Of myself and the work I have done there is not a great deal to say. I was born at Tuskegee, Ala., on a part of the very ground now occupied by the famous Tuskegee Institute. The building first used by the school as an industrial building for girls was the house in which I was born. That old building (and two others, as well) is carefully preserved by the institution as an old landmark, and never do I go to Tuskegee that I do not search it out among the more imposing and pretentious buildings which have come during the later years of the school's history. This building and the two other small ones were on the property when it was acquired by Principal Washington.
My mother lived the greater part of her life at this place as the slave of Colonel William Bowen, who owned the plot of ground upon which the Tuskegee Institute now stands. The birthplace of my mother was Baltimore, Md. She was taught to read by her master's daughter in Baltimore, and was never forbidden to read by those who owned her in Alabama.
When a child, I could never understand why she read so well and could not write. I was very sorry at times that she could read and was not like other children's mothers whom I knew. She always knew when I did not get my lessons, and often the hours of play that were dear to me were taken away until my reading lesson was learned. Sundays, with my sisters gathered about her knees, we would sit for hours listening as mother would read church hymns for us. These days were days of freedom, as I do not remember, and know nothing of, those of slavery. My mother always refrained from telling her children frightful stories of the awful sufferings of the slave days. She occupied the position of seamstress and house-servant in her mistress's home, and was never allowed to mingle with plantation slaves.
My first teacher was a good-hearted Southern white woman, who knew my mother well and lived in the town of Tuskegee.
She taught me to read from McGuffey's First Reader. I often read my lessons by looking at the pictures, for I did not know one word from another—so far as the letters were concerned. She detected one day, however, that I was looking out into the street and at the same time reading what I supposed to be the lesson. From that time on she devoted herself to teaching me so that I should know letters, and that I should read properly. She always claimed that I was an apt pupil. At any rate, at a very early age I was able to both read and write. As I grew older I was sent with my sisters to the public schools of Tuskegee. It was always my ambition, it is not immodest to say, to excel in whatever I undertook. That which brought tears to my eyes quicker than any other one thing was to have some member of my class recite a better lesson, or "turn me down"—that is, go up ahead of me in the class.
Having been brought up in the Methodist Sunday-school, I later joined the Methodist Church. Mr. Lewis Adams, a Trustee of the Tuskegee Institute, was then Superintendent of the Methodist Sunday-school. He was very desirous that the young boys and girls of the Sunday-school should take an active part in the work. I was given a class of girls to teach much older than myself. They tried to disgust me at times by paying no attention to my teaching. I was not to be discouraged, although I cried many times because of their conduct. My own sister, who was a member of the class, also rebelled because I was younger than she; she thought that she should be teaching me instead of having it otherwise. It was the common opinion of the girls that even if I could read better than any of them, they were older and should be shown the preference. I owe much of my interest in the study of the Bible to my mother and to Mr. Lewis Adams, the faithful worker and Sunday-school Superintendent. Mr. Adams was in those early days as he is now, the leader of the colored people of the town of Tuskegee in all that went to make for the uplifting of his people. I can pay no better tribute to him than to quote what Principal Washington himself says in his monumental autobiography, Up from Slavery:
In the midst of the difficulties which I encountered in getting the little school started, and since then through a period of nineteen years, there are two men among all the many friends of the school in Tuskegee upon whom I have depended constantly for advice and guidance; and the success of the undertaking is largely due to these men, from whom I have never sought anything in vain. I mention them simply as types. One is a white man and an ex-slaveholder, Mr. George W. Campbell; the other is a black man and an ex-slave, Mr. Lewis Adams. These were the men who wrote to General Armstrong for a teacher.
Mr. Campbell is a merchant and banker, and had had little experience in dealing with matters pertaining to education. Mr. Adams was a mechanic, and had learned the trades of shoemaking, harness-making, and tinsmithing during the days of slavery. He had never been to school a day in his life, but in some way he had learned to read and write while a slave. From the first, these two men saw clearly what my plan of education was, sympathized with me, and supported me in every effort. In the days which were darkest financially for the school, Mr. Campbell was never appealed to when he was not willing to extend all the aid in his power. I do not know two men—one an ex-slaveholder, one an ex-slave—whose advice and judgment I would feel more like following in everything which concerns the life and development of the school at Tuskegee than those of these two men.
I have always felt that Mr. Adams, in a large degree, derived his unusual powers of mind from the training given his hands in the process of mastering well three trades during the days of slavery.
I did not graduate from the public schools as children do nowadays in the cities. Mr. Booker T. Washington's coming to Tuskegee and the establishment of the Tuskegee Normal School put an end to the public-school work on "Zion Hill," where the Tuskegee public school for colored children was located. I was one of the first of the students examined for entrance in the school. Mr. Washington gave the examination in arithmetic, grammar, and history. I never knew what a sentence was, nor that it had a subject and a predicate before he said so. I doubted very seriously the existence of such terms as these new ones mentioned by him. I thought I knew grammar, and I did, so far as I had been taught, but I had no insight into its real meaning and use. Mr. Washington decided after my examination that I would make a good Junior pupil. It was all new to me and I could not understand all of the new words, even though simple they were, used by him. He himself took charge of our classes, and I have always been very proud that I can say that he was my teacher. He was most particular in regard to spelling and the right use of verbs. As a history teacher he was the best I have had the privilege of studying under. I have often said that if he could teach the classes in the beginning of history and grammar, and give talks on spelling at Tuskegee as he did when I was a pupil there, many who finish at Tuskegee would be thankful in the years to come. However, he can not do this until he is relieved of the great burden of raising funds for the school.
The industrial departments at Tuskegee were not, of course, so elaborate and so many while I was a pupil there. My four years at Tuskegee were given wholly to class-room work. To my class, that graduated in 1885—the first one to graduate, we proudly boast—three Peabody medals were awarded for excellence in scholarship. Our diplomas were also graded. We took an examination for the medals, as there were ten in the graduating class. I was awarded one of the medals. The Class of '85 had high ideals and always regretted that any member should receive a second-grade diploma. I was very thankful to learn after two weeks' waiting that, in the opinion of the Faculty, I was worthy of a first-grade diploma.
After graduating, I was employed as the principal of the training-school—now known as the "Children's House"—of the Tuskegee Institute. Feeling that I could be of more service to my people, and could better teach in the outside world the principles for which Tuskegee stands, I resigned my work at Tuskegee, after several terms, for a broader field of usefulness.
A call reached Mr. Washington in 1888 for a teacher to begin a work in the vicinity of Mt. Meigs, Ala., similar to the work done at Tuskegee, but, of course, on a smaller scale. Mr. E. N. Pierce, of Plainville, Conn., had resolved to do something in the way of providing better school facilities for the colored people living on a large plantation, into the possession of which he had come. Mr. Washington answered the call while in Boston, and telegraphed me that he thought me the proper person to take charge of and carry on the settlement work Mr. Pierce and his friends had in mind.
I found at Mt. Meigs, after studiously investigating conditions, that the outlook for support was far from hopeful. Not one person in the whole community owned a foot of land, and heavy crop mortgages were the burden of every farmer. It became evident at once that pioneer work was very much needed. Homes were neglected, and the sacredness of family life was unknown to most of the people. The prospect was a gloomy one.
The little Baptist church in which the older people gathered for worship two Sundays in each month badly needed repairing.
I began first of all to connect myself with the Sunday-school, and taught there every Sunday. I organized a large class of the older people and encouraged them in every way to attend the Sunday-school every Sunday with the children. None of these mothers or fathers could read or write.
I taught them Scripture verses by repeating verse after verse till they were able to recite them for me. I also sought to teach them to read, and quite a large number can read now because of the opportunities provided by my Sunday-school class. I have kept this class of older people together, and it is one of the most active ones of all. We have studied together many other things aside from the Sunday-school lessons, and it has been necessary to do so, because the people have none of the opportunities provided for those who live in the towns and cities. I was early much encouraged to note that my efforts were appreciated by the people.
I was often called upon to act as arbiter in all kinds of difficult and unpleasant disputes involving family relations and other differences among the people. Many and many a time did I take the place of the minister and speak to the people when he could not be present.
To teach the people self-help, the surest sign of progress, we decided to plan for a main school building which should mark the center of our activities. This building we were able to erect at a cost of $2,000, and it is a satisfaction to the people of the community that they alone paid every cent of the cost, not one penny coming from the outside. The struggle was a long one, a hard one, with bad crops and other hard conditions interfering with our plans.
This building is a two-story one, well ventilated, roomy, and accommodates 300 pupils. From the first we have sought to follow in the footsteps of the parent institution, and have had the industries taught; agriculture was introduced at once.
A large Trades Building was soon erected and teachers from Tuskegee secured to help in the work. Blacksmithing, wheelwrighting, carpentry, painting, and agriculture have been provided for the young men, and cooking, laundering, housekeeping, and sewing for the young women.
The following buildings we now have in addition to those named: a dormitory for girls, a blacksmithing-shop, and a teachers' home. More than 4,000 pupils have come under the influence of the school.
I have continuously, for seventeen years, with the exception of a short period, been in charge of the school; during the absence referred to I was studying in New York city, and afterward, through the generosity of a friend, was able to spend one year in Queen Margaret's College, Glasgow, Scotland.
I am pleased with the progress the people have made. Many now own their own homes, and eight and ten persons are no longer content to sleep in one-room log cabins, as was only too true during the earlier years of my work. I have regularly had "mothers' meetings," and these have raised the home life of the people to a higher standard. I know what I am saying when I state that sacred family ties are respected and appreciated as never before in this immediate region.
The emotional church life of the people no longer prevails hereabouts, and the minister preaches forty minutes, instead of two hours as formerly.
Many farmers are out of debt, and a mortgage upon a man's crop is as disreputable as a saloon.
The Mt. Meigs Institute is the first school of its kind in Alabama to demonstrate the fact that a school planted among the people in the rural districts of the South will make for intelligent, honest, thrifty citizenship. The success of this work made possible the establishment of many similar schools that have been planted in Alabama and other parts of the South.
Of the young men and women who have attended my school I can not speak too highly. Sixty have graduated, and fifty-seven of the number are still living. Not only they, but many who could not afford to stay and graduate, are at work in an effort to help their less fortunate brethren. Thirty-six of my graduates have taken academic or trade courses in other schools, twenty-one of them at Tuskegee Institute. Ten have graduated from Tuskegee, or from other schools. Thirty-eight of them have learned trades, and all of them are at work and prosperous. They include dressmakers, cooks, housekeepers, laundresses, carpenters, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, painters, etc. Several are successful farmers, and one of the girls is a large cotton-planter and general farmer. Two are successful merchants in Birmingham, Ala.; one is a prominent minister, having also taken a course at the Virginia Union Seminary, Richmond, Va.; one is in charge of an orphan asylum, and several are teachers; one taught with me for seven years after having also graduated from Tuskegee. Thirty have married, fifteen have bought homes, one has property valued at $7,000, others have property ranging in value from $800 to $2,000. Of the sixty, only four have failed to maintain their moral character.
Six teachers are now employed; we really need another. About 30 boarding pupils are regularly enrolled, with 250 pupils in daily attendance from near-by homes.
The school is conducted just as economically as it well can be; the annual expense is about $2,000, of which sum I have insisted that the people themselves shall annually meet one-half.
If I have been of any service to my people, I owe it all to Mr. Washington and to one of the noblest women that ever lived, Mrs. Booker T. Washington, n�e Davidson, both of whom indelibly impressed upon me while attending the Tuskegee Institute those lessons which led me to want to spend myself in the helping of my people.
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