Booker T. Washington and White Paternalism in Grand Rapids in the early part of the 20th Century

(The post today was referenced in the book, African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids, by Randal Jelks, for which we are grateful.)

In our last post we looked at how Grand Rapids newspapers in the later part of the 19th century depicted African Americans. We noted that some papers were overtly promoting White Supremacy, while others were critical of this bias, although still engaged in a very patronizing framework as it related to the status of Blacks in West Michigan.screen-shot-2017-01-22-at-12-50-30-am

In today’s post we look at some newspaper reporting in response to visits that Booker T. Washington made over the span of several years, between 1896 and 1901. We also look at how people responded to Washington’s message and its relationship to the 20th century attitude of White people, particularly those in power.

On January 24 in 1896, the Grand Rapids Democrat reported on a lecture given by Booker T. Washington to a crowd of some 700 people at Park Congregational Church in Grand Rapids. The Grand Rapids Democrat, was overtly a racist newspaper, yet they spoke somewhat favorably on the message and person of Booker T. Washington. Despite the somewhat favorable commentary on Washington’s lecture, the reporter could not help but reflect his own racist bias in making this observation early on:

In personal appearance Mr. Washington bears but slight resemblance to the type of his race. With the exception of a little deeper tinge of color he might, at a glance, be taken for a very practical Yankee business man.

The article continues with commentary on Washington’s life, the creation of the Tuskegee Institute and what the reporter identifies as, Hope of the Negro.” In this section of the article the Hope the reporter was referring to was the Negro’s ability to be patient and humble. The reporter comments that Washington acknowledged that a mistake that the Negro made was, “that they wanted to go to Congress before they were ready for it.” The reporter finds comfort in Washington’s observation, since Washington was primarily in favor of promoting the idea of what Blacks could do for themselves, which also meant he downplayed the systemic racism that plagued African Americans.

One follow up to this article appeared six days later, on January 30th, 1896. In that brief article (also in the Grand Rapids Democrat), Rev. Thomas Illman makes the following comments about the so-called patience of Negroes.


In December of 1901, Booker T. Washington returned to Grand Rapids, again to give a lecture. This time the Grand Rapids Herald reported on his visit, the headline, For Colored Race: Booker T. Washington Speaks of Conditions in the South.screen-shot-2017-01-22-at-1-16-00-am

Again Washington spoke about the condition of Blacks in the south and the work they were doing at the Tuskegee Institute. The article has Washington make the following statement:

At the end of the article, the reported notes that Washington was, “buried in a crush of people eager for the honor of taking his hand.” Many of those seeking to take his hand were White businessmen, which makes sense considering Washington’s message. In his book, African Americans in the Furniture City, Jelks makes the following observation.

Washington’s idealization of business and industry was a mirror image of the ideology that the leading businessmen of the city promoted. Through his words, they heard their own values – Christianity, hard work, a belief in industry, and the Republican Party.

I would agree with Jelk’s analysis here and would also contend that the relationship between white businessmen who have run Grand Rapids for most of its history have also practiced what Todd Robinson, author of A City Within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan, calls Managerial Racism. Robison says, “whites had constructed an inconspicuous form of managerial racism designed to limit black progress while maintaining the city’s prestige and economic prosperity.”

The city’s white businessmen embracing the message of Washington is in clear contrast to other prominent blacks who have spoken in Grand Rapids over the years, since the founder of the Tuskegee Institute spoke here at the beginning of the 20th century. Compare what Washington had to say, with that of what Malcolm X had to say in Grand Rapids in 1962, or what Stokely Carmichael said in 1967, or the message of Julian Bond in 1969.

White Paternalism in Grand Rapids

The positive reception to Booker T. Washington’s message was not only welcomed by white capitalist in Grand Rapids, but by white religious leaders. Again, we are grateful for the reference to Pastor Robert McLaughlin’s speech in 1904, cited in Jelk’s book, African Americans in the Furniture City.screen-shot-2017-01-22-at-2-53-28-am

McLaughlin’s speech is instructive in many ways. First, it says something about the dominant attitudes, even amongst white liberals, but more importantly, the sermon reflects a deeply entrenched form of white paternalism.

Entitled, The Negro Problem, McLaughlin seeks to respond to numerous questions that one might ask about the status of black people at the beginning of the 20th century. On the question of whether or not blacks should be repatriated, McLaughlin responds by saying that 40 years after the end of slavery cotton production has increased, which McLaughlin believes “demands his (Negro) presence.” Ignoring the ongoing legacy of slavery, McLaughlin fails to recognize the continued exploitation of blacks in the agricultural sector. It is true that the cotton industry grew after the end of chattel slavery, but the ongoing exploitation of black labor was not much of a change in the industry.

On the question of racial superiority or inferiority, McLaughlin states, “Whatever may be our impressions and theories, no one really knows that the Anglo-Saxon is and must ever remain superior. Of course, the negro, as a race, is backward, – a mere child, – but what he may be no one knows.”

Another question posed by McLaughlin asks if the “negro a man possessing normal possibilities of manhood, which, if developed, will equip him for the usual privileges of citizenship in our democracy?” Again, the minister frames his response in the realm of commerce, ignoring other major factors of what citizenship might mean – community, education, justice and collective liberation. McLaughlin prefers to measure black progress through a market lens by stating:

“… regards material prosperity he is able to enter the competitive world of commerce, gain wealth and acquire the sense of property rights so important in a democracy. Since the was he has accumulated $800,000,000 of property.”

Such an analysis flies in the face of what the late African American scholar Manning Marable observed in his powerful book, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race, Political Economy, and Society.

By way of conclusion, McLaughlin continues to speak paternalistically about The Negro Problem. He asks the question about what the duty of the church is to assist the state in developing the black community. Here McLaughlin reveals his paternalism and white savior mentality when he says:

“There is no fairer page in American history than that regarding the devotion and sacrifice of the noble men and women from the North who have given of time and substance to lead these backward people. And the work must continue.”

It was these kinds of sentiments that black people in Grand Rapids had to fight against and resist throughout the 20th century.

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1 Response to Booker T. Washington and White Paternalism in Grand Rapids in the early part of the 20th Century

  1. Pingback: W. E. B. Du Bois spoke in Grand Rapids two times in the early part of the 20th Century | Grand Rapids People's History Project

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