Booker T. Washington Checks Out of a Hotel…

Hotel English in Indianapolis, Indiana, 1904.

Hotel English and Army and Navy [Soldiers’ and Sailors’] Monument, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1904. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

1903 was a particularly difficult year for African Americans, as described in Douglas Blackmon’s book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. In that year alone, at least 85 African Americans were murdered by lynching. Several high profile cases of “peonage”–essentially, the continued enslavement of Black persons by private citizens and corporations in the post-Civil War Era–were being prosecuted throughout the South, with little effect.

Blackmon’s book is a fascinating and well-documented examination of the means white Americans developed to keep Black Americans in slavery, mainly (though not exclusively) in the South. One anecdote he relates stood out to me, and the story isn’t directly related to the book’s topic, but included in the narrative as context for the general social temperature of the country in 1903:

“A young white chambermaid at the English Hotel in Indianapolis, Indiana, named Louise Hadley, became a brief cause célèbre in May 1903, hailed in the North and the South, after she refused to make up a bed that had been occupied by Booker T. Washington” (238).

Hadley was, of course, fired for refusing to do her job but instantly became the recipient of money and good cheer from racist benefactors and media outlets. Washington, as far as I can tell, didn’t say much, if anything, publicly about this incident. Why should he have, I suppose–he had already checked out of the hotel, and Hadley’s foolishness was not his problem anymore. However, Hadley had a  lot to say. In the Philadelphia North American on June 7, 1903, Hadley wrote a piece entitled “Why I Wouldn’t Do It,” in which she states her reasons for refusing to make up the room, while defending her character and politics.

In the piece, Hadley says it would have been a “disgrace” to clean up the room and that she feels “the negro is not far above the brute.” She goes on (and on), accusing Washington of the classic crime of not knowing his place and of bringing harm to the country by accepting President Roosevelt’s shameful invitation to dine at the White House. The piece is at times rambling and contradictory, as Hadley both claims to be Southern because she was born in the South, and also because she was not born in the South, she feels she is “a Southern woman in spirit.” She says her father was a Union solider, but did not fight to free negroes, and that she herself is an “out and out Republican,” except on issues relating to “the negro wing.” Hadley also claims to dislike the “notoriety” this event has brought to her, so she intends to move South, so she can accept on of the “many” job offers she has received, and where the negro better knows their place. You can read Hadley’s text in Volume 7 of the Booker T. Washington Papers, pages 173 – 175, available to preview at Google Books.

I found this anecdote interesting for a few reasons. First, I had never heard of the English Hotel in Indianapolis, despite living in the state for nearly 15 years, and neither had my Indianapolis-born and raised husband. It was a large hotel and opera house built in 1880 and located on Monument Circle. It was demolished in 1948, it “is often lamented as one of the biggest preservation losses in Indianapolis history,” according to Historic Indianapolis. It was a landmark building that seems to have been removed for no one particular reason: “Deterioration, changing tastes, and the desire to showcase modern architecture” are listed as reasons for its demolition. That seems a shame, because Monument Circle doesn’t have much in the way of inspiring architecture encircling the actual monument, with the exception of the lovely Christ Church Cathedral, which was built in 1837.

Second, the tone of Hadley’s discourse felt all-too familiar and current. It seems that had this event happened today, we would have a lot of argument about the First Amendment and how Hadley’s freedom to say or do a particular thing doesn’t prevent her from feeling consequences, either from her employer or the court of public opinion. I also think Hadley’s story is instructive – she goes to great lengths to claim she isn’t really a bad person, just disgusted at the thought of making up a Black man’s room. Thus, Hadley showed everyone who she really was – a racist and white supremacist who would rather lose her job than see a Black person as an equal. And yet, as Blackmon points out, various media organs in the South rushed to praise her character and her “discrimination,” funnily enough (238).

So whether it’s Hadley or someone in our own day who loses their TV show, newspaper column, book contract, or funding mechanisms due to their racist discourse, what we all tend to overlook are the actual victims. Hadley ended up just fine. The supposed “Intellectual Dark Web” folks will be fine. All of these people have money, have families, have ways to get by. They’re just salty about their lack of opportunities to spread more hate. They really aren’t deserving of any concern for their welfare. We should, instead, be concerned for the vulnerable: people of color, women, LGBT folx, persons with disabilities, immigrants/refugees, children. These are the people who will suffer in an increasingly racist society. They suffer when we allow public figures to say they don’t matter, or that they aren’t equal. By spreading her nonsense about “negroes” and Booker T. Washington, Hadley didn’t do much damage to Washington as an individual, or as a public figure. He was clearly much more prominent, more wealthy, and more famous than she was. However, every other Black person had to hear/see Hadley sue the English hotel (and lose) because she claimed it wasn’t fair she was fired. Black persons had to hear/see Hadley call them brutes, “ready to kill you when your back is turned.” This is the kind of damage that can be done when we insist, out of some misplaced notion of “fairness” or intellectual freedom, that all ideas deserve a hearing.

This is a really important thing to consider when in the classroom. Students need a certain amount of freedom to think through processes, to engage with problems, and to arrive at conclusions on their own. Yet, we must be cognizant of the ways such flexibility can do real harm to other students in the same space. I don’t have a clear technique for balancing these concerns, other than never accept hateful speech or slurs of any kind. Shut those right down in a teachable moment and move on. I can say that thoughtful modeling is a big help. As a white women who often teaches African American literature, I am careful in my language and careful in my framing of issues. Student will pick up on the mood and tone you set for the classroom, whether on a day to day basis, or at the beginning of the semester. Speak the way you want them to speak; respond the way you want them to respond. Encourage critical thinking while acknowledging different perspectives. Students aren’t in college because they already know everything and all the proper vocabulary to use. You need to teach it to them; so make the effort!

 

 

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