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Lewis A. Smith of Rockford, Illinois


By Lewis A. Smith

In any attempt to write a story of my life and work, the "work" feature must predominate.

I was born March 27, 1877, at Louisville, Ky. My father and mother were slaves of old Georgia stock. My father, after freedom, was for a time permitted to attend Howard University, Washington, D. C. He was a candy-maker. My mother attended Atlanta University.

In 1878 my parents left Atlanta, where my two brothers were born, and located in Louisville. Leaving Louisville in 1881, the family moved to Chicago, Ill., where I lived until I entered Tuskegee Institute, of which my mother and I had heard much.

After reaching Chicago, my parents established a confectionery store. My earlier days were mostly spent behind the counter in the store, not as a clerk helping to earn profits, but in an endeavor to make profits disappear. I was much in love with the nice things we had for sale.

An unfortunate family "incident" in 1882 resulted in placing my two brothers and me in the custody of my mother. Our childhood pleasures were marred by this affair. Although I was too young to fully understand the situation, I realized that I lacked the pleasures that other children had; I realized the absence of that paternal care and affection that other children enjoyed—the home was not complete. I can not recall my childhood with any special pleasure.

I entered the public schools of Chicago when I was seven years of age. I made a very good record in my studies, attested by the fact that I made two grades the first year, and one grade with excellent marks each succeeding year thereafter. My deportment was not exemplary. I can remember occasions when I was severely reprimanded for being absent from school without an excuse, having gone fishing, or bathing in Lake Michigan, or skating in the parks in winter.


Students using separators.

That was before the compulsory school law went into effect, or at least before it affected me. I was not, however, a bad boy. I was neither rough nor tough; I had no bad habits other than smoking corn-silk cigarettes, and I soon stopped that as the novelty of the thing wore off. My young mind and body required recreation. Unlike the children of the South, who had three months of school and nine months of play or work in the fields, I had nine months of school and three months of play. I thought the ratio was in the wrong proportion. But as I grew older I became more settled and more interested in my studies.

Although during the greater portion of my school life in Chicago I was the sole Negro pupil in my classes, yet I do not remember a single occasion when prejudice was leveled at me by teacher or schoolmate.

Early, after throwing off my wildness, I realized the need and the advantage of possessing an education, and, having such excellent facilities at hand, determined to become educated, and diligently pursued that object. Just as I was about to enter the eighth grade, however, I had to give up going to school, and go to work.

I secured employment with a wood-engraving firm as general office- and errand-boy. My wages were $2.50 a week. About fifty cents of this sum I spent each week for car-fare and incidentals. As I lived three miles from my work it would have been necessary for me to spend my whole allowance for car-fare had I not stolen rides on railroad trains. I often wonder now how I could have jumped on and off swift-moving trains, day after day, without receiving some serious injury. Surely Providence must have protected me in my endeavor to save my scanty earnings. My clothing did not cost much, as I was the "happy" recipient of the cast-off clothes of the older members of the family.

My work was agreeable and my employer was generously sympathetic. Realizing that wood-engraving and illustrating would offer remunerative employment, I sought to learn the trade, but was told that I would have to serve an apprenticeship of six months without pay; that precluded all hope of learning that trade.

Manhood approached before I was prepared to do anything. I did not earn much in my youth, and could not expect to earn much in manhood without preparation. I then resolved to enter school again, but the expense of a thorough course was an apparently insurmountable obstacle. I had been unable to save much from my meager allowance. I had heard of the Tuskegee Institute and of the opportunities there offered to poor young men and women. I decided to enter that school. A friend helped me to purchase an excursion ticket to Atlanta, Ga., where was being held the Cotton-States and International Exposition. I left Chicago in November, and after two days spent in Atlanta with relatives and in seeing the sights, I exchanged my return coupon for a ticket to Tuskegee.

I arrived at Chehaw, the station where passengers transfer for Tuskegee, and taking passage in a wagonette, a crude substitute for our modern means of interurban transit—the little train was not running on that day—we drove through a picturesque country abounding in woods, vales, and cultivated fields, occasionally coming across landmarks of antebellum days. Here one was really in communion with Nature, so different it was from the massive specimens of architecture, the clatter of horses on the cobblestone pavement, the rattle of elevated trains, and the activity of commercial life of the Western metropolis from which I had come. As we reached high elevations glimpses of the institution came into view.

Tuskegee was a surprise to me; it surpassed my fondest hope. The majestic buildings, the monuments to the fidelity and building skill of past classes, the well-designed landscape architecture, made me feel that I had at last found the place where I could be prepared for real life. I received a cordial welcome from the teachers; also from the students, especially from those connected with the religious and literary organizations, of which there are quite a number.

When asked the industry I wished to learn, I chose that of agriculture. Like hundreds of boys confined to city environment, I had a craving for Nature, a fondness for live stock, and for all that I should come in contact with while taking that course. I worked during the daytime the first year and attended school at night, thereby acquiring experience and accumulating a credit to apply to my board when I should enter the day-school. Soon after entering the agricultural department I had made such progress that I was placed in charge of the hotbeds and grew vegetables all winter. It was a marvelous accomplishment with me, for I could not have grown them even in the summer before I entered that department. The care of the various seeds used on the farm was also in my charge.

This privilege afforded me opportunities for seed-testing and for observing plant development; it was all very instructive. While attending the academic classes at night, the daytime was devoted entirely to study in the various divisions of the agricultural department.

At the expiration of my first year as a night-school student, I entered day-school, devoting about equal time to academic and agricultural classes, and a small portion of the time to the study of music, being a member of the Institute brass band, and in my last year a member of the orchestra.

During my second summer's vacation I went into the southern part of Montgomery County, Ala., in search of a school to teach. There was no schoolhouse, no school fund, nor any appropriation available except for a three months' term during the winter. After further canvass I was permitted to open a school in the little church at Strata, Ala. The large attendance of pupils and their eagerness to learn won my sympathy and I would gladly have planted a sprig of Tuskegee there had I not had strong inclinations for a commercial life. I conducted a class in agriculture for the benefit of the farmers. I believe it was helpful to them. My spare time was spent in going through the country noting the waste of the land and the lack of enterprise among the owners and tenants, due in large measure, I am sure, to the mortgage system and the deep ignorance of the people. Most of the evenings I spent listening to the terrible stories of slavery days from the lips of those who had passed through them.

In the midst of this service I received a telegram announcing the death of my mother. I was too far from home to return in time to see the last of her, even if I had had the means to do so. I was in grief; I had sustained a great loss; she was my all, my mother.

I returned to Tuskegee and graduated with the Class of '98.

I am grateful to Tuskegee Institute, to the genius of Mr. Washington, for the opportunities I had to acquire an education; to the members of the Faculty for their assistance, and to my father, who gave me much of material aid and encouragement.

After graduating, I spent two months at special work in the school dairy; then, with the assistance of my father, I secured a position with the Forest City Creamery Company of Rockford, Ill. Entering this company's employ about the 15th of August, 1898, I have been employed ever since at the same place.

The Forest City Creamery is one of the largest butter-making concerns in the United States, averaging twenty thousand pounds of butter per day. We make two grades of butter, known as process, or renovated, and creamery butter. There are employed at this plant about seventy-five persons.

My work consists in what is known to the trade as "starter-making" and preparing the flavor for the butter. The work is bacteriological, propagating a species of bacteria which produces the pleasant aroma and flavor of good butter. It requires not only an understanding of bacteriology, but skilled workmanship and earnest attention to details. The secret processes of this company are known to a close group only, of which I am one. My work here has been entirely successful and satisfactory to my employers, if I may judge from a highly complimentary interview with one of the officers of the company regarding my work, published in one of the leading daily newspapers of Rockford, and the fact that I am now receiving double my initial wages.

I have a record not surpassed by any other employee of this company. Between June 24, 1901, following a wedding-trip to Tuskegee, and August 15, 1904, when we visited the St. Louis Exposition, I have worked each day at the Creamery, including Sundays and holidays, my work requiring that I do so. These 1,155 consecutive days of labor were made possible by a total abstinence from all intoxicating liquors and tobacco. My success here can be credited to the efficient training I received at Tuskegee.

"It is not well for man to live alone." Following this injunction I have taken unto myself a helpmeet, who is all that the word implies, loving, economical, and well trained in domestic arts. Shortly after our marriage we began paying for a home of eleven rooms located in a good residence portion of the city. The lower part of the house, containing six rooms, we occupy, and have comfortably furnished; the up-stairs portion, containing five rooms, we rent to a family of white people; the rent we receive equals the interest on the investment.

We have one child, a little girl two years old, who furnishes sunshine to an already happy home.

Our house is surrounded by a lawn with shade- and fruit-trees, and many flower-beds. The back yard contains a garden with berry plants, a well-built and well-arranged poultry-house, a yard containing a flock of pure-bred fowls, the nucleus of a future enterprise, and a barn with a good horse, a buggy, etc., for our pleasure and convenience.

My ambition when leaving school was first to endeavor to become independent financially, so that I might enjoy my old age; then, if it were possible, to gain that independence early in life by economy, by earning for myself what I earn for my employer; to try to make it possible for the Negro farmer to sell his produce to the Negro gin, the Negro cotton-mill, or creamery, as the case might be; my idea being, by this community of interest, to help the Negro people about me to help themselves and their fellows. I believe, in the words of the motto of the Class of '98—my class—that "we rise upon the structure we ourselves have builded." I have tried to live with this thought ever before me.

Booker T. Washington