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John W. Robinson of Lome, Togo, West Africa


By John W. Robinson

As all autobiographical sketches begin, so do I begin this one. I was born in Bennettsville, S. C., in 1873. Neither of my parents could write their names; but my father could read a little, and taught me the alphabet.

My paternal grandfather was a slave of some intelligence. He was a competent carpenter, had charge of his master's saw- and grist-mills, and kept the accounts of the two mills. His master, who was a member of the State Legislature, was very kind to him. He allowed him a portion of the savings from these industries he was controlling, and even promised him his freedom. The latter he delayed so long that my grandfather ran away. He succeeded in reaching Charleston, S. C. He had secured a ticket and was about to take passage for Canada, when he was captured and returned to his master's home. His master was attending the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina, and it became the overseer's duty to punish the returned fugitive. My grandfather never recovered from the effects of the brutal punishment meted out to him for daring to desire freedom in his own right.

My father was the oldest boy and the second child in a family of five. He was a farmer and a cobbler. At the age of twenty-seven he was married to my mother.

I suppose the history of my mother's life would be monotonous and dull to many ears, but I remember that I never grew tired of hearing her relate its somber happenings. She often told us how her grandmother could relate the thrilling story of her capture on African soil and of being brought to America, of the horrors of the passage, and of much else that I shall always remember.

After their marriage my parents began farming in Bennettsville, Marlborough County, S. C., the place where I was born. I remember most vividly that two-roomed log cabin where my parents' ten children were born—

"Low and little, and black and old,
With children as many as it could hold."

However, my father soon began working for wages, and received $10 per month and the proverbial "rations"—three pounds of meat and a peck of meal per week. What a financier he must have been, for from that mean sum he managed to save $50 or $75 each year, and I still cherish the memory of how fondly I felt those crisp green-backs once a year. He brought them home every Christmas and allowed each member of the family to feel them—yes, even caress them.

When I was about nine years of age I entered the public school of the community, which was in session about four months in a year, opening late in the fall and going through the winter. My parents were so delighted and gratified at the progress I made that I was occasionally privileged to spend one month in the subscription school conducted near by during the summer.

When I was fourteen years of age a great sorrow visited our home. My mother died. I often wonder if any one can realize what it means to lose a mother without having suffered that bereavement. My father did not marry again.

About this time the authorities opened a school nearer us than the one I had been attending, but the teachers were usually very incompetent and my progress was seriously hindered.

The absorbing desire of my life had been to some day graduate from some institution of learning, but I found myself at eighteen years of age far from the goal of my ambition. I became alarmed. I realized what it would mean to grow to manhood in ignorance; I also knew that there were seven children younger than I to be cared for. I seriously thought the matter over. I finally broached it to my father, and he consented that I should try to make a way for myself.

I rented a small farm, trusting that by cultivating it I would be able to clear enough money to begin my education. I began wrong, for I had in advance mortgaged my crop. I began with $75, but when the year closed I had only $10. However, my aspirations were not to be daunted; I was resolved on going to school.

With this $10 I purchased the necessary books, paid my entrance fee, and entered the village graded school. I was poorly clad, and much of the time was without food, but I felt that I could not even ask my father for assistance because of his responsibility in caring for the younger children. I was constant, however, in my endeavor to find work, and finally a companion and I succeeded in getting an old farmhouse about three miles from the village in which to live. In a measure this suited me, for I loved the country.

The house was an old, dilapidated one, and I do not see now how we stood that first severe winter; but though I was in rags and my food was often roasted potatoes or peas with a little salt, I did not miss a single day's schooling that year, and great was my joy and satisfaction when, at the end of the year, I stood at the head of my class.

During this time I had done such work in the surrounding neighborhood as could be obtained. My Saturdays and afternoons were spent in splitting rails, chopping wood, driving garden palings, and doing any other work that would enable me to exist. Although I had stinted myself and had often gone without food, at the end of the year I was $12 in debt. But this was not sufficient to make me despair.

When vacation came I immediately sought work, and though I was diligent in my application to it when I had obtained it, steady employment was not to be had. My wages were never more than fifty cents a day, but I often received less. For two years I lived in this way. At the expiration of that time I decided that it would benefit me to enter a higher institution of learning. I knew that this would mean that I must have more remunerative employment.

By some means my attention was directed to the orange industry of Florida, and in the summer of 1894 I regretfully left my companions and relatives, went to Deland, Fla., and secured the desired work. The winter proved to be an unusually cold one, and the orange industry was greatly hindered; therefore I was soon out of employment, and at the season of the year when I most needed it. I was not long idle, however, for the very cause of my loss of work opened another avenue; I was kept busy chopping wood. Though I went to Florida penniless, at the end of six months I had saved $60.

It was at Deland that I learned of the magnificent opportunities afforded earnest young men and women at Tuskegee Institute. I at once made application to become a student. That morning I did not know that such a school existed; that night, while I slept, the Southern Railway was bearing my letter of application to Mr. Washington. My anxiety almost reached fever-heat during those few intervening days that I waited for an answer, and my joy was boundless when it came, setting forth the requirements for admittance. I sent a portion of the money I had saved to my father. With the rest I bought some necessary clothing, and left Deland far behind for Tuskegee.

I shall always remember how little and insignificant I felt when I entered the school-grounds and was told that all those buildings and all those acres of ground were a part of the Tuskegee Institute. I had read of it in the circular of information which was sent me when I applied for admission, but the realization was, to me, almost overpowering. After paying my entrance fee and purchasing my school-books I had $15 left. Thus I began what has proved to be a "new life."

Fifteen dollars were, of course, an inadequate sum with which to pay my expenses through the day-school, and so I was permitted to enter the night-school, as so many others as poor as I had done. This means that I was given an opportunity to work at some industry during the day and attend classes at night. I was not only receiving training at an industry, being provided with food, shelter, and fuel, and receiving instruction at night, but I was earning enough over my board to be placed to my credit in the school's treasury to help pay my board when I should enter the day-school.

My first term was spent at work on Marshall Farm, where the greater part of the school's farming was at that time done.

When I entered Tuskegee I had no thought of preparing myself for returning to farm life. Even the word "farm" brought to my mind visions of dull, hard work and drudgery without comforts. I had not been at the Tuskegee Institute long, however, before I was led to know that "agriculture" is the very highest of all industrial callings. I had never known that agriculture had so many subdivisions, that soils could be analyzed and treated, that rotation of crops enriched the soil, that a certain crop planted season after season on the same soil made it poor, because it was ridding it of some life-giving chemical. To me soils simply "wore out." But through lectures and practical experiments my agricultural horizon began to expand, and a sense of the beauty of the industry grew upon me.

It was to me a marvelous thing to go into the dairy and take milk but recently milked, pour it into the Sharpless Separator, set the machine in motion, and behold a stream of rich, sweet cream flow from one avenue of escape, while a foamy jet of milk passed from another. There, too, I learned cheese-making and butter-making.

My school life was filled with difficulties because of financial embarrassments. I was one of the competitors in the first Trinity Church (Boston) Prize Contest, founded at the school by Dr. E. Winchester Donald, successor of Phillips Brooks, and rector of Trinity until his death, and I remember that I was greatly discomfited because the socks I wore had no feet in them, and my shoes had that afternoon been sewed with thread blackened with soot.

However, I was the successful contestant, the first winner of the prize of $25. The next day I provided myself with new shoes and socks. I also received my diploma that same year, 1897, within two days of receiving the prize, and was very happy to receive it and the diploma at the same time.

Two summers and one winter after graduating I taught school at Mamie, Ala. When I was not teaching I worked on the farm of the family with which I boarded. For this work I received very little pay, but I had been taught at Tuskegee that it was better to work for nothing than to be idle—a Booker T. Washington precept.

The second winter I was first assistant in the Ozark city school, Ozark, Ala., and was offered the principalship for the next term, but I declined in order to further pursue postgraduate studies in agriculture at Tuskegee. I remained there for six months. I then went West, to Rockford, Ill., to do practical work in that section for the purpose of strengthening and improving the theory and practise already learned.

It was harvesting season and I soon secured work. I put all my energy into the work of the rugged Western farm and succeeded admirably in following the threshing-machine, in husking corn, and in doing the other farm labors common to Western fall and winter seasons. My first four months were spent on the farm of a widow. After the harvesting was over she offered me the farm, with its implements, barns, horses, and dairy herd, if I would remain and pay her certain percentages of the profits, but I told her that I was only a student in search of knowledge.

The next spring I secured work with a very progressive Irishman. He was a farmer, as well as secretary and treasurer of a modern creamery and butter factory. This work I preferred, because it was along my chosen line, and of a very high grade.

For one year I worked in this establishment, and was not absent from duty even one day. My employer once said to me that he had heard and also read that Negroes were lazy, shiftless, and untrustworthy. He had not come into contact with enough Negroes to draw his own conclusions, so he asked me if there were more like me. I told him that I did not consider myself an exception, but that I had had the advantages of superior training at Tuskegee. He did not know before that I was a Tuskegee graduate. He seemed surprised to know that a graduate would work as a common farm-hand. He said he had found no white ones who would. I then explained to him that I was seeking a comprehensive knowledge of farming conditions North and South. I value that year on those Western farms next to my training at Tuskegee.

I was planning to return to the South and start a farm of my own, when I was asked by Mr. Washington to join a company of Tuskegee young men who were wanted to go to Africa for the purpose of experimenting in cotton-growing under the German Government. It was a call I could not resist. Here was a chance for the largest possible usefulness. Here I could have a part in a monumental undertaking, and I gladly agreed to go. The wages offered were flattering, and all expenses in connection with the trip were borne by the Kolonial Komittee of the German Government. The Executive Council of the Institute selected Shepherd L. Harris, Allen L. Burks, and myself, all graduates of the school, and Mr. James N. Calloway, a member of the Faculty, who had had charge of the school's largest farm, and who was selected to head the expedition. We sailed from New York on November 3, 1900, and reached Togo by way of Hamburg on December 31, 1900. Later five additional Tuskegee students joined us, but of the original party I am the only one left. A report of the beginnings of our work was published after two years, with elaborate illustrations to commemorate what we had been able to accomplish. Samples of the cotton made into hose and various other articles were distributed among those interested in the success of the experiment. That report may be secured from the Kolonial-Wirtschaftliches Komittee, Berlin, Germany.

Not long since I sent to Principal Washington a summary of the work we have been trying to do. He regularly insists that Tuskegee graduates shall send him reports of what they are doing, and my letter to him was in response to that request. We keep in touch with Tuskegee and its work after leaving the institution through a correspondence prized by every graduate of the school. The summary I include here, as it may be of interest to the reader:

At the outset it was very difficult to excite any interest at all in our work on the part of the natives. For some reason they mistrust every proposition made them by a foreigner, and in the beginning they would not even accept the gift of cotton-seeds from us. They claimed that if they should accept our seeds we would come again and claim our own with usury. Many of the Europeans here said that the natives would never become interested in the movement. But we worked on, and now already in the farming districts are hundreds of native cotton farms. Now they no longer mistrust us, but they come and ask for cotton-seeds, and a conservative estimate places the incoming native harvest near the thousand-bale mark. Of course the native methods are very irrational. They cultivate their cotton altogether as a secondary crop. But we are content, at the beginning, to let them cultivate in their own way.

We find distributed through the colony not less than three distinct species of cotton, with some hybrids and varieties; but none of these are indigenous, and, having been left in a neglected state for centuries, are consequently not far removed from nature and are not so remunerative when put under even the best culture. The seeds imported from America are not able to survive the greatly changed conditions of climate. Here is our greatest obstacle. Our course was plain. If we did not have a plant that exactly suited us, we had to make it.

The production of a commercial plant is very important. Our present domestic seeds will yield about four hundred pounds of seed-cotton per acre, and the character of the fruit and the arrangement upon the stalk make it very expensive to harvest. Besides, the stalk grows too much to a tree and is not prolific proportionately, and the quality of the lint is equal to American "middling." We are trying to develop a plant that will yield 1,000 pounds of seed-cotton to the acre, with a lint equal in quality to fully good "middling" or to Allen's 1⅞-inch staple.

Now suppose we succeed in making this plant as I have above outlined; the 4,000 acres under cultivation would then at least produce 2,000 bales of seed-cotton where they now produce but 1,000 bales. We can see how greatly the annual income of the natives will be increased. Such a plant is forthcoming.

Through selection and crossing of American and native cottons we have obtained a new variety, which is satisfactory in every primary respect. It is more hardy than the average American plant and fifty per cent more productive than the average native plant. A sample of the lint of this new, would-be variety was submitted to the Chamber of Commerce in Berlin, and it was pronounced good in every way, and brought in January, 1904, about twenty cents a pound.

There is one feature that I would like to speak about before I have done with the subject, because I know it will please you. In one of the letters you wrote me some time ago you advised me to "labor earnestly, quietly, and soberly, discharging my duty in the way that would eventually make me one of the most influential persons in the community." Being faithful in small things is one of the fundamental principles of Tuskegee, and is what I am able to do without even striving. It has become natural for me to be faithful, it matters not how small or insignificant the service. I find myself to-day possessing much influence in the work in which I am now engaged.

In order to make secure the work begun and to insure a normal and well-balanced progress for the future, it was recommended to institute, along with the present undertaking, what I am pleased to call "A Cotton-School and Plant-Breeding Station." At this school are gathered young men from all over the colony, who come for a two-years' course in modern methods of farming. The boys are to be taught some of the simple rules and practises of agriculture. The boys are 45 in number, representing the most intelligent classes; the station consists of 250 acres of land, 8 oxen, 2 asses, 1 horse, farm implements, cotton-gin, press, etc. Such an institution appeared to me necessary to the healthy progress of the undertaking. There will soon be in operation 3 ginning- and pressing-stations run by steam-power, besides a dozen or more hand-gins. This, I believe, tells the whole story. My health is very good. I hope you will write me often, because your letters are always so interesting and helpful.

That my life has been as useful and successful as it has is due to the training and inspiration received at Tuskegee Institute, perhaps not so much to the agricultural department, for I did not finish that course, but to the general awakening and stimulating influence which permeates and is a part of the training of Tuskegee students.

And now while I write, and daily as I work, I am prompted on to better and stronger efforts because of the Tuskegee in embryo that looms before me. And as I think, and work, and write, I am gratified because of the assurance that I am only one of that increasing host whose loyal hearts and useful lives shall make Tuskegee live forever.

Booker T. Washington