Advance Notice: Briefs

On this day in 1903: Booker T. Washington visits Detroit, calls for African-American opportunity

By: - May 5, 2022 4:45 am

Susan J. Demas graphic

On May 5, 1903, African-American leader Booker T. Washington addressed an audience of Blacks and white in downtown Detroit. 

“Any race that yields to the temptation of hating another race because of its color weakens and narrows itself,” said Washington, who was principal of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute of Tuskegee, Ala.(later known as Tuskegee University), and a founder of the National Negro Business League.

Booker T. Washington | Wikimedia Commons Public Domain, Francis Benjamin Johnston photo

The Detroit Free Press reported the following day, “He declared emphatically that Negroes are not supplicants for aims, but desire simply the opportunity for development.” 

Washington’s Detroit Light Guard Armory presentation made front-page news in the Motor City. Washington, who was born a slave in Virginia was a noted educator, author, orator, and adviser to several presidents of the United States. Between 1890 and 1915, he was the dominant leader in the African-American community. 

“Wherever I can I propose to teach my people to take high ground, to teach them if others would be little we must be great,” Washington said. “If others should try to push us down, we must show a broader spirit and help push them up.” 

“While race prejudice shows itself in certain directions, I repeat that when one comes to business, pure and simple, stripped of all ideas of settlement, the Negro is given almost as good an opportunity to rise as is given to the white man,” Washington concluded. 

Prior the end of the Civil War in 1865, the Detroit area had been a prominent stop along the Underground Railroad, a system of routes that provided slaves from the South a gateway to freedom in Michigan and in Canada. At the time, about 5% of Detroit residents were Black. 

Two prominent African Americans at that time were William Ferguson, a lawyer who served in the Michigan House of Representatives in 1894 and 1894, and James Ames, a physician, who served as a member of the body 1901 and 1902. Both were Republicans. 

In 1930, the Rev. William Peck, pastor of Bethel A.M.E Church, founded the Booker T. Washington Trade Association in Detroit. A revamped version of the organization is chaired by Crystal Gunn. During the 1940s, the family of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr. operated a grocery store in Detroit named after Washington.

Washington died in Tuskegee on Nov. 14, 1915, at age 59. 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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