Booker T. Washington and the Shiloh Baptist Church Tragedy

People came early to Shiloh Baptist Church on the evening of September 19, 1902. The National Baptist Convention, an African American organization, was holding its annual meeting in Birmingham, and 2,000 delegates were present from several states. The featured speaker on this night was Booker T. Washington. Shiloh Baptist Church, an impressive brick structure on the city’s Southside, had been completed the year before and was built to seat 3,000 people. Spectators hoping to hear Washington began arriving hours before the event, and all seats were taken well before the speaker arrived. People continued to push their way into the church, packing the aisles and stairways well beyond capacity. As Washington finished his talk two men began to argue over a seat on the stage. A woman nearby yelled, “Fight!” Many in the crowded and noisy sanctuary mistook “Fight!” for “Fire!” and people in the rear of the church scrambled for the door. As people pushed from the main floor and down the stairs from the balcony the crowd clogged the door and entranceway. In the entranceway the bodies piled up eight to ten feet deep and those on bottom were trampled to death or suffocated from the weight. Between 70 and 80 people died at the church during the ten minute stampede. Hundreds more were injured and the final death toll was 120. For Booker T. Washington the Shiloh tragedy was a reminder of the danger created by the large crowds who came to hear him speak. For Birmingham, the tragedy was so awful that it brought a short respite from racial antagonism. Several months after the tragedy Robert Henry Walker, Jr., a Washington, D. C. minister whose sister lived in Birmingham, collected survivor accounts and photographs relating to the tragedy and published them as The Trumpet Blast. Walker’s book, along with the newspaper coverage, provides most of what we now know about the stampede. This online exhibit includes the full text of The Trumpet Blast as well as newspaper articles and photographs relating to the tragedy.

 

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