I was born in the small town of Demopolis, in the western part of the State of Alabama, January 17, 1877. My uncle was a wheelwright, and I, at an early age, was led to desire to become an artisan such as my uncle was. I interceded with him and became the "handy boy" around the shop in which he worked, and picked up much useful information; but there was nothing progressive or directly helpful in the work I was permitted to do. I also did some little work in blacksmithing while in the shop.
What to me was a fortunate circumstance was the meeting with a chance acquaintance who was returning from Tuskegee Institute for his vacation. This young man told me most glowing stories of the Tuskegee Institute. He was so enthusiastic that he imparted much of his enthusiasm to me. He himself was taking instruction in the wheelwrighting division, and could give at first-hand the information I most desired. The whole Tuskegee plan was outlined to me: how I could learn my trade, and at the same time get book instruction; how I could earn by labor enough to carry me through school while securing to myself the advantages mentioned. I had had to learn by seeing others do, and it was now pointed out to me how I could "learn by doing," and that was the thing I wanted. I had been used to being kept from the use of tools and everything that would really help me to learn wheelwrighting; the only chances I ever had being to "knock about" the shop, occasionally having some worthless job, with cast-off tools to work with, entrusted to me.
The upshot of it was that I decided to go to Tuskegee, and carefully saved as much of my wages of $2.50 per week as I possibly could, so as to purchase clothing, books, and those incidentals insisted upon by the school that each student must have. I wrote to the school, and received a letter from Principal Washington admitting me should I find myself able to meet the requirements stated as follows:
No person will be admitted to the school as a student who can not pass the examination for the C Preparatory class. To enter this class one must be able to read, write, and understand addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Applicants for admission must be of good moral character and must bring at least two letters of recommendation as to their moral character from reliable persons of their communities.
The Day-School.—The Day-School is intended for those who are able to pay all or the greater part of their expenses in cash. Students attending the Day-School are required to work one day in each week and every other Saturday.
They must also be fourteen years of age, of good physique, and able to pass the examination for the C Preparatory class, as stated above.
The Night-School.—The requirements for entering the Night-School are the same as for entering the Day-School, with the additional requisites: Applicants must be fully sixteen years of age instead of fourteen, and physically able to perform an adult's labor. Cripples are under no circumstances admitted to this department.
The Night-School is designed for young men and women who earnestly desire to educate themselves, but who are too poor to pay even the small charge made in the Day-School. Students will not be admitted to the Night-School who are known to be able to enter the Day-School; and when a student has fraudulently gained admission, upon discovery of the deception, must either enter the Day-School or leave the institution.
Trades are assigned as nearly as possible in accordance with the students' desires. In assigning young men and women to a trade, their mental ability and intelligence to grasp it, and physical ability to perform the duties required, are all carefully considered. At the beginning of the school year it often happens that certain of the industries are quickly filled; and when this happens, applicants for this particular industry are assigned to some other division until a vacancy occurs.
The school authorities also sent me a card notifying me as to the school's requirements in the way of discipline. These seemed to me to be rather overexacting, but I resolved to try to live up to them if I should be admitted. Among these were the following:
The rules governing the school are aimed to be those which best promote the welfare and happiness of all.
Each student is required to have a Bible.
Regular habits of rest and recreation are required.
No student is allowed to leave the grounds without permission.
Male students when permitted to leave the grounds must wear the regulation cap.
No young woman is permitted to leave the grounds of the institution unless accompanied by a teacher.
The Institute has adequate facilities for bathing, and all students are required to bathe at stated periods. Bath-houses for young men and young women, with swimming-pools and shower-bath appointments, afford every facility in this regard.
The use of intoxicating drinks and the use of tobacco are strictly forbidden.
Dice-playing and card-playing are strictly prohibited.
Students are liable to be dropped for inability to master their studies, irregularity of attendance, or for failure to comply with the regulations of the school after due notice.
The demeriting system has been adopted by the school as the principal method of discipline for misconduct: 33⅓ demerit marks constitute a "warning," and upon receiving three warnings a student is liable to suspension or expulsion, according as the Executive Council may determine.
All non-resident students are expected to board on the school-grounds, unless there is some good reason for a contrary arrangement.
Students are not registered for a shorter period than one month; those who leave before the end of a month are charged for a full month's board.
When students desire to leave the school they are required to have parents or guardian write directly to the Principal for permission to do so.
The Dean of the Woman's Department meets all the young women of the school each Friday afternoon, and the Commandant all of the young men every Saturday evening, at which times talks, both instructive and corrective, are given. No student is excused from these meetings except by special permission.
Students who sign a contract to work a specified time at some trade or other work must be released from their contract before application for an excuse from school will be considered. Any student leaving without a written excuse will not be allowed to return, and students under contract will not only be dismissed, but will forfeit whatever cash there may be to their credit in the school treasury. Students must settle their accounts before leaving.
Remittances in payment of bills should be made to the Principal or Treasurer (and not to the student) by post-office money-order, registered letter, or check.
Students are not allowed to retain firearms in their possession. The Commandant of Cadets will retain and give receipts for any brought.
Low or profane language will subject students to severe discipline. Students are liable to reprimand, confinement, or other punishment.
Letter-writing is subject to regulation, and all mail- and express-packages are inspected and contents noted. Students are urged to write their parents at least once a week.
Wardrobes and rooms of students are subject to inspection and regulation by proper officers at all times, and regular and thorough inspection of same are made from time to time.
I was admitted in due course of time.
I reached Tuskegee on the 5th of September, 1896, and after purchasing books, etc., my "cash assets," $12, were about exhausted. I could not enter as a day-school student, as I did not have the money to do so. In the night-school I found a chance which I gladly embraced. As I had desired, I was assigned to the wheelwright division for two years, signing a formal contract to that effect. I spent the whole of each day in the shop, attended industrial or theory classes two afternoons in each week, besides taking mechanical drawing (as all trades students are required to do), and attended evening classes.
I applied myself as earnestly as I possibly could, and lost no time in getting right down to business. So well had I done that, that when a call reached the school during the spring of 1897 for a competent blacksmith, I was sent to do the work. I was excused from school on April 15th of that year and went to Shorter's, Ala., a settlement about eighteen miles from Tuskegee. I remained there until October.
In a way, I regarded that period somewhat as a vacation period, as I did not lose much time from my classes. The surroundings were pleasant and profitable, and I had a chance to enter into the life of the people and help them a great deal. While there I earned enough money to send for my brother and enter him in Tuskegee, that he might have the same chance I was enjoying to get an education. I wanted my brother to enter the blacksmith-shop, as I saw visions of a blacksmithing and wheelwrighting business to be owned and conducted by Lomax Brothers some time in the future. I also provided clothing out of what I had earned for both my brother and myself.
At close of the school term in 1898 I was able to secure employment at Uniontown, Ala., with Messrs. J. L. Dykes and Company, doing a general wheelwrighting and blacksmithing business—the largest business of its kind in the town. I remained at Uniontown, working for the firm until October, when I again returned to Tuskegee. The sum per day I received was a most flattering tribute to Tuskegee's ability to take a stiff country lad like myself, and turn him, in a few months, into a workman commanding decent wages.
What this means to the masses of the students who go to Tuskegee the general public can have no idea. It is a great thing for a boy who never earned more than the merest pittance a day to go to a school where he can secure an education by working for it, and at the same time be fitted to earn wages, as many of them do, three and even five times as high as before going there. This accounts, in a large measure I am sure, for the fact that so large a number refuse to remain and go through the full courses of academic study.
Many of them, finding themselves able in a few months to earn sums far beyond any previous hope, decide to take advantage at once of this increased earning capacity; but since the work is so well graded, no boy can get his trade without getting, at the same time, academic instruction, and instruction in those character-forming things all about the student at Tuskegee.
I began the new term with $50, which sum was to my credit in the school treasury, having been earned by my labor.
During the summer of 1899 I was again offered work at Uniontown by Messrs. J. L. Dykes and Company. I remained with them only two months, however. Afterward I worked at the McKinley Brothers' Wagon Factory at Demopolis, Ala.; as a journeyman workman at Tuskegee, in the Institute's Wheelwrighting Shop, and with the Nack Carriage Company at Mobile, Ala., the largest shop of its kind in that city and one of the largest in the whole South, a firm doing strictly high-grade work. In all of these positions I have every reason to believe that I gave full and complete satisfaction. While with the last-named company I won the personal favor and interest of the manager and continued to study. He recommended that I add to my Tuskegee training by taking the correspondence course of the Technical School for Carriage Draftsmen and Mechanics, New York. I remained with this firm until I was offered a position by Mr. R. R. Taylor, the present director of mechanical industries of the Tuskegee Institute, three years ago. I was greatly pleased and flattered when I was called to take charge of the division in which I had received my own instruction. Since being at Tuskegee I have continued to study, and am satisfied that I have well used my opportunities.
This division over which I preside is located on the first floor of the Trades Building. It is well fitted for work in general wheelwrighting and repairing.
Included in the equipment are ten woodworkers' benches 32 inches high, 42 inches wide, and 8 feet long. Each bench is divided into two parts, making it possible for two persons to work at the same bench without interference. The benches have three drawers and one closet on each side, in which tools used by the students are kept.
Each pupil is provided with the following tools: One coach-maker's vise, one 26-inch No. 6 cross-cut saw, one 12-inch back saw, one set of planes, one set of chisels, one set of auger-bits, one set of gimlet-bits, one ratchet-brace, one coach-maker's drawing-knife, one spoke-shave, one thumb-gauge, one try-square, one bevel, one hammer, and one mallet. Other tools are kept in reserve by the instructor and are used only when needed.
The division is constantly building new work, such as wagons, drays, horse- and hand-carts, wheelbarrows, buggies, and road-carts. The work of repairing vehicles and farm implements for the school, and a large amount of repairing for the locality, is done by my students. The course is as follows:
The First Year.—Care of shop, names and care of tools, general measurements; elementary work with saw, plane, drawing-knife, chisel, and spoke-shave; practise in the making and application of joints, i. e., splices, mortises, tenons, and miters; kinds of wood used and how to select; practise-work on parts of wagons and bodies; Industrial Classes and Mechanical Drawing during the year.
The Second Year.—Pattern-making, working by patterns, practise-work on parts of wagons continued; making wheelbarrows and hand-carts, repairing wagons; practise in wheel-building; construction of wagons, carts, and drays; practise on parts of buggies and wagons; industrial classes and Mechanical Drawing during the year.
The Third Year.—Building wheels; general repairs on buggies and wagons continued; practise-work on parts of buggies, phaetons, farm- and business-wagons; shop economics, estimates, bills of material; industrial classes and Mechanical Drawing during the year.
The student in wheelwrighting receives instruction in wood-turning; the course is the same as that given to students in carpentry.
I was married late last summer, 1904, and am now living at Tuskegee as a member of the Faculty of the school I entered as a raw recruit.
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