Leafing Through History

by Steve Kastorff

 With February being designated Black History month, it seems appropriate to honor the ties that Geneseo has with a few famous people who have visited the Maple City. One was Olympic Sprinter, Jesse Owens, who visited Geneseo twice to speak with the young athletes of the town.  The second was Booker T. Washington who spoke in town during the annual Chautauqua. 

   Booker T. Washington was born on April 5, 1856, in Franklin County, Virginia in a slave hut.  Washington’s mother was a slave who cooked on a tobacco plantation and his father was a white man who Washington never knew.  At the end of the Civil War, plantation owner James Burrough’s slaves were set free, including nine years old Washington.  As Washington grew older he went to work in the local coal mines to earn money to pay for his schooling.

   At the age of 25, Washington moved to Alabama to become the president and principal of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, which is now known as Tuskegee University.  Washington went to Tuskegee Institute because he believed that Black Americans could improve their lives by learning a vocational trade and by working hard at that trade.  Later, the school became famous during World War II as the training school for the Tuskegee Airmen.

   While in his leadership role at the school, Washington hired George Washington Carver to teach the agriculture classes.  The school grew during that time to enroll up to 1,500 African-American students.  Also during this time of growth, Washington supported the building of over 5,000 schools across the deep south for Black students. 

   Between 1890-1915, Washington became the dominant leader in the Black community.   Washington’s vision was to promote vocational training to improve the quality of life for all Blacks.  Through his educational leadership career, Washington did not protest or challenge the political systems to promote change.  Instead he promoted self-improvement through individual hard work to make life better for all no matter which part of the United States they were from. 

   Washington became an advisor to two Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.  During his time as an advisor Washington became the first African-American to be invited to the White House for dinner.

   Later, Washington joined the national speaking circuit to promote his school and social improvements.  The most popular circuit to speak on was the Chautauqua.  The National Chautauqua movement began in the state of New York as a way to offer secular as well as religious instruction.  Chautauquas were to be non-political and non-sectarian so that all topics could be discussed freely.  Most of the Chautauquas would last 10 days and were held during the summer months throughout the Midwest.  These events were held in a large tent, and during the evening hours so all could attend and the air would be a littler cooler.  Chautauquas would peak in attendance during 1924.

   The Geneseo Chautauqua committee had scheduled Washington to be the keynote speaker during the 1913 Chautauqua.  Washington spoke on Sunday August 10, 1913.  Washington presented his hour and half speech to a full tent that day.  This speech was just like his other speeches that summer covering the importance of education and democracy in the United States.  The Chautauqua speaking circuit allowed speakers to travel the nation.  With the help of each town’s Chautauqua organizing committee, each speaker set the price that helped them earn money for their cause.  By the time Washington spoke in Geneseo, he was the highest paid speaker attending Chautauquas.  One such event in 1905 paid Washington $300 for his speech.

   Washington would keep his role as President of Tuskegee until his death in 1915 at the age of 59.  Washington’s death happened just two years after he spoke in Geneseo.

Geneseo's Chautauqua tent
Booker T. Washington