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

And despite Washington’s prominence, because of racially exclusionary policies, he wasn’t allowed to stay in the Hotel Utah, which was the accommodation of choice for many of Salt Lake’s leading guests following its construction in 1911.

It’s also important to view Washington’s comments in light of his circumstances. For one thing, he didn't want to besmirch his hosts, Mueller said. For another, enthusiasm among his liberal Protestant backers in New York was waning and Tuskegee’s funding sources were drying up.

"I think he was hoping to get a dime from his visit.”

That said, Mueller believes Washington was genuinely impressed with the Mormons.

“Booker T. Washington wanted heaven on earth, especially economic bliss. (He was hoping to) create an independent, self-sufficient, respected community of industrious, conservative people.

“So he looked to the saints for a model of that type of community. The saints and African Americans actually have a shared history of exclusion from the mainstream, of persecution. So they had that in common.”

In his account published in the New York Age, Washington specifically highlighted those parallels:

“First … the Mormons were most inhumanly persecuted almost from the first organization of their church. This was especially true in Missouri and Illinois. Hundreds of their followers were put to death. The courts gave them little protection. The mob that either killed or wounded the Mormons was seldom, if ever, punished. … But out of this inhuman and unjust treatment grew the strength of these people ….

“The second parallel between the Mormon and the Negro is this. These people, I am sure, have been misrepresented before the world. … The Negro is suffering today just as the Mormons are suffering and have suffered, because people from the outside have advertised the worst in connection with Mormon life and they seldom called attention to the best in connection with the life of the Mormons.”

According to Mueller, Mormons also recognized these similarities and spoke out about extralegal violence against African-Americans. According to Mueller, “Saints would say, ‘We need to stand up for the rule of law in terms of not allowing lynch mob justice to run its course because we’ve experienced it ourselves.”

Twelve years prior, Mormons defended President Teddy Roosevelt’s controversial decision to invite Washington to dine at the White House, Mueller said.

Ronald Coleman, associate professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Utah, said Washington’s warm reception by the LDS community “is a testament to his stature and his ability to communicate in a way in which he and his life and work were accessible to the audience to which he spoke.”

Coleman quoted the University of Utah Chronicle, which said, “The personal magnetism of the speaker and his method of delivery won the sustained attention of the hearers. His local allusions showed keen observation.”

During the speech, Washington recounted his early years as a slave on a Virginia tobacco plantation, his work as a coal miner in West Virginia and his desire and struggle to obtain an education. He also spoke in depth about the three-decade history, accomplishments and mission of Tuskegee Institute.

The Deseret Evening News reported that before Washington’s address, an orchestra and choir backed by more than 1,000 students welcomed him by performing a rendition of "Swanee River."

Late in the evening, Washington spoke to members of Salt Lake’s African-American community, which consisted of about 1,000 individuals, at Calvary Baptist Church on the corner of 700 East and 300 South. His remarks centered on self-sufficiency and economic development, according to the church’s current pastor, the Rev. Francis Davis.

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