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The Economic Development of the Negro Race in Slavery

By Booker T. Washington


We are now, I think, far enough removed from the period of slavery to be able to study the influence of that institution objectively rather than subjectively. Surely if any Negro who was a part of the institution itself can do so, the remaining portion of the American people ought to be able to do so, whether they live at the North or at the South.

My subject naturally leads me to a discussion of the Negro as he was in slavery. We must all acknowledge, whatever else resulted from slavery that, first of all, it was the economic element involved that brought the Negro to America, and it was largely this consideration that held the race in slavery for a period of about 245 years. But, in this discussion, I am not to consider the economic value of the Negro as a slave, as such, but only the influence of his industrial training while in slavery in the development of his moral and religious life.

In my opinion, it requires no little effort on the part of a man who was once himself a slave to be able to admit this. If any Negro who was a part of the institution of slavery itself can so far rid himself of the prejudices of the same, it seems to me other people, living in whatever section, should be able to do so.

I have been a slave once in my life—a slave in body. But I long since resolved that no inducement and no influence would ever make me a slave in soul, in my love for humanity, and in my search for truth.

At the same time slaves were being brought to the shores of Virginia from their native land, Africa, the woods of Virginia were swarming with thousands of another dark-skinned race. The question naturally arises: Why did the importers of Negro slaves go to the trouble and expense of going thousands of miles for a dark-skinned people to hew wood and draw water for the whites, when they had right among them a people of another race who could have answered the purpose? The answer is that the Indian was tried and found wanting in the commercial qualities which the Negro seemed to possess. The Indian, as a race, would not submit to slavery and in those instances where he was tried, as a slave, his labor was not profitable and he was found unable to stand the physical strain of slavery. As a slave, the Indian died in large numbers. This was true in San Domingo and in other parts of the American continent.

The two races, the Indian and the Negro, have been often compared to the disadvantage of the Negro. It is often said of the Negro that he is an imitative race. That, in a large degree, is true. That element has its disadvantages and it also has its advantages. Very often the Negro imitates the worst element in the white man; on the other hand I believe that the masses of our people imitate the best they find in the white man.

I have said more than once that one of the unfortunate conditions of the Negro in the North is that,—because of the large proportion of our people who are in menial service, their duties bring them in contact with the worst. They, for example, are waiters in clubs and in various organizations, and being engaged in that capacity makes it necessary for them to touch the white man at his weakest point. In the city of Philadelphia, there are hundreds, I do not suppose I should exaggerate if I were to say thousands, who are serving the white man as a waiter in some club or similar organization. When that white man was at work in his factory, in his counting-room, in his bank, he was far removed from him. When he was at his best the Negro did not come into touch with him. In the evening when he lays aside the working dress, takes matters easy, and gets his cigar and perhaps champagne, the Negro comes into contact with him, not to an advantage, but at his weakest point rather than at his strongest.

In the South, as in most parts of America, during slavery and after, the Negro has gotten something from the white man that has made him more valuable as a citizen. In most cases he imitates the best rather than the worst. For example, you never see a Negro braiding his hair in the same way as a Chinaman braids his, but he cuts his like the white man. The Negro is seeking out the highest and best as to quality.

It has been more than once stated that the Indian proved himself the superior race in not submitting to slavery. We shall see about this. In this respect it may be that the Indian secured a temporary advantage in so far as race feeling or prejudice is concerned; I mean by this that he escaped the badge of servitude which has fastened itself upon the Negro,—not only upon the Negro in America, but upon that race wherever found, for the known commercial value of the Negro has made him a subject of traffic in other portions of the globe during many centuries.

The Indian refused to submit to bondage and to learn the white man's ways. The result is that the greater portion of the American Indians have disappeared, the greater portion of those who remain are not civilized. The Negro, wiser and more enduring than the Indian, patiently endured slavery; and contact with the white man has given him a civilization vastly superior to that of the Indian.

The Indian and the Negro met on the American continent for the first time at Jamestown, in 1619. Both were in the darkest barbarism. There were twenty Negroes and thousands of Indians. At the present time there are between nine and ten million Negroes and two hundred and eighty-four thousand and seventy-nine Indians. The annual tax upon the Government on account of the Indian is $14,236,078.71 (1905); the cost from 1789 to 1902, inclusive, reached the sum of $389,282,361.00. The one in this case not only decreased in numbers and failed to add anything to the economic value of his country, but has actually proven a charge upon the state.

The Negro seems to be about the only race that has been able to look the white man in the face during the long period of years and live—not only live, but multiply. The Negro has not only done this, but he has had the good sense to get something from the white man at every point where he has touched him—something that has made him a stronger and a better race.

Let me say in the beginning that nothing which I shall say should be taken as an endorsement of the enslavement of my race. The experience of the world's civilization teaches that the final and net result of slavery is bad—bad for the enslaved, and perhaps worse for the enslaver. If permitted a choice, I think I should prefer being the first to being the last. But in the case of the Negro in America no one, willing to be frank and fair, can fail to see that the Negro did get certain benefits out of slavery; at the same time he was, as I have stated, harmed. But in this connection we must deal with the facts and not with prejudice, either for or against the race.

Let me make this statement with which you may or may not agree: In my opinion, there cannot be found in the civilized or uncivilized world ten millions of Negroes whose economic, educational, moral and religious life is so advanced as that of the ten millions of Negroes within the United States. If this statement be true, let us find the cause thereof, especially as regards the Negro's moral and Christian growth. In doing so, let credit be given wherever it is due, whether to the Northern white man, the Southern white man, or the Negro himself. If, as stated, the ten millions of black people in the United States have excelled all the other groups of their race-type in moral and Christian growth, let us trace the cause, and in doing so we may get some light and information that will be of value in dealing with the Negro race in America and elsewhere, and in elevating and Christianizing other races.

In order to determine the influence of economic or industrial training upon the moral and Christian life of the Negro, we must begin with slavery and trace the development of the black man, noticing in a brief manner his development through slavery to freedom, and to the present time.

This involves, then, the period of slavery, and the period of freedom. To begin with, let me repeat that at first, at least, the underlying object of slavery was an economic, and an industrial one. The climatic and other new conditions required that the slave should wear clothing, a thing, for the most part, new to him. It has perhaps already occurred to you that one of the conditions requisite for the Christian life is clothing. So far as I know, Christianity is the only religion that makes the wearing of clothes one of its conditions. A naked Christian is impossible—and I may add that I have little faith in a hungry Christian.

Some years ago we were holding the Tuskeegee Annual Negro Conference, and I remember on several occasions there was one old fellow who tried to get the floor without success. He tried continually to get recognition from the chair, and, finally, was recognized. He said: "Mr. Washington, we's making great progress in our community. It is not the same as it used to be. We's making great progress. We's getting to the point where nearly all the people in my community owns their own pigs." I asked him why he was so much interested in his neighbors owning their own pigs. He said: "I feel that when all my neighbors own their own pigs, I can always sleep better every night." There is a good deal of philosophy underlying that remark.

The economic element not only made it necessary that the Negro slave should be clothed for the sake of decency and in order to preserve his health, but the same considerations made it necessary that he be housed and taught the comforts to be found in a home. Within a few months, then, after the arrival of the Negro in America, he was wearing clothes and living in a house—no inconsiderable step in the direction of morality and Christianity. True, the Negro slave had worn some kind of garment and occupied some kind of hut before he was brought to America, but he had made little progress in the improvement of his garments or in the kind of hut he inhabited. As we shall perhaps see later, his introduction into American slavery was the beginning of real growth in the two directions under consideration.

There is another important element. In his native country, owing to climatic conditions, and also because of his few simple and crude wants, the Negro, before coming to America, had little necessity to labor. You have, perhaps, read the story, that it is said might be true in certain portions of Africa, of how the native simply lies down on his back under a banana-tree and falls asleep with his mouth open. The banana falls into his mouth while he is asleep and when he wakes up he finds that all he has to do is to chew it—he has his meal already served.

Notwithstanding the fact that, in most cases, the element of compulsion entered into the labor of the slave, and the main object sought was the enrichment of the owner, the American Negro had, under the regime of slavery, his first lesson in anything like continuous, progressive, systematic labor. I have said that two of the signs of Christianity are clothes and houses, and now I add a third, "work."

In the early days of slavery the labor performed by the slave was naturally of a crude and primitive kind. With the growth of civilization came a demand for a higher kind of labor, hence the Negro slave was soon demanded as a skilled laborer, as well as for ordinary farm and common labor. It soon became evident that from an economic point of view it paid to give the Negro just as high a degree of skill as possible—the more skill, the more dollars. When an ordinary slave sold for, say seven hundred dollars, a skilled mechanic would easily bring on the auction block from fourteen hundred to two thousand dollars. It is strangely true that when a black man would bring two thousand dollars a white man would not bring fifty cents.

As the slave grew in the direction of skilled labor, he was given an increased amount of freedom. This was practiced by some owners to such an extent that the skilled mechanic was permitted to "hire" his own time, working where and for whom he pleased, and for what wage, on condition that he pay his owner so much per month or year, as agreed upon. Not a few masters found that this policy paid better than the one of close personal supervision; many female slaves were trained not only in ordinary house duties, but on every large plantation there was at least one high class seamstress.

I have made a search but have not yet been able to find a single case of abuse of confidence, and the policy to which I have referred was practiced very largely in Virginia and especially in West Virginia—the policy of permitting those slaves who were skilled laborers to work for whom they pleased, on condition that they pay their masters a fixed sum each month or each year. I have never yet heard of a single case of failure at the end of the month or at the end of the year to bring and place in his master's hands the stipulated sum of money.

A discussion of this subject calls to mind one of those curious changes in public opinion and custom with regard to races which often occur in the United States. At the period to which I am now referring, a great number of the Negroes in the South were compelled to follow a trade, and they seem to have no difficulty in pursuing trades there to-day. In the North where the agitation for the Negro's freedom began, it is in most cases difficult, and often impossible, for a black man to find an opportunity to work at any kind of skilled labor. I sometimes wonder which man is the greater sinner,—the man who by force compels the Negro to work without pay, or the man who by physical force and through the force of public sentiment prevents the Negro from working for him, when he is ready, willing, and fit to do so.

I do not overstate the matter when I say that I am quite sure that in one county in the South during the days of slavery there were more colored youths being taught trades than there are members of my race now being taught trades in any of the larger cities of the North.

Before I go further, I ought, in justice, to add that as slavery spread and the owners came to know their slaves better, there appeared in nearly every section of the South, especially in Virginia and South Carolina, a considerable number of slave-holders who rose above the mere idea of economic and selfish gain; and thus, through the medium of slavery, the opportunity to train the Negro in morality and Christianity presented itself in many sections of the South. During the days of slavery regular religious services were provided for the slaves, the same minister who served the white congregation preached to the blacks. In some of the most aristocratic families, the Negro children were taught in the Sunday-school; this was true of the Lees and Jacksons of Virginia, and of the family of Bishop Capers and other men of that type in South Carolina.

At the end of the period of slavery, about two hundred and fifty years, the Negro race as a whole had learned, as I have stated, to wear clothes, to live in a home, to work with a reasonable degree of regularity and system, and a few had learned to work with a high degree of skill. Not only this, the race had reached the point where, from speaking scores of dialects, it had learned to speak intelligently the English language. It had also a fair knowledge of American civilization and had changed from a pagan into a Christian race. Further, at the beginning of his freedom, the Negro found himself in possession of—in fact had a monopoly of—the common and skilled labor throughout the South; not only this, but, by reason of the contact of whites and blacks during slavery, the Negro found business and commercial careers open to him at the beginning of his freedom.

Such conditions were unusual in the case of a race that had been occupying so low a place in the civilization of another people. They resulted from the fact that in slavery when the master wanted a pair of shoes made, he went to the Negro shoemaker for those shoes; when he wanted a suit of clothes, he went to the Negro tailor for those clothes; and when he wanted a house built, he consulted the Negro carpenter and mason about the plans and cost—thus the two races learned to do business with each other. It was an easy step from this to a higher plane of business, hence immediately after the war the Negro found that he could become a dry goods merchant, a grocery merchant, start a bank, go into real estate dealing, and secure the trade not only of his own people, but also of the white man, who was glad to do business with him and thought nothing of it.

In my own town of Tuskeegee there is a colored merchant who, not excepting any other merchant, has the largest trade in that county in retail groceries, and in a recent conversation with him he said that for thirty-five years his customers had been among the best white families of the county. More than a dozen times have I met the man who owned this Negro in the days of slavery and he expressed himself as more than pleased that his former slave had attained the honor of being the most successful grocery dealer in the town of Tuskeegee.

You would be surprised, if you were to inquire into the facts, to know how the Negro has grown in this direction. In the Southern states there are one hundred and fifteen drug stores owned by Negroes. In Anniston, Alabama, there are two large drug stores owned by black people, and in one section a wholesale drug store owned and operated successfully by a black man. The Negro who to-day owns and operates that large wholesale drug store, selling drugs to the white as well as colored retail druggists, was a slave, I think, until he was twelve or fifteen years of age. It is interesting to know that more banks have been organized in the last three years in the state of Mississippi than ever before. There have been ten banks organized since Vardaman became governor of the state.

For the reasons I have mentioned, the Negro in the South has not only found a practically free field in the commercial world, but in the world of skilled labor. Such a field is not open to him in such a degree in any other part of the United States, or perhaps in the world, as is open in the South. All of this has had a tremendously strong bearing in developing the Negro's moral and Christian life.

In proportion to their numbers, I question whether so large a proportion of any other race are members of some Christian Church as is true of the American Negro. In many cases their practical ideas of Christianity are crude, and their daily practice of religion is far from satisfactory; still the foundation is laid, upon which can be builded a rational, practical and helpful Christian life.

Let me illustrate the value of the economic and industrial training of the Negro: If one chooses, let him try this plan which I have tried on a good many occasions. Go into any village or town, North or South, enter their Baptist and Methodist churches—for the most part they belong to the Baptist Church—and ask their pastors to point out to you the most reliable, progressive and leading colored man in the community, the man who is most given to putting his religious teachings into practice in his daily life, and in a majority of cases one will have pointed out to him a Negro who learned a trade or got some special economic training during the days of slavery,—in all probability an individual who has become the owner of a little piece of land, who lives in his own house.

Now what lessons for the work that is before us can you and I learn from what I have attempted to say? The lesson suggested in the elevation of the black race in America will apply with equal force, in my opinion, to the inculcating of moral and Christian principles into any race, regardless of color, that is in the same relative stage of civilization. Here let me add that in all my advocacy of the value of industrial training I have never done so because my people are black; I would advocate the same kind of training for any race that is on the same plane of civilization as our people are found on at the present time.

But as to the lesson which may prove of direct interest, so far as you are concerned. In the old days, the method of converting the heathen to Christianity was very largely abstract. The Bible was, in most cases, the only argument. In the conversion of the heathen to Christianity or in raising the standard of moral and Christian living for any people, I argue that in the use of the economic element and the teaching of the industries we should be guided by the same rules that are now used in the most advanced methods of ordinary school-teaching—that is, to begin with the known and gradually advance to the unknown; we should advance from the concrete to the abstract. In doing this, industrial education, it seems to me, furnishes a tremendously good opportunity.

Let me illustrate: Not long ago a missionary who was going into a foreign field very kindly asked of me advice as to how he should proceed to convert the people to Christianity. I asked him, first, upon what the people depended mostly for a living in the country where he was to labor; he replied that for the most part they were engaged in sheep raising. I said to him at once that if I were going into that country as a missionary, I should begin my efforts by teaching the people to raise more sheep and better sheep. If he could convince them that Christianity could raise more sheep and better sheep than paganism, he would at once get a hold upon their sympathy and confidence in a way he could not do by following more abstract methods of converting them.

The average man can discern more quickly the difference between good sheep and bad sheep, than he can the difference between Unitarianism and Trinitarianism.

If the Christian missionary can gradually teach the heathen how to build a better house than he has used, how to make better clothes, how to grow, prepare and secure better food for his daily meals, the missionary will have gone a long way, may I repeat, toward securing the confidence of the heathen and will have laid the foundation in this concrete manner for interesting the pagan in a higher moral life and in getting him to appreciate the difference between the heathen life and the Christian life. In teaching the child to read we use the objective method; in converting the heathen we should employ the same method—and this means the economic or industrial method.

Some six years ago a group of Tuskeegee graduates and former students went to Africa for the purpose of giving the natives in a certain territory of West Africa training in methods of raising American cotton. They did not go there primarily as missionaries, nor was their chief end the conversion of these pagans to Christianity. Naturally, they began their work by training the natives how to cultivate their land differently, how and when to plant the crop, and when to harvest it, and gradually taught them how to use a small hand gin in getting the cotton ready for market.

Largely through the leadership of this group of Tuskeegee students, there is shipped from this section of Africa to the Berlin market each year many bales of cotton. The natives have learned through the teaching of these men to grow more cotton and better cotton. They have learned to use their time, have learned that by working systematically and regularly they can increase their income and thus add to their independence and supply their wants. Not only this, but in order that these people might be fitted for continuous and regular service in the cotton field, their houses have been improved and the natives have been taught how to take better care of their bodies. In a word, during the years that these Tuskeegee people have been in the community they have improved the entire economic, industrial, and physical life of the people in this immediate territory.

The result is, as one of the men stated on his last visit to Tuskeegee, there is little difficulty now in getting the children of these people to attend Sunday-school and the older people to attend church; in fact, in a natural, logical manner they seem to have been converted to the idea that the religion practiced by these Tuskeegee men is superior to their own. They believe this firmly, because they have seen that better results have been produced through the Christian influence of these Tuskeegee men than has been produced when they had no such leadership. If these Tuskeegee people had gone there as missionaries of the old type and had confined themselves to abstract teachings of the Bible alone, it would have required many years to have brought about the results which have been attained within a few years.

Some time ago in Montgomery, Alabama, there was a church, attended by members of my race, which happened to be located not very far from the residence of a white family. The cook who served in this white family attended this church to which I refer. The members of the church made considerable noise in their singing, shouting, and praying, and after a while the white family grew rather exasperated because of this noise. One Sunday the church services were prolonged until an unusual hour and there was more noise than usual; so the next morning when the cook came, the lady of the house called her into the sitting-room, and said: "Jane, why in the world do you make so much noise in your worship, in your singing, praying, and shouting? Why don't you be orderly, quiet, and systematic in your worship? Why, Jane, in the Bible we read that in the building of Solomon's Temple, no noise pervaded the silence of the builders. Why can you not worship in the same way?" The old colored woman looked at her mistress for a few moments and said: "Lordy, missus, you don't know what we's doing; Lordy, missus, you don't know what we's striving at; we's just blasting out de stone for de foundation ob de Temple." So, my friends, when you hear us laying so much emphasis upon the moral and economic training, upon home-getting and all those things, remember we are simply trying to teach our people to blast out the foundation of the temple in which we are to grow and be useful.

Says the Psalmist: "O Lord, how manifold are Thy works; in wisdom hast Thou made them all; the earth is full of Thy riches." I believe that a wise Providence means that we shall use all the material riches of the earth: soil, wood, minerals, stones, water, air, and what not, as a means through which to reach God and glorify Him.

I have thus briefly dealt with the problem of slavery in its relations to the economic and moral growth of my people. Each one of these periods has presented a problem of tremendous importance and seriousness to your race and to my race.

If more attention had been given to the economic and industrial development of Liberia in the early stages of the history of that republic, Liberia would be far in advance of its present condition both in morals and religion, to say nothing of commercial prosperity. In Liberia there is an immense territory rich with resources. Notwithstanding this, there are no improved or advanced methods of agriculture; the soil is scarcely stirred; there are no carts, wagons or other wheeled vehicles, practically no public roads, no bridges, no railroads; the mineral wealth and the timber wealth remain almost untouched; and I am told on good authority that, in spite of all this wealth right at the very door of these people, even school-teachers and ministers wear clothing manufactured in the United States or in Europe, and eat canned goods that come from Chicago or Germany.

It requires no argument to impress the fact that the most practical missionary work would have been in the direction of teaching these people how to cultivate the soil in the best manner with the very best implements, how to get the wealth out of their forests and water and mines, how to build roads, decent bridges and decent houses; in a word, how to take hold of the material riches with which Providence has blessed the land and turn these riches into moral and religious growth. This, in my opinion, would have represented the very highest kind of missionary work.

I do not grow discouraged or despondent by reason of great and serious problems. On the contrary, I deem it a privilege to be permitted to live in an age when great, serious, and perplexing problems are to be met and solved. I would not care to live in a period when there was no weak part of the human family to be helped up and no wrongs to be righted. It is only through struggle and the surmounting of difficulties that races, like individuals, are made strong, powerful, and useful.

This is the road the Negro should travel; this is the road, in my opinion, the Negro will travel. I sometimes fear that in our great anxiety to push forward we lay too much stress upon our former condition. We should think less of our former growth and more of the present and of the things which go to retard or hinder that growth. In one of his letters to the Galatians, St. Paul says: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance; against such there is no law."

I believe that it is possible for a race, as it is for an individual, to learn to live up in such a high atmosphere that there is no human law that can prevail against it. There is no man who can pass a law to affect the Negro in relation to his singing, his peace, and his self-control. Wherever I go I would enter St. Paul's atmosphere and, living through and in that spirit, we will grow and make progress and, notwithstanding discouragements and mistakes, we will become an increasingly strong part of the Christian citizenship of this republic.

Booker T. Washington

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