On a bright New Year's day in 1903 Booker T. Washington and his White secretary Max Thrasher arrived in Los Angeles by train from Alabama. This would be Washington's first visit to the far West where the atmosphere was nowhere near the racially charged environment of the Deep South.
It would be eleven years before he returned to California to stay at the celebrated and historic Mission Inn in Riverside. Although the two visits were each two weeks long, the 1914 southern California visit was much less intense and at a slower pace. Between the two visits, his impact had deepened. In both the Los Angeles area and in the San Francisco Bay area civic leaders gave Washingtons name to community institutions.
In the first half of the twentieth century no other African-American in California was so honored. Citizens of the all Black town of Allensworth, Tulare County, contemplated naming both a lake and a park after Washington. Unfortunately, Allensworth did not prosper and survive, but Washingtons image did. The reason are not hard to find. on a day in March 1914, with the Mission Inns Music Room filled to capacity, the speaker introducing Washington quoted multi-millionaire railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington who had called Washington The wisest man of this age. Huntington was not the first to speak so glowingly about him. Many similar public statements were made about him on his 1903 visit.
When Black and White Californians first met Washington in 1903, they were looking at a man who was already quite famous. His 1895 Atlanta Georgia Exposition speech that called for racial collaboration in building the economy of the South without altering race relations made him a national figure. He became even better known six years later, in 1901 when Theodore Roosevelt, a liberal Republican invited Washington to dinner at the White House.
The controversy started by southern newspapers over that White House dinner made front-page news all across the country. But when Washington stepped off the train in Los Angeles, he was welcomed by a friendly crown that included the state leadership of the teachers association, photographers, and autograph seekers. When the enthusiastic reception ended, he and Thrasher headed for their hotel. In those days there were no adequate Black owned hotels and the white hotels did not take African-American guests. The fame of Washington could break through some of this but not entirely. The Hollonbeck Hotel of Los Angeles had been persuaded to give him lodging but only on condition that he eat in his room. A San Francisco newspaper treated Los Angeles with sarcasm over this incident. When Washington arrived in San Francisco a week later, he had no such problems. Northern California was a bit less racist than southern California in 1903.
Washington was at the start of a two week whirlwind tour of California to raise funds for Tuskegee Institute. He was advised that California would be generous and when he was through making public appearances for two weeks at churches, colleges, universities, and public meeting halls, the results exceeded his expectations.
It was in Southern California that he started this tour and it involved a great variety of experiences and contacts. The public received him thunderously. When he addressed the most prominent womans club in Los Angeles, a local paper claimed that the audience received him with greater fervor than President McKinley received when he visited the city a few years earlier.
Freemont Older, the progressive editor of the SAN FRANCISCO BULLETIN thought that Washingtons visit to the west was important enough to deserve journalistic coverage even before he arrived in San Francisco. Older sent one of his top reporters, Grant Wallace, to cover Washington in southern California. Wallace joined the Washington entourage on the train to ontario from Los Angeles where Washington was scheduled to speak at a Methodist Church.
On the train Wallaces interview with Washington left the reporter profoundly impressed. In a few days San Francisco readers of the BULLETIN were reading under Wallace's byline, "Who is the greatest living American:" and Wallace answered himself saying, "Tonight I am inclined to wipe...all names off my slate and write at the very top the name of a Negro." He continued to say, he constructs. He creates. He builds a system, a hope. Compared with him...your grasping captains of industry, your puny generals and admirals who strut and kill are a pocketful of darkness alongside the life giving sun. These were the words that San Franciscans read days before Washington arrived in Northern California. Washingtons ride with Wallace on the way to ontario was not without its lighter moments.
Seated behind Wallace and Washington on the train to ontario was a colorfully dressed Mexican. When word spread through the train that the famous Booker T. Washington was in one of the cars, crowds came streaming through and surrounded the Mexican. Wallace reported that Washington, who was plainly dressed, was extremely amused by the confusion. What the Mexican gentleman thought is anybody's guess.
By the time Washington arrived in ontario, he found that all the stores and banks, to encourage attendance, had closed for the hours during which he was scheduled to speak. At the Methodist Church the crowds were so dense that some people placed ladders against the church so they could climb up to the church windows to hear Washingtons speech. This kind of scene repeated itself time and time again during this first trip of Washington to California.
On his return to Los Angeles from Orange Country, he had an important meeting with the leadership of the African-American community. A Black delegation met him at the train and escorted him to Simpsons Pavilion, the setting for most important events in Los Angeles in those years. The meeting was organized by African-Americans for their own people but many Whites attended. Simpson's Pavilion had a capacity of 3000 and the Los Angeles population in 1903 was about 2000; yet the place was packed.
The LOS ANGELES HERALD wrote, "White and Black sit side to side and listen to the southern orator." Speaking of the Blacks in the audience, the paper went on to say "Few lecturers have faced a more attractive or better dressed audience." This was in sharp contrast to the image of Blacks in the racist comic strips in the daily press. At Simpson's Pavilion Washington's speech complimented the African-Americans of Los Angeles for their achievements in material matters and urged them to continue to accumulate things in a practical matter. He made much of improving matters in this world rather than saving for elaborate preparations for the next. The evening concluded with the 140 guests retiring for a banquet where there were more speeches and a collection for Tuskegee.
A few days later Washington was the guest of Robert Owens, a member of the best known and wealthiest of the Los Angeles African-American families. They were the third generation members of the coming together of the Roberts Owens and Biddy Mason families of the gold rush era. Wise investments by the ex-slave grandmother Biddy Mason had a great deal to do with the prosperity of the Owens-Mason family. At the time when Washington was the guest of the Owens, the Los Angeles Black population was on the verge of becoming larger than that of the Bay area.
Washington had several more speaking engagements in southern California. Each one of them was a triumph with good result for the fortunes of Tuskegee. He was soon to conclude his week in southern California and do a week in northern California where his oratorical triumphs would be repeated time and time again. And there were some subtle differences between his performances in these two parts of California. At this turn of the century period a good number of whites from the former Confederate states had settled in southern California; Washington was intuitively sensitive to such a matter and adjusted his choice of words accordingly.
What he found in northern California was speaking opportunities organized by Congregationalists and Unitarians with the aid of some liberal Jews. Congregationalists and Unitarians were the liberals of Protestant Christianity. He spoke in northern California to huge audiences of University students at Stanford and at the University of California at Berkeley. He also spoke to the now famous Mills College in Oakland. In this environment he must have felt that he could speak more openly without the fears he might have had in Alabama where all spoken words must be certain not to offend the racist sensibilities of southerners.
In California he allowed himself to tell stories and give illustrations that implicitly called for equality with and not subordination to the white race. one of his stories to college women utilized the fame and brilliance of Frederick Douglass to suggest the great potential of all African Americans.
To the Unitarians he said that he teaches his people that the foundation of their prosperity must be in the soil and in mechanical achievements but in the same speech he said that, "I would set no limit upon the development of the Negro in any direction."
In 1903 the LOS ANGELES DAILY HERALD, a white newspaper, wrote editorially, "His avowed purpose is not merely to introduce book learning among his race in the south but to fit his people, in all respects, for equality with the white race." The HERALD wrote this with approval. one of the consequences of Washingtons two weeks in California was the bursting sense of pride that African-Americans felt about him as well as themselves. They saw and heard thousands of whites, young and old, and of both sexes applauding and cheering him. In that day and age in the south whites were heaping every form of disrespect upon Blacks and the cheering was for lynchings. The respect and admiration that whites in California gave to this eloquent Black man was intoxicating to California Blacks.
The African-American weekly PACIFIC COAST APPEAL printed on its front page an article written by Abraham Lincoln Dennis, the son of one of the venerated gold rush area Black leaders George Washington Dennis, A.L. Dennis wrote, "The direct purpose of Mr. Washington's visit to California was to raise funds for the school at Tuskegee and if he accomplished his desire in this matter, his successes along this line are not to be compared with the immeasurable benefits derived from building up of the avalanche of favorable sentiment of the people of the press in California.
(Authors Note: This is an abstract of a work in progress.)
Dr. Rudolph Lapp is recognized as an expert on Blacks in California. He has authored Blacks in Gold Mining California and is currently working on a new project examining Washingtons California visits.