Honorary Master of Arts Degree
conferred by Harvard College
June 24, 1896
NOTE: - Booker T. Washington delivered an Address at the Alumni Dinner of Harvard University following his receiving the honorary degree of Master of Arts was printed in a Harvard pamphlet which included this report on the occasion.
"First in the history of America, a leading American University confers an honorary degree upon a colored man. Harvard has been always to the front in ideas of liberty, freedom and equality. When other colleges of the North were accepting the Negro as a tolerance, Harvard has been awarding him honors, as in the case of Clement G. Morgan of recent date.
Her present action, therefore, in placing an honorary crown upon the worthy head of Mr. Washington, is but a step further in her magnanimity in recognizing merit under whatever color of skin.
The mere announcement of this event is a great testimony to the standing of Mr. Washington, but to any black person who, as I did, saw and heard the enthusiasm and applause with which the audience cheered the announcement by President Eliot, the degree itself was insignificant. The Boston Lancers had conducted Gov. Wolcott to Cambridge, and 500 Harvard graduates had double filed the march to Sanders' Theatre. It was a great day. Latin orations, disquisitions, dissertations and essays in English were delivered by selected graduates, clad in stately and classic cap and gown. Bishops, generals, commodores, statesmen, authors, poets, explorers, millionaires and noted men of every calling, sat as earnest listeners.
When the name of Booker T. Washington was called...
there was such an outburst of applause as greeted no other name except that of the popular soldier-patriot, General Miles.
President Eliot had issued 500 diplomas by handing them to representatives of the graduates in bundles of twenty to twenty-five. Then came the awarding of honorary degrees. Thirteen were issued. Bishop Vincent and General Nelson A. Miles, Commander of the U.S. Army, being among the recipients. When the name of Booker T. Washington was called, and he arose to acknowledge and accept, there was such an outburst of applause as greeted no other name except that of the popular soldier-patriot, General Miles. The applause was not studied and stiff, sympathetic and condoling; it was enthusiasm and admiration. Every part of the audience from pit to gallery joined in, and a glow covered the cheeks of those around me, proving that sincere appreciation of the rising struggle of an ex-slave and the work he has accomplished for his race.
But the event of the day was the alumni dinner, when speeches formed the most enjoyable bill of fare. Two hundred Harvard alumni and their invited guests partook of their annual dinner. Four or five speeches were made, among them one from Mr. Washington.
At the close of the speaking, notwithstanding Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Dr. Minot J. Savage and others had spoken, President Eliot warmly grasped Mr. Washington by the hand and told him that his was the best speech of the day...
Says The Boston Post: "In conferring the honorary degree of Master of Arts upon the Principal of Tuskegee Institute, Harvard University has honored itself as well as the object of this distinction. The work which Prof. Booker T. Washington has accomplished for the education, good citizenship and popular enlightenment in his chosen field of labor in the South, entitles him to rank with our national benefactors. The University which can claim him on its list of sons, whether in regular course or honoris causa, may be proud.
...the degree was not conferred because Mr. Washington is a colored man, or because he was born in slavery,
but because he has shown by his work... a genius and a broad humanity which count for greatness in any man,
whether his skin be white or black.
It has been mentioned that Mr. Washington is the first of his race to receive an honorary degree from a New England University. This, in itself, is a distinction. But the degree was not conferred because Mr. Washington is a colored man, or because he was born in slavery, but because he has shown, by his work for the elevation of the people of the Black Belt of the South, a genius and a broad humanity which count for greatness in any man, whether his skin be white or black."
The Boston Globe adds: "It is Harvard which, first among New England colleges, confers an honorary degree upon a black man. No one who has followed the history of Tuskegee and its work, can fail to admire the courage, persistence and splendid common sense of Booker T. Washington. Well may Harvard honor the ex-slave, the value of whose services, alike to his race and country, only the future can estimate."
The correspondent of the New York Times kindly remarks: "All the speeches were enthusiastically received, but the colored man carried off the oratorical honors, and the applause which broke out when he had finished, was vociferous and long-continued."
Most of the papers have printed this cut, and congratulations have come from every source:
Twelve months in the year, night and day,
he works for Tuskegee--his heart and love.
No vacation, no rest;
his life is one unceasing struggle for his school.
"The grandest feature of the whole thing, is that the fame and honor that are coming thus to Mr. Washington, do not spoil him. Twelve months in the year, night and day, he works for Tuskegee--his heart and love. No vacation, no rest; his life is one unceasing struggle for his school. This is the secret of his power. Here is the lesson to be learned.--Thos. J. Calloway, in The Colored American.
Booker T. Washington's Harvard University Address
Boston, June 24th, 1896
MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN:
It would in some measure relieve my embarrassment if I could, even in a slight degree, feel myself worthy of the great honor which you do me to-day. Why you have called me from the Black Belt of the South, from among my humble people, to share in the honors of this occasion, is not for me to explain; and yet it may not be inappropriate for me to suggest that it seems to me that one of the most vital questions that touch our American life, is how to bring the strong, wealthy and learned into helpful touch with the poorest, most ignorant, and humble and at the same time, make the one appreciate the vitalizing, strengthening influence of the other. How shall we make the mansions on yon Beacon street feel and see the need of the spirits in the lowliest cabin in Alabama cotton fields or Louisiana sugar bottoms? This problem Harvard University is solving, not by bringing itself down, but by bringing the masses up.
If through me, an humble representative, seven millions of my people in the South might be permitted to send a message to Harvard--Harvard that offered up on death's altar, young Shaw, and Russell, and Lowell and scores of others, that we might have a free and united country, that message would be, "Tell them that the sacrifice was not in vain. Tell them that by the way of the shop, the field, the skilled hand, habits of thrift and economy, by way of industrial school and college, we are coming. We are crawling up, working up, yea, bursting up. Often through oppression, unjust discrimination and prejudice, but through them all we are coming up, and with proper habits, intelligence and property, there is no power on earth that can permanently stay our progress."
This country demands that every race measure itself by the American standard. By it a race must rise or fall, succeed or fail, and in the last analysis mere sentiment counts for little.
If my life in the past has meant anything in the lifting up of my people and the bringing about of better relations between your race and mine. I assure you from this day it will mean doubly more. In the economy of God there is but one standard by which an individual can succeed--there is but one for a race. This country demands that every race measure itself by the American standard. By it a race must rise or fall, succeed or fail, and in the last analysis mere sentiment counts for little. During the next half century and more, my race must continue passing through the severe American crucible. We are to be tested in our patience, our forbearance, our perseverance, our power to endure wrong, to withstand temptations, to economize, to acquire and use skill; our ability to compete, to succeed in commerce, to disregard the superficial for the real, the appearance for the substance, to be great and yet small, learned and yet simple, high and yet the servant of all. This, this is the passport to all that is best in the life of our republic, and the Negro must possess it, or be debarred.
While we are thus being tested, I beg of you to remember that wherever our life touches yours, we help or hinder. Wherever your life touches ours, you make us stronger or weaker. No member of your race in any part of our country can harm the meanest member of mine, without the proudest and bluest blood in Massachusetts being degraded. When Mississippi commits crime, New England commits crime, and in so much, lowers the standard of your civilization. There is no escape--man drags man down, or man lifts man up.
In working out our destiny, while the main burden and center of activity must be with us, we shall need, in a large measure in the years that are to come, as we have in the past, the help, the encouragement, the guidance that the strong can give the weak. Thus helped, we of both races in the South, soon shall throw off the shackles of racial and sectional prejudice and rise, as Harvard University has risen and as we all should rise, above the clouds of ignorance, narrowness and selfishness, into that atmosphere, that pure sunshine, where it will be our highest ambition to serve MAN, our brother, regardless of race or previous condition.