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.
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.
Coleman said that Calvary Baptist planned to charge congregants in order to provide the speaker with some remuneration, but Washington declined, saying he welcomed contributions to Tusgekee, but didn’t want anyone to have to pay to hear him speak.
Darius Gray, former president of the Genesis Group — an organization within the LDS Church that supports members of African descent — said Washington's visit unfortunately has been forgotten.
“I don’t know that there’s a legacy (among black Mormons),” said Gray, when asked.
“Whether it’s the 100th anniversary or the 300th anniversary, the African-Americans will not know it, the Anglo Americans, the Hispanic Americans will not know it because we have not taught it.”
Coleman concurred. “I don’t know that very many people think about Booker T. Washington today, (even) in the general African-American community."
Gray appreciates any effort made to remember Washington and the many others whose influence on history have been neglected.
“A society teaches that which it values," he said.
Books and covers
Coleman believes there’s an age-old lesson to take from Washington’s visit. He referred to the distinguished educator's account in the New York Age, where he said:
“I have learned by experience and observation that it is never safe to pass final judgment upon a people until one has had an opportunity to get into the real life of these people .
“I have learned, too, that no person outside a race or outside a group of people can ever really ever know that race or that group of people until he gets into their homes and has a chance to observe their men and women and their children, has a chance to partake of their hospitality and get into their inner life.”
Coleman said that people sometimes make remarks based on what they’ve read or heard or seen from a distance, and that may or may not be accurate.
“We often come to the table with preconceived notions of what this person or this group represents. Maybe the best thing is not to judge a book by its cover, but come to know the content.”