When high school students in Washington County return to classes this fall, their history lessons of the American civil rights movement will include a rare recording of a speech made by Booker T. Washington in 1895.
The record, made in 1906 by Washington especially for his son, E. Davidson Washington, contains an excerpt of a speech made at the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition. At the time, Washington urged blacks to concentrate on economic advancement through cooperation with white industrialists rather than drastic social and political reform.
Sharpsburg resident William Allen discovered the record in 1964 behind an old piano in his sister's Chicago apartment, Allen said. He said he had listened to the recording for years but had never thought to investigate its historical significance until his brother-in-law urged him to do so.
In the school curriculum, the recording has been blended with an explanatory narrative by Louis Harlan, a professor of history at the University of Maryland and a Pulitzer prize-winning biographer of Washington. A lesson plan in booklet form, titled "Social Changes in Black America," has been produced by the Washington County School Board and will be distributed with the tapes.
John Seburne, director of the history department for the Washington County public school system, said he is thrilled to have the tapes for classroom use. The tapes are to be used in all seven Washington County public high schools by about 3,000 11th and 12th grade students.
"The speech will be used in our Contemporary Issues course because it is a significant event in the history of civil rights. It outlined a different path from the one other black leaders were taking," he explained.
Seburne said that the presentation of the materials on tape is an effective way to reach the students and that he was especially pleased to be able to take advantage of primary materials.
Washington, born a slave in 1856, first achieved prominence by founding the Tuskegee Institute, a vocational center for blacks in Alabama, in 1881.
Harlan explained that at the time of the 1895 speech, there was no clear successor in the black community to Frederick Douglass, who had died that year. Washington's speech catapulted him into national prominence, and he earned wide praise from white industrialists and farmers when he put forward his idea that segregation in social terms would not inhibit the realization of economic goals for blacks and their integration into the work place.
In his speech he claimed that "in all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet as one hand in all things essential to mutual progress."
This view was widely held in most white circles. The following year, the Supreme Court gave backing to it by condoning racial segregation in the "separate but equal" ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson that held that blacks and whites were equal under the Constitution but that they could still be legally segregated in public places.
"Washington sought a new modus vivendi between blacks and whites," Harlan said. "The speech is pessimistic but realistic. He was saying, 'We have no hope for gains in civil rights or voting rights, so let's at least seek our own economic self-sufficiency.'
"He espoused a philosophy which has been largely discarded today," Harlan added.
The recorded materials on Washington will be combined with sources on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and students will be asked to compare the approaches to civil rights of the two black leaders, Seburne said.
William Allen, who is an engineering supervisor with Metro, says he has high hopes for the tape and accompanying booklet.
He said that he is searching for a publisher to market the package nationally to schools and libraries and that he hopes to set up a Booker T. Washington scholarship fund with some of the profits.
The scholarship would be available to any student based on need, Allen said.