When Booker T. Washington packed College Auditorium

Closeups of Booker T. Washington and a 1913 issue of the Pullman Herald that covered his visit.
The Pullman Herald covered Booker T. Washington's 1913 visit.

Washington State College was a collection of a dozen buildings on a hillside in Pullman, home to less than 900 students. But for one night in 1913, the campus was buzzing with activity.

Booker T. Washington was in town. What was then known as College Hall or College Auditorium and later renamed Bryan Hall was packed to the brim, with folks outside clamoring to get in.

Washington was born into slavery in Virginia and rose to prominence at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he earned international acclaim for his practical approach to education. Washington toured the Northwest that year, visiting cities and towns in Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. He spoke of the educational innovation he had introduced at the Tuskegee Institute, where he worked from 1881 until he died in 1915. Washington emphasized the importance of education in crafts and industrial skills, and was, by one account, thoroughly impressed with WSC’s campus, faculty, and staff.

“He praised the ideals and work of the W.S.C. in the highest terms and said that he had learned more here than at any college he had ever visited with the exception of one in Denmark,” reported the Pullman Herald newspaper on March 14, 1913.

Washington arrived in Pullman on the morning of March 12, and, according to the Herald, “…spent the afternoon in inspecting the college and meeting a number of the members of the faculty and other citizens,” before addressing the auditorium full of community members that evening.

About this series

The contributions of America’s communities of color have long helped shape Washington State University, sometimes in ways that wouldn’t become apparent for decades or generations to come.

Re‑Exploring History is dedicated to taking a fresh look at those moments during the early‑ to mid‑20th century where African American academics, performers and entertainers left their mark on the University’s future, even while having to navigate segregation and other societal obstacles.

The series relies heavily on the historical sleuthing skills of WSU staff member and Ph.D. student James Bledsoe and Mark O’English with the Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections section of WSU Libraries.

Cougar connections

In a building not far from where Washington addressed the Pullman crowds more than a century ago, James Bledsoe is working toward a doctorate in educational leadership. A career development coordinator in the College of Arts and Sciences, Bledsoe has researched WSU’s history extensively, and said WSC had some unique connections to the African American community.

“When I first came to WSU (in 2000), I was told about Jessie Sonora Sims Walker, the first African American to graduate from WSU,” Bledsoe said. “She was actually a graduate of Tuskegee High School in Alabama before attending WSC, so there was probably a connection there.”

It’s quite possible Sims influenced Washington’s decision to visit Pullman, as she graduated in 1913 with a degree in pharmacy. The College of Pharmacy established the Jessie Sonora Sims Walker Scholarship in 1991 to honor one of the University’s true pioneers.

In addition to Sims’ possible influence, Washington’s visit appears to have been formally arranged by what was then a newly formed Twentieth Century Club. The Twentieth Century Club aimed for, “the liberal diffusion of art and culture,” according to the Evergreen’s November 13, 1912 edition, and chapters existed across the country.

The treasurer of WSC’s Twentieth Century Club was William C. Kruegel, a 1902 graduate who served as bursar and was a longtime staff member and community leader. Kruegel Park in Pullman and Kruegel Residence Hall on the Pullman campus are named in his honor.

Enoch Bryan, WSC’s president from 1893–1916, whose name now adorns the Hall where Washington spoke, also had correspondence with Washington prior to his visit. In a Feb. 5, 1908 letter, Washington asked if Bryan could recommend any students to work at the Tuskegee Institute.

A lasting impact

Washington’s visit to Pullman is somewhat lost in history, as no known photos from the event exist. The author of five books, Washington donated a signed copy of his autobiography to the Twentieth Century Club, which had been stored in Stevens Hall, but its whereabouts are now unknown.

Throughout his visit to Pullman, Washington would have faced numerous prejudices and injustices, as he did throughout his life. He would not have been allowed to stay in local hotels as segregation was the rule of the day throughout much of the country.

And his visit was perhaps viewed by many community members as a spectacle rather than an address by one of the country’s most accomplished leaders. Some in the audience may have never seen an African American person before. But the local media seemed to focus on his poignant message.

“…He is a strong man engaged in a great work and his lecture is an inspiring call to patriotic citizens to assist in the solving of the big problems of the age.”

—Editorial writer, Pullman Herald

An editorial writer in the Herald wrote,

“…He is a strong man engaged in a great work and his lecture is an inspiring call to patriotic citizens to assist in the solving of the big problems of the age.”

Horace Alexander Young is WSU’s first African American tenured professor in the School of Music. He said it’s important to recognize and honor the University’s history. For students of color, knowing a figure like Washington spoke to a capacity crowd in Bryan Hall, can be encouraging, and empowering.

“For many students, when they see that someone else that looks like them has been here before, it provides motivation,” Young said. “It can help inspire them and give them a feeling that they belong.”

Re-Exploring History will next feature lyric tenor and composer Roland Hayes.

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