might have been of mutual interest for them was Cooper Union, founded in New York City by Peter Cooper in 1859. Parsons was a founding trustee and served as its president from 1905 until his death in 1915. Now a university specializing in art, architecture, and engineering, Cooper Union at the outset was free for working-class students, with no color bar, and open to women as well as men.
When Washington and Parsons met, it was just over 40 years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The educational initiatives started by Washington, with the help of philanthropists like Parsons, were helping to build thousands of community schools throughout the South. Many of the graduates of those schools became leaders of the Civil Rights movement that led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.