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Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619–1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Rob Fink


As African Americans fought racial prejudice in the United States following the Civil War, some black leaders proposed a strategy of accommodation. The idea of accommodation called for African Americans to work with whites and accept some discrimination in an effort to achieve economic success and physical security. The idea proved controversial: many black leaders opposed accommodation as counterproductive.

Booker T. Washington served as the champion of accommodation. Born a slave in 1856, Washington received a degree from the Hampton Institute before being invited to head up the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. At Tuskegee, Washington used industrial education to promote accommodation by African Americans. Because of his background, Washington recognized the difficulties faced by southern blacks in their quest for civil rights. He knew firsthand that during the 1860s and 1870s whites in the South found it hard to accept African Americans as free. No one argued against the end of slavery, but most whites in the former Confederacy actively opposed black civil rights. Southern whites wanted to keep African Americans as a laboring force and as second-class citizens, and they passed laws, known as the black codes, designed to reinforce racial subjugation.

Washington understood the strong racial prejudice that still existed in the South. His approach to accommodation was designed to appease the white establishment while steadily promoting African American rights. By deferring to whites and playing the role of a second-class citizen in the company of southern whites, Washington was able to promote himself and his ideas. He also allied with southern white planters and businessmen against the poorer classes. Blacks tended to be used as strikebreakers, since they were denied membership in most labor unions. These actions helped win over many industrialists to support opportunities for African Americans. At the same time, however, Washington's accommodation approach isolated black workers in relation to white workers, who saw the African Americans as strikebreakers.

Washington's views on accommodation were common among black southerners during the last half of the nineteenth century. Every day, African American laborers and sharecroppers deferred to the system of racial segregation in the South in order to work and provide for their families. Even the black politicians who were elected to state and national political offices during Reconstruction, including Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce, the first two African Americans elected to the U.S. Senate, found themselves taking up an accommodation role. While Revels and Bruce worked to introduce legislation to protect African American rights, the two senators usually voted with the leaders of the Republican Party.

Because of his position as president of Tuskegee, Washington was asked to give an address at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895. The speech, which became known as the “Atlanta Compromise,” outlined the idea of African American accommodation. In his autobiography Washington recounted that he promoted friendship and cooperation between the races as a means of acquiring civil rights. He urged whites to give blacks opportunities in agriculture, mechanics, and commerce. He downplayed the necessity of social equality, instead claiming that African Americans sought economic unity. Washington finished by stating that through their work blacks proved themselves vital to the South and its economy, earning respect from whites and thus achieving equal rights. He told his audience, “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.”

Washington's ideas received some support among African Americans. In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass urged African Americans to stay in the South, which was dependent on black labor. Like Washington, Douglass felt that this dependence provided an advantage for African Americans. Black labor touched the South economically and thus was a more powerful force than any protest, fight, or political action.

Not every African American leader agreed with the practice of accommodation. The civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois, who had a PhD from Harvard, was the most prominent critic. Du Bois openly challenged Washington in his book The Souls of Black Folk, in which he argued that accommodation failed to support African American civil rights and higher education. He believed that blacks should pursue social and political equality as well as a classical education. As citizens, Du Bois argued, African Americans deserved immediate equality and he stated that they should help themselves, not rely on assistance from whites. According to Du Bois, Washington and other supporters of accommodation hurt efforts for equal rights by accepting second-class status.

By the twentieth century the practice of accommodation had fallen out of vogue. More African Americans supported the ideas of leaders like Du Bois. While Washington's views no longer remained popular, they held merit. Through accommodation, freed slaves established themselves in a hostile world. Washington and the policy of accommodation received support from white Americans; this, in turn, allowed African Americans to achieve some recognition of civil rights, which might not have occurred during the late 1800s. The idea also influenced later generations of black leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and his practice of nonviolent protest. Accommodation, though, remains a controversial topic, praised by some leaders and condemned by others.

See also Bruce, Blanche Kelso; Civil Rights; Discrimination; Douglass, Frederick; Economic Life; Education; Reconstruction; Republican Party; Washington, Booker T; and Work.


Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). London: Wordsworth, 1996.Find this resource:

    Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1963.Find this resource:

      Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery. New York: Penguin, 1986.Find this resource:

        Rob Fink