Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/September 1899/Tuskegee Institute and its President
|TUSKEGEE INSTITUTE AND ITS PRESIDENT.|
By M. B. THRASHER.
TUSKEGEE is a county town in the State of Alabama, not far from Montgomery. It is near the center of that part of the South commonly spoken of as the "black belt," because the negro inhabitants there greatly outnumber the whites. The town is one of the oldest in the South. It is said, in fact, that when De Soto made his famous journey across that part of the newly discovered continent he found an Indian village of the same name on the site of the present town. Tuskegee is five miles from the main line of the Southern Railroad, with which it is connected at Chehaw by means of a narrow-gauge road.
Tuskegee, as the word is oftenest used now, means the Normal and Industrial Institute, situated a mile out from the town and forming a little settlement in itself. This is the great school for young negro men and women which Booker T. Washington has built up, and of which he is the principal. The pupils who attend number a thousand each year. It is the largest school for colored people, managed by colored people, in the United States. There is no one connected with the school, except some of the members of the board of trustees, who is not of the race which the institute is designed to help.
Tuskegee Institute is so entirely the result of Booker T. Washington's labors, and his life has been so interwoven with the development of the school, that a brief account of his boyhood and youth is almost indispensable to a complete description of the institute, particularly as the conditions with which he struggled were so generally those which confronted all of the negroes at that time.Booker T. Washington was born a slave in Virginia, not long before the breaking out of the war. It seems strange that a man who is so widely known to-day and is so universally respected as Mr. Washington, when asked how old he is should be obliged to reply that he does not know, yet such is the case. The birth of one more black babies on a large plantation at that time was a matter of too
The Faculty of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute.
little moment to have sufficient notice taken of it to accurately fix the date. He was a boy old enough during the war, though, to know something of the struggle going on around him, for, speaking in public of Lincoln once, I heard him say: "My first acquaintance with our hero was this: Night after night, before the dawn of day, on an old slave plantation in Virginia, I recall the form of my sainted mother bending over the bundle of rags that enveloped my body, on a dirt floor, breathing a fervent prayer to Heaven that
President Booker T. Washington.
'Massa Lincoln' might succeed, and that some day she and I might be free."
Another incident of those days I have heard him tell of in these words: "Word was sent over the plantation for all 'the hands' to come up to the 'big house.' We went, and to us men, women, and children gathered in the yard some one standing on the veranda read a paper. I was too young to understand why the men and women around me should have begun to shout, 'Hallelujah! Praise de Lawd!' when the reading was finished, but my mother, bending down to where I was clinging to her dress, whispered to me that we were free."
Not long after the close of the war the Washingtons left the plantation and went to West Virginia, where, in the coal mines, work could be had which would pay money wages. At first Booker worked in the mines with his brothers, but he soon became dissatisfied with the chance for improvement which that work afforded. "The first thing that led me to study," he has said, "was seeing a young colored man slowly reading a newspaper to a group of colored people who surrounded him with open mouths and gaping eyes. He was almost a god to them." The chance to study was soon found. An energetic woman of kindly nature hired the
Mrs. Booker T. Washington.
young colored boy to work about her house as a general chore-boy. Finding that he was anxious to learn, she offered to teach him to read in the spare minutes of his work, and did so. One day he overheard a man talking about Hampton, where General Armstrong had already begun his noble work. This, the man said, was a place where black boys could go to school, and at the same time work to pay their way. "As soon as I heard that," Mr. Washington has said, "I made up my mind that Hampton was just the place for me, and that I would go there.-I started, although I had no money and did not even know where Hampton was. I felt sure I could inquire the way as I went, and work my passage. I walked a good share of the way, begged some rides, and when I had earned any money which I could spare, paid my fare to ride on the trains. I reached Richmond, Virginia, one night too late to get any work, and I was entirely out of money. While I was walking about wondering where I would get a lodging, Armstrong Hall. One of the oldest buildings at Tuskegee. I happened to see a nice dry place under a stretch of plank sidewalk. Watching my chance when no one was looking, I crawled in and curled work helping to unload a vessel, and, as the job lasted several days, I came back each night to my lodging under the sidewalk, thus saving all my wages except the little required for food. In this way I was able to get money enough to carry me the rest of the way to Hampton, and leave me fifty cents when I got there,"
In these days of entrance examinations to various institutions of learning, it is interesting to read of the examination which young Washington was required to pass before he could enter Hampton. He tells us of it thus: "Of course," says he, "they knew nothing of me, and, after my long tramp, days of hard labor and nights of sleeping in barns and under sidewalks, I suppose I could not have presented a very prepossessing appearance. After looking me over in a not very encouraging manner, they gave me a broom and took me into a room, which they told me to sweep. I suppose I swept that room over three or four times before I was satisfied to call it done, when a teacher came in and took her handkerchief and wiped the walls to see if she could find any dust on them. After that they said I could come to the school. So you see I passed my examination.
"At Hampton I found the opportunity, in the way of buildings, teachers, and industries provided by the generous, to get training in the class room, and by practical touch with industrial life to learn thrift, economy, and push. I was surrounded by an atmosphere of business. Christian influence, and a spirit of self-help that seemed to have awakened every faculty within me, and caused me for the first time to realize what it meant to be a man instead of a piece of property. "While there I resolved that, when I had finished my course of training, I would go into the far South, into the 'black belt' of the South, and give my life to providing the same kind of opportunity for self-reliance and self-awakening that I had found provided for me at Hampton. My work began at Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1881, in a small shanty and church, with one teacher and thirty students, without a dollar's worth of property. The spirit of work and of industrial thrift, with aid from the State and generosity from the North, has enabled us to develop an institution of a thousand students, gathered from twenty-six States, with eighty-one instructors and thirty-eight buildings.
"I am sometimes asked what is the object of all this outlay of energy and money. To that I would answer that the needs of the ten million colored people in the South may be roughly said to be food, clothing, shelter, education, proper habits, and a settlement of race relations. These ten million people can not be reached by any direct agency, but they can be reached by sending out among them strong selected young men and women, with the
Students at Work on New Trades-School Building.
proper training of the head and hand and heart, who will live among these masses and show them how to lift themselves up. The problem that Tuskegee Institute keeps before itself is how to prepare these leaders."
The first time I went to Tuskegee I happened to ride for half a day through the State of Georgia in the same seat in the car with a man whose conversation showed him to be one of the class to whom the designation "unreconstructed" has sometimes been applied. An officer in the Confederate army, he had accepted the situation at the close of the war, but now, after thirty years, although he spoke of existing conditions without bitterness, he spoke of them with little or no sympathy. I had some doubt how he would comment on my errand, when I told him that I was on my way to attend the Negro Conference at Tuskegee. Imagine my surprise when he exclaimed: "Going to Tuskegee, are you, to see Booker Washington? Just let me tell you there's a man that's got the right idea of things. He's teaching the negroes to work. I wish the South had a thousand Booker Washingtons." This man, I learned afterward, when I was in Atlanta, was one of the most prominent and successful business men of that city.
The second day of my stay at Tuskegee, as I came out of the rude buildings where the conference had been held, a young colored man waiting at the door accosted me. "Is not this Mr. ———" he said, "and at the World's Fair were you not in charge of such an exhibit?" naming one of the educational exhibits. I said I was the man. "Don't you remember me?" he added, telling me where he had been working at the time. I did remember
Alabama Hall. One of the first buildings erected by the students.
him perfectly, and asked how he happened to be so far removed from Chicago.
"It was like this," he said. "Next year I went to the Atlanta Exposition. While there I heard Mr. Washington speak, and learned about his school where negro boys could learn a trade. I had always been at a disadvantage because I did not know how to do any kind of work really well. So I came here and began to learn carpentering. I have the trade nearly learned now, and when I graduate from here I shall know how to really work."
Soon after beginning my long car ride from Tuskegee back to the North I stepped into the mail car on the train to post some letters.
Dairying Division; making Butter.
The envelopes I had used bore the imprint of Tuskegee Institute in the corner. As I handed them to the postal clerk, he glanced at the printing in the corner and exclaimed: "I say, that Booker Washington is a wonderful man, isn't he? I never saw him, but he's teaching those people there to work." Then he went on to tell me about a young colored man whom he had known who had gone to Tuskegee and learned harness-making, and then come home to set up business for himself. This man told me later that he had never been farther north than Louisville.
It seemed to me as if here was an interesting coincidence of unsought testimony, and all tending to show how consistently Tuskegee teaches a gospel of work. Industrial training goes hand in hand there, with mental and moral teaching, in earnest effort to help the thousand young negro men and women there and make their lives count for the most possible for themselves and their race.
Any one who has heard Mr. Washington speak at any length to audiences of his own race knows how earnestly he advocates Industrial education for the negro. As might be expected, then, we find at Tuskegee practical hand training. The advantage is twofold. The students not only learn to work, but in doing so many are
An Institute Cabbage Field.
enabled to work out all or a part of the expenses which otherwise in many cases would have prevented them from remaining at the school.
Of the thirty-eight buildings at Tuskegee, all but the first three, and these are among the smallest ones, have been built by the students. Several of the largest of these buildings are of brick, and the educational process begins in the institute's own brickyard, where a class of muscular young men are making bricks under the direction of a capable instructor, and in making them learn the trade which they expect to follow in after life, This yard not only makes all the bricks the institute uses, but many thousand more to be sold each year for use in the surrounding country.
I heard Mr. Washington tell to an audience of fifteen hundred negroes, in Charleston, South Carolina, a characteristic story of the beginning of this brickyard. "After I had been teaching a while at Tuskegee," he said, "I began to feel that I was partly throwing away my time teaching the students only books, without getting hold of them in their home life and without teaching them how to care for their bodies and how to work. I looked about for some land, and found a farm near Tuskegee which could be bought. I had no money, but a good friend had confidence enough in our prospects to loan me five hundred dollars to pay down toward the land so as to secure it. After that it was not long before I had the school moved. Then I would teach the boys for a part of the day, and then for the rest of the time take them out of doors with me to help clear up the land. In that way we did all the work we possibly could. When it came to making bricks for a building, though, we were stuck. We could make the bricks, and did, but none of us knew how to burn them. For that it was necessary to have a skilled man, who must be paid. I was out of money by that time, but 1 owned a gold watch. This I took to a pawnshop and raised all I could on it. The money I got was enough to pay a man to burn the bricks and teach us so that we could do the next ones ourselves. That watch is in pawn yet, but we have got thirty-eight buildings."
Another class of young men are learning bricklaying. They take the bricks as they come from the yard and put up the walls of
the buildings, while the carpenters do the woodwork. The classes in woodworking are among the most important at the school. The institute now owns a large tract of valuable timber land, while among the industrial buildings on the grounds is a good sawmill. equipped with the necessary machinery. Whatever lumber is needed in the erection of the buildings is cut on the timber lot, drawn to the mill, and sawed. In this way one class learns to saw and handle lumber. Besides the regular carpentry classes, "Building a Hat"; Millinery Department. joiner work and carriage-making are carried on. A large part of the furniture in the buildings, including the beds, tables, and chairs in the dormitories and dining rooms, was built in this way. All the carts, wagons, and carriages which are used about the place were built in the carriage shop, and the hickory lumber wagons turned out there have so good a reputation that all not needed on the place are sold readily to be used on the near-by farms. The carriages are painted, ironed, and trimmed by the young men, and no better proof of the workmanship can be asked than some of the rides I have had in them about Tuskegee.
The management at Tuskegee tries to have a building always in course of construction for the benefit of the building classes. This year they are erecting a trades-school building. Last year they built a handsome brick church, which will seat two thousand persons. The building of this church shows well what the school's building classes can do. The designs were drawn by Mr. R. R. Taylor, the young colored man who is the instructor in mechanical and architectural drawing. One of his pupils designed the cornices with which the building is finished, and another designed the pews which furnish it. These pews were built in the school's joiner shop. The bricks were all made in the school's brickyard, and laid by the students. Men learning slating and tinsmithing covered the roof, and the steam-heating and electrical apparatus were also put in by the students, although this is one of the first of the buildings where the students have been sufficiently advanced in those trades to do the last-named work.
As it was determined to employ only negroes as instructors at Tuskegee, it was at first difficult to find enough men and women of that race skilled in the arts and trades which it was wished to have taught there, and teachers were brought to the institute from all over the country. Now, however, as each year sees the industrial classes better under way, the tide is setting out, and Tuskegee yearly turns out teachers of trades, both men and women, who are eagerly sought by other institutions which are coming to see the value of industrial training. In many cases these teachers go to such positions at lower wages than they might hope to earn if they went to work at their trades, but they do this because they feel they have a duty to the institute and to the friends who have sustained it, to help extend its influence as widely as lies within their power. The question is often asked if a negro having learned a trade can find work at it. I do not think that the Tuskegee students who have thoroughly fitted themselves feel any anxiety about this. I remember speaking on this subject to the teacher in the harness-making and saddlery department, a good workman and a superb physical specimen of a man. He told me that during the long summer vacations he had left Tuskegee, and had never had any trouble in getting work and keeping it in shops in Montgomery and other towns of the State.
Among the buildings at Tuskegee is a foundry and machine shop, which is always full of work, especially in the way of repairs upon agricultural machinery for the farmers about Tuskegee, because
A Class of Tailors.
there is no other shop of the kind within thirty miles at least which has facilities for doing such heavy work as this. Printing, tailoring, blacksmithing, and painting are taught. Since a large proportion of the students at Tuskegee are young women, arrangements are made to furnish opportunities for them also to learn to work. They do all the work of taking care of the dormitories and dining rooms, learn plain and fancy cooking, candy-making, millinery, dressmaking, and all the most modern methods of laundry work. One class learns nursing, under the direction of a capable trained nurse.
In speaking of the trades taught at Tuskegee, it should be remembered that agriculture is reckoned among them, and one of
The Start from the barn, "Farm Students."
the most important. A very large percentage of the negroes of the South must continue to live upon the plantations and gain a living by tilling the soil. As a general thing their knowledge of how to best do this is lamentably deficient, and they labor under great disadvantages. They do not own their land, but rent it at ruinous rates. They mortgage their crops and eat them up before they are harvested. They plant nothing but cotton, because that is about the only crop that can be mortgaged, and are therefore obliged to buy food at any exorbitant prices which the dealers may demand. Tuskegee tries to remedy these evils by teaching the young men who come there the best methods of modern farming. If the farmers' sons can remain only a short time they carry back to the home plantations some new ideas to put in practice there; if they can remain for the full term of three or four years, they are fitted to take full charge of the work on any large plantation. The institute has a farm on which are raised the crops best adapted to the soil and climate of that part of the South. The men who have charge of this work are among the most able in the entire force of instructors. Mr. C. W. Green, the farm superintendent, has no superior in the South as a practical farmer. Mr. George W. Carver, the head of the agricultural department, is a graduate of the Iowa State College. To my mind, no more valuable textbook for Southern scholars could be furnished than a little pamphlet which this man has recently issued, telling how he raised between two hundred and three hundred bushels of sweet potatoes from an acre of ground, whereas the average yield of that crop in the same part of the country is less than fifty bushels to. the acre.
Tuskegee has a large herd of cows and a good dairy and creamery, in which a class of men receive instruction in dairy work. An incident which occurred in connection with this dairy furnishes a story which Mr. Washington likes to tell, because it illustrates a point which he constantly impresses upon his colored audiences. One of the surest ways to abolish the color line, he tells his hearers, is to learn to do some kind of work so well that your services will be really needed.
"There came to my knowledge," says Mr. Washington, "the fact that the owners of a certain creamery were in search of an able superintendent. We had just graduated a man who was thoroughly capable in every way, but he was just about as black as it is possible for a man to be. Nevertheless, I sent him on to apply for
One End of the Dining Hall at Tuskegee.
the place. When he made his errand known to the owners they looked at him and said:
"'A colored man? Oh, that would never do, you know.'
"The applicant for work said very politely that he had not come there to talk about his color, but about the making of butter. Still, they said he would not do.
"Finally, however, something the man said attracted the attention of the owners of the creamery, and they told him he might stay two weeks on trial, although they still assured him that there was no possibility whatever of their hiring a colored man. He went to work, and when the report for the first week's shipment of butter came back—would you believe it?—that butter had sold for two cents, a pound more than any butter ever before made at that creamery! The owners of the establishment said to each other, 'Why, now, this is very singular!' and waited for the second week. When the returns for that week came back—a cent a pound more than for the week previous, three cents a pound more than the creamery's best record before our man had taken charge of it—they didn't say anything. They just pocketed the extra dividend, as welcome as it was unexpected, and hired the man for a term of years. That extra three cents a pound on the price of the butter he could make had knocked every bit of black out of the color of his skin so far as they were concerned."
A Class in Mental Philosophy.
Out of the desire of Mr. Washington to help the struggling negro farmers has grown one of Tuskegee's greatest institutions—the annual Negro Conference which assembles there each year. About ten years ago Mr. Washington invited a few of the negro farmers who lived near Tuskegee to meet at the institute on a stated day "to talk over things." Perhaps twenty men accepted the invitation. These men, gathered in one of the smaller rooms of the institute, under Mr. Washington's leadership discussed the problems with which they had to contend, and different ones among them told how they had succeeded or failed. The meeting was felt to be so helpful that another was planned for the next year. From that small beginning has developed a conference which now brings to Tuskegee, in February of each year, two thousand persons, from a dozen States, and representing many occupations besides that of farming. These men and women are the parents of the generation which is at school at Tuskegee and similar institutions. These fathers and mothers lived "too soon" to be able to profit by such advantages. Few of them can read or write, and nearly all of them know by experience what slavery was. They see their children learning so much which was unattainable for them that they ask, "Is there no chance for us?" The conference is Tuskegee's attempt to answer that cry. As one grizzled old negro preacher, whom I heard make the opening prayer one year, said, "O Lawd,
Delegates to the Tuskegee Negro Conference.
we wants ter tank de for dis, our one day ob schoolin' in de whole year."
Beginning with this year the conferences will be held in the new church, which will comfortably seat all the delegates. Until this church was completed, though, there was no audience room at the institute which would begin to accommodate all who came, and the sessions were held in. a rude temporary building, which was alsa utilized for chapel and graduation exercises. Convenient as the new church is in every way, I shall always miss the unique gathering in that old pavilion. Imagine a broad, low building of also boards, its floor the earth, and its seats backless benches made by spiking planks on to posts driven into the ground. From its rafters hang masses of Spanish moss, amid which streamers of red, white, and blue bunting are woven. On the walls are many American flags, looped back with the spiked leaves of the palmetto tree. Booker Washington stands on a low platform at one end of the room, and all around him, packed just as closely as they can be, are the people, while hundreds of late comers cluster around the doors and open windows like bees around the opening of a hive. No matter if the benches are backless and hard. No opera audience in five-dollar chairs ever sat half so interested for an hour as do these men and women through all the day, which, long as it is, proves far too short for what they have to say. This is the one day of the year for them, and not a minute must be wasted. The speakers are the men and women themselves. Mr. Washington simply starts the discussions and steers them so as to make all the time count. He is a genius as a presiding officer, and gets more out of the limited time than any one else could do. The subjects which they discuss are the practical ones which concern them most vitally. Some I have mentioned—non-ownership of land, crop-mortgaging, and the evil of raising only cotton. Others are the need of a longer school year and how to get it, the foolish extravagances of buying showy clocks, sewing machines, and organs before a house is owned to put them in, and similar subjects. The time is never long enough for all there is to be said. The effort is to make this a center from which some helpful thought will be carried out to take root during the year.
I saw a striking example of the influence which the conference may exert at one of the sessions. A tall young mulatto woman had finally succeeded in getting a chance to speak, for there are always twice as many to talk as can find time. "Last year brother Washington told us," said she, "that three acres of land, properly carried on, would support a person, and told us how, and said that a woman as well as a man could carry on the land. I made up my mind I'd try it. I did, and it's so. I hired three acres of land and had it plowed. I had it plowed deep, too. No lazy nigger half done the job, for I sat on the ground myself to see it done." She then went on to tell what her seed and fertilizer had cost, what she planted and raised, and what her profits were, showing them to be quite enough, as she had said, to support her for a year.
Loud applause greeted this report, and cries of "Dat's good!" and "Go ahead, sister!" but through it all the woman was seen to be still standing where she had spoken, waiting for a chance to go on, and with no sign of satisfaction in her face at the approval shown her. Raising one yellow hand high above her head, as soon as she could be heard, she cried in a strangely thrilling voice, which echoed through the dusky room: "How can you waste the one day of the year for us in such foolishness, when the life of a race is in jeopardy? Get to work! We must learn first to help, ourselves, if we want God to help us!"
Negro Conference in Session in Tuskegee Institute Church.
Hardly had this woman finished speaking when it was seen that another woman had risen and was waiting for a chance to make herself heard. I think I never saw a more pitiful figure. Very black, old, with a gaunt form on which a shabby dress hung loosely, her face was that of a person for whom life had been so hard that hope was for her a word unknown. Two or three men in the audience said, "Oh, sit down!" as if they wondered what such a person could have to say which would not be a waste of the meeting's time, but she would not sit down. Standing there until the noise had hushed, she began:
"I wants ter tank Gawd I'se come here ter day an' heard what dat sister had ter say. I don' know what made me come. I'se nebber been here before, but I'se so glad I come ter-day! I'se been de mother ob sixteen chillen. I hain't nebber had a home nor a mule nor eben a dress dat wa'n't morgiged. My chillen's gone an' lef me as soon as dey's growed up, an' now my ole man is gone too. I tought dere wasn't nuffin lef for me ter do but jes' die, but now I'se goin' home an' get some lan' an' do for myself an' my littles' chillens what nobody has ebber done for me. I kin do it, an' I tank Gawd I'se been here ter git de word."
It seems to me as if this was missionary work of the best kind, and it is such work as this that Tuskegee is doing constantly.