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Booker T. Washington

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“ . . . what a great service Mr. Douglass rendered to our race . . . ”

Booker Taliaferro Washington, 1856–1915.  African-American educator and leader.  Superb Typed Letter Signed, Booker T. Washington, one page, 8½” x 11”, on stationery of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, January 19, 1909.

This is a superb letter, with an excellent association as well, in which one great African-American writes of another.  Washington, the leading African-American of his age, acknowledges the “great service” that Frederick Douglass, the leading African-American of his age, “rendered to our race.”

In this letter, Washington seeks financial assistance to help preserve Douglass’s home, Cedar Hill, in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C.  He writes to Henry T. McDonald, the president of Storer College, a historically African-American college in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.  In full:  “In case you have not already done so, I am writing to urge that you take up a collection among your students for the Douglass Home sometime on or near Mr. Douglass’s anniversary.  The facts regarding the need and use of this money are brought out in the enclosed printed circular [not included].  The trustees are most anxious to finish the payment on this home and free it of debt during the next few months, and I believe that when it is remembered what a great service Mr. Douglass rendered to our race and how greatly indebted all of us are for the privilege of education that a liberal collection can be assured.

Douglass extolled the value of education at the dedication of the Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth in 1894.  “Education . . . means emancipation,” he said. “It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light only by which men can be free. To deny education to any people is one of the greatest crimes against human nature.”

Washington called Douglass “the greatest man that the race has produced.”  In the preface to his biography of Douglass, he wrote that although Douglass “would have been a notable character in any period,” nevertheless “in the life of hardly any other man was there comprehended so great a variety of incidents of what is perhaps the most memorable epoch in our history.”  He expressed his gratitude for the opportunity that writing the book gave him “of getting close to the heart and life of this great leader of my race.  No Negro can read and study the life of Frederick Douglass without deriving from it courage to look up and forward.”  Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass 6–7 (1906).

This letter is part of the national campaign that Washington began in 1908 to raise funds for the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, a congressionally chartered nonprofit organization founded by Douglass’s widow, Helen, to “preserve to posterity the memory of the life and character” of Douglass and to “collect, collate, and preserve an historical record . . . of the anti-slavery movement.”  Money raised through Washington’s efforts substantially reduced the mortgage on Cedar Hill that the Association had inherited.

Washington’s reference to “Mr. Douglass’s anniversary” is likely to the anniversary of Douglass’s death on February 20, 1895.  It could, however, be a  reference to February 14, the date that Douglass chose later in life to celebrate as his birthday.  Most sources state that Douglass was born around February 1818, taken from a statement in his autobiography that he heard his master say in 1835 that he was about 17 years old.  Douglass said, however, that he did not know when his birthday was.  

The son of an African-American slave woman and a white man who possibly was her master, Douglass was a literate man who had learned to read from white children as a slave.  His oratorical and writing skills took him to the forefront of the abolitionist movement in New York and Massachusetts.  Two of his three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845) and My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), were influential in the abolitionist cause.  By the Civil War, Douglass was one of the most renowned African-Americans in the United States.  He argued that the Union Army should include African-Americans in its ranks, which it ultimately did, and served as a recruiter for the Union’s first African-American regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. 

Douglass later became the first African-American to be nominated for Vice President of the United States and the first both to have his name placed in nomination for President of the United States at a major party convention and to receive a vote in the roll call. 

This letter has an excellent association as well to Storer College, a historically African-American college in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, founded to train African-American teachers after the Civil War.  On May 30, 1881, Douglass delivered a speech praising abolitionist John Brown, whom the federal government hanged for his attempt to initiate an armed slave rebellion in the South by seizing the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry.  Douglass disapproved of Brown’s plan at the time.  But at Storer College, Douglass shared the stage with Andrew J. Hunter, the prosecutor who secured Brown’s conviction and execution, and, as Douglass himself described it, was “allowed to deliver an address, not merely defending John Brown, but extolling him as a hero and martyr to the cause of liberty.”  Life and Times of Frederick Douglass 501 (1882).  The speech itself was published as John Brown: An Address by Frederick Douglass, at the Fourteenth Anniversary of Storer College (1881).

From age 25 in 1881, the year of Douglass’s speech at Storer College, until his death, Booker T. Washington led the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute.  He skillfully navigated the political realities of social segregation in the Jim Crow-era South, promoting education for African-Americans while arguing that they could gain social equality by “industry, thrift, intelligence and property.”  He assembled a coalition of African-Americans and liberal whites, including ministers, educators, editors, and businessmen.  He attracted the attention and respect of political leaders, including Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, who hosted him at the White House, and William Howard Taft.  He garnered the moral and financial support of white philanthropists such as Henry H. Rogers of Standard Oil, Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck & Co., George Eastman of Kodak, and Anna T. Jeanes.  As later historians have described him, Washington “advised, networked, cut deals, made threats, pressured, punished enemies, rewarded friends, greased palms, manipulated the media, signed autographs, read minds with the skill of a master psychologist, strategized, raised money, always knew where the camera was pointing, traveled with an entourage, waved the flag with patriotic speeches, and claimed to have no interest in partisan politics. In other words, he was an artful politician.”  Booker T. Washington Rediscovered 209 (Michael Scott Bieze & Marybeth Gazman eds., 2012).

Washington has signed this letter with a huge 5½” brown fountain pen signature.  The letter has a single vertical fold that barely touches the “h” and passes through the connection to the “i” in Washington’s signature.  There are also three horizontal folds that do not affect the signature; a partial paper clip stain in the blank area above the text; staple holes in the upper right blank margin; two filing holes at the top, one of which affects the printed letterhead; and handling marks at the lower right.  Overall the piece is in fine condition.


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