Washington contextualized his metaphor in the following statement:
To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man, who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are”—cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded.
Black former slaves, as the previous educator stated, were preparing to leave the South partly due to being shut out of industrial labor. However, it's important not to overlook the existential threat to black people which existed in the South after the end of Reconstruction in 1877, and which became more threatening after the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan in the period after the First World War. Not only did the South fail to offer work beyond sharecropping, it also failed to offer black people legal protections against the threats of lynching, rape, and assault. Worse, law enforcement was often on the side of lynch mobs and other violent white supremacists.
Washington overlooked all of this in his effort to find a practical compromise to race relations. He believed that skilled black employees could serve as an asset to prospective white employers, who had already benefited off of the manual labor of slaves who worked, not only as field laborers, but also as blacksmiths, seamstresses, and coopers, for example.
His parable about a "ship lost at sea" suggests that a co-dependency developed between blacks and whites as a result of the slave system. Washington looks to convince his white audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition to see that there are many black people who want to embrace "the common occupations of life," and that those people, who were once regarded as indispensable labor resources, should still be regarded as such as the South moves into other industries.