Booker T Washington discusses race relations with author H G Wells
H. G. Wells, continuing in Harper’s Weekly his admirably just and penetrating studies of American conditions and tendencies, concerns himself in the issue of September 15  with a consideration of our increasingly momentous negro problem, which he calls “The Tragedy of Color.”
In the course of his observations, he reports a conversation with Booker T. Washington, which contains some interesting points:
“‘I wish you would tell me,” I said, abruptly, “just what you think of the attitude of white America towards you. Do you think it is generous?’
“He regarded me for a moment. ‘No end of people help us,’ he said.
“‘Yes,’ I said; ‘but the ordinary man. Is he fair?’
“‘Some things are not fair,’ he said, leaving the general question alone. ‘It isn’t fair to refuse a colored man a berth on a sleeping car. I happen to be a privileged person, they make an exception for me; but the ordinary educated colored man isn’t admitted to a sleeping car at all. If he has to sit up all night. His white competitor sleeps. Then in some places, in the hotels and restaurants, he can’t get proper refreshments. All that’s a handicap.’
“‘The remedy lies in education,’ he said; ‘ours — and theirs.’
“‘There is a man here in Boston, a negro, who owns and runs some big stores, employs all sorts of people, deals justly. That man has done more good for our people than all the eloquence or argument in the world — that is what we have to do — it is all we can do.'”
The Future in America
The tragedy of color: Harsh judgments
But whatever aspect I recall of this great taboo that shows no signs of lifting, of this great problem of the future that America in her haste, her indiscriminating prejudice, her lack of any sustained study and teaching of the broad issues she must decide, complicates and intensifies, and makes threatening, there presently comes back to mind the browned face of Mr. Booker T. Washington, as he talked to me over our lunch in Boston.
He has a face rather Irish in type, and the soft slow negro voice. He met my regard with the brown sorrowful eyes of his race.
He wanted very much that I should hear him make a speech, because then his words came better; he talked, he implied, with a certain difficulty. But I preferred to have his talking, and get not the orator — everyone tells me he is an altogether great orator in this country where oratory is still esteemed — but the man.
He answered my questions meditatively. I wanted to know with an active pertinacity.
What struck me most was the way in which his sense of the overpowering forces of race prejudice weighs upon him. It is a thing he accepts; in our time and conditions it is not to be fought about. He makes one feel with an exaggerated intensity (though I could not even draw him to admit) its monstrous injustice. He makes no accusations. He is for taking it as a part of the present fate of his “people,” and for doing all that can be done for them within the limit it sets.
Therein he differs from Du Bois, the other great spokesman color has found in our time. Du Bois, is more of the artist, less of the statesman; he conceals his passionate resentment all too thinly. He batters himself into rhetoric against these walls. He will not repudiate the clear right of the black man to every educational facility, to equal citizenship, and equal respect.
But Mr Washington has statecraft. He looks before and after, and plans and keeps his counsel with the scope and range of a statesman, I use “statesman” in its highest sense; his is a mind that can grasp the situation and destinies of a people.
After I had talked to him, I went back to my club, and found there an English newspaper with a report of the opening debate upon Mr. Birrell’s Education Bill, It was like turning from the discussion of life and death to a dispute about the dregs in the bottom of a teacup somebody had neglected to wash up in Victorian times.
I argued strongly against the view he seems to hold that black and white might live without mingling and without injustice, side by side.
That I do not believe. Racial differences seem to me always to exasperate intercourse unless people have been elaborately trained to ignore them. Uneducated men are as bad as cattle in persecuting all that is different among themselves.
The most miserable and disorderly countries of the world are the countries where two races, two inadequate cultures, keep a jarring, continuous separation. “You must repudiate separation,” I said. “No peoples have ever yet endured the tension of intermingled distinctness,”
“May we not become a peculiar people — like the Jews?” he suggested. “Isn’t that possible?”
But there I could not agree with him. I thought of the dreadful history of the Jews and Armenians. And the negro cannot do what the Jews and Armenians have done.
The colored people of America are of a different quality from the Jew altogether, more genial, more careless, more sympathetic, franker, less intellectual, less acquisitive, less wary and restrained — in a word, more Occidental. They have no common religion and culture, no conceit of race to hold them together. The Jews make a ghetto for themselves wherever they go; no law but their own solidarity has given America the East Side.
The colored people are ready to disperse and interbreed, are not a community at all in the Jewish sense, but outcasts from a community. They are the victims of a prejudice that has to be destroyed.
These things I urged, but it was, I think, empty speech to my hearer. I could talk lightly of destroying that prejudice, but he knew better. It is the central fact of his life, a law of his being. He has shaped all his projects and policy upon that. Exclusion is inevitable. So he dreams of a colored race of decent and inaggressive men silently giving the lie to all the legend of their degradation.
They will have their own doctors, their own lawyers, their own capitalists, their own banks — because the whites desire it so. But will the uneducated whites endure even so submissive a vindication as that? Will they suffer the horrid spectacle of free and self-satisfied negroes in decent clothing on any terms without resentment?
He explained how at the Tuskegee Institute they make useful men, skilled engineers, skilled agriculturalists, men to live down the charge of practical incompetence, of ignorant and slovenly farming and house management….
“I wish you would tell me,” I said, abruptly, “just what you think of the attitude of white America towards you. Do you think it is generous?”
He regarded me for a moment. “No end of people help us,” he said.
“Yes,” I said; “but the ordinary man. Is he fair?”
“Some things are not fair,” he said, leaving the general question alone. “It isn’t fair to refuse a colored man a berth on a sleeping-car. I?–I happen to be a privileged person, they make an exception for me; but the ordinary educated colored man isn’t admitted to a sleeping-car at all. If he has to go a long journey, he has to sit up all night. His white competitor sleeps. Then in some places, in the hotels and restaurants — it’s all right here in Boston — but southwardly he can’t get proper refreshments. All that’s a handicap….
“The remedy lies in education,” he said; “ours — and theirs.”
“The real thing,” he told me, “isn’t to be done by talking and agitation. It’s a matter of lives. The only answer to it all is for colored men to be patient, to make themselves competent, to do good work, to live well, to give no occasion against us. We feel that. In a way it’s an inspiration…
“There is a man here in Boston, a negro, who owns and runs some big stores, employs all sorts of people, deals justly. That man has done more good for our people than all the eloquence or argument in the world…. That is what we have to do — it is all we can do…”
Whatever America has to show in heroic living today, I doubt if she can show anything finer than the quality of the resolve, the steadfast effort hundreds of black and colored men are making today to live blamelessly, honorably, and patiently, getting for themselves what scraps of refinement, learning, and beauty they may, keeping their hold on a civilization they are grudged and denied. They do it not for themselves only, but for all their race.
Each educated colored man is an ambassador to civilization. They know they have a handicap, that they are not exceptionally brilliant nor clever people. Yet every such man stands, one likes to think, aware of his representative and vicarious character, fighting against foul imaginations, misrepresentations, injustice, insult, and the naive unspeakable meannesses of base antagonists. Every one of them who keeps decent and honorable does a little to beat that opposition down.
But the patience the negro needs! He may not even look contempt. He must admit superiority in those whose daily conduct to him is the clearest evidence of moral inferiority. We sympathetic whites, indeed, may claim honor for him; if he is wise he will be silent under our advocacy.
He must go to and fro self-controlled, bereft of all the equalities that the great flag of America proclaims — that flag for whose united empire his people fought and died, giving place and precedence to the strangers who pour in to share its beneficence, strangers ignorant even of its tongue. That he must do — and wait.
The Welsh, the Irish, the Poles, the white South, the indefatigable Jews may cherish grievances and rail aloud. He must keep still.
They may be hysterical revengeful, threatening, and perverse; their wrongs excuse them.
For him, there is no excuse. And of all the races upon earth, which has suffered such wrongs as this negro blood that is still imputed to him as a sin? These people who disdain him, who have no sense of reparation towards him, have sinned against him beyond all measure…
No, I can’t help idealizing the dark submissive figure of the negro in this spectacle of America. He, too, seems to me to sit waiting — and waiting with a marvelous and simple-minded patience — for finer understandings and a nobler time.
Excerpt from The Future in America: A Search After Realities, by H.G. Wells (Chapter XII: The Tragedy of Color, Section III), first published in Harper’s Weekly, 1906