Sunday, April 30, 2017
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Booker T. Washington Travel to Poland

Booker T. Washington was the most prominent African American leader in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. An educator and author, he took a conservative stance toward civil rights, believing that education and industry were the way for blacks to advance themselves.

Galicia PovertyIn 1910, Washington and a white colleague, Robert E. Park, undertook a six week tour of Europe to observe the lower classes and to try to find "the man farthest down," as Washington put it, and to compare the plight of the European peasant to that of the black American.

Washington's journey took him to Britain, Denmark, Italy and the German, Russian and Austrian empires. Poland had not yet regained its independence, but he visited the Polish provinces of the three occupying powers.

Washington spent several days in Austrian-controlled Kraków and its environs, visiting small villages and even crossing the nearby Russian frontier to visit a Polish village under control of the czar. He gave vivid and informative descriptions of the living conditions and hard working lives of the rural Poles, describing the typical peasant's small two room cottage, one for the animals, one for the family. He indeed based a great deal of his conclusions about this European journey on his observations of the Poles, writing that "it would not be difficult to compare the Negro in the South with the Polish peasant, for example, because the masses of the Poles are, like the masses of the Negroes, an agricultural people." And in those days, a life on the farm was very hard, no matter where.

bookerWashington took a special interest in the Jews of Europe because like American blacks, they had a long history of suffering from prejudice and persecution. He observed life in Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of Kraków, and noted that in Poland, as elsewhere, Jews could be seen in all stations of society, from the neatly dressed assimilated businessman, to ragged peasants, to Orthodox Jews who wore their distinctive outfits. The typical Jew, it was said, had carved out a comfortable niche as the middleman, or trader, between producer and consumer. He compared the relatively better situation of American Jews versus Polish Jews, saying most of the latter clung to the customs and dress which made them conspicuously different from the people around them, despite the freedom to choose otherwise, which hurt their standing.

Washington was surprised to find that nearly everywhere he traveled, from the largest city to the tiniest village, he could find someone who had a close relative living in America or someone who himself had lived there for a time and could speak a little English. These returned immigrants, he learned, were helping to raise the standards of the lower classes, not only through the money they had earned and brought back with them from America, but through the ideas of freedom and upward mobility to which they had been exposed across the water.

Washington also paid particular attention to women. He noted that everywhere among the working classes, women toiled side by side with men, sharing the dirtiest, hardest jobs and doing them well, whether in the fields, quarries or factories. In many cases, he saw that females were relegated to the most strenuous tasks while the men did the more skilled and somewhat less tedious work. And in a flattering comment about Polish females, he said that he saw every variety of woman on his journey, "but I saw none who looked so handsome, fresh, and vigorous as these Polish peasant women."

Washington observed a paradox among the three sections of partitioned Poland. In German and Russian Poland, where the Poles struggled against official anti-Polish oppression, they were more prosperous and advanced than in Austrian Poland, where they enjoyed greater autonomy and freedom. There, the Polish nobles were free to continue the old ways to dominate the peasants.  In the German and Russian areas, the traditional social order had been disrupted, allowing the lower classes the chance to improve their lot, even under terrible anti-Polish bias.

Partition of Poland in XIX Century - Poland divided into Russia, Austria and Prussia - map below:

Poland Partition


At the end of his travels, Washington concluded that the black people of America were not worse off than the lower classes of Europe, and in many ways were better off. As he put it, "There is no other country where the man farthest down has more opportunity or greater freedom than in the United States."

So which candidate does Booker T. Washington determine is the man farthest down? Not the peasant farmers of Poland, who despite a hard life enjoyed a minimum level of subsistence and health. For this "honor" he seems to choose the starving wretches of London's industrial slums. Yet in his conclusion he makes this observation, fifty years before the start of the modern feminist movement: "The man farthest down in Europe is woman. Women have the narrowest outlook, do the hardest work, stand in greatest need of education, and are farthest removed from influences which are everywhere raising the level of life among the masses of the European people."

The Man Farthest Down, the book that Washington wrote about his travels, offers a great insight into the society that existed among our European forebears a hundred years ago and is worth a read.

Read about poverty in Austrian Galicia in Wikipedia article.

Recommended reading(s):

The Man Farthest Down: A Record of Observation and Study in Europe; by Robert E. Park (Author), Booker T. Washington


Jadwiga's CrossingJadwiga's Crossing: a story of the Great Migration by Richard J. Lutz





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