So much has been said about Tuskegee Institute as a training-school in which to prepare young colored men and women for earning a living in the world of trade and business, that the ideals and spirit behind all this training are to a very large extent lost sight of.
Tuskegee, with its hundreds of acres of farm-land under intelligent cultivation, with its ever-increasing number of well-appointed buildings and its equipment, and the many things on the grounds included in the name of handicrafts, is always in the public eye, and continually appeals to the interest of those who are deeply concerned in the well-being and progress of the Negro people.
Yet behind all of these more tangible manifestations of work, skill, and achievement, there is an unseen, persistent groping after the higher ideals of life and living. No one can remain long on the grounds as an intelligent observer of all that is to be here seen and felt, without recognizing that the things that are not written in the catalogue and not a part of the daily program of activities are real, vital, and of far-reaching importance.
Principal Booker T. Washington and the men and women who have helped him to build Tuskegee Institute are constantly looking beyond the present to a future filled with the evidences of a better living for all those who have felt the transforming spirit of the hidden forces at work.
How the perspective widens and deepens! Far, far beyond the confines of the Tuskegee Institute community the light of this new life is seen and felt and has its salutary effect. The stagnant life of centuries has awakened, and is casting off its bonds. A new term, "intelligent thrift," has come into its possession. Wherever this term has gone and taken root, there has gone with it the thought that unless the idea make for character, as well as for more cotton or corn, it is not of much value.
The Tuskegee Idea always asks one question, and that is, "What are you?" and not, "What have you?" The man who does not rise superior to his possessions does not measure up to the Tuskegee idea of manhood.
In other words, character-building is the Alpha and Omega of all that Tuskegee stands for. From the moment the new student comes on the grounds until he leaves, he is appealed to in ways innumerable to regard life as more than bread or meat, as more than mere mental equipment. Cleanliness, decorum, promptness, truthfulness—these are old-fashioned virtues, and are more properly taught in the home, but in Tuskegee they mean everything. Tuskegee not only acts as a teacher, but assumes the rôle of parent, and lays emphasis on the importance of these virtues every moment of the time from the entrance of the student until Commencement Day. The "cleanliness that is next to godliness" is one of the Tuskegee ideals, and a student can scarcely commit a more serious misdemeanor than to appear slovenly, either in dress or manners. The facilities and requirements for bathing are quite as complete and exacting as the equipments in the laboratories and recitation-rooms. The result is that Tuskegee has the reputation of being one of the most cleanly and sanitary institutions in the South.
As for good manners, Lord Chesterfield himself would scarcely ask more than is insisted upon by Tuskegee precision. A man must first be conscious of being a gentleman before he can be recognized as such by others, and a girl's good manners are only outward evidences of her individual worth and passport to respectful treatment. Tuskegee Institute, then, insists upon these things because they make for character, and are a part of the ideals toward which all training tends.
But how are all these things taught and enforced? The first requisite, of course, is the character of the teachers and instructors themselves, the men and women who are the embodiment of the ideals that Tuskegee Institute stands for. While it can not be claimed that the best teachers in the South are all at Tuskegee, it can be said that no other school has so large a number of colored men and women who have had the advantage of the highest industrial and intellectual, moral and religious training. The teaching force is made up largely of graduates from nearly every first-class educational institution in America. These teachers have been carefully sought out and brought to Tuskegee, not only for their teaching ability, but that the students may have the benefit of the best examples before them of what the highest culture can do for men and women of their own race. For the majority of our students the perspective of life is narrow: many of them have never lived out of the community in which they were born. That was their only world; their ideals of life were shaped by their mean and narrow environments. They have learned to believe, and act accordingly, that the best people are all of one complexion, and the worst and poorest people are all of another complexion. There is no such thing as creating a sentiment of race pride in such people unless they have set before them living examples of their own race in whom they can feel a sense of pride.
It is scarcely too much to say that one of the best things about the Tuskegee Institute is that it wins our young men and women from mean and sordid environment and brings them in contact with teachers whose minds, hearts, and lives have been enlarged and graced by the highest learning in the best educational institutions of the country. The school teaches no more important lesson than that of cultivating a sense of pride and respect for colored men and women who deserve it because of their character, education, and achievements.
Pride of race, though not so written in the courses of study, is as much a part of Tuskegee's work as agriculture, brick-making, millinery, or any other trade, and quite as important. This may be called sentiment, but it makes for race development quite as much as any of the material things taught in the class-room or shop. To borrow a line from George Eliot:
"Because our race has no great memories,
I will so live, it shall remember me
For deeds of such divine beneficence
As rivers have, that teach men what is good
By blessing them—
And make their name, now but a badge of scorn,
A glorious banner floating in their midst,
Stirring the air they breathe with impulses
Of generous pride, exalting fellowship
Until it soars to magnanimity."
That self-respect demands race pride; that virtue is its own reward; that character is the greatest thing in human life, are taught and emphasized in other ways also. Dr. Washington has succeeded, to a remarkable degree, in developing the Tuskegee Institute by insisting that this institution must have nothing less than the best within and without it, everywhere. What is not best is only temporary. Those who have done most for the school have been made to feel that the character of the work done here and the ideals striven for are deserving of the best. The idea that "anything is good enough for a Negro school" has never been allowed to have any part or exert any effect in Tuskegee's expansion.
For example, when Mr. Carnegie donated the money for a library for Tuskegee, a building was erected of classic outline—a noble structure of artistic symmetry and beauty that must appeal to every one who has any appreciation of architectural beauty. The Collis P. Huntington Memorial Building, just completed, a gift of Mrs. C. P. Huntington, used for the academic classes of the school, would be a credit and delight to any municipality. There is everything about the exterior and interior that must awaken a sense of pride in every pupil who enters its portals. Its facilities are sensible and unostentatious, yet they meet every requirement of the department. What is true of the new Academic Building is likewise true of the various dormitories for girls and boys. The cleanliness and the sanitation to be found at Tuskegee are in delightful contrast to the poor environment to which many of the students have been accustomed; especially is this contrast heightened when these same students have, under competent direction, installed the plants which yield these comforts. Thus it is that in dormitory, recitation-room, shop, dining-hall, library, chapel, and landscape, the idea that only the best is worth having and striving for is emphasized as an object-lesson and principle with such insistence that it becomes an actual part of a student's training and life.
The student at Tuskegee is constantly being trained to look up and forward. He learns how the idea of beauty can be actualized in home and social life; how faithful performance of every duty means nobility of character; how the value of achievement is determined by the motive behind it. But besides these, the one aim, thought, or anxiety around which all others revolve is the high honorableness of all kinds of work intelligently done.
In a section where those who work with their hands are marked off by the inexorable line of caste from those who work with their brains or not at all, this idea of making intelligent work more honorable than intelligent idleness is of constructive value in race development. The problem that the Tuskegee Institute is helping to solve is not only that the colored people shall do their proportionate share of the work, but that they shall do it in such a way that the benefits will remain with those who do the work. Who can measure the transforming effect and influence when it can be said that the "best mechanics" and the "best agriculturists" in the South are Negroes? Certainly, if such a time ever comes, there will be no such painful thing as a race problem, as Negroes now see it and feel it.
This is one of Tuskegee's largest ideals; not that Tuskegee alone can bring about a "consummation so devoutly to be wished," but it is ambitious to be a potent factor in all the tendencies that make for such a condition of life in the heart of the South. So important is this aim and idea of Tuskegee, that it allows no criticism to affect, interfere, or obscure its vision. Tuskegee says to the world that it is determined not only to be a school, but an agent of civilization, a missionary for a better life, that shall stand for a kindlier relationship between the races.
The school enthusiastically seeks to live up to the ideal of its Principal, that education in the broadest and truest sense is designed to influence individuals to help others; is designed, first, last, and all the time, to transform and energize individuals into life-giving agencies for the uplift of their fellows. Principal Washington's whole educational creed, accepted by Tuskegee Institute teachers and students alike, was recently declared in one of his familiar Sunday-evening "talks" to the students of the institution. Said he:
"Education in the broadest and truest sense will make an individual seek to help all people, regardless of race, regardless of color, regardless of condition. And you will find that the person who is most truly educated is the one who is going to be kindest, and is going to act in the gentlest manner toward persons who are unfortunate, toward the race or the individual that is most despised. The highly educated person is the one who is most considerate of those individuals who are less fortunate. I hope when you go out from here and meet persons who are afflicted by poverty, whether of mind or body, or persons who are unfortunate in any way, that you will show your education by being just as kind and considerate toward those persons as it is possible for you to be. That is the way to test a person with education. You may see ignorant persons, who perhaps think themselves educated, going about the street, and when they meet an individual who is unfortunate—lame, or with a defect of body, mind, or speech—are inclined to laugh at and make sport of that individual. But the highly educated person, the one who is really cultivated, is gentle and sympathetic to every one. Education is meant to make us absolutely honest in dealing with our fellows. I do not care how much arithmetic we have, or how many cities we can locate; it is all useless unless we have an education that makes us absolutely honest. Education is meant to make us give satisfaction, and to get satisfaction out of giving it. It is meant to make us get happiness out of service for our fellows. And until we get to the point where we can get happiness and supreme satisfaction out of helping our fellows, we are not truly educated.... Education is meant to make us appreciate the things that are beautiful in nature. A person is never educated until he is able to go into the swamps and woods and see something that is beautiful in the trees and shrubs there—is able to see something beautiful in the grass and flowers that surround him—is, in short, able to see something beautiful, elevating, and inspiring in everything that God has created. Not only should education enable us to see beauty in these objects which God has put about us, but it is meant to influence us to bring beautiful objects about us. I hope that each one of you, after you graduate, will surround himself at home with what is beautiful, inspiring, and elevating. I do not believe that any person is educated so long as he lives in a dirty, miserable shanty. I do not believe that any person is educated until he has learned to want to live in a clean room made attractive with pictures and books, and with such surroundings as are elevating. In a word, I wish to say again that education is meant to give us that culture, that refinement, that taste, which will make us deal truthfully and sympathetically with our fellow men, and will make us see what is beautiful, elevating, and inspiring in what God has created. I want you to bear in mind that your text-books, with all their contents, are not an end, but a means to an end—a means to help us get the highest, the best, the purest, and the most beautiful things out of life."
The Tuskegee trained boy or girl has set before him every hour in the day, and every day in the year, the substantial educational ideals here set forth. Books, valuable as they are, and nowhere more thoroughly reckoned as such than here, are only a means to an end: this is the gospel preached by the Tuskegee teacher. Life is the great, the eternal thing; the serving of one's fellows, the ministering unto the needy of a groping, developing people—this is the thing not forgotten, but ever constantly enforced by precept and by example.
The many old and time-worn frame buildings are being replaced by finely built and imposing brick and stone structures; the tallow dip and antiquated oil-lamp and gas-jet, as illuminators, have paled before the more brilliant white light of electricity, installed by Tuskegee students and operated by them. Patience and faith!—these are Tuskegee's watchwords and her standard virtues. What can not be accomplished to-day will certainly be accomplished to-morrow.
So, in its larger outlook and household anxieties, Tuskegee Institute teachers are confident that the things taught and enforced by example and precept will justify their efforts in helping to make a dependent people independent, a distracted people confident, and an humble people to thrill with pride in itself and in its best men and women. Thus it is that Tuskegee Institute has never been satisfied with being merely a school, concerned wholly with its recitations and training in shop and field. Every student who carries a diploma from these grounds is urged not to hang that diploma on the wall as an ornament, as an evidence of individual superiority, but to make it mean something constructive and life-giving to every one in the community where he must live and work.
The young men and women who are trained for mission work in foreign countries are not more carefully trained in the spirit of consecration than are these young men and women trained at Tuskegee for the work of creating better economic and social conditions among their own people. It is not necessary to state here what has already been accomplished in many parts of the South by Tuskegee graduates. The selected examples set forth in this book are evidence enough. It is sufficient to say that the Tuskegee Institute is determined to become more and more a distinctive influence among the regenerative agencies that are gradually bringing order out of chaos, and justice, peace, and happiness out of the wretched disorders of a painful past. It is easy to trace the influence of such well-established institutions as Harvard and Yale in the progressive life of the American people. The sons of Harvard and Yale almost dominate civilization in America. In another sense, it is possible for Tuskegee to have a like influence in the many things that must be accomplished in the South, before love and justice shall supplant race prejudice and race antagonism.
This reaching out helpfully in all directions where help is needed is the distinguishing feature of Tuskegee. This race-loving spirit gives it a largeness of view and purpose that saves both its teachers and pupils from being narrow and self-centered. Take from Tuskegee all this "vision splendid," and it will at once shrink into common-place insignificance. "Set your ideals high," says the distinguished man who here is Principal as he was founder, "and in your efforts to reach them you become strong for greater things." It is but truth to say that no institution in all the land, whether for white or black education, stands for higher and more generous ideals.
Unless the young man who goes away from Tuskegee as blacksmith, carpenter, printer, or as any other mechanic, is something more than these, he has been incapable of perceiving and taking in the ideals that go with these accomplishments. He has been taught over and over again to "hitch his wagon to the stars," and if he fail to do so, the fault is in himself, and not in Tuskegee.
As between a poor doctor and a poor carpenter, there is but scant choice. They are both failures and to be avoided. Honor in one is as precious as in the other. Honor and efficiency—these, therefore, are the ideal test of every son and daughter that passes out of these grounds into the larger world of work and responsibility.
What a terrible task it has been and still is to teach the lessons of the upward spirit: "God's in His heaven, all's well with the world." Hope is strength and discouragement is weakness. Everything that is false and unjust and wrong is transitory. Those who are brave enough to solve problems shall be more honored of mankind than those who create problems which they make no effort to solve.
There can be no liberty without intelligence, no independence without industry, and no power for man, and no charm for woman, without character.
These are some of the ideals toward which all our teaching leads; without these there would be no Tuskegee; with them, as its very life and spirit and inspiration, Tuskegee shall lead into more ways of peace, happiness, and power than we of this generation have yet dreamed of, or realized.
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