As we continue to celebrate Black History Month, it is important to look back and highlight influential figures that contributed to the Michigan State community. Although his visit to the university was short, the famous Booker T. Washington left a lasting impact at Michigan State. Washington was the dominant figure in the African American community from 1900 until his death in 1915. Throughout his time of black advocacy, he had the support of all races and classes and was able to serve the community in a very influential way. While serving as the principal of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama, he started becoming in contact with MAC’s President Snyder.
President Snyder was an important advocate for a strong definition of MAC’s mission and its role in the state. He strongly believed in the land grant philosophy that aimed to empower the sons and daughters of the state’s industrial classes. President Snyder began to contact Booker T. Washington, who also had the same philosophy regarding land grant institutions. He asked Washington if he would be able to speak at the commencement ceremony on June 16, 1899; Washington agreed, but ended up cancelling the speech in April. His friends planned for him a trip to Europe and as he was to sail out from New York on May 3rd, he wouldn’t be back in time for the speech.
The following year, Snyder asked again, and Washington agreed and promised that he would definitely deliver the speech this year. On June 15, 1900, Booker T. Washington delivered the commencement speech at MAC entitled “Solving the Negro Problem in the Black Belt of the South”. In this speech he identified the basic tenets of the land grant philosophy of education and stressed that intellectual and vocational education worked together to improve the human condition. Furthermore, he spoke of the importance of equal rights for Negro students. This commencement speech was considered very important for the students of MAC. While most students did come from poor or middle class families, they had yet to experience the effects of racism, for the university at this time was primarily white. Washington’s speech highlighted the importance of treating everyone with equal rights, especially in agricultural education, despite their race or social class. Washington stated:
“From the beginning of time, agriculture has constituted the main foundation upon which all races have grown useful and strong”
Washington continued to stay in contact with MAC up until his death in 1915. The University Archives & Historical Collections has a series of correspondences from Washington to the school asking about any black graduates for he had positions open at the Tuskegee Institute, as well as correspondences merely just to stay in contact with the school. Washington’s speech resonated with the student body and administration. It was at this point that we begin to see the black student presence at MAC escalate and start to thrive at the university.