booker t. washington portrait

National Negro Business League Address 1914

August 19, 1914
Convention Hall, Muskogee, OK
by Booker T. Washington / E. J. Scott

Throughout the world the ten millions and more of Black people in the United States are being observed and studied in a larger measure than is true of any similar group of Black people in existence, or perhaps that has ever existed. People from all parts of the world interested in the civilization of Black people are coming to the United States to study the condition and the progress of the American Negro; for after all is said if there is any place where the Negro has a chance to show his mettle, it is right here in the United States.

For this reason as well as for the sake of ourselves, it is a matter of extreme importance that we not disappoint ourselves, nor those who are studying and observing us.

Within the fifty years of our freedom, and even before physical freedom came, great and most marvelous progress has been made but we must not rest upon the past, we must continue to go forward.

Hon. John L. Morris, the Secretary of the Treasury for the Republic of Liberia, a man who has come into contact with Black people in many parts of the world, after meeting our people in this country in nearly every section for several weeks, remarked to me that the Negro in America is making more progress than anywhere else in the world. I state this not to tempt us to swell with pride, but that we may note the responsibility that rests upon us and to cause us to double our efforts.

The National Negro Business League, under whose auspices we are gathered today in the new state of Oklahoma in such large numbers, is simply one of the many agencies employed to promote further progress among us.

The National Negro Business League has a unique history. Organized by a small group of men and women in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, in 1900, it has grown in power and influence till its spirit is felt and is being carried on in the form of local Business leagues, or similar organizations, in nearly every centre of Negro population throughout the United States. Getting its strength and its standing from these Local Leagues, the National Negro Business League at each annual session grows in dignity and influence.

Before beginning the body of my remarks, there are a few simple but fundamental things to which I wish to direct the special attention of each Local League. These things I ask in order that the usefulness of the League may be still further felt among the ten millions of our people.

1. First of all, do not fritter away too much time in your meetings in technicalities known as "parliamentary rules."

2. Let each Local League study the condition and needs of our people in its community, and devote itself to doing that which will promote the commercial, industrial, educational, professional and moral life of our race in that community.

3. Have a regular time of meeting, and always have a meeting at that time.

4. Strive to have a regular place of meeting, one that shall be attractive and convenient.

5. Have for each meeting a carefully arranged program that shall strike at some definite thing. A general program means little.

6. Each Local League should strive to gather into its membership every man and woman who is interested in any kind of honorable business, no matter how humble that business may appear to be.

7. Each League should have for one of its objects the bringing of the White man by whose side we live into friendly and sympathetic contact with the progress of the race. One way to do this is to invite successful White men to visit and speak to the Local League. The White man will help and we will be helped.

8. Try to stimulate competition and up-to-date business methods.

Having said this much covering some of the details of this organization, let me give attention as best I may to the main thought in my mind.

I believe that the time has come when we as a race should begin preparing to enter upon a new policy and a new program. In plain but in emphatic words I want to suggest whether the time has not come when we should get off the defensive in things that concern our present and future, and begin to inaugurate everywhere an aggressive and constructive progressive policy in business, industry, education, moral and religious life and our conduct generally. We must follow the teachings of the Master when He said, "Overcome evil with good."

A general, however able, who contents himself with merely holding the territory that he occupies, or merely devotes himself to defending himself against the assaults of the enemy, is not the general who gains renown for genuine leadership or gains the confidence of the world. A general who occupies much of his time in explaining the wellness of the enemy or the unjust assaults or tactics of the enemy is not the general who wins many battles; so it is in business of every land.

For example, the merchant who merely contents himself with holding his present trade without covering new ground in the way of increased patronage and trading in new territory, is not the merchant who gets much of a rating for success in business world. The merchant again, who spends his time pointing out the weakness of another's business is not getting very far on the road to business success. All the energy you have to "knock” with, all the energy you have to voice complaints, coin that energy into improved methods of handling your merchandise. And so with general race matters. Damning the other fellow does not push us forward. His damning us cannot permanently hold us back.

Now having said this much to indicate in a rather general way my thought, let me be a little more definite in applying these ideas to conditions in Oklahoma and nearby states. What is said of these states can be applied, I think, with profit to other states.

I find that of the 1,700 colored farmers in Kansas, 100 of them are without live stock and 350 are without poultry on their farms.

Of the 3,600 colored farmers in Missouri, 230 of them are without live stock and 360 are without poultry on their farms.

Of the 63,000 colored farmers in Arkansas, 8,500 of them are without live stock, and 13,800 are without poultry on their farms.

Of the 54,800 colored farmers in Louisiana, 5,300 of them are without live stock and 12,600 were without poultry on their farms.

Of the 70,000 colored farmers in Texas, 5,000 of them are without live stock and 15,000 were without poultry on their farms.

Of the 20,000 colored farmers in Oklahoma, 1,300 of them are without live stock and 3,300 are without poultry on their farms. Get off the defensive and put the world to wondering how we have been able to secure so much live stock and poultry instead of so little.

Many farmers in this section, and likewise in every section of the South, are not making the most of their opportunities. They are living over riches in the form of chickens, hogs and cattle, which they can possess by simply letting down their buckets where they are. While the Negro farmer is neglecting his opportunity of raising live stock the prices are continually getting higher. Beef is being imported from Australia and from South America. Eggs by the shipload are being sent to us from China. There is no special color line in stock and poultry raising. If the Negro has cattle for sale, they will bring the same prices on the market that the White man's cattle will bring. The Black man's leghorn chickens, if properly cared for, will lay as many eggs as the White man's, and he will get the same price in the market.

In few other parts of the world is there a greater chance for the Negro to get off the defensive through protection from the soil than is true in this section. As I have stated, in no other part of the United States is there greater opportunity for the Negro than in the six states adjacent to Muskogee: namely, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma. These six states comprise the greatest living stock and poultry section of the United States. About one-fourth of all the live stock in the country is in this section. This section is also great for poultry raising. The poultry owned in these six states is worth over $31,000,000, and is one-fifth the value of all the poultry in the country.

My own observations and statistics indicate that this is also one of the greatest farming districts in the United States. Almost 40 per cent of all the cotton raised in the country is produced in these states and a great amount of corn, oats, wheat, and potatoes is also raised. Here are indeed great opportunities for the Negro farmer.

There are in the six states adjacent to this city 133,000,000 acres of unimproved land. This is an area of over 200,000 square miles. It is equal to the area of all the New England states, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Ohio together.

In this great tract of unimproved land Negroes have the opportunity to settle, and to bring up out of the soil, which is full of riches, cotton, corn, oats, wheat, poultry, horses, mules, cattle and hogs.

These six states have a Negro population of 2,000,000. These Negroes have under their control as owners and renters about $300,000,000 worth farm property. They own about 60,000 farms containing about 6,000,000 acres of land. The total value of the farm property land, live stock, farming implements, etc., owned by the Negroes of these states is about $200,000,000. There is room, however, for improvement along all lines. For every Negro that owns an acre of land there are 33 who are landless. These 33 ought to get some of the millions of acres of unimproved land which are for sale. Let us get off the defensive and putting the world to talking about the little land that we own, but the much land that we do own. Get off the defensive by putting the world to talking about the 33 that do own land and not about the one that do not own land.

Let your success thoroughly eclipse your short-comings. We must give the world so much to think and talk about that relates to our constructive work in the direction of progress that people will forget and overlook our failures and short-comings. Instead of giving people opportunity to explain why we failed to build a house, let us build so many houses that the world will forget about the house that we failed to build. One big, definite fact in the direction of achievement and construction will go farther in securing rights and removing prejudice than many printed pages of defense and explanation.

It is not well for or our children that we should dwell so much on the defensive, with the negative side of life instead of the positive side. It is not well that our minds should be so continually centered upon our miseries or upon those who mistreat us. In the future let us emphasize our opportunities more and our difficulties less. Let us talk more about our White friends, and about our White enemies less. We do our children a lasting injustice when we feed them constantly upon the miseries of the race. Let us talk about the man who has got a job, and less about the man who is without a job. Let our fraternal and secret societies talk less about sickness and death, and more about health and life. Let our societies spend less money in talking care of the sick, and much more money in promoting the health of the race and they will have to spend less on account of sickness and death. Instead of giving the world a chance to discuss the high death rate of the Negro, let us put the world to wondering why the Negro keeps so healthy and strong. Let us make health contagious in every community rather than disease. I often deplore the fact that so many of our men's organizations, women's clubs and best newspapers devote so much time to merely resenting something, or "getting back” at some unfriendly critic, instead of devoting more time to constructive and progressive measures. Too often insignificant occurrences and insignificant individuals are given an importance and an advertisement by organizations and newspapers that is unnecessary and hurtful.

Explaining is easy. Construction is difficult. Explaining why we have not built up a business is easier than constructing a business.

Let us, in the future, spend less time tallying about the part of the city that we cannot live in, and more time in making the part of the city that we can live in beautiful and attractive. Let us get off the defensive in explaining why the house that we live in so often has the gate off the hinge, the fence palings gone, windows and doors broken out, and plastering knocked off. Instead of this, let us put people to talking about the beauty and attractiveness of the houses occupied by our people. Let us make such progress in these directions that the other fellow will be kept so busy talking about our progress that he will have no time to abuse and misrepresent us. Let us acquire wealth and intelligence so fast that the world will forget our poverty and ignorance. Let us be so thrifty and industrious that people will have no time to talk about our carelessness and idleness. Let us make the Negro so law-abiding that people will talk less about the criminal Negro and more about the one who obeys the law.

Too much time of organizations and of the press is often devoted to not only resenting something, but in criticizing the White man in the absence of the White man, or out of his presence.

Everywhere let us talk more about how we can live in peace and harmony with the White man, and less about racial friction and racial bitterness. Let us exalt the White man who treats us with justice, and overlook and pity the little man who would retard our progress. We call too many meetings to resent something, and not enough to construct something. All this is in the direction of progress that will be lasting, and in time remove many of the little difficulties.

In connection with the same line of thought, we must give, as business men and women, less attention to the lines of business which simply cater to miseries and misfortunes, and the wellness and follies of our race and more attention to the lines of business that create wealth by dealing with nature at first hand. The fact is to be deplored that so much time and money in larger cities is being spent in encouraging our young people to spend money instead of save money. The dancing hall, the billiard room, the bar room, the card parties and excursions are not the places where wealth is created. Nothing gets an individual or a race permanently upon its feet except definite, progressive constructive work.

One of the gratifying evidences of what we can accomplish by concentrated and united effort is in the success that recently attended us in recognition of "Railroad Day” in all parts of the country; from nearly every part of the South have come reports to the effect that railroad conditions have been bettered by reason of our efforts. I think the National Negro Business League can justly claim credit for inaugurating this movement.

Another gratifying evidence of the strength and growing prosperity of the race is shown in the fact that whereas a few years ago the wholesale merchant either in the North or South scarcely gave the Negro merchant any attention, today, the wholesale merchant in every part of the country is giving as much attention to catering to the trade and good wishes of the Negro merchant as is true of the White merchant; all this in the way of business relationships between the races means better things for both races throughout the country.

If there are those who are inclined to be discouraged concerning racial conditions in this country, we have but to turn our minds in the direction of the deplorable conditions in Europe growing largely out of racial bitterness and friction. When we contrast what has taken place there with the peaceful manner in which Black people and White people are living together in this country, notwithstanding now and then there are evidences of injustice and friction which should always be condemned, we have the greatest cause for thanksgiving. Perhaps nowhere else in the world can be found so many White people living side by side with so many of dark skin and so much of people and harmony as in the United States.

The Negro business and professional men have in the past few years made remarkable progress. Their progress in the future, however, is going to depend more and more upon the progress and development that the Negro who remains on the soil makes. As they acquire more land, raise more cotton and corn to the acre, raise more live stock and poultry, they will be able to support more banks, more drug stores, more dry goods stores and pay the teachers and preachers better salaries.

When the 2,000,000 Negroes of the Southwest have made the most of their opportunities and have let down their buckets deep into the earth and brought up the riches contained therein in the forms of cotton, corn, oats, wheat, potatoes, chickens, turkeys, hogs, horses, mules and cattle, they will be able to support in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma, 1,000 more grocery stores owned by Negroes, 500 additional dry goods stores, 300 more show stores, 200 more restaurants and hotels, 300 additional millinery stores, 200 additional drug stores and 40 more banks.

Whenever we think of agricultural progress among Negroes we invariably associate it with the mule. The most modern vehicle for transportation is the automobile. It is doing almost as much for the Negro as the mule has done. The business man, professional man, and the planter in all parts of the South are using the automobile. This has necessitated the building of good roads in every section of the South. The building of these roads has brought the country nearer the town and is carrying the town into the country.

The rural free delivery, the parcel post, and the telephone have all helped to bring the remotest sections of the South into close touch with the cities. All this has tended to make conditions in the country better for the Negro. With these facilities for the Negro in the country, with the opportunities for the Negro business man of the city growing brighter, let us press forward to that goal of American citizenship of which not only we and our children shall be proud, but at which the whole world shall marvel and do us honor.