booker t. washington portrait

The Funeral of Booker T. Washington

Photo of Booker T. Washington Funeral

by Isaac Fisher
Tuskegee, Alabama, Nov, 18, 1915

Booker T. Washington, the most famous Negro in the world, the man who climbed "Up from Slavery," until he stood before kings and nobles in Europe and had received more distinguished honors in America than have ever been accorded any other Negro, was buried here Wednesday with the same simplicity and lack of studied pomp and ceremony with which God's own hand buried Moses in the land of Moab. No labored eulogies; no boastings of his great work; no gorgeous trappings of horses; no streaming banners; no mysterious ceremonies of lodges—just the usual line of teachers, trustees, graduates, students and visitors which so often marched to the chapel just as it did Wednesday, and the simple and impressive—impressive because simple—service for the dead, said for the humblest, said so often for those who die, in all walks of life. If there was aught out of the ordinary, it was the great crowd of Negro leaders from all parts of the continent, the host of Whites, the multitudes of the simple country folk whom Dr. Washington loved so well, the garden of flowers and plants sent in offering to the dead, a casket before which student guards changed watch every few minutes during the entire service and the tears which fell from all faces—fell like rain. But any other kind of service less simple would have mocked the kind of life that Dr. Washington had lived.

Program of Service:

At high noon Tuesday, the remains of the distinguished Negro leader were placed into a hearse driven by students and escorted from "The Oaks" by vice principal Warren Logan and Secretary Emmett J. Scott, and a guard of forty-four officers of the student battalions to the Institute Chapel where it lay in state until Wednesday. Thousands gazed into the casket where the dead chieftain lay.

At twenty minutes after ten Wednesday morning, a procession line composed of trustees, faculty alumni, visitors, honorary and active pall bearers, and students began to move slowly from "The Oaks" toward the chapel. The line was long and moved to muffled drums; but the procession ended at last. Inside, the building was packed to suffocation. Chaplains John W. Whittaker and Dean G.L. Imes of the Phelps Hall Bible School conducted the exercises.

Softly the choir began singing a Negro melody: "We Shall Walk Through the Valley and Shadow of Death in Peace." No songs were so sweet to Dr. Washington as these melodies of his race. Before the sweetness of the song had dissolved, the chaplain was intoning the simple words of the most simple burial service. A pause, and the school was singing "How Firm a Foundation." More reading of the burial service and the choir rendered Cardinal Newman's deathless classic—"Lead Kindly Light Amid the Encircling Gloom."

Here prayer was made by Dr. H. B. Frissell, president of Hampton Institute and one of Dr. Washington's former teachers. Once more the choir sung a melody, this time two in number, "Tell All My Father's Children Don't You Grieve For Me," and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and the tears were falling fast.

"Taps" Are Sounded

At this point, Secretary Scott read a telegram of consolation from President Seth Low of New York, of the board of trustees, in which the support of that body was unqualified[ly] promised to the school and its friends. Trustee Wm. G. Wilcox of New York next brought a strong message of encouragement. "Still, still with Thee" was next rendered, the benediction pronounced and the casket and audience moved to a vault, just outside of the chapel and specially constructed for the sad purpose of today.

Briefly, the last words of the burial service were said, the institute bandmaster stood at the head of the vault and sounded "taps" and a heavy-hearted crowd turned slowly and sadly away from the tomb of their prophet.

An unusual honor was accorded this leader of his people by Mayor E. W. Thompson of the town of Tuskegee. Mayor Thompson personally carried a petition to all of the business houses of the town and asked them to agree to close their stores during the funeral services. All were glad to do so. Throughout the town there was general sadness and there were none who had aught but the kindest words about Dr. Washington's life.

Pathetic Incident

But most pathetic of all was the sight of the humble and unlettered colored people of the cotton fields who literally packed the school grounds. They had sustained a loss which they did not know how to voice. You could see them looking into every face near them for encouragement to say how much they were hurt and would miss their devoted friend. Unless the visitors Wednesday had been with Dr. Washington through a quarter of a century and observed how much he loved these simple poor of his race, how anxiously he worked to help them, he could not understand how broken-hearted these older colored people were. In the past, when they have come to Tuskegee, Dr. Washington has treated them as if they were princes. They were thinking of this when they gazed for the last time upon his silent form.

One old couple, themselves near the sunset of life, walked a long, long distance to be here. Piteously, the man approached one of the instructors and with trembling lips and eyes that overflowed asked: "Do you reckon they will let us see Booker?" and he hurried to explain: "We have come so fur jes' to see him de las' time. Do you reckon they will mind us looking at him?" They were especially escorted to the casket and given their heart's desire; for Dr. Washington's love for them when he was here cannot be described.

Country Pays Respects

The country paused to pay honor to Dr. Washington. From thousands of telegrams the following are selected:

Governor, State of Alabama—"I learned with great regret of the death of Dr. Washington.—Charles Henderson."

Theodore Roosevelt—"Pray accept my deepest sympathy in this death of your distinguished husband. No man rendered greater service to his race, and his loss cannot be supplied. He was one of the citizens of whom this country should be proud." Charles W. Fairbanks, former vice-president of the United States—"Washington was a man of great power and of wide and wholesome influence, not only among his own race but other races. His death is distinctly a public loss."

Julius Rosenwald—"My heart is too sad to attempt words of consolation for you in your and our country's great loss. One of our noblest and foremost citizens has passed to his reward. The service he has rendered his fellowmen will live forever."

Andrew Carnegie—"I mourn with you today as one who shares your sorrow. America has lost one of her best and greatest citizens. History is to tell of two Washingtons: One the father of his country, the other the leader of his race. Mrs. Carnegie joins me in deep sympathy."

John D Rockefeller—"I learn with sorrow of the death of Dr. Washington. Be assured of my sympathy for you in this sudden and sad bereavement. He rendered invaluable services to his race in a life devoted to their uplift and he was most highly appreciated by multitudes of the best people in the land. He will be greatly missed and his memory will be cherished with grateful affection for generations to come."

Taft's High Tribute

William H. Taft, Ex-president of the United States, to Emmett J. Scott:
"Please convey to the family of Booker T. Washington my deep sympathy in their sorrow. His death is in what ought to be his prime, an irretrievable loss to the nation. He was one of the most powerful forces for the proper settlement of the race question that has appeared. His encouragement to make themselves individually valuable to the community, his urging upon the homely virtues, on industry, thrift and persistent use of their opportunities, with a promise of higher achievements as a reward, have done more for the Negro race than any other one factor in their progress.

"I knew Booker T. Washington well and valued him highly as a friend and a patriot. He united with a signal power of eloquence and great intellectual force and practical executive faculty a saving commonsense which made him the great man he was."

Carolyn B. Hazard, former president Wellesley College—"Deep sympathy in your loss."

"A loss to the whole country." Seth Low, Chairman, Board of Trustees.

Warren Logan Vice Principal Tuskegee Institute:
"On behalf-of the Board of Trustees I send to you, and through you to the officers, teachers and students of the Tuskegee Institute our warmest sympathy in the death of the school's great founder, Booker T. Washington. In his death the country has lost a great patriot and the Negro race an inspiring leader. It is now the hour to show, without his majestic presence, by your loyalty to the school and to his high ideals how truly you have caught the inspiration of his spirit and of his devoted life of service. The trustees will not fail you in your hour of need, and we count confidently on your co-operation in keeping Tuskegee a worthy memorial of the great man with whom you have worked so long and so well. Please see that this telegram is read at the funeral service."

Practically every prominent Negro in the country sent a telegram paying his respects; and it is certain that no other funeral has ever brought together so large a number of the most distinguished and well-known Negroes as assembled here Wednesday.

So great was the list of notable persons present that if it were published it would beggar the newspaper space of any great daily.


The keynote of all being said here Wednesday was that those who have worked with Dr. Washington will loyally carry forward the work which he founded here. Among other things, Mr. Wm. A. Willcox spoke at the funeral; for the board he said: "Let us take heart and press forward, therefore, with fresh courage and enthusiasm and with a high resolve to prove worthy of the great trust which now falls upon our shoulders. In the work before us, the cause is everything, the individual is nothing. There is no room for personal ambition, jealousy or fractional difference.

"The crisis demands as never before unselfish, disinterested and loyal co-operation. The trustees will not fail you, and they know you, and they know you will not fail them; and together we shall carry forward the great work for the Institute and for the entire colored race. This new bond of sympathy will draw the races together more closely than ever before and friends of both races will redouble their interest and support."