Both my mother and father were compelled to work in the field as farmers. They had four children, all now living, of whom I am the eldest. I was born in Twiggs County, Ga., February 17, 1876, but in 1881 the family moved to Macon, Ga., where they lived until 1886. The cruelest possible blow befell us when both mother and father died in April of that year, within ten days of each other.
My parents were intelligent, and though they had had no opportunities for securing an education, yet they were able to teach their children the alphabet and how to spell a few simple words. My first lessons were in Webster's blue-back speller, so when I started to school at six years of age I was not the dullest boy beginning at the same place, because of the instruction I had received. I first went to a Miss Mary Tom, who taught in St. Paul's Church in East Macon. I went there but one school session. I was next sent to a Miss Carr, who taught in the basement of the Presbyterian church on Washington Avenue, West Macon. To her, also, I only went one term. I was next started in Lewis' High School, now known as Ballard's Normal School, but was soon compelled to cease going there because of the death of both parents, as already mentioned, in April of that same term.
I was now but ten years of age. My aunt took charge of me and of the other children. I was immediately "hired out" to a family named Horton, for my victuals and clothing. I worked for this family about six months, all of whom were kind to me, especially Mr. Horton, Jr., who at this time had charge of an ice-house. Each day I carried his meals to him and could confidently count upon receiving from him a nickel (five cents), which was forthwith invested in candy as I returned. It was a real pleasure to meet and make myself known to Mr. Horton, Jr., the young man who had been so kind to me in Birmingham, Ala., in 1901, after my graduation from Tuskegee. He was apparently glad to see me, and especially to learn that I had been attending the Tuskegee Institute. After leaving the Horton family I went to work in a grocery store, that of a Mrs. Machold, from whom I received $4 a month for my services. I only remained with her a short while.
The work I liked best of all, however, was that with the shoe firm of Bearden and Brantley. I had my Sundays, and was off from work at six o'clock each week-day—a great change from my former employment.
When I was twelve years of age I went to visit an uncle who lived in Baldwin County, Ga. I had gone to remain two weeks; as a matter of fact I was with him three years. I worked on the farm every day while with him, and went to school about two months each year. In this short time I was only able to review the lessons I had already had. After returning to Macon, a number of young men who had been to Tuskegee persuaded me to consider going there to school. The most strenuous opposition came from my own relatives. After many conversations about the matter I had finally to go against their will. They honestly felt that such reading and writing as I could do was quite enough education for me, or for any other Negro boy.
I reached the school, after being properly admitted, on the 11th of September, 1893, and registered as a student in the night-school, as I had no money, and could pay in cash for no part of my expenses. I was assigned, after examination, to the A Preparatory class. I was assigned work at the barns, fed cows, milked, and rendered such other service as was required by the instructor.
Soon after reaching Tuskegee and after I had begun "working out" my expenses, I learned that the officers of the school were contemplating a new scheme whereby all of the students in the night-school would work one-half of each day, go to school one-half of each day, and pay $4 a month in cash into the school treasury. Mrs. Washington, the "guardian angel" of the student body at Tuskegee called me and several other students into conference and asked us to frankly state how the new schedule would affect us, what we thought of the plan, how much money we were able to pay, etc. Out of the whole number only four declared they were able to pay the $4 a month; the larger number, like myself, were utterly unable to pay anything in cash, being dependent absolutely upon our ability to cover our expenses by work in some of the industrial divisions. It was finally decided to forego this contemplated arrangement, and I, and the majority of others situated like myself, were made very happy. My whole future hinged on this decision, as I should have been compelled to leave school if it had been put in operation. I remained at the school during the summer of 1894, the school very kindly arranging each summer to keep a large number of students and providing work for them. It was to me an advantage to remain. I had no money for railroad fare, and I was sure of securing a trade, wheelwrighting, at the beginning of the next term. I had desired to go into the blacksmith-shop, but it was so crowded that there was no reasonable assurance that I should be able to secure entrance thereto.
At the beginning of the fall term, 1894, I entered the wheelwright-shop, at the same time, of course, carrying my academic work; I had been successively each year promoted to the next higher class. I not only worked all of that school year in the wheelwrighting-shop, but remained the summer of 1895.
Shortly after the new school year began, my instructor, Mr. M. T. Driver, was selected to take charge of the school's elaborate exhibit at the Cotton States and International Exposition, Atlanta, Ga., at the opening of which Principal Washington had spoken so effectively and powerfully for the Negro people of the country. I had made such substantial progress that Mr. J. H. Washington, then serving as director of mechanical industries, notified me that I had been selected to manage the shop during Mr. Driver's six months' absence.
I was not very much inclined to take the responsibility, but at Tuskegee polite notification of selection to do a thing is a command. I accepted the work and did my very best. There were about twenty young men in the shop when I took charge, some older, some younger than I, but most of whom had been there longer than I had. I had no serious complaints as to the quality of work turned out by me during the instructor's absence.
I now had to my credit more than enough money to carry me through the remaining two years. The next year I entered the day-school. I had become in most respects a new person. I had gone to Tuskegee country-bred, raw, ignorant. The school's transforming influence I was able to note in my carriage, and, of course, in my conversation, in my care for neatness and order, and in the ideals I was forming and trying to live up to. During the summer I returned home for the first time. I worked at my trade during the vacation and earned enough money to buy clothing and other necessaries. I did not return to school until December 28, 1897, as I needed the money I was earning at my trade. I had never earned in money more than the small amounts referred to in the first part of this paper, and so was delighted with my earning capacity.
I then sought work in the blacksmithing-shop, the shop I had first desired to enter, so that I might become a first-class blacksmith in addition to having a working knowledge of wheelwrighting. After completing the school term I went to Montgomery, Ala., and worked as a wheelwright and blacksmith. This outside experience was most helpful to me. My last school year was that of 1899-1900. I was very happy to receive, along with my academic diploma, a certificate also from the blacksmithing division. I was now fitted to begin my life in the great outside world.
My first work was as instructor in blacksmithing and wheelwrighting in the Hungerford Industrial School at Eatonville, Fla. I then secured work at my trades in Birmingham until August, 1901, when three of us who had been classmates at Tuskegee decided to form a partnership and conduct on a large scale a general blacksmithing and wheelwrighting business. I was deputed to select the place where we should locate. After interviewing a number of persons, Anniston, Ala., was suggested, and I decided to go there to personally investigate conditions. After getting there and going about the town, I agreed that at Anniston we should find a place that would properly support our business. There was no place vacant that we could rent, so after some further consideration we decided to purchase a place. This we were fortunate enough to do, and came into possession of a building for our shop, 50 by 60 feet. We met all obligations after opening the shop and secured the most flattering support. Our work met the most exacting requirements, and I was very much disinclined to accept an offer which reached me from Mr. Nathan B. Young, who had had charge of the academic work at Tuskegee during a part of my stay there. Mr. Young, however, represented that I could render much more effective racial service by reaching a large number of persons, young men, daily. After much hesitation I went to the Florida State Normal and Industrial School, to which Mr. Young had been called as President, as instructor in blacksmithing and wheelwrighting, where I have since been employed. I have done well, and am proud that I can say so.
Of my stay at Tuskegee, what shall I say? It was all in all to me. The lessons in shop and class-room, the lessons not at all catalogued that go into character-forming—all of these I found most helpful and invaluable, in making me a man who "thinks and feels." I should be tempted to eulogy should I try to tell how much I owe to Dr. Washington, to his teachers, and to all of the influences that assist the student at Tuskegee.
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