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Mary L. Dotson of Tuskegee Institute, Alabama


By Mary L. Dotson

I graduated with the Class of 1900, Tuskegee Institute. It was the culmination of an event to which my mother and I had long looked forward.

I was born in 1879, in a small country village in the southwestern part of Alabama. My mother was the exceptional colored woman of our community. She was a dressmaker and tailoress and had all the work she could do. She owned her own home, a quite comfortable one, and earned continuously from her work a tidy sum of money.

I have always counted myself fortunate to have had such a home and such a mother. Very few of the colored people about us owned their own homes; the village school was a poor makeshift, and it was in session only two to four months in a year—that is, when some one could be secured to teach it for the very small salary paid. Both my father and mother had great respect for educationally equipped people, and desired that their children should have the opportunity to secure educational advantages. They tried in every possible way to interest the people in their own welfare, at least to the extent of supplementing the meager public-school fund, so as to provide decent educational facilities for the children. This effort failed. My mother had a room added to her home, and in it conducted, with my sister's help, a school for the children of the community. Two of my sisters had been sent away to school, one to Selma and the other to Talladega. In addition to the school conducted at our home, my mother was able to get the cooperation of some of the people in other parts of the county, and two other schools were started. These schools were afterward taken up, and have since become helpful factors in the life of the people.

My first lessons were given in the home, and my mother always claimed that I learned quite rapidly. As soon as I was old enough she also made me take lessons in sewing. Sewing made no appeal to me, however, but cooking did, and whenever possible I would steal away to my grandmother's to cook with her. Most of the time I was only permitted to wash dishes, but after a while I was permitted to help with her cooking. Soon I was able to make cakes for my father's store. He was always very proud that his "little" daughter was able to replenish his stock when it was exhausted.

At eight years of age I was sent to Meridian, Miss., to stay with an older sister and attend school. The advantages there were far superior to those provided for me at my home. After remaining two years at Meridian I went to Memphis, again in search of better school facilities. I have said that even at my age I had a fondness for cooking. At Memphis I had my first cooking lesson, this lesson being given along with the eighth grade work of the public school. I was delighted, but my aunt refused to allow me to practise in the home, however, and so all the practise I got was at school.

While in Memphis, a Tuskegee Institute graduate came there to teach in the colored public schools. Though we had lived in Alabama, we had not, until that time, heard of the Tuskegee Institute. The loyalty of that graduate to the school, the stories of the opportunities provided, and all, delighted my mother, my aunt, and myself, and it was decided that I should be sent there.

I entered the Tuskegee Institute in December, 1894, and was assigned, after examination, to the Junior class, the first class of the normal department. I remained at Tuskegee during the following summer and worked in the students' dining-room as a waitress. The next year I was compelled to enter the night-school so as to help lighten my mother's burden. I knew nothing of the science of foods; nothing at all, at that time, of anything that indicated that cooking is a real science. None but girls of the Senior class were then permitted to take cooking lessons, but I was often able to provide some excuse for visiting the very small and incompletely furnished room used for that purpose. I picked up much useful information in that way.

When I reached the A Middle class, next to the Senior class, the young women of that class were permitted to take cooking lessons.

Now I was to learn cooking. I had long desired the opportunity, and the chance had come at last. The study of foods was among the first lessons brought to my attention. While anxious to know all that was to be taught, I could never see the reasons for knowing. I wanted to cook food, and that, with me, was the end.

I began to study chemistry in the academic department, and when it was applied in my cooking lessons my eyes were opened. I now saw much that I had not dreamed of. A cooking teacher, a noted expert from Wisconsin, came to the school about that time and lectured not only to the cooking classes, but to the young women teachers, and to the married women of the Institute families. I was especially detailed to work with her, and was put to working out a diet for the students' boarding department. This instruction, with that of my regular instructor, convinced me that here was a real profession. I continued until the end of my school days to carry, along with all of my academic work, progressive work in cooking.

I had made such progress that when I came to graduate, Mrs. Washington, who is in charge of the industries for girls, offered me a vacancy in the cooking division. I did not feel that I was adequate to the requirements of the place, and so remarked to Mrs. Washington and my instructor. They recommended that I spend the summer at the Chautauqua Summer School, New York. I prepared to go immediately following the Tuskegee commencement exercises. A scholarship was secured for me. Domestic science teachers of proved efficiency are in charge there. They were pleased with what I had already been able to accomplish. My work was with the classes taking courses in chemistry, physiology, bacteriology, management of classes, and cooking demonstration.

At the end of the summer I felt stronger than ever, and returned to Tuskegee in the fall with real enthusiasm. I first began my work in the little room in which I had been taught. Another academic class of girls had now been admitted to the cooking classes, the three upper ones.

When Dorothy Hall, the building in which all of the industries for girls are located, was completed, my division was given a suite of rooms, an assistant was provided, and the work broadened and made more useful than ever. Under this division we now have a model kitchen, a regular kitchen in which the practise-cooking of the girls is done, two dining-rooms, a model bedroom, a model sitting-room, and a bathroom.

Principal Washington has insisted from year to year that, since cooking is so fundamental, every young woman, in the day-school at least, shall take lessons in cooking. For the current school year, 1904-'05, 458 young women are receiving instruction.

The course covers, in its entirety, four years, but is so comprehensive that even one and two years fit young women for the cooking of ordinary foods. Each of these girls is required to attend upon the outlined catalogue course of instruction, and in addition, from time to time, upon lectures bearing upon the several subjects comprehended under domestic science. The furnishing of the rooms is simple, but ample; the furniture, in the main, being made by the young women in the upholstering division. It has been widely praised by all who have seen it.

After teaching for two years, I requested leave of absence for one year so as to attend the Domestic-Science School of the Young Women's Christian Association, Boston. This additional study, of course, helped me very much. My studies were of foods, of the home, the teaching of demonstration and settlement classes, etc. Much other useful information also came my way.

When I returned to Tuskegee the next year I felt more able than ever to be of assistance to the girls who come to us. I was better able to outline my course of study. The thing that pleased me greatly, however, both at Chautauqua and at Boston, was the fact that my former Tuskegee training was commented on so favorably, as having been planned along properly comprehensive lines.

No part of the Tuskegee Institute work is more valuable than that of the domestic training. It is the policy of the institution to give special attention to the training of girls in all that pertains to dress, health, physical culture, and general housekeeping.

The girls are constantly under the strict and watchful care of the dean of the woman's department, Miss Jane E. Clark, a graduate of Oberlin College, a woman of liberal attainments and culture, and an example to them in all that makes for the development of character; of Mrs. Booker T. Washington, the director of industries for girls, and of the women teachers, a body in every way representative of the qualities the girls are besought to seek to attain. A corps of matrons, four in number, specially assist the dean of the woman's department and keep in close individual touch with the girls.

My own connection with the girls is in the cooking classes, as I have indicated, and in the Parker Model Home and the Practise Cottage. The Parker Model Home is the home of the young women who each year reach the Senior class. Eight large, conveniently arranged rooms are set apart for them, and they are taught things by having to do them. The class, as a whole, is required to do actual work in the line of general housekeeping, cooking and serving food, and laundering.

In order to give practical demonstration in housekeeping and to develop the sense of responsibility in the work, a four-room house has been set aside, in which the Senior girls "keep house." Four girls at a time live in this house and have the entire care of it. They do all the work that pertains to ordinary housekeeping, from the Monday morning's washing to the Saturday's preparation for Sunday. They are also charged with the responsibility of purchasing the food supplies which they consume. Three dollars are allowed as the weekly expenditure for food. In view of the low prices that obtain for provisions here, four girls can live comfortably on this small allowance and have variety and plenty, and at the same time very wholesome food. Thus the lesson of economy is taught in the most effective way. The girls learn to appreciate the purchasing power of money, a kind of training which boarding-students, who have so much done for them, do not get. They acquire the habit of evolving their own plans, of exercising unhampered their own tastes. Regularity, system, exactness, neatness, and the feeling of responsibility, are all developed in this way.


From the department where table-service is taught.

In both the Parker Model Home and the Practise Cottage I have charge, with my assistant, of the oversight of what is done in the direction of providing food, cooking it, serving it, etc.

Twenty-one classes a week are now taught; the preparatory classes one hour per week, and the normal classes two to three hours per week. The girls are required to work in groups, to wear white aprons, caps, and sleeves, and to bring to the classes towels and holders. Each girl brings her own blank books and keeps, through the year, a full report of each lesson given.

Most of the girls who come to us know absolutely nothing of cooking and housekeeping. They are, as a rule, like most beginners, more anxious to make cakes, candies, pies, etc., than to make bread, to care for utensils, and learn the practical things most necessary. Improvement soon follows, however.

We do some outside "extension work," in addition to what has been enumerated: a cooking class in the town of Tuskegee for those unable to attend the school at all, and classes for the children at the Children's House, the model training-school of the institution, where they are given understandable lessons in cooking and housekeeping. A bedroom, a dining-room, a bathroom, and a kitchen are also provided in connection with the Children's House.

I am happy in the thought that I have a part in this fundamental, home-building part of the instruction being given the girls who come from thirty-six States and territories of the Union, and from Cuba and Porto Rico and other foreign countries, to attend this famous school, of which I am myself a graduate.

When the girls are fitted to make better homes, a better people are the result. To have some part in this work was a fond wish while a student, and is a prized privilege now that I have the opportunity to render some slight service in return for all that Tuskegee has done for me.

Booker T. Washington