Friday, May 13, 2022

A Curious Choice

Faded image of first page of Booker T. Washington letter to Dartmouth PresidentTucker.
On September 24th and 25th, 1901, Dartmouth threw a big gala event to celebrate the Webster Centennial. It was a big deal with dignitaries from all over the country descending on Dartmouth, speeches, parades, a recap of the last century of Dartmouth's history, a football game pitting alumni against students, a bonfire, and lots of cooing over how great Daniel Webster was. There was a also a special commencement to confer honorary degrees on a select group of people, among them Booker T. Washington.

Washington was a curious choice, perhaps inspired by then President Tucker's modern liberalism. You see, Daniel Webster is most famous as a great orator, fierce lawyer, and as a U.S. Senator who could get bill passed. Less talked about is his infamy for rousing the votes needed to pass the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. That law forced federal officers to capture and return runaway enslaved people in Northern States and made it a crime to assist those enslaved persons whom had fled to the North. As you can imagine, the law was hated in the North, but Webster, seeking to preserve the Union, saw fit to give the speech that persuaded enough Senators to pass the bill. So here is Tucker, celebrating Webster's legacy by conferring an honorary doctorate on the most well-known civil rights leader in the United States who had been born into slavery. He must have known exactly what he was doing--a moment of symbolic resistance among the celebrations.

Second page of Washington letter featuring his signature

To see the letter Washington wrote to Tucker to accept the invitation to the Centennial, ask for MS 901557.1. The D has a great account of the festivities in the September 27th, 1901 issue on our reference shelves.