Beyond the “Atlanta Compromise:” Remembering the Other Most Important Speech of 1895

This year,  in commemoration of the 120th anniversary of Booker T.Washington’s, “Atlanta Compromise,” articles will be written, lines will be dissected and we’ll all come together to rightfully pay homage to one of the most important speeches in American history. Aside from his incredible oration skills, Washington was good at presenting a comforting image of the Black Man, to white America. His speech, like many of his others, appeased the New South narrative, one of accommodation and self-sufficiency.  Even today, his words are comforting and easily fit into the collective narrative of peaceful resistance to inequality. Like the ongoing repositioning of Dr. King as a safe, nonviolent threat to the American way of life, Washington was and continues to have precedence over the likes of say, JWE Bowen. Who? 

J.W.E Bowen, the first African-American to graduate with a P.h D from Boston University,who also spoke at the Cotton States and International Exposition that Fall. But its tough to  recall (and locate) his speech “An Appeal to the King,” which was delivered three months after the “Atlanta Compromise.” Bowen, like Washington, discussed the ongoing racial tensions in the South, and what both races of people could and should do to help better the region. Only difference is, Washington eased whites, giving the safer speech of the two. Bowen on the other hand, whose position was more outright and commanding, demanding “equality of opportunity,” for African-Americans: 

 “There   can   be   but   one   answer   to   the   question,   namely   equality     of   opportunity.  The  largest  struggle  of  human  society  is  to  attain      this  concrete  reality  of   civil   justice.”   He   continued,   “Under   it,   each   will   produce   according   to   his   ability   for   the   good   of   mankind,    and     that   good   will   not   be   a   passive   uniformity   cast   into   the  stereotyped  mold  of  racial  capacity…and  all  should  be  permitted  to  develop  his   endowment  for  the  good  of  society  within  the  limits  of  unprejudiced  legislation” 

He went on, 

“In short, the education of the Negro must be on par with the education of the white man. It must begin in kindergarten, as that of the white child, and end in the University, as that of the white man. Anything short of this….would be unfair to the a large part of humanity.” 

Because Washington’s stance was less “militant”, and easily digested by   white politicians and businessmen, his speech was the coveted opening day address on September 21, 1895. Washington was one of the few, if not first, African-Americans to speak before a mixed race audience in the South. Bowen delivered his speech three months later, faraway from the main fairgrounds, on an event called  “Negro Day,” on December 26, inside the Negro Building. 

The Negro Building, which many point to the start of the New Negro Movement, was arguably the first African-American museum. It was a segregated space, far away from the main fairgrounds and positioned next to Buffalo Bills Wild West Show, one of dozens of exhibits at the Cotton States Exposition. But it was far from a spectator’s sport. At 20,000 square feet of exhibition space, the Negro Building points to the early struggle for the civil rights movement. The movement that would challenge white supremacy and its aim to keep African-Americans legally and immorally disenfranchised until the dismantling of Jim Crow in Brown v. Board of Education in 1964. But the struggle didn’t start on buses or lunch counters.  That is a narrow retelling of a long and complex struggle that had its start from the moment the first 20 Africans set foot in Jamestown, Virginia. To paint our stories in this one even stroke has made many resistant to Black History Month. Some rightfully argue that not only is it insulting to reserve the history of African-Americans to one month of the year, but laughable as the same dates, people and events are regurgitated each time.

An abridged curriculum has kept the Negro Building and “An Appeal to the King,” a speech that took months for me to find in its entirety, out of our collective memory. But can this Building, and the important events and discussions and conferences surrounding black life in America inside, carry as much weight as the list of top ten facts and figures we scroll through each year? Or are we to assume that if it was that important, they, our nation’s academic society, whoever they are, those that write the textbooks and create the standardized tests and top ten lists, surely would’ve included it?

The thing about history, American history, specifically black history is like that old adage, “If a tree falls in the forest but nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Do the other important events and people of 1895 remain silent on the 150th anniversary of the “Atlanta Compromise?” Or are can they also make noise?