booker t. washington portrait

An Address Before The National Negro Business League

August 21, 1912

by Booker T. Washington
Chicago, IL

Report of the 13th Annual Convention of the National Negro Business League

Mr. Chairman, Gentlemen and ladies of the League, friends:

This organization does not use either the steam roller or stone presser. (laughter.) It does use, however (in cases of emergency), a chloroform bag in the shape of an Executive Committee who jointly "boss" and solve most of our troublesome questions. (Applause.)

I am glad, as the President of this organization, to give voice to the sentiment which is in the hearts of all the members, to the effect that we are grateful to the local business league of Chicago, we are grateful to all the citizens of Chicago, for what they have done for us thus far and we hope that we shall have our feeling of gratitude constantly increased until the end of the present session.

It is a matter of great encouragement to have gathered here, hundreds of men and women from various sections of our country and from countries outside of the United States, not for the purpose of promoting their own selfish ambitions but with the central end in view of bettering the condition of their fellow men. It has been my privilege to be with, and to work with men and women of various types and characters in different parts of the country who are interested in this or that subject, but it has never been my privilege to be or labor with any group of people, white or black, who have exhibited a more unselfish spirit than is true of the men and women who comprise the membership of this League.

And the same assertion, in an especial degree, is true of the members of the Executive Committee who travel long distances, at their own expense, who spend their money, who spend their time, their energy and their influence with the single end in view of furthering the objects of this organization. These men, for weeks in some cases, have laid aside their business affairs to promote the interests of this League.

"There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the rest of their lives is bound in shallows and miseries.'' These words from Shakespeare have an especial application on our race at the present time. The men and women of our race of this generation hold in their hands the future of the generations that are to follow. This is in an especial sense true of the Negro business man and woman. If we do not do our duty now in laying proper foundation for economic and commercial growth, our children, and our children's children will suffer because of our inactivity or shortness of vision.

I want to say while I am on this subject that I have been surprised and delighted at the progress which has been made by colored business men in Chicago. As I drove down State Street the other day for a mile and a half I am sure that two-thirds of the places of business I saw were conducted by colored men. If they were not owned by colored people they were at least patronized by them. I was equally surprised and delighted when I drove down Wabash Avenue and through some of the adjoining streets to discover what handsome houses many of our people are living in. As I have had a chance to visit these houses I have been pleased to find how handsomely, even artistically, they were furnished and carefully and ready they were maintained

It would be a revelation, almost a miracle to our people of forty years ago to see the kind of homes in which their children and grandchildren were beginning to live. In fact it would astonish a good many of our people in other parts of the country even to day to see the progress of the colored people in Chicago. I do not think there is a large city in this country, where there is a community of colored people living together in such numbers as you do here, which has made so rapid progress in so short a time, or where the opportunities are so good.

All this imposes a heavy responsibility upon you who live here and enjoy these opportunities. In a section of the city where the colored people are in the majority it is the colored people who are responsible for conditions in that portion of the city. If there is drunkenness, if there is gambling, if there is crime, the colored people will be held responsible, because this is a recognized colored community. You will not escape this responsibility by saying that the person who maintains the saloon is a White man, or that the man who runs this gambling place is a White man. You might say this in some place down South, but you cannot say it in Chicago.

Now, I do not know anything about your local political conditions and I do not mean to say anything about them. What I do wish to emphasize particularly to members of my race who have come here from the South, where they have had little or no share in the government by which they were controlled, that here in Chicago a new and grave responsibility rests upon them in that respect. And this responsibility extends not merely to your own people here in Chicago, but it extends to the race everywhere. It rests upon the Negroes of Chicago, with the magnificent opportunities before you, to demonstrate to the rest of the world to what extent a Negro community like this, amid all the temptations of a great city, can make itself a united, progressive, law-abiding community one that will be looked up to and respected, one which the world can point to as a model.

In order to accomplish this we must unite ourselves with all the forces in this city that are striving for better things. We must unite all the best elements among ourselves. The local Business League can exercise a wide influence in this direction. It can do this by putting its influence behind the man or the business, which is really trying to do a good thing.

Our great Creator has ordained that races and nations shall prosper in proportion as they find, develop and use the natural resources of the earth in promoting wealth, intelligence, happiness and justice.

If I can, I want to sound a note of warning to the ten millions of Negroes throughout our country. We are now ten millions strong. This means a population nearly twice as large as the population of the Dominion of Canada. It is a population three million greater than that of Belgium. It is greater than that of Holland and Switzerland combined, or the combined population of Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

We have the advantage of many of the races of the Old World in that we are citizens of a comparatively new country, whose natural resources are just beginning, as it were, to be discovered and developed. Our country is new and our race is new so far as freedom is concerned. Now is the time - not in some far off future, but now is the time - for us as a race to prove to the world that in a state freedom we have the ability and the inclination to do our part in owning, developing, manufacturing and trading in the natural resources of our country. If we let these golden opportunities slip from us in this generation, I fear they will never come to us in a like degree again.

At the present time there are over 270,000,000 acres of unused and unoccupied land in the South and West. In fact, one-half of the land in the South and two-thirds of the land in the West is still unused. Now is the time for us to become the owners and users of our share before it is too late. From ownership of the soil comes in independence, self-support, happiness and real manhood rights. Land that can be gotten at ten dollars an acre now, a few years hence cannot be gotten for two and three times as much. If the White man from America and Europe can establish and operate a saw mill and grain and gain wealth and independence from the use of our millions of acres of forest land, why not more Negroes do the same thing? If the White man can secure wealth and happiness by owning and operating a coal mine, brick yard, or a lime kiln, why not more Negroes do the same thing?

If other races can attain prosperity by securing riches on a large scale from our seas, lakes and rivers in the form of fish and other sea goods, thousands of Negroes can do the same thing. Activity in all these directions finds no race or color line.

This year our country will probably produce 3,125,000,000 bushels of corn, 695,443,000 bushels of wheat, 1,136,700,000 bushels of oats, 338,800,000 bushels of potatoes and 16,000,000 bales of cotton. In this tremendous production here again is no color line. We want to see to it that as a race we not only produce our share, but that we hold on to our share of the wealth that grows out of the manufacturing of, trading in, and transporting these commodities. Activity in these directions will bring to us influence and usefulness that no political party can give us or take from us. Before it is too late, I want my race to lay hold on the primary sources of wealth and civilization.

Our country produces and uses annually about one billion dollars worth of live stock in the way of cattle, pigs, sheep, and $500,000,000 worth of dairy products and $150,000,000 worth of fowls and eggs. Here again there is no color or race line.

I do not want members of our race to be content with merely slumming around over the outer edges in the form of securing odd and uncertain jobs, but I want them to get in at the bottom of these fundamental industries and stand among the leading producers. There is no law in this country to prevent Negroes from owning and operating iron foundries, cotton milks, oil milks, shoe factories. Our race uses a large number of coffins every year. There is no reason why more of these coffins should not be manufactured by us. There is no reason why more of the bedsteads, bureaus and chairs used in our homes should not be manufactured by us.

In the South, especially, just now, millions of dollars being earned every year by white people operating large peach orchards. In the Far West other millions are being earned by growing apples on a large scale. The White man is as willing to buy peaches and apples grown by Black hands as by White hands. If the Italians and Greeks can come into this country strangers to our language and civilization and within a few years gain wealth and independence by trading in fruits, the Negro can do the same thing.

Throughout our country we consume millions of dollars worth of buggies and wagons. Why not more of our young men who are graduating at colleges and universities enter this field? The whole West and South are dotted with flourishing towns and cities that have been founded in places where twenty-five or fifty years ago there was the primeval forest or naked prairie. These new communities in many cases have been started by Germans; in other cases by Hollanders, or Danes, or by Swedes, or Norwegians, Poles or Hungarians who came to this country in comparative poverty.

In not a few cases, the little settlement had for its beginning or foundation a little saw mill, grist mill, blacksmith shop, cotton factory, coal mine, cooperative creamery, or country store. With one of these simple industries for its beginning, the little community grows and expands year by year. Soon, the railroad comes, then the depot, then the post office comes, then follow the telegraph and telephone. Stores are established. Then more stores. Schoolhouses are built, churches are erected. A bank is opened. The industries are established. Business is diversified. There is a call for more and better residences, for the architect and skilled mechanic. There is a demand for organization, for a governing body, a mayor, board of aldermen, school committee, schools principals and schoolteachers. Soon the doctor and lawyer are needed. There is a demand for a commercial club, for literary society, a woman's club, a musical society and all this comes and grows in a natural, logical way.

If the settlement is started by the Poles, a Polander becomes the depot agent, a Polander becomes a telegraph operator. The first mayor is a Polander. The president of the school board is a Pole. The president of the first bank is a Pole. There is no segregation of the Poles in that city. There is no discrimination against the Poles here. There is freedom and a chance for unfettered and unlimited growth.

What foreign races coming to this country are doing in building towns and cities, there is a chance for Negroes to do in any number of places in the South and in the West, as the founders and builders of Mound Bayou in Mississippi, and Boley in Oklahoma, have proven.

But to do things we cannot start at the top, but must begin at the bottom. I call upon the men and women from our colleges and universities to lead the way in these fundamental directions.

It was natural and right that in the beginning of our freedom the work of the teacher and minister should receive the greatest attention. There is still an emphatic need for more teachers and ministers, but we have now reached, as a race, a new era, almost a crisis, in our growth. Along by the side of the teacher and minister are needed leaders in economic and agricultural and commercial growth. By the side of the teacher and minister we must have in increasing numbers the independent farmer, the real estate owner, the mechanic, the manufacturer, the merchant, the banker, and other lands of business men and women. These will strengthen the teacher and minister, and they in turn will help the businessman.

This is an era of specialization and organization. Our race should take heed of this and act. We shall be a potent force in all directions in proportion as we organize and work together North and South. In racial unity, racial peace and cohesiveness and organization will be our strength and lift. We should put behind us the day of childish things.

Besides our advantage in numbers, we have the advantage of living by the side of and in the midst of the most progressive and highest type of White man that the world has seen. Let us, then, use our strength in concentrated, organized directions, and in proportion as we do it the White man will respect us.

I repeat that this is an era of specialization and organization. White men who deal in land are organized. White men who grow grain are organized. Those who grow peaches are organized. Those who grow apples are organized. Those who mine coal and iron are organized. Those who manufacture furniture are organized. Those who manufacture shoes are organized. Those who make dresses are organized. Those who make hats are organized. Those who sell groceries are organized. Those who bury the dead are organized. Those who are bankers are organized. Those who work in tin, lead, copper and wood are organized. If we as Negroes would increase our business strength and influence, we must organize, organize, organize. Locally in the state and nation. Work together and stick together.

The local League should be the chamber of commerce for the Negro. Every community should have its local League, and wherever possible and practicable there should be a State League, all wording in harmony with the National Negro Business League.

Let us act in all these matters before others come from foreign lands and rob us of our birthright.

Development and activity in all these directions does not mean that we are to be commercialized as a race, does not mean that we are to be merely breadwinners or hewers of wood and drawers of water, but it means that we shall be producers of bread, owners of bread, manufacturers of bread, dealers in bread, and that we shall gather wealth from it which can be turned into the highest and best things of life.

All this does not mean that we are to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, but that we are to be the owners and users of wood and in a way that will bring to us happiness, usefulness and prosperity. All this does not mean that we are to be merely drawers of water, but it does mean that we are to be the owners of water and help turn it into the promotion of agriculture, into steam and electric power, so that it will add to our independence and influence.

To be more specific, there are places in the South for 5,000 additional dry goods stores, and there are colored people enough to support them. In the South the Negro merchant is not dependent upon the trade of his own race alone, but throughout the South, while there is prejudice in other directions, in business the Negro has little prejudice to contend with along this line. Not only the colored man trades at the colored man's dry goods store, but also the best White people are not afraid to patronize a first-class Negro store, and the same thing is true of other business enterprises owned and controlled by colored people.

There are openings in the South for at least 8,000 additional grocery stores, for 3,500 drug stores. There are openings in the South for 2,000 shoe stores, 1,500 millinery stores, and there are communities in the South where 2,000 Negro banks can be operated and supported. Further than this, there are places in the South where at least 25 self-governing, self-supporting, self-directing towns or cities may be established, where the colored people can have their own mayor, their board of aldermen, their own self-government from every point of view. In the last analysis. local self-government is the most precious kind of government.

All that I am here advocating and emphasizing does not mean the limitation or circumscribing of our race mentally, morally, civilly or in other directions, but it does mean real growth and real independence in all these directions. Growth in these economic directions will help the teacher and the minister... will help the school, the college, the university, the Sunday School and the church... will help the lawyer, the doctor, the dentist, and add to our political independence.

(Prolonged applause and great cheering.)