Compromise Speech

Booker T. Washington Delivers the 1895 Atlanta

Compromise Speech

Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Board of Directors and Citizens:

Not only this, but the opportunity here afforded will awaken among us a new era of industrial progress.

Ignorant and inexperienced, it is not strange that in the first years of our new life we began at the top

instead of at the bottom; that a seat in Congress or the state legislature was more sought than real estate or

industrial skill; that the political convention or stump speaking had more attractions than starting a dairy

farm or truck garden.

A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate

vessel was seen a signal,“Water, water; we die of thirst!” The answer from the friendly vessel at once

came back, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” A second time the signal, “Water, water; send us

water!” ran up from the distressed vessel, and was answered, “Cast down your bucket where you are.”

And a third and fourth signal for water was answered, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” The

captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of

fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River. To those of my race who depend on bettering

their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations

with the Southern white man, who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: “Cast down your bucket

where you are”— cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom

we are surrounded.

Cast it down in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions. And in

this connection it is well to bear in mind that whatever other sins the South may be called to bear, when it

comes to business, pure and simple, it is in the South that the Negro is given a man’s chance in the

commercial world, and in nothing is this Exposition more eloquent than in emphasizing this chance. Our

greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses

of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in

proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour, and put brains and skill into the common

occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the

substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful. No race can prosper till it learns that there is

as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at

the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.

To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and

habits for the prosperity of the South, were I permitted I would repeat what I say to my own race,“Cast

down your bucket where you are.” Cast it down among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you

know, whose fidelity and love you have tested in days when to have proved treacherous meant the ruin of

your firesides. Cast down your bucket among these people who have, without strikes and labour wars,

tilled your fields, cleared your forests, builded your railroads and cities, and brought forth treasures from

the bowels of the earth, and helped make possible this magnificent representation of the progress of the

South. Casting down your bucket among my people, helping and encouraging them as you are doing on

these grounds, and to education of head, hand, and heart, you will find that they will buy your surplus

land, make blossom the waste places in your fields, and run your factories. While doing this, you can be

sure in the future, as in the past, that you and your families will be surrounded by the most patient,

faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen. As we have proved our loyalty to

you in the past, in nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers, and often

following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand

by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense

of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall

make the interests of both races one. In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the

fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.

Nearly sixteen millions of hands will aid you in pulling the load upward, or they will pull against you the

load downward. We shall constitute one-third and more of the ignorance and crime of the South, or one-

third [of] its intelligence and progress; we shall contribute one-third to the business and industrial

prosperity of the South, or we shall prove a veritable body of death, stagnating, depressing, retarding

every effort to advance the body politic.

Gentlemen of the Exposition, as we present to you our humble effort at an exhibition of our progress, you

must not expect overmuch. Starting thirty years ago with ownership here and there in a few quilts and

pumpkins and chickens (gathered from miscellaneous sources), remember the path that has led from these

to the inventions and production of agricultural implements, buggies, steam-engines, newspapers, books,

statuary, carving, paintings, the management of drug stores and banks, has not been trodden without

contact with thorns and thistles. While we take pride in what we exhibit as a result of our independent

efforts, we do not for a moment forget that our part in this exhibition would fall far short of your

expectations but for the constant help that has come to our educational life, not only from the Southern

states, but especially from Northern philanthropists, who have made their gifts a constant stream of

blessing and encouragement. In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet

one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.

The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest

folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of

severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. No race that has anything to contribute to the

markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. It is important and right that all privileges of the

law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The

opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a

dollar in an opera-house.

In conclusion, may I repeat that nothing in thirty years has given us more hope and encouragement, and

drawn us so near to you of the white race, as this opportunity offered by the Exposition; and here bending,

as it were, over the altar that represents the results of the struggles of your race and mine, both starting

practically empty-handed three decades ago, I pledge that in your effort to work out the great and intricate

problem which God has laid at the doors of the South, you shall have at all times the patient, sympathetic

help of my race; only let this he constantly in mind, that, while from representations in these buildings of

the product of field, of forest, of mine, of factory, letters, and art, much good will come, yet far above and

beyond material benefits will be that higher good, that, let us pray God, will come, in a blotting out of

sectional differences and racial animosities and suspicions, in a determination to administer absolute

justice, in a willing obedience among all classes to the mandates of law. This, coupled with our material

prosperity, will bring into our beloved South a new heaven and a new earth.

Source: Louis R. Harlan, ed., The Booker T. Washington Papers, Vol. 3, (Urbana: University of Illinois

Press, 1974), 583–587.