Atlanta Exposition Address

Atlanta Exposition Address


ChickenBones: A Journal

for  Literary & Artistic African-American  Themes



The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is

the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come

to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. 



Atlanta Exposition Address

By Booker T. Washington


On September 18, 1895, Booker T. Washington, a Negro spokesman supported by Northern and Southern white leaders, spoke before a predominantly white audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. His “Atlanta Compromise” speech was the most important and influential of modern speeches concerning the American Negro in United States history. At this moment “an agreed upon (by those whites in power or by those empowered by whites in power) direction was set for a mass of black citizens who had struggled through the thirty years since emancipation buffeted on all sides by strategies, plans, hopes, and movements, organized by any number of popular, or local, black spokespersons, without before 1895 having found an overriding pattern of national leadership or an approved plan of action that could guarantee at least the industrial education of a considerable sector of the black populace.” Houston A. Baker, Jr., Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987), p. 15

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Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Board of Directors and Citizens:

One third of the population of the south is of the Negro race.  No enterprise seeking the material, civil, or moral welfare of this section can disregard this element of our population and reach the highest success.  I but convey to you, Mr. President and Directors, the sentiment of the masses of my race when I say that in no way have the value and manhood of the American Negro been more fittingly and generously recognized than by the managers of this magnificent Exposition at every stage of its progress.  It is a recognition that will do more to cement the friendship of the two races than any occurrence since the dawn of our freedom.

Not only this, but the opportunity here afforded will awaken among us a new era of industrial progress.  Ignorant and inexperienced, it is not strange that in the first years of our new life we began at the top instead of at the bottom; that a seat in Congress or the state legislature was more sought than real estate or industrial skill; that the political convention or stump-speaking had more attraction than starting a dairy farm or truck garden.

A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel.  From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal: “Water, water; we die of thirst!”  The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back: “Cast down your bucket where you are.”  A second time the signal, “Water, water; send us water!” ran up from the distressed vessel, and was answered: “Cast down your bucket where you are”  And a third and fourth signal for water was answered, “Cast down your bucket where you are.”  The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River.  To those of my race who depend upon bettering their condition in a foreign land, or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are”—cast down in making friends, in every manly way, of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded.

Cast it down in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions.  And in this connection it is well to bear in mind that whatever others sins the South may be called to bear, when it comes to business, pure and simple, it is the South that the Negro is given a man’s chance in the commercial world, and in nothing is this Exposition more eloquent than in emphasizing this chance.  Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labor, and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful.  No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.  It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.  Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.

To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits for the prosperity of the South, were I permitted I would repeat what I say to my own race, “Cast down your bucket where you are.”  Cast it down among the eight million Negroes whose habits you know, whose fidelity and love you have tested in days when to have proved treacherous meant the ruin of your firesides.  Cast down your bucket among these people who have, built your railroads and cities, brought forth treasures from the bowels of the earth, and helped make possible this magnificent representation of the progress of the South.  Casting down your bucket among my people, helping and encouraging them as you are doing on these grounds, and to education of head, hand, and heart, you will find that they will buy your surplus land, make blossom the waste places in your fields, and run your factories. 

While doing this, you can be sure in the future, as in the past, that you and your families will be surrounded by the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen.  As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, in nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one. 

In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one at the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.

There is no defense or security for any of us except in the highest intelligence and development of all.  If anywhere there are efforts tending to curtail the fullest growth of the Negro, let these efforts be turned into stimulating, encouraging, and making him the most useful and intelligent citizen.  Efforts or means so invested will pay a thousand per cent interest.  These efforts will be twice blessed—“blessing him that gives and him that takes.”

There is no escape through law of man or God from the inevitable:

The laws of changeless justice bind

Oppressor with oppressed;

And close as sin and suffering joined

We march to fate abreast.

Nearly sixteen million of hands will aid you in pulling the load upward, or they will pull against you the load downward.  We shall constitute one-third and more of the ignorance and crime of the South, or one-third its intelligence and progress, we shall contribute one-third to the business and industrial prosperity of the South, or we shall prove a veritable body of death, stagnating, depressing, retarding every effort to advance the body politic.

Gentlemen of the Exposition, as we present to you our humble effort at an exhibition of our progress, you must not expect overmuch.  Starting thirty years ago with ownership here and there in a few quilts and pumpkins and chickens (gathered from miscellaneous sources), remember the path that has led from these to the inventions and production of agricultural implements, buggies, steam engines, newspapers, books, statuary carving, paintings, the management of drug-stores and banks, has not been trodden without contact with thorns and thistles.  While we take pride in what we exhibit as a result of our independent efforts, we do not for a moment forget that our part in this exhibition would fall far short of your expectations but for the constant help that has come to our educational life, not only from the Southern states, but especially from Northern philanthropists, who have made their gifts a constant stream of blessing and encouragement.

The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.  No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.  It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges.  The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.

In conclusion, may I repeat that nothing in thirty years has given us more hope and encouragement, and drawn us so near to you of the white race, as the opportunity offered by the Exposition; and here bending, as if were, over the altar that represents the results of the struggles of your race and mine, both starting practically empty-handed three decades ago, I pledge that, in your effort to work out the great and intricate problem which God has laid at the doors of the South, you shall have at all times the patient, sympathetic help of my race; only let this be constantly in mind, that, while from representations in these buildings of the product of field, of forest, of mine, of factory, letters, and art, much good will come, yet far above and beyond material benefits will be that higher good, that, let us pray God, will come, in a blotting out of sectional differences and racial animosities and suspicions, in a determination to administer absolute justice, in a willing obedience among all classes to the mandates of law.  This, this, coupled with our material prosperity, will bring into our beloved South a new earth. [my emphasis]

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The “Atlanta Exposition” speech is one of the embedded documents found in Up from Slavery.

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Books by Houston Baker, Jr.


Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader  / Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s  /  Black Studies, Rap and the Academy 

Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance  /  Workings of the Sprit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women’s Writing 

  Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature

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Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance

By Houston A. Baker

Commentary by Rudolph Lewis

In Chapter 4 Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Baker continues as follows: “Thirty-two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Booker T. Washington changed the minstrel joke by stepping inside the white world’s nonsense syllables with oratorical mastery. Up from Slavery offers a record and representation of Afro-America’s mastery of form. . . . Like Billy Kersands stretching the minstrel face to a successful black excess, or Bert Williams and George Walker converting nonsense sounds and awkwardly demeaning minstrel steps into pure kinesthetics and masterful black artistry, so Washington takes up types and tones of nonsense to earn a national reputation and its corollary benefits for the Afro-American masses.”

In Chapter 5 Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Baker elaborates further: “To designate Washington rather than, say, Paul Lawrence Dunbar as the quintessential herald of modernism in black expressive culture is not willful revisionism. For I am interested in a mastery of form that renders it more than a strategy adopted for the aesthetic satisfaction of the individual artist. . . . Washington is ‘modern’ in my view, then, because he earnestly projected the flourishing of a southern, black Eden at Tuskegee—a New World garden to nurture hands, heads, and hearts of a younger generation of agrarian black folk in the ‘country districts’.”

My reading of Houston A. Baker’s Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987) continues:

Afro-American modernism was inaugurated in terms of artistic development: the mastery of form and the deformation of mastery. The major artistic representation of the Negro took the form (in speech and body motion) on stage in black-face minstrelsy or in literature as  in the character Topsy in Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, appearing first in the 1840s and 1850s. Minstrelsy negates the Negro or erases his humanity in terms of nonsense.

In Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987), Baker asserts that Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery and Charles Chestnutt’s  Conjure Woman represent Afro-American mastery of minstrelsy or the minstrel mask, that is, they stand the form on its head (in a sense, they step inside of the nonsense) and make use of the form for purposes for which it was never intended, that is, to serve the greater interest of the Negro people. In their expert hands nonsense gains focus, purpose, and direction.

Baker views Paul Lawrence Dunbar and W.E.B. Du Bois artistic mastery as running on a different track than that of Washington and Chestnutt. Here is what Baker states about the deformation of mastery (Chapter 7):

The deformation of mastery refuses a master’s nonsense. It returns—often transmuting ‘standard’ syllables—to the common sense of the tribe. Its relationship to masks is radically different from that of the mastery of form. The spirit house occupying the deformer is not minstrelsy, but the sound and space of an African ancestral past. For the Afro-American spokesperson, the most engaging repository for deformation’s sounding work is the fluid and multiform mask of African ancestry. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the most articulate adherent of African sound was W.E.B. Du Bois.

The Souls of Black Folk announces in its very title that an ‘other world’ nonsense will not be countenanced. A nation, a FOLK manifold in spirit (note plurality of ‘soul’ captured by its s), will be the subject of the black spokesperson’s narrative. Afro-American songs appropriately called ‘spirituals’ provide sound for a ritual that begins with the title. The whole of Souls moves in fact toward the moment in chapter fourteen when the text becomes a sounding score—when the phaneric narrator [go(ue)rilla] reveals that he knows the score where lordship and deformity are concerned.

The governing metaphor of Souls is the ‘Veil’. The Veil signifies a barrier of American racial segregation that keeps Afro-Americans always behind a color line—disoriented—prey to divided aims, dire economic circumstances, haphazard educational opportunities, and frustrated intellectual ambitions. In the penultimate vision of Souls that occurs in chapter fourteen, this Veil is rent. . . . The Duboisean voice ceaselessly invokes ancestral spirits and ancient formulas that move toward an act of cultural triumph. In fact, I defines the Afro-American spiritual as synonymous with the African mask here because Du Bois’s narrator seems so patently self conscious in the repeated use of ‘Sorrow Songs’ or spirituals as masterful repositories of an African cultural spirit.


Maybe Baker is unfair in his characterization of Booker T. Washington, as a black black-faced minstrel. But it seems quite clear that Washington and Chestnutt were both aware of minstrelsy and that both made use of it in their literary productions. It’s also clear that Dunbar was uneasy in his productions of dialect verse and preferred to write in standard English. Even so, “When Malindy Sings” is one of the finest English poems ever written.


In reading Ronald W. Walters’ White Nationalism, Black Interests  and Houston A. Baker’s Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987), one cannot but wonder whether there are parallels between the post-Reconstruction era of the 19th century (viewed by Walters) and the turn of the century Washington-DuBois-Alain Locke era (viewed by Baker), and the more recent Reagan-Clinton-Bush era that we now find ourselves.

In the former era, the Negro redefined himself, began to speak for himself on a national basis and entered that era, Baker calls it Afro-American “modernism,” which he believes were more fully spoken in Alain Locke’s The New Negro. In 2006, , the post-modern era, the Negro as African-American is again trying to lay (prepare) the field for a new generation to move the nation forward to fulfill its promise to all of its citizens, especially for those who carry most the burdens of the nation’s misdeeds.

  Locke closed the introduction of  The New Negro with words that seem just as appropriate today:

“But whatever the general effect, the present generation will have added the motives of self-expression and spiritual development to the old and still unfinished task of making material headway and progress. No one who understandingly faces the situation with its substantial accomplishment or views the new scene with its still more abundant promise can be entirely without hope.”

reposted 19 September 2006

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Robert J. Norrell. Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington

Illustrated. 508 pp. The Belknap Press / Harvard University Press.

To the extent that Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) is remembered at all today, he is usually misremembered, which is a travesty…His unwillingness to practice protest politics, however, has earned him the scorn of many modern-day critics, who dismiss him as too meek in his dealings with whites…In Up From History, a compelling biography, Robert J. Norrell restores the Wizard of Tuskegee to his rightful place in the black pantheon…Many criticisms of Washington in more recent decades have echoed those of his contemporary black nemesis, W.E.B. Du Bois…Much has been made of this rivalry, but the relevant point is that the two men differed mainly in emphasis, not goals…Putting their differences into proper perspective is yet another way that Up From History serves as a useful corrective.

—Jason L. Riley (Wall Street Journal)

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Africa Makes Some Noise—Documentary on contemporary music from Africa

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Henry Louis Gates’ Dangerously Wrong Slave History

By Barbara Ransby

Repudiating an Apologist

Skip Gates’ “End the Slavery Blame-Game” Nonsense

By Dr. Ron Daniels

The Failure of Negro Leadership  /

The Post Black Negro  /

Professor Charles Ogletree on Profiling to Beergate to the Obama

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Malcolm X

A Life of Reinvention

By Manning Marable

Years in the making-the definitive biography of the legendary black activist. Of the great figure in twentieth-century American history perhaps none is more complex and controversial than Malcolm X. Constantly rewriting his own story, he became a criminal, a minister, a leader, and an icon, all before being felled by assassins’ bullets at age thirty-nine. Through his tireless work and countless speeches he empowered hundreds of thousands of black Americans to create better lives and stronger communities while establishing the template for the self-actualized, independent African American man. In death he became a broad symbol of both resistance and reconciliation for millions around the world.

Manning Marable’s new biography of Malcolm is a stunning achievement. Filled with new information and shocking revelations that go beyond the Autobiography, Malcolm X unfolds a sweeping story of race and class in America, from the rise of Marcus Garvey and the Ku Klux Klan to the struggles of the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties.

Reaching into Malcolm’s troubled youth, it traces a path from his parents’ activism through his own engagement with the Nation of Islam, charting his astronomical rise in the world of Black Nationalism and culminating in the never-before-told true story of his assassination. Malcolm X will stand as the definitive work on one of the most singular forces for social change, capturing with revelatory clarity a man who constantly strove, in the great American tradition, to remake himself anew.

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The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

By Pauline Maier

A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her book’s footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a convention’s decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maier’s accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents’ objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly). Ripostes from proponents, the Federalists, animate the great detail Maier provides, as does her recounting how one state convention’s verdict affected another’s. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history.—Booklist

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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updated 22 July 2008 




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Related files:  Atlanta Exposition Address  Bassett On Washington  Booker T & Charles Elliot    Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance     The “Last Darky”: Bert Williams  

The Tragic Black Buck — Racial Masquerading    Carlyle Van Thompson Interview    Unforgivable Blackness  The Omni-Americans    Books N Review

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