Booker T. Washington’s Visit to Spokane (1913)

Booker T. Washington, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing slightly left, holding newspaper
Booker T. Washington, 1890-1900
Public domain image, Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress (98500584)

In 1913 the famous African American activist and educator Booker T. Washington left Tuskegee, Alabama, to begin a speaking tour around the United States. The ultimate goal of this tour was to raise funds for the Tuskegee Institute in order to educate more young African Americans. Washington began touring the Northwest, a place he had never before seen, in March of 1913, beginning with Montana, before traveling further west through Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. Along the way, while commenting on the impressive features of the Pacific Northwest landscape, he spent three days in Spokane, Washington, visiting several local landmarks and speaking to numerous audiences in the city.

Booker T. Washington’s message of self-help and uplift in order to improve the standing of the African American in America resonated well with people of all races in Spokane. Many leaders of the black community in the young city closely heeded his words, including Reverend Peter Barrow, who was inspired by Washington to create a large African American-operated apple orchard north of Spokane. When he arrived in Spokane, Washington was well received, and as a result, his three days were quite busy.

Washington spoke to nine separate audiences during his visit. Among these was Lewis and Clark High School, a new school where its cornerstone had been laid a few short years earlier by President Theodore Roosevelt, a friend of Washington’s. Here Washington spoke of his young days as a slave, as well as his experiences founding and running the Tuskegee Institute and the importance of education.

Washington also spoke at the Spokane Federation of Women’s Clubs. The Federation hosted a reception for the Tuskegee educator.  Washington was expecting to speak to a group of all-white women. When he arrived, though, he discovered that the members of the Colored Women’s Club were invited to hear him speak as well. After he inquired, he discovered that it was a normal occurrence for the groups to meet together in Spokane. Washington realized, however, that the integrated setting was rare across the rest of the nation.

While speaking to a member of the Spokane Chamber of Commerce, Washington learned more about the relationship between blacks and whites in the city through a story about the 25th Infantry of the United States Army. These men, members of the famed Buffalo Soldiers, were stationed at Camp Wright just outside Spokane several years earlier before being replaced by a white unit. According to this man, the citizens of Spokane noticed that the 25th was incredibly organized, polite, and orderly. Furthermore, the public figure claimed that nearly unanimously, the white citizens were disappointed when the 25th was replaced and preferred the African American regiment to any other that had been stationed at the camp before or since. Washington noted that this seemed to improve considerably the way whites viewed blacks in the city.

Despite these stories, Booker T. Washington still recorded a serious lack of opportunity for African Americans seeking employment in Spokane. Although there were a limited number of successful black entrepreneurs in the city and successful black farmers in the surrounding areas, Washington found that all blacks were barred from trade unions. According to a letter he sent to the New York Age while in the city, he found that it, “… is pretty well understood in this part of the world that the colored laborer must be a porter, a messenger, or something of that kind.” Though disappointing, he understood this to be commonplace at the time and was in no way surprised. Following his departure from Spokane, Booker T. Washington continued his journey westward to Seattle.