booker t. washington portrait

The National Negro Baptist Convention

September 19, 1913
Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN

From an address by Booker T. Washington

This is the twelfth time you have invited me to deliver an address before the National Baptist Convention, which, in my opinion is the largest delegated organization of our race in this country, and I believe anywhere in the world.

There is a tremendous responsibility involved in bringing together so large a body of our race once a year. There is responsibility for the expenses of travel and entertainment, responsibility for the loss of valuable time away from one's occupations. How can you make this great gathering so valuable to our race and to our country that everyone will feel that the time and money spent in coming here is worthwhile.

More and more in an increasing measure, the Christian Church has got to face the social problems of the day. The church in an increasing degree must realize that the problem today is to save the soul of the man by saving the body.

I am glad that I have an opportunity in addressing this important organization here in the proud capital of the State of Tennessee in connection with the celebration of the fiftieth Anniversary of the freedom of our race. There is in the city of Nashville by reason of the liberal spirit shown by the White people and the unusual opportunities for education of our race perhaps the most advanced group of our people, all things considered, to be found anywhere in the South. This, then, I repeat, is a fitting place and a fitting occasion in which to consider some of the achievements of the past and some of the problems of the future. What we have accomplished during the past fifty years has been largely through the influence and guidance of the church. What we are to attain to in the near future is going to be largely the result of the influence and teachings of the church.

One thing stands out definite, clear and distinct in the way of achievement during the last fifty years. We have proven to the world that we can survive from a physical point of view in a state of freedom. There were not a few who predicted more than fifty years ago when the Negro was made free he would disappear as a race. At the beginning of our freedom we numbered four millions. After fifty years of freedom we now number over ten millions, a population larger than that of the whole of Canada and twice as large as that of Australia. We have in the United States as many of our people as there are persons all told in Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Denmark.

We have not only proven that we could survive in a state of freedom, but that we could live in the presence of the White man and imbibe something from his civilization at every point of contact that has made us stronger, better and more useful citizens. When the White touched the native Australian years ago the Australian began to disappear. The same was true of the Hawaiian, the same of the American Indian, but the Negro unlike any of these, flourishes and prospers in the presence of the White man's civilization.

We have not only survived, but we have proven to the world from an economic point of view that we could support ourselves. There were not a few who predicted before our freedom began that we would prove as a race a perpetual burden on the pocketbook of the nation, that we would not clothe, feed or shelter ourselves.

During all the fifty years of the freedom of our race since the days of Reconstruction we have never called as a race upon Congress to provide for a single dollar to be used in providing either food, clothing or shelter for our people. We have not only done this, but we have accumulated something over $700,000,000 worth of property upon which we pay taxes in this country. No other emancipated people have made so great progress in so short a time. The Russian serfs were emancipated in 1861. Fifty years after it was found that 14,000,000 of them had accumulated about $500,000,000 worth of property or about $36 per capita, an average of $200 per family. Fifty years after their emancipation only about 30 per cent of the Russian peasants were able to read and write. After fifty years of freedom the ten million Negroes in the United States have accumulated over $700,000,000 worth of property, or about $70 per capita, which is an average of $350 per family. After fifty years of freedom 70 per cent of them have some education in books.

We have met another severe test, and that is the test of being able to work together in harness in organized capacities. This is proven by the fact that we have over 36,000 churches with over 3,000,000 members. We have over 18,000 Baptist churches with as many Sunday Schools. The numerous fraternal and secret organizations, which are maintained by our race, are another indication of our ability to work in harness, to pull together in an organized capacity. There are at least 3,000,000 of our people who belong to some of these secret and fraternal organizations. We have organized and now sustain 63 banks in various parts of the country, another indication of our ability to work in harness. So much for the past.

What about the problems of the future? Many of the strongest and most powerful leaders who are before me tonight in this audience, must realize as I said a minute ago that the church in an increasing degree has got to concern itself with the social problems that exist in the community WHERE THE CHURCH IS LOCATED. Our leaders have got to concern themselves with the problem of teaching our people how to live side by side with the American White man in peace, harmony and friendship.

There is no portion of the civilized or uncivilized world today where we can go and not meet a White man, where we can go without living by his side or very near him. I have studied White people in many parts of the world, and I have no hesitation in saying that if I have got to solve the problem of living by the side of any White man, I prefer to take my chances every day in the year by the side of the Southern White man. There is an unexplainable, intangible something in the atmosphere of the South which makes the Black man and the White man understand each other, and despite all academic and theoretical discussion there is something in the atmosphere of the South which makes the White man and Black man like each other. In some parts of the country there is a good deal of discussion concerning the segregation of the races, but I am not afraid that segregation in the South will ever play any serious part. The average White man, especially in the country districts, does not care to have his Black neighbor very far out of calling distance.

The White man of the North and the White man of the South are making friends with each other, are getting closer together. The Negro has got to imitate their example. When the White man who wore the blue and the White man who wore the gray met upon the field of Gettysburg a few years ago and clasped hands, it meant to say to the Negro that no more would the White man of the North and the White man of the South become enemies and to battle with each other because of the Negro.

In my experience with the Southern White man I find that he respects the colored man who talks to him, who tells him in a respectful, kindly and polite way what he wants, tells him about his needs, about his grievances, about the wrongs perpetrated upon him; but the Southern White man does not like to be talked about. This is human nature, and is not peculiar to the Southern White man. In an increasing degree we, representing the leaders of our race, talk to the Southern White man in our community. Let him know about our condition, about our needs. We must get hold of the officers of the country and of the city in which we live. We must get the county judge, the sheriff, the mayor, the members of the city council, the members of our board of education to visit our churches and Sunday schools, to visit our day schools. We must let these representatives of the White race see our condition and our needs.

Everywhere I want to see our people get back to the old habit of inviting the best White ministers into our pulpits. There are dozens of the best White ministers scattered throughout the South who would be glad to occupy our pulpits three or four times a year, and in this way we would keep in touch with the White race in a way that we could scarcely do in a better manner.

I have said on many occasions that all things considered, the South is the best place for the masses of our people. I believe, this idea should be emphasized by the religious leaders. I believe further, that this is a part of the duty of our religious leaders to influence our people to live in the country districts and in the smaller towns. We should get hold of the young men who are burning out their lives, who are ruining in many cases soul and body around the gambling table, the pool table and in the whiskey shops of our large cities, and get them in the country on the soil. Through the church we must teach our young people they must not mistake the signs of civilization for civilization itself, must teach the young men that cheap, flashy clothing does not make the man; that it is better to be clad in rags or home-spun and have real character, real worth, and have some land and a bank account and some education back of it, than to wear the most gaudy and flashy clothing with nothing back of those clothes. In the cities in many cases, the temptation is to get an automobile before we get a home; the temptation in too many cases is to get a dress suit before we get a bank account. There is the problem of the loafer which is becoming extremely difficult in all of our large cities, which the church must concern itself with. There is the problem of the woman making herself too common in public places, on the streets, and in the courthouse. The church must tackle this problem.

There is the problem of teaching our people how to keep and use property in a way not to injure the value of that property, but to increase the value of the property. In too many cases when a Negro family enters a dwelling it seems that very soon the palings from the fence begin to disappear, that very soon the gate is off the hinge, window glasses disappear and old pillows take the place of window glasses. All this injures the reputation of our entire race and makes life harder for us. We now only tackle the problems that concern our race as a whole, but we must be equally frank in a polite, kindly way, letting the Southern White man know what our conditions and needs are. He will listen to us. For example, in a polite, kindly way we should constantly remind the officers in the cities where we live that our people, except in a few cases, are not treated with justice in the matter of lighting the streets or in the conveniences of sewerage and drainage. We should remind the White man everywhere that if he expects us to live a clean, orderly life that we should have better facilities for the education of our children.

In one county of the South each White child had spent upon him for his education last year about $21 , while each Negro child in that same county had spent upon him for his education about 98 cents. There is no White man in the South who will not acknowledge that such a difference is unjust. We should, too, with equal frankness and equal politeness, remind those in charge of the railroads of the South that in a few cases do our people receive justice or are they treated with common humanity when they travel upon the railroads. We should let the officials know that in many cases our men and women are crowded into filthy cars, poorly ventilated, not large enough, and in many cases one toilet room made to serve both men and women, that we seldom have proper facilities for getting food when traveling on the railroads.

We should remind those in charge of the railroads that if they take the same money from our people for railroad tickets that they take from the White people that they should have equal treatment on the railroad. If a Black man and a White man subscribe for a newspaper or buy a yard of cloth from a white man, the newspaper and yard of cloth which the Negro receives costs just as much as the newspaper or the yard of cloth sold to the White man, there is no difference in these respects. There should be no difference so far as accommodations are concerned on the railroad. We should make our appeal to the railroad authorities on the ground of common humanity, on the ground of common justice, and then we should try to convince the people who own and operate the railroads that from a commercial point of view it will pay to treat the Negro with more justice; that there are 9,000,000 Black people in the South, a population larger than that of Canada, as I have said, and if these Black people are treated in a way to make them feel kindly toward the railroads instead of hating the railroads it would pay from a commercial point of view because of the increased traffic which these millions of Negroes would furnish to the railroads.

At some time in the not far off future, in my opinion a great big, levelheaded, far-seeing railroad man is going to appear in the South who will see the commercial value of treating 9,000,000 millions of people with absolute and unerring justice in reference to railroad travel, and he will be more than repaid for his liberality through the increased patronage that his railroad will enjoy. After the railroads have done their part; let us as a race see to it that we do our part in helping keep the railroad coaches and depots clean and comfortable. Say these things directly but in a polite and kindly way to the railroad officials, and everywhere they will listen to our appeals and bring about a changed and improved condition.

We must not content ourselves, however, with occupying a mere negative, complaining attitude. No race of mere faultfinders and whiners ever makes much progress. Fundamentally we must depend upon large constructive work for the progress our race is to make. The leaders of our race must see to it that whenever there is the slightest opportunity for our people, they put themselves in harmony with every great constructive movement that has to do with the progress of the South. Whenever there is a clean up movement or health movement, whenever there is a county fair, state fair or local fair our people should do their part to promote its success. We should become willing and ready taxpayers. We should become a part of every law and order movement in the community The Black leaders in our churches should join hands with the White leaders in all that concerns the prosperity and the happiness of all our people here in this great country, and if we sustain this attitude one toward the other we will set the world an example in showing how it is possible for two races different in color, separate in social affairs, to live together on the same soil in peace and friendship.