Twenty-two years after its inception in 1874, Chautauqua Institution presented its first known Black lecturer: Booker T. Washington, a prominent orator and lecturer, as well as founder and principal of the Normal and Tuskegee Industrial School in Tuskegee, Alabama, now Tuskegee University.
On the morning of Aug. 1, 1896, Washington took to the Amphitheater to give his address, titled “The Negro Problem in the Black Belt of the South.” The 13th Amendment, which outlawed the practice of chattel slavery in the United States, was passed and ratified in 1865. Washington was 9 years old.
In the years that followed, many discussions arose as to what fate should befall the now-emancipated population of Black people who could no longer be exploited as free laborers.
According to an 1896 transcription of his lecture published in The Chautauqua Assembly Herald, Washington began his speech with a note that in 1895, a group of 600 African Americans had boarded a ship in Savannah, Georgia. Its passengers were destined to arrive in Liberia, then a small territory in West Africa nestled between Côte d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone.
The very first group of resettled African Americans arrived in Liberia in 1820, according to National Geographic. An organization known as the American Colonization Society, founded in 1817, was instrumental in resettling African Americans. The society’s mission was to send Black people back to Africa as an alternative to emancipation.
In his speech, Washington humorously contended that the push to send African Americans back to Africa was not feasible, as the population’s birth rates outpaced those of its emigration rates. He advocated instead for racial uplift in the form of vocational education for African Americans, much like the one he had received.
The Library of Congress reported that in 1867, just two years after the 13th Amendment’s passage and ratification, more than 13,000 people had migrated to Liberia.
Although he had expressed opposition to the emigration to Liberia as a circumvention of just treatment for African Americans in the United States in his speech at Chautauqua, Washington would later prove instrumental in maintaining its sovereignty.
In 1846, at the behest of the American Colonization Society, Liberian settlers from America were asked to declare their national independence, being that it was neither a sovereign power, nor a legitimate U.S. colony. By 1847, they had done just that, writing a constitution and establishing the first known republic within the African continent.
Despite its official independence as a nation, a 1996 article published in the African Studies Review stated that the small nation, one of only two to stave off European colonization, faced the threat of annexation from various powers, including France, England and Germany.
Washington would prove to be a fierce advocate for Liberian sovereignty, placing Liberian affairs onto the Roosevelt administration’s diplomatic radar.
Washington had close ties to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had famously invited him to dinner which, in 1901, made Washington the first Black man known to receive a dinner invitation to the White House.
Later, in 1907, he would use his political connections in favor of the country, writing a letter to Roosevelt in which he advocated for U.S. support of Liberia’s independence.
His advocacy continued for several years as he supported and pushed for commissions and delegations to and from Liberia. His efforts ultimately led to a strengthened United States-Liberian diplomatic relationship that would continue into the Taft administration, halting any imminent threat from European colonial powers.
AAHH Program Director