booker t. washington portrait

A National Negro Business League Address

August 20, 1913
Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA
by Booker T. Washington
Reported by The Indianapolis Freeman, August 23, 1913

This the fourteenth meeting of the National Negro Business League marks also the fiftieth anniversary of our freedom as a race. It is, then, both timely and fitting that this great gathering of the representatives of the backbone and progress of our race should be held in Philadelphia. It is most appropriate that this meeting should take place after fifty years of freedom in the city where 137 years ago that immortal document, the Declaration of Independence, was issued.

Whether the American Negro was meant at the time to be included within the scope and meaning of the words of the Declaration of Independence has been a debatable question. However that may be decided, we mean as a race through this and similar organizations to make ourselves such a useful and potent part of American citizenship so that in all the future no one will dare question our right to be included in any declaration that relates to any portion of the body politic.

During the fifty years of our freedom we have been subjected to some pretty severe tests. First, there were not a few who raised the question as to whether or not the American Negro could survive in a state of freedom. We answer that question by showing that when freedom came to us we were 4,000,000 in number; now we have grown to over 10,000,000 free American citizens. This means that we have a population of American Negroes that is more than twice as large as the population of Australia, one and a half times as large as the whole population of Canada, and nearly twice as large as the combined population of Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Denmark. These facts should put an end for all time to doubt about our ability to survive in a state of freedom.

One other question was debated fifty years ago, and that was the question as to our ability to support ourselves from a physical and personal point of view. There were not a few who fifty years ago predicted that this newly freed race would become a perpetual burden upon the pocketbook of the nation. It was freely predicted that we would neither feed, clothe nor shelter ourselves. Every year the American Congress is asked to appropriate between ten and twelve millions of dollars to be used largely in providing food, clothes and shelter for about 300,000 American Indians. While this is true of the American Indian (and I have nothing but the highest respect for the Indians) ever since the days of Reconstruction the American Negro has not called upon Congress to appropriate a single dollar to be used in providing either clothes, shelter or food for our race. Absolutely in all these personal matters we have supported ourselves and mean to do so in all the future, and it is very seldom that in any part of this country does one find a Black hand reached from corner of a street asking for any man's personal charity. Within fifty years, then, we have proven that we can survive from a physical point of view, and we have proven that we could not only support ourselves but could contribute taxes from $700,000,000, worth of property toward the support of local, state and national government.

With the fifty years of our freedom we have been subjected to a third test that is one of the conditions of growth and permanency under the conditions of freedom. This third test embraces our ability to combine, to work in harness in the capacity of organized human beings. There can be little civilization and little progress without the capacity and willingness to work together in organized groups.

Fifty years ago we had almost no experience in working together as organized groups. During the past half-century we have proven our ability to organize. We now have 62 banks under the control of black organizations. Fifty years ago we had few religious organizations. Now we have four great religious branches to say nothing of smaller ones having a total membership of 3,113,900 members or about 33 percent of the race.

Our capacity to organize has been shown too in the case of the National Negro Business League with its numerous local branches, and more especially in the numerous secret and beneficial societies which have been originated and are being sustained by Negroes. A rough study indicates that we have at least 13 of these organizations with distinct aims and purposes, and which is either local, state wide or national in their scope. A study of these organizations reveals the fact that these organizations have a total membership of at least 3,000,000 persons. These figures take no account of the fact that not a few individuals belong to many different organizations.

So much for indications of progress in the past. What about the present, and our duty in the immediate future?

First and foremost I call the attention of the race through this League to the fact that there are at least 200,000,000 acres of unused and unoccupied land in the Southern States. This means a territory as large as Australia, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. I am glad to say that we already own and occupy 20,000,000 acres, but this is only about two acres for each individual. All this means one thing, that the time has come when this Business League and other organizations should send forth a voice which can be heard everywhere and cannot be misunderstood, for a larger proportion of our race to leave the towns and cities and plant themselves in the country districts on the soil before it is too late. Verily it is true that right here in the United States the words of the prophet of old are fulfilled, when he said there was a land awaiting the occupation of the people, that was "flowing with milk and honey.” In our case as a race, the milk will come from our own Jersey cows and the honey from our own well-kept bees. Forward to the land should be our motto everywhere. Instead of owning 20,000,000 acres, we should own within the next quarter of a century 40,000,000 acres. To the man or the race who owns the soil all good things come in time. Let us leave the fleeting and often deceiving easy life of the cities and get on God's green earth. I want to see members of my race that are now in too large numbers flocking to the cities, join the great world movement "back to the land," or better still "forward to the land."

While the millions of Negroes in the South are largely an ignorant people so far as letters are concerned, they are not as a rule degraded people. Some of the finest specimens of physical and moral manhood to be found anywhere in the world can be found among the country people of our race. There is a vast difference between ignorance and degradation.

In order to get ourselves planted on the soil, for a season we shall have to forebear the enjoyment of some of the things that make life inviting in the cities. In the cities it is with our race in a large measure as with others in the same relative position of civilization. There is tremendous temptation in the cities for us to get the signs of civilization instead of the substance itself. In the city the temptation is to get an automobile before we get a house, to get a dress suit before we get a bank account, to spend all that we get in for rent, food and dress and lay up for old age or for those dependent upon us. In the city the temptation is to be dependent instead of independent, to let some one else think and plan for us instead of thinking and planning for ourselves. If any one doubts the truth of this statement, let him go through the streets of one of our Northern cities early in the morning and note the large number of colored people that are washing some one else's windows or sweeping some one else's floor. No disgrace in this, but the White man will have more respect for us in proportion as we are able to create positions for ourselves. We must learn to sacrifice today that we may enjoy tomorrow, to do without today that we may possess tomorrow.

Now as to our program for the future. We should make up our minds thoroughly that there is a permanent place in the country for us, and that we have more friends both in the North and the South than we have enemies.

We should make up our minds that we are to use material gain and prosperity not as an end but as a means toward securing and enjoying the best things in our American life.

What are our chances and what is the outlook? The large number of independent, prosperous and law-abiding Black people right here in Philadelphia partly answers this question. What hundreds in Philadelphia have done others can do throughout the United States.

Remember, as I have said, that we have a race of ten millions with whom to do business and in the South especially our commercial activity is not confined to our race. In a Southern city when I was spending a half-hour in a Negro bank, I noted that one-fourth of the people who came in to do business with that bank were White people. Young men, young women, there are openings in this great country of ours for Negroes to establish and maintain many additional and various kinds of business concerns.

There is a place for at least 900,000 independent, self-supporting Negro farmers. When I was recently in the Far West, nothing impressed me more than to note the large number of educated White men who were beginning life as farmers. Often they started in a little hut or "dug-out" and suffered privations, but they were sticking to it. Those are people who in the future make the great kings of industry.

There are openings in the South for 1000 more sawmills and 1000 brickyards.

It is easily possible to find inviting places North and South were 4,000 more grocery stores can be opened.

We need 2000 additional dry goods stores, and 1500 shoe stores.

Our race needs 1000 more good restaurants and hotels.

White women in all parts of the world are opening millinery shops. I want to see a larger number our bright ambitious colored women do the same thing. There are opportunities for starting 1500 millinery Stores.

We already have over 350 drug stores, but 1000 more could be started and would be sustained.

We already have over 60 banks, but 150 additional banks should be organized. In cities like Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Washington, Memphis, New Orleans, Atlanta, Charleston, Savannah and Mobile three or four banks properly and conducted can be supported.

Now is the time to seize hold of these golden opportunities and use them before it is too late. These great chances are at our door. Shall we use them? Too many of our well-educated young men and women are content to be merely salary drawers or wage earners, depending on some one else to think and plan for them.

Activity and success in all these economic directions lay the foundation for the most enduring success in all professional directions. For our race like others must be built upon an economic foundation as well as an intellectual, moral and religious one. Work more and more in these directions and neither we nor our children will be dependent upon the uncertainties of seeking and holding political office for ourselves - but positions which no man can give us nor take from us.

The land, the forests, the minerals, the streams, sun and rain from which original wealth come draw no color line.

Of the ten million at least who belong to the ordinary, hard working classes, in all our planning for business success we will not, can not succeed unless we get close to these hard working masses. They are the backbone of our race. We must feel we are not a part of them nor must we ever get above. I beg of you that in your local leagues that you get hold of the man who works with his pick and plow and the woman, who washes, irons or sews. These will be money into your banks and support your other commercial enterprises.

Finally, as a race we must not be discouraged. There will come to us as to all races, seasons of depression and gloom. Once in a while even those in high places may seem to seek to insult and humiliate and harass us, but this can not last. "The morning cometh." Those who treat us unjustly are losing more than we are. So often the keeper of the prison is the out side but the free man is on the inside. As I said in the beginning, we have more friends both North and South than enemies. Let us advertise our friends more and our enemies less.

We must not lose faith in our White friends and above all this we must have constant and unvarying faith in our own race. We must have pride of race. We must be as proud of being a Negro as the Japanese is of being Japanese. Let us go from this great meeting filled with a spirit of race pride, rejoicing in the fact that we belong to a race that has made greater progress within fifty years than any race has made history, and let each dedicate themselves to the task of doing his part in making the ten millions of Black citizens in America an example for all the world in usefulness, law abiding habits and high character.