Booker T. Washington, born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in 1856, had gone on to a brilliant career in education. As head of what was then the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama, Washington had taken a struggling school with one teacher and fewer than 50 students and transformed it into the world headquarters for black education. Where there was any opportunity for reaching his people, no audience was too remote for his message of advancement.
Not even Salt Lake City, where he spent two days in March 1913, giving five major speeches and meeting with civic leaders privately and in public receptions.
Washington’s first speech was before hundreds of school teachers and administrators meeting in the First Methodist Church. Noting that “only 50 years and a few months” had passed since the Emancipation Proclamation, Washington challenged any civilization to match the progress made by America’s blacks since gaining their freedom.
“At that time only three per cent could read and write, none owned property, none paid taxes, none entertained ambitions for advancement,” he noted. By 1913, 68 percent could both read and write, “a far greater percentage than Russia, Spain, Italy or Portugal can boast.”
Blacks, he reported, were becoming “an important factor in the south. Today they own upwards of 20,000 acres of land in the south and in the single state of Geogia they pay taxes on $34,000,000 worth of property.”
He praised the character of Tuskegee students as “marvelous. It is a fact that only two of the hundreds of graduates of Tuskegee have ever been sentenced to imprisonment for misbehavior of any nature. This is a record of which any school could be proud, and which few can equal.”
Washington gave essentially the same speech to students at the University of Utah. Following lunch with the university president and a musical recital in his honor at the Mormon Tabernacle, he repeated his address before the students of the LDS University (located on the east side of the block where today’s Church Office Building is sited). Each audience greeted him “with hearty applause.”
His final Utah speech was made at the Methodist church, this time before a primarily black audience. This speech was longer and more pointed than the earlier ones. He praised Salt Lake’s black women as “exceptionally intelligent,” participants in a fine Art and Music Club. But he regretted the lack of a chamber of commerce to promote and sustain black-owned businesses.
He regretted the existence of a club house “where the men are encouraged to drink and gamble. It seems that they cannot throw away their money fast enough, but in order to help it along they rent a house for $150 a month for the purpose of helping them to dispose with their money faster.” Washington spoke to them “plainly about this mistake, and I believe that a change for the better will take place.”
Washington’s views on Utah and her people were just as candid when he later published them in New York City:
“I have been spending two of the busiest days that I have ever spent in my life in Utah. They have been mighty interesting days, and I have seen some mighty interesting people.”
He drew two parallels between his own people and Utah’s Mormons. The first was a common heritage of persecution. “The second parallel is this: These people, I am sure, have been misrepresented. There are many people who consider themselves wise on the condition of the Negroes, who are really afraid to go into a Negro home, who never go into a Negro church or Sunday School, who have never met Negro people in any social circle; hence such people know little about us. The same, I am convinced, is true regarding the Mormons.”