Washington’s Atlanta Compromise Speech Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

One of the most controversial addresses in African American history, Booker T. Washington’s speech at the Atlanta Exposition proposed an accommodation between black and white southerners that would be mutually beneficial but which relegated African Americans to an inferior position.

Summary of Event

Born a slave on a small Virginia plantation, Booker T. Washington gained his freedom at the end of the Civil War (1861-1865), when he was only nine years old. After emancipation, he worked in a salt furnace and coal mine and learned to read by studying spelling books and occasionally attending a school for African American children. In 1872, he enrolled at Hampton Institute Hampton Institute in Virginia, a technical and agricultural school established for emancipated slaves. After graduating, he taught in Malden, West Virginia. He later returned to Hampton Institute to serve as a dormitory moderator to a group of newly admitted Native American students and to administer Hampton’s night school. Atlanta Compromise (Washington) Washington, Booker T. Georgia;Washington’s Atlanta Compromise African Americans;education Education;African American African Americans;and Atlanta Compromise[Atlanta Compromise] [kw]Washington’s Atlanta Compromise Speech (Sept. 18, 1895) [kw]Atlanta Compromise Speech, Washington’s (Sept. 18, 1895) [kw]Compromise Speech, Washington’s Atlanta (Sept. 18, 1895) [kw]Speech, Washington’s Atlanta Compromise (Sept. 18, 1895) Atlanta Compromise (Washington) Washington, Booker T. Georgia;Washington’s Atlanta Compromise African Americans;education Education;African American African Americans;and Atlanta Compromise[Atlanta Compromise] [g]United States;Sept. 18, 1895: Washington’s Atlanta Compromise Speech[6050] [c]Education;Sept. 18, 1895: Washington’s Atlanta Compromise Speech[6050] [c]Economics;Sept. 18, 1895: Washington’s Atlanta Compromise Speech[6050] [c]Social issues and reform;Sept. 18, 1895: Washington’s Atlanta Compromise Speech[6050] Du Bois, W. E. B.

In May, 1881, Washington received an invitation to join a group of educators from Tuskegee Tuskegee Institute Alabama;Tuskegee Institute , Alabama, to help establish a technical and agricultural college for African American students. Tuskegee Institute opened on July 4, 1881, with Washington as its principal. Tuskegee’s first academic building was a dilapidated church, and its first dormitories were shacks and cabins, but Washington raised funds, acquired land, supervised the construction of buildings, and recruited talented faculty members. Within a decade, the school had gained a national reputation for providing outstanding technical and occupational training to black students. Washington toured the country, soliciting donors, recruiting students, and making speeches that extolled the value of the occupational training being delivered at Tuskegee Institute.

Booker T. Washington.

(Library of Congress)

In the spring of 1895, Washington was invited to join a planning committee for the forthcoming Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, which was to be held in September. The exposition was designed to highlight the South’s most recent developments in agricultural technology. Washington was asked to deliver one of the key addresses during the exposition’s opening ceremonies. His speech was to focus on the role of African Americans in the South’s agricultural economy. Washington saw the address as an opportunity to discuss the achievements that African Americans had made in the South since emancipation and to stress the need for further advancements.

On September 18, 1895, Washington delivered his speech before an audience of several thousand listeners. He opened by thanking the directors of the Atlanta Exposition for including African Americans in the event and expressed his hope that the exposition would do more to “cement the friendship of the two races than any occurrence since the dawn of our freedom.” He went on to predict that the exposition would awaken among both white and black southerners “a new era of industrial progress.” He illustrated his point by telling a parable of a ship lost at sea whose crew members were desperate for fresh water. The captain of another ship, hearing the pleas for water from the distressed vessel, urged the lost sailors, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” When the captain of the lost ship followed that advice, his crew members brought aboard sparkling fresh water flooding into the Atlantic Ocean from the Amazon River.

Washington then urged his African American listeners to cast down their buckets “in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions.” He said that black people would prosper “in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life. . . .” He added that “no race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.”

Washington also told his white listeners to cast down their own buckets among the South’s African Americans,

who have, without strikes and labour wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, builded your railroads and cities, and brought forth treasures from the bowels of the earth, and helped make possible this magnificent representation of the progress of the South.

He encouraged white southerners to educate African Americans in “head, heart, and hand” so that they would remain “the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen.” He asserted that in “all things purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”

Washington concluded his speech by expressing his belief that 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 use must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.

He emphasized that African Americans must achieve economic self-reliance before they received “all the privileges of the law,” that 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.” Before surrendering the podium, Washington pledged to his audience his untiring effort to solve the racial animosities in the South and thereby bring to the region “a new heaven and a new earth.”

Washington’s address was enthusiastically received. Afterward, former Georgia governor Rufus Bullock grasped Washington’s hand and offered his congratulations. Others rushed to shake Washington’s hand. Over the next few days, newspapers in the North and South praised the speech in editorials. President Grover Cleveland wrote a congratulatory note. Washington received dozens of invitations to speak around the country and deliver his pragmatic message of black economic self-reliance and political accommodationism.

Critics of Washington’s accommodationist philosophy soon surfaced as well. They accused Washington of making an unsatisfactory compromise by accepting an inferior social and political position for African Americans in exchange for economic opportunities. These critics argued that the tools for economic independence alone would not lead African Americans toward full citizenship Citizenship, U.S.;and African Americans[African Americans] and that the widespread segregation Segregation of and discrimination against African Americans in the United States, especially in the South, was proof of the flaws of Washington’s reasoning.

Perhaps the most eloquent critic of Washington’s message was W. E. B. Du Bois. In The Souls of Black Folk Souls of Black Folk, The (Du Bois) (1903), Du Bois Du Bois, W. E. B. , who would later found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), asserted that Washington “represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission,” that the ideas expressed in what he called Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” were merely “a gospel of Work and Money” that prompted African Americans to surrender political power, civil rights, and opportunities for higher education. In contrast to Washington, Du Bois advocated that African Americans receive the right to vote; civic equality; and opportunities for higher academic education, as opposed to the kind of occupational training offered at Tuskegee Institute.


Despite criticisms, Washington remained an important African American spokesman. In 1901, he published Up from Slavery, an autobiography that chronicled his rise from slavery to national prominence. This rags-to-riches story was translated into several languages, giving Washington an international reputation. During that same year, he founded the National Negro Business League. He wrote several other books on the African American experience, including Frederick Douglass (1907) and The Story of the Negro (1909). He died at Tuskegee Institute in 1915.

The issues that Washington articulated in his Atlanta Exposition Address continued to influence African American dialogue throughout the twentieth century. Although Du Bois Du Bois, W. E. B. was proven correct in his belief that economic advancements for African Americans would not be forthcoming until they achieved political rights and social equality, Washington’s message—that African Americans must be allowed to enjoy the fruits of America’s economic prosperity—was repeated by African American civil rights leaders throughout the twentieth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, Houston A., Jr. Turning South Again: Re-thinking Modernism/Re-reading Booker T. Washington. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001. Strongly critical analysis of Washington’s ideas that attacks Washington for his fear of offending whites, for founding Tuskegee Institute on the site of an abandoned plantation, and for training black people to work in servile occupations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bontemps, Arna. Young Booker: Booker T. Washington’s Early Days. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972. Bontemps, an African American poet and critic, traces Washington’s life from its beginnings through the Atlanta address.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brundage, Fitzhugh, ed. Booker T. Washington and Black Progress: “Up from Slavery” One Hundred Years Later. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003. Collection of essays examining Washington’s autobiography from various perspectives. Several place Washington’s thought in a broad economic context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Reprint. New York: Penguin Books, 1989. In chapter 3 of his study of African American life, Du Bois critiques the ideas expressed in Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Address.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 8th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000. Chapter 14 of this extensive history of African Americans discusses Washington’s philosophy and its critics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. This first volume in a two-volume biography of Washington contains a detailed discussion of the Atlanta address.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smock, Raymond W., ed. Booker T. Washington in Perspective: Essays of Louis R. Harlan. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988. Collection of twelve essays on Washington by his leading biographer, Louis R. Harlan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Verney, Kevern. The Art of the Possible: Booker T. Washington and Black Leadership in the United States, 1881-1925. New York: Routledge, 2001. Study of Washington’s ideas and achievements, explaining his responses to segregation and his opposition to black urban migration. Compares Washington to Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery. 1901. Reprint. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. In chapters 13 and 14, Washington describes the events leading to the Atlanta Exposition Address, records the entire address, and discusses reactions to it.

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