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Booker T. in Riverside

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The great American educator Booker T. Washington began an extremely busy day in Riverside o­n Sunday March 23, 1914, at the new First Congregation Church.  He gave three major presentations that day and at each he drew tremendous crowds.

The tall, average appearing black man had become a modern-day hero to all Americans. From his humble beginnings as a slave, Washington had earned his respected reputation as an exceptional educator, a true reformer, and had acquired the honorary privilege of being addressed as Dr. Washington.

Washington's first audience saw him as ordinary until he began to speak.  His excellent voice, clear diction and sincere attitude captivated everyone in the building. In a straight forward manner he told of his birth o­n a Virginia plantation, not revealing the date or place but displaying a keen sense of humor, he noted, "However, I am sure I was born somewhere."

He recalled a small cabin with a dirt floor where he lived with his mother until they headed for a better life in West Virginia. He found work as a coal miner's helper and at the same time, he started attending night school to learn to read and write. Some coal miners told him about General Chapman Armstrong's school in Hampton, Virginia and he walked some five hundred miles to enroll in the school. Washington's description of the school was reported verbatim:

"Samuel Chapman Armstrong had been a Brigadier General in the Union Army and after the war he worked as an agent for the Freedman's Bureau. This bureau was the result of a congressional commission charged with helping the homeless and penniless freed slaves. As a result of his work, General Armstrong founded the Hampton Normal and Industrial Institute to help educate these displaced people. Besides educational classes, he set up a variety of vocational courses that were thought to be practical and useful.  Later, this coeducational college became known as the Hampton Institute with a long list of graduates that became outstanding citizens."

The audience at the First Congregational Church easily detected Washington’s pride in being o­ne of these graduates. Washington went o­n to tell how he started a small school in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1881. He and another teacher had the use of an old, neglected building and here they first taught twenty students both academic and practical subjects in order to get them employment.
"After the school grew in size and importance," said Washington, "I invited George Washington Carver to join our staff in 1896. The agricultural chemist was working then o­n the idea of rotating crops to enrich the soil and I am proud to say the renowned scientist is a close friend."

When Washington concluded his first talk at the church, he was applauded and congratulated for his years of educational work. He then went straight to a second talk at the Second Baptist Church o­n Twelfth and Howard Streets where crowds of people from the black communities of not o­nly Riverside, but San Bernardino and Redlands congregated. Church delegations from the other towns and cities helped fill the church to over-flowing with crowds standing outside to get a glimpse of the educator and their idol. The choir sang two songs at Washington’s request: Old Time Religion and Old Black Joe.

After the music, Washington proceeded to tell his listeners what he had discovered o­n a recent trip to Europe. He said that in Italy, o­nly thirty percent of the population could read or write and that in other countries, such as Spain, Portugal, and Russia, the percentage of illiteracy was considerably higher. He pointed out that these countries were centuries old but had not advanced very far for their age. With great pride, he told his audience of African Americans, former slaves and descendants of slaves, "We as a new race, are o­nly fifty years of age and we have o­ne great advantage. Its future is before it. When Lincoln freed us, o­nly three percent could read or write. Now nearly seventy percent of all American Negroes can both read and write." Washington's emphasis o­n education was well received as the congregation nodded their heads and chanted their approval.

Sometime during that busy March day, Frank Miller took Washington to the top of Mount Rubidoux to show him the panoramic view of the valley. It must have been a welcome break for the distinguished visitor who that evening gave his third and final talk of the day. Every seat in the Mission Inn's Music Room was occupied long before the scheduled program. Miller introduced the guest speaker with a quote from railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington who referred to Washington as "the wisest men of the age."

When Washington addressed the large crowd he emphasized the importance of education again. He said, "The public schools in the south cannot afford proper educational facilities for my people and in many sections, o­nly two or three months of schooling are available. My race is a new race and we need a chance to educate our people to read and write." He talked about some of the work accomplished by his school and then concluded his program in the same manner as he had the others that day. He asked for pledges and donations to his school, the Tuskegee Institute, in order to continue the good work of educating children and teaching them skills to obtain a better life. Everyone stood up to sing the Star Spangled Banner and after the song, people greeted Washington and offered donations. The next day, he went o­n to another town seeking funds for his school.

Dr. Booker T. Washington died a year later in November 1915. He was fifty-nine years old. Miller wished to commemorate the educator and made arrangements for a memorial service to take place in Riverside. Miller invited the public to attend an evening service in the Music Room o­n November 17. Riverside’s Mayor, Oscar Ford, welcomed the sizable crowd that came to honor Washington’s memory. The devotional service was conducted by the Reverend Horace Porter of the Congregational Church. In all probability, Miller arranged the service as he was a long-time member of Riverside's First Congregational Church.

The highlight of the evening was the presentation by Mrs. Edward (Alice) Streeter who profiled the important events in Washington's life. Some years before, she had presented her story to a large conference held in the East and Washington was so impressed that he had her read her paper to his Tuskegee Institute. It was a fitting tribute for Mrs. Streeter to share her story of such an eloquent and impassioned man with his many Riverside admirers.
 
Source: Written by Joan Hall, Through the Doors of the Mission Inn (Highgrove Publishing)

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