Booker T. Washington received a rude welcome in Akron.
Invited to present a series of lectures in September 1909, the acclaimed orator, educator and author ran into a roadblock at the front desk of the Buchtel Hotel at Main and Mill streets downtown.
Hotel owner Don Goodwin had left instructions that the distinguished visitor not be permitted to check in to a room that had been reserved for him. It was against the hotel’s policies to admit a black man as a guest.
On the job for only a month, assistant manager John Sieber followed the order and created a national incident in rebuffing the founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
“I had been told that Washington, accompanied by a number of white ministers, would call to arrange accommodations,” Sieber recalled decades later. “I discussed the matter with Goodwin, who told me to turn Washington down.
“I told Goodwin I would refuse accommodations if he would back me up. When the delegation arrived, I frankly told Dr. Washington that the hotel could not entertain him. Washington smiled, turned without a word and sauntered out.”
The entourage was furious. The Rev. Howard MacAyeal, the pastor of First Congregational Church, had made the arrangements after inviting Washington to Akron.
“It is an outrage,” said the Rev. J.M. Wheeler, pastor of the A.M.E. Zion Church in Akron. “A man who occupies the high position that Booker T. Washington does should not be met with such prejudice. He was invited here by the white people.”
U.S. Sen. Charles Dick, a Republican from Akron, learned of the uproar and offered his West Hill home to Washington. It was pointed out that President Theodore Roosevelt had welcomed Washington for dinner at the White House. Surely the Buchtel Hotel could make an exception.
But it did not.
“For a time, we thought the hotel would be sued, but nothing came of it,” Sieber recalled. “I received about 500 letters from all parts of the country — those from the Deep South praising me — and hundreds from the North literally taking my hide off.
“I had no feeling in the matter. Personally, I would have been as willing to accept Dr. Washington as any other guest.”
The senator's kind offer was politely declined because another room had been found. The Rev. MacAyeal went to the Empire House at Main and Market streets, where proprietor Truman L. Firestone, a Civil War veteran, greeted Washington as a guest.
If anything, the controversy generated interest in Washington’s lectures that Sunday. He spoke to capacity crowds at 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 19 at First Congregational Church. He also addressed a Presbyterian congregation in Canton and made a brief stop at the Allegheny and Ohio Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church at Akron’s Wesley Temple.
In introducing Washington, Senator Dick noted that it had been 40 years since the emancipation of slaves.
“In all of those 40 years, the most helpful leader, the most practical thinker and the producer of the most substantial results for the advancement of that race has been Booker Washington,” Dick said. “I know of no better work being done anywhere for God or humanity and for country than his.”
Washington described growing up on a Virginia plantation during slavery. He was born about 1856 but he didn't know the year. He was about 53 when he visited Akron.
“My earliest recollection is of living in a cabin with my mother,” he told a First Congregational audience. “I remember the day at the close of the war when we were called to the master’s house, and a paper was read to us by a man on the veranda. My mother leaned over and told me that we were free.”
In a voice that the Beacon Journal described as “high pitched but strong and clear,” Washington traced his life from the coal mines of West Virginia to the wharves of Richmond to the classrooms in Hampton, Virginia.
In 1881, Alabama lawmakers agreed to establish a school for black students, and Washington, by then a Hampton educator, was recommended to run Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, now called Tuskegee University.
By the early 20th century, Tuskegee taught nearly 40 trades, including farming, carpentry, blacksmithing and electrical engineering.
“I was born a slave and want to do all that is possible for the betterment of my race,” Washington told Akron. “Our little town of Tuskegee, Alabama, is made up of about 3,000 Negroes, and it’s the only place in the United States where a colored girl will answer you when you call central on the telephone exchange.
“We have a railroad of our own, and although it’s only a mile long, it’s just as wide and just as good as the Erie. We started farming with one hoe and a blind mule. Now our students take care of 1,000 acres of land a year.
“My sole ambition is to teach the Negro that labor is dignifying and not degrading.”
Washington said 10 million black people lived in the United States, mostly in the South. It was not their fault that they were “dropped down among the white race,” he said.
He championed an education “of the right kind,” such as that provided to 12,000 Tuskegee graduates, to uplift the populace from ignorance and poverty.
“Some people think that my idea is to sacrifice the needs of the white man for the Negro,” Washington said. “But that has not been my view of the matter. I want to help everyone, regardless of his color or race.”
Washington bid farewell and retired to his room at the Empire House.
The great orator never returned to Akron. He died Nov. 14, 1915, at Tuskegee, his place in American history secure.
The Buchtel Hotel crumbled over the decades until it was condemned in 1945 as a firetrap. Supplanted by the Mayflower and Portage, the old inn had turned into a tenement house for nearly 60 transients who were evicted before the building was razed. Its manager was John Sieber, the desk clerk who had blocked Booker T. Washington in 1909.
“The building is in pretty bad shape now,” Sieber admitted.
In truth, it had lost its integrity long before that.
Mark J. Price can be reached at email@example.com or 330-996-3850.