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Gabriel B. Miller of Fort Valley, Georgia

THE STORY OF A CARPENTER

By Gabriel B. Miller


The plantation on which I was born in 1875 is located near Pleasant Hill, Ga. At that time Pleasant Hill was twenty miles from any railroad, and I did not see a railroad train till I was twelve years of age.

I lived on a plantation on which more than two hundred men and women worked for the owner. The children had no especial educational opportunities. Few of them were even permitted to attend the makeshift public school located near. For six months only, of the twelve years my father lived on that plantation, did I attend any school, and that a small one taught by a Southern white woman who had owned my father. When I was twelve years of age my father moved from the plantation on which he had been working "on shares" and rented land which he and his family cultivated. Soon there were thirteen children in his family, of which number I was the second.

In December, 1892, I drove a wagon with two bales of cotton to a little Georgia town. While waiting for the wagon preceding me to move off the scales on which the cotton was weighed, I heard a colored man, who had heard of Tuskegee Institute, telling of its advantages, and he quite glowingly recounted the glories of the place as they had been related to him. As he proceeded he informed those gathered about him that at this school a boy could work his way if perchance he could reach the institution. I got nearer to him and heard and treasured every word he said. Especially did I remember his statement that he had been informed that some of the boys graduating from there had not paid a single cent in cash for their education, having worked it all out.

When I reached home that night I told my father of what I had heard. For three successive years our crops had failed and my father was more than $500 in debt. The prospect of interesting him in any project that meant the expenditure of money was discouraging, but an eager desire to secure an education led me to make him a proposition, viz.: that he should permit me during the next year, 1893, to have full and complete charge of the farm, and if I succeeded in settling all of his indebtedness I was to be released to attend school at Tuskegee, provided I could secure admittance, whether he cleared any money or not. This proposition my father readily agreed to. He sympathized with my ambitions, but the heavy burden of carrying a large family with short-crop returns dwarfed whatever good intentions he might have.

On the first of January, 1893, those of the family who could work joined me in starting early and working late during the whole of the year. We ran a two-horse farm. From that year's work we gathered 25 bales of cotton, 800 bushels of corn, 300 bushels of cow-peas, 250 gallons of sugar-cane sirup, 5 wagon-loads of pumpkins, a great amount of hay and fodder, and picked at night for neighbors about us, white and black, 25 bales of cotton. We had rented two mules and the wagon used that year, but now at the close bought two younger, stronger mules and a new wagon and paid cash for the whole outfit. We settled our indebtedness with everybody, and my father, who had earnestly worked under my supervision along with the others, was very, very happy. Of course, we had a very small balance left—not enough to be of any service to me in keeping me in school except I should be allowed to help myself by working. After "laying the crops by" I made home-made baskets during the summer and sold them, realizing about $16. In one year I had accomplished a task my father thought impossible of accomplishment. He religiously kept his word, and was as enthusiastic about my getting off to school as I was.

I had now learned more of the Tuskegee Institute, and was impatient to reach there. Others, too, became eager and enthusiastic, and so when I started, January 19, 1894, it was a red-letter event in our little community. I left home with only the $16 I had saved from the sale of my baskets. The next morning after reaching Tuskegee I was piloted to the Principal's office and my recommendations requested. I was puzzled. I did not know what was wanted. I had not followed the usual routine and written for permission to enter as students are required to do, but had gone ahead, thinking the presentation of myself all that would be necessary. I had no recommendations, but mustered courage enough to ask for a trial before being refused. My request was granted, and I became a student—proud event in my life!—of the famous Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute.

I had always wanted to be a carpenter; as long ago as I can remember this was my ambition, but when carried to the office of the director of industries he refused to assign me to work there, as that division was filled, but assigned me instead to the sawmilling division. I was not angry, of course. I was too glad to be at Tuskegee; but I was bitterly disappointed, especially after I had seen the carpenter shop, some of the work of the young men, and the imposing buildings on which they had been and were working. I was promised the first vacancy, and that temporarily eased my sorrow. A vacancy did not occur for one and a half years. In the meantime I had become reconciled, and had worked as earnestly as I could to please the instructor in sawmilling. I tried to learn all there was to learn in that division, and at the end of that period could adjust and run proficiently every machine in the sawmilling division. The school cut then, as it does now, most of the lumber used in the carpentry division, and efficient students were needed and desired. My instructor was so well pleased with my progress that he recommended, over my protest, to the director of industries, my retention in the division.

I had kept so busily after the director during those eighteen months to allow me to enter the shop that he could not well refuse to grant my request when a vacancy occurred. I was admitted to the carpenter shop.

For five years I was an apprentice, doing work of every kind. I also took mechanical drawing along with carpentry. When I graduated in 1900 I received not only a diploma from the academic department, but a certificate from the carpentry division as well. I had improved every opportunity, and had a fair knowledge of architectural as well as of mechanical drawing. This latter instruction I had made a place for along with my other studies.

Maj. J. B. Ramsey, the Commandant, had been so well pleased with my general deportment that for years I was commissioned by him to command, as captain, one of the companies of the Tuskegee Institute battalion of cadets. This had pleased and encouraged me very much indeed.

To my surprise, three months before my graduation I was asked to remain in the employ of the Tuskegee Institute as one of the assistant teachers in the carpentry division. I had contracted, however, to do some work at Montgomery, Ala., and I could not accept the place offered. I spent about four months working at my trade in Montgomery, and was again reminded of the offer made me at Tuskegee. I returned to Tuskegee, but did not remain long, as the Executive Council of the Institute recommended me, when application was made for a competent man to take charge of the carpentry division of the Fort Valley High and Industrial School, Fort Valley, Ga. The terms offered were satisfactory and I accepted the position.

I began work here November 9, 1900, in a shop 30 feet by 60 feet. No tools and no work-benches were provided, only a lot of inexperienced boys to whom I was expected to teach carpentry. I owned a chest of tools, and these I used until the school could secure some. I proceeded at once to make work benches, and my boys had their first lessons in carpentry in providing these. Quite often visitors who come to see us ask if these benches were not made at some factory, they are so well made. We next proceeded to fit out a drawing-room, as I intended that my boys should work—as I had been compelled to do from the very beginning at Tuskegee—from drawings. Everything I had done there had to be carefully worked out in advance, and, knowing the value of that kind of thing, I did not want these boys to have anything less than the kind of instruction I had had. We made tables and desks for the drawing-room; next we ceiled and finished twelve rooms in the main school building that had long been left unfinished. All of the work pleased the authorities of the school, I have reason to know. Near the close of my first term at Fort Valley it was decided to erect a dormitory building for girls. I was asked to submit plans and specifications. My training as a carpenter at Tuskegee had fitted me for just that kind of thing, and I set about designing a building that would meet the requirements of the young women attending Fort Valley.

My plans were finally accepted, and I thought to go on with the erection of the building during the summer, as had been planned; but one or two of the building committee began to object, urging that I was too young, that I had not had enough experience, and that a building of that quality should be erected by a builder of proved reputation. After much delay I was permitted to proceed. I began with ten "green" boys, and they, under my direction as I worked side by side with them, did all of the work except the hanging of the window-sashes, doors, etc. I had outside help in doing this part of the finishing. The building is a real pride to all of us here. It is 36 feet by 78 feet, 2 stories high, has 22 sleeping-rooms, a splendidly arranged dining-room, 36 feet by 36 feet, and cost $3,200. No one, hereabouts at least, now doubts that I can build anything I say I can. I am glad that so soon after beginning the work here I was able to prove the claims of my Tuskegee instructors as to my fitness for the position for which they had recommended me.

Unfortunately, before I had completed the dormitory for girls, a fire destroyed our main school building with the contents. This fire left us without class-rooms. We took refuge in the Carpenter Shop, and held classes there until money was secured with which to build a training-school for the lower grades. This latter building I also put up entirely with student labor. It contains three large rooms, each 25 feet by 30 feet. The appointments in every way accord with approved hygienic laws. Dr. Wallace Buttrick, Executive Secretary of the General Education Board, spoke complimentarily of the building when he saw it, as one of the few in the State he had seen that met all the requirements of a class-room. We were able to build it for $1,600.

Even during the construction of the training-school I was drawing the plans for a large brick building to replace the one burned. My plans were submitted to friends of the work in the North, and by the time we had finished the training-school we had money enough to begin the brickwork on the new building. By April, 1903, the brickwork was complete, and as we had no additional money we were compelled to allow the building to stand until June, 1904, at which time we were able to resume.

My boys did all of the woodwork, did the hod-carrying, and most of the unskilled labor. The building cost $8,000, and is 86 feet 8 inches by 52 feet 8 inches in its dimensions, is 2 stories high, and has a deckle roof with dormer windows. The chapel is on the first floor, 6 recitation-rooms on the second floor, and 13 sleeping-rooms for boys on the one-half third-story floor. A basement for storage purposes, 25 feet by 50 feet, is a great convenience.

Of the many contractors and builders who have visited our school-grounds none have failed to speak in praise of the design, the workmanship, the strength, and the relative relation to each other of the school buildings with regard to future additions.

I need not add that this has been very pleasing to me. I was married December 9, 1904, at Atlanta, Ga., to Miss Mary E. Hobbs.

To me Tuskegee has been all in all, and I still remember with gratitude the man who, in my hearing, spoke so glowingly of the school as I weighed my cotton in the little Georgia town away back in December, 1892.

Booker T. Washington