In 1910, Booker T. Washington and the University of Chicago sociologist Robert Park set out for Europe. Their goal was to determine what was propelling millions of Europeans to American shores. “I was curious . . . to learn why it was that so many of these European people were leaving the countries in which they were born and reared, in order to seek their fortunes in a new country and among strangers in a distant part of the world,” Washington explained. Eschewing “palaces, museums, art galleries, ancient ruins, monuments, churches, and graveyards,” he embarked on an inverted grand tour, determined to immerse himself in the “grime and dirt of everyday life.”
Washington’s self-proclaimed mission was to hunt for “the man farthest down” on the European continent. In this quest to explore “the worst” that Europe had to offer, he found rich terrain in Austria-Hungary. During their two-month scavenger hunt for misery, Washington and Park toured Cracow’s Jewish ghetto, Prague’s YMCA, Bohemian mines, Hungarian farms, Viennese slums, Adriatic ports, Galician border towns, and tiny Carpathian villages.
Booker T. Washington hoped that by locating the man farthest down in Europe, he would not only diagnose the root causes of emigration but also find new salves with which to heal American social and racial inequalities. “I believed . . . that if I went far enough and deep enough I should find even in Europe great numbers of people who, in their homes, in their labour, and in their manner of living, were little, if any, in advance of the Negroes in the Southern States,” he reflected. “I wanted to study first hand . . . the methods which European nations were using to uplift the masses of the people who were at the bottom in the scale of civilization.” As he projected the racial politics of the American South onto the terrain of the Austrian empire (which he identified as part of “Southern Europe”), he found many parallels. By the time he returned home, he had concluded that the situation of the Slavs of Austria-Hungary was “more like that of the Negroes in the Southern States than is true of any other class or race in Europe.” Not only were Slavs, like African Americans, “an agricultural people.” They were also distinct from and discriminated by what Washington called “the dominant classes” of Austria-Hungary. “Although they were not distinguished from the dominant classes, as the Negro was, by the colour of their skin, they were distinguished by the language they spoke, and this difference in language seems to have been, as far as mutual understanding and sympathy are concerned, a greater bar than the fact of colour has been in the case of the white man and the black man in the South.” Indeed, Washington concluded that the peasants, workers, and Jews of Eastern Europe actually lived in more debased conditions than African Americans in the South. “There are few plantations in our Southern States where . . . one would not find the coloured people living in more real comfort and more cleanliness than was the case here,” he observed, after touring a desolate Bohemian farm. “Even in the poorest Negro cabins in the South I have found evidences that the floor was sometimes scrubbed, and usually there was a white counterpane on the bed, or some evidence of an effort to be tidy.”
By the time he returned to America, Washington was so disturbed by the poverty he encountered in Austria-Hungary that he began to sympathize with the American movement to restrict immigration. The arrival of millions of destitute East Europeans threatened to create a new kind of “racial problem” in America, he warned. “Whatever else one may say of the Negro, he is, in everything except his colour, more like the Southern white man, more willing and able to absorb the ideas and the culture of the white man and adapt himself to existing conditions, than is true of any race which is now coming into this country.”
19 June 2018
Booker T. Washington in Austria-Hungary
From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 892-922: