100 years since Booker T. Washington’s historic visit to the Mormons

Prominent educator, author, speaker visited Salt Lake 100 years ago

Published: Friday, March 29 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

An 1894 photo of Booker T. Washington, from the Library of Congress

Associated Press

In late March 1913, the most prominent African-American of his generation, Booker T. Washington, traveled cross-country to, in his words, “get right into the midst of the Mormons to see what kind of people they are, what they look like, what they are doing, and in what respect they are succeeding.”

During his two-day stay in Salt Lake City, the renowned educator, author and speaker met with local leaders, attended receptions in his honor and spoke to educators, University of Utah students and the city's African-American community.

What he found is captured, in part, in a 2,000-word account that he wrote for the New York Age, one of the leading African-American newspapers of the first half of the 20th century. What local residents found out about Washington is noted in Utah newspapers dating to the week of his visit.

From these sources emerge two, mutually flattering portraits informed by sincerity and a touch of self-interest. Placed in the context of its time by present-day historians, this singular event retains significance even 100 years later.

Mutual admiration society

“They have certainly made the desert blossom as a rose,” Washington recorded after his trip. “I have never been among a more intelligent, healthy, clean, progressive, moral set of people than these people are ….

“It has been my privilege to address schools and universities in nearly every part of America, and I say without hesitation that I have never addressed a college anywhere where the students were more alert, more responsive, more intelligent than is true of the students in these Mormon colleges.”

The effusive praise went both ways.

On March 31, 1913, the University of Utah Chronicle reported: “Greeted by vociferous applause and the largest audience which has attended assembly this year, Booker T. Washington, the renowned Negro writer, orator and educator, appeared before the University Faculty and students Thursday morning.

“The genuine reception accorded him was so increased by appreciation of his talk that at its conclusion he was called back again to the platform.”

Washington’s visit was a long time coming, according to Max Mueller, a Ph.D. candidate in religion at Harvard University.

Mueller, who is the author of a forthcoming paper titled “Booker T. Washington’s March 1913,” said that more than 10 years before the leader’s visit, the Deseret News and other Utah newspapers began printing glowing reports of Tuskegee Institute, the Alabama teachers college that Washington founded and led from 1881 until his death in 1915.

“The accounts sound much like the industrious Saints themselves,” Mueller said. “So many suits made, so many bushels of hay, etc.”

In 1911, the superintendent of Salt Lake City schools visited Tuskegee and subsequently invited Washington to come west to speak.

“What I think is really of interest is that what we have is a mutual admiration society between Booker T. Washington and the saints in Utah, ” said Mueller.

“There was a camaraderie, a kinship, an admiration of economic self-sufficiency, up-by-your bootstraps independence, but the saints weren’t looking to back African American political equality,” Mueller said, emphasizing the context of the times.

The camaraderie and warmth came in spite of the fact that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not, at that time, allow its members of African descent to be ordained to the priesthood.

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