Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington might have met at the Chicago World’s Fair

(Michael Hogue)

Imagine the tension in the room. One room, two men: Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, face to face during the busy and exciting World’s Columbian Exposition in the summer of 1893, history hanging on their every word.

The significance of that summer’s exposition in Chicago is well established. We know Douglass and Washington attended and gave speeches before large crowds. What remains unexamined: just how much contact took place between the two of them during the event.

No record exists of a private conversation having taken place. But if it did, consider what we would learn about each man, their effect on our world. What might have come from this Chicago World’s Fair version of the 2013 Kemp Powers play turned film “One Night In Miami”?


Nothing that year rivaled the exposition. From every corner of the world, 19th-century visitors came for a glimpse into the 20th, and to share the glory of the moment. The Chicago History Museum collected 22,000,000 artifacts from it.

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Douglass and Washington stood among the brightest stars in the constellation of celebrities and personalities attending. Douglass, by then an old lion with a wiry, graying mane, addressed a large gathering on August 25. In the audience, his grandson, a soon-to-be celebrated concert violinist. Douglass’ fiery address noted the lack of substantive African American participation in the expo, and the use of ethnological exhibits to “portray” African villages.

Douglass, in sweeping oratory, never faltered in indicting his fellow Americans for not living up to the promises of the Declaration of Independence. That day in Chicago, historian David Chesebrough has written, Douglass started his talk while heckled by a small group of white onlookers, but as his booming voice rippled across the sea of listeners, the heckling subsided.


“There is no Negro problem,” Douglass proclaimed. “The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own Constitution.”

Douglass gave voice to the frustrations of an estimated 8 million Blacks and an untold number of whites.

The exposition marked a key moment in his final years. For decades, Douglass stood tall as the most recognized Black voice in America. Within three years, he would die, his place on the national stage filled by Washington.


Washington spoke at the International Labor Congress held in conjunction with the exposition. His careful, conciliatory address foreshadowed what he would say before another massive audience in Atlanta in 1895, insisting, “All the Negro asks of the world of labor is a fair chance.” That address, now referred to by historians as the “Atlanta Compromise,” constituted a dramatic departure from anything Douglass had expressed in Chicago.

Both Douglass and crusading African-American journalist Ida B. Wells disliked his comments, but made no public mention of their dispute with his address.

The speeches of the two men mark more than time. They signify a transfer at the helm of Black American leadership — a shift between two distinctly different approaches for dealing with the still young nation’s seemingly intractable troubles with race.

Washington urged Blacks to join the world of work and pledge to whites that in hiring them, they could comfortably work together but exist as separately as the fingers on a hand.

In the time between the two speeches, the Plessy vs. Ferguson legal case was winding its way through the courts toward a U.S. Supreme Court ruling endorsing the legal doctrine of “separate but equal.” Antonin Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” premiered, including its now famous adagio taken from Negro spirituals. Overseas, racism played a very real role in the arrest, trial and conviction of French army Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, who was Jewish, for alleged treason.

Would any of those events have tempted Washington to alter his message between Chicago in 1893 and Atlanta in 1895? Again, one wonders, if any private meeting did take place between Douglass and Washington, would their disagreement over battling discrimination have come up? And if so, how would each respond to the other?

If we could ask them today, how would they view the different methods of continuing their struggle, undertaken by men and women like Marcus Garvey, Marian Anderson, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mary McLeod Bethune, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., and by the larger evolving American society?

Surely both Douglass and Washington would have a shared sense of satisfaction in seeing our world different from their own — signs designating separate waiting rooms, separate drinking fountains and restrooms nowhere to be found. Poll taxes relegated to the history books. They would cheer such landmark societal transformations as the election of a Black president and the end of the once legally supported principle of separate but equal.


And yet, beneath the veneer of equal treatment, such current practices as gerrymandering, disenrolling voters and on-the-job discrimination would soon draw both Washington and Douglass’ attention and concern.

Douglass would quickly restate his critical query whether his fellow Americans, “have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution?”

Washington’s eye would focus more on the need for still more education of Black youngsters and continued development of Black-owned businesses.

It would lead them to agree their work has not finished.


Real history has always consisted of much more than dates, places or a schedule of events. Sometimes it can arise from a momentary encounter shared for all eternity — a moment like the one that could have taken place in Chicago in the summer of 1893.

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