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David L. Johnston of Birmingham, Alabama


By David L. Johnston

Shortly after the smoke had cleared away from the battle-fields of the Civil War, I was ushered into the world in a one-room log cabin in Alabama, county of Macon, and near the little town of Tuskegee, afterward made famous by virtue of the fact that there was established near it, by Booker T. Washington, July 4, 1881, the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. That I have the honor of being an alumnus of that school is one of the best things of which I can boast.

Because I have said that I was born in a one-room log cabin, the reader will readily imagine that my parentage was humble. My mother and father both have gone to the Great Beyond. I bless and revere their memory, for two more noble souls never lived, hampered as they were by slavery and its terrible environments.

My parents continued to live in the one-room cabin until three other children, making nine in all, had come to them. Another room was added about this time. The biting poverty of it all led my father, with his family, to move to one of the famous cotton plantations of Dallas County, Ala. I seem to recall taking an interest in the world about me quite early. Especially do I recall, as one of my earliest recollections, the death of Garfield, so cruelly slain by the madman Guiteau. My father was greatly distressed, I remember, by his death.

For five successive years my life was spent working each year on the farms for and with my aged father and other members of the family, and spending the time, when not so employed, in near-by public schools, which at that time, as is true in large part now, were conducted only about three months in each year. After having acquired a slight knowledge of mathematics, it was a great pleasure to me to go up each fall to the market at Selma, Ala., with my father, to dispose of the products of the farm. On one occasion there was an apparent interest manifested in me by one of the commission merchants, a white man. He persuaded me to return to Selma, after I had accompanied my father home, and to accept a position with him as office-boy. I returned as agreed, to find either that his promise was a stroke to induce my father to trade with him, or that my stay at home had been too extended—although it was only for three or four days. The position, meanwhile, he said, had been filled by another. Thus, I found myself, a raw country lad, twenty-seven miles from home, without employment and among strangers. Next morning, without the knowledge of my parents, I applied for admittance as a student to the Knox Academy at Selma, and without recommendations, which were immediately demanded of me. I was turned away, but not discouraged, for the next morning, accompanied by a white friend of my father, I again applied and was admitted on his recommendation. An examination entitled me to begin with the fifth-grade class.

I also secured employment at this white man's home. The money thus received paid for my board. By doing odd jobs I managed to make sufficient money to pay for lodging with a good family. I was thus enabled to spend the fall of 1883 and the spring of 1884 in school, to my very great benefit. I was compelled to return home, however, before the term ended, because my father's health completely failed him, to take charge of the farm, as I was the senior male child in the family at that time. My juvenile mind had been awakened by this short school experience in Selma, and from that time forth I had a thirst for more knowledge.

I was absorbed by this longing, but I took up the various other duties which fell to my lot, with the earnest purpose of doing my very best. As a result, with the aid of other members of the family I succeeded in turning over to my invalid father, the succeeding fall, eleven bales of cotton and other farm products in like proportion. My father's health having completely failed, and because of a constantly increasing desire for more knowledge, I conceived the idea of returning to our old home near Tuskegee again.

January, 1885, found us again living in close proximity to the old log cabin in which I was born. Not four years before the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute had been established. The height of my ambition was to be enrolled as a student there, but not having sufficient money to care for the family and remain in school at the same time, and since the term for that year was half spent, I sought employment for the remaining winter months, doing such odd jobs in and around the little town as I could find to do. When spring came, having a fair knowledge of farming, I found ready employment with the planters of that community. With an ambition to enter school the coming fall, I then and there began to study every possible method of economy, and when summer had passed and school-time had come again, with the aid of a younger brother I had cared for the family, and had to my credit my first savings of $85.

Now began the most memorable and the most pleasant days in my life. On the 15th day of September, 1885, I matriculated as a student at Tuskegee, and, after what was then considered a rigid examination, succeeded in entering the Junior class, the lowest class of the normal grade. There was yet before me the task of caring for an aged father and mother. That task I considered a sacred duty, and, with my limited savings in hand, made such purchases as would best give them ordinary comforts through the winter months, and on the 22d day of the same month, after having made such expenditures as I thought necessary, I found that my little pile had been reduced from $85 to $14.50, with which sum I paid my tuition and board at the normal school.

I was permitted by the school authorities to work on the school farm the entire term. On the 26th day of May, when the school closed, there yet remained to my credit a sufficient amount to purchase a ticket to Birmingham, and thence out to Pratt City, a near-by suburb. At Pratt City I learned to dig coal, and at the end of every month they paid me in gold. These shining pieces were precious possessions. For four successive summers, in order to get sufficient money to care for my mother and father and make my way in school, I went to Pratt City and worked in the mines, at the furnaces, on the railroads, and around the coke-ovens, enduring hardships which language can hardly describe. But it all paid. The summer of 1888 was a trying one, but when the time came for me to leave for school I had saved $200.

On the 30th day of May, 1889, a new epoch in my life began. I was ushered into the busy world as a graduate of Tuskegee, being in a class of twenty-two. I had looked forward to this event with pride and was very happy.

So imbued was I with the pleasant thought that I was a graduate of Tuskegee, that I little thought of the great responsibilities that awaited me, but when my more sober thought came I realized that I was going from most pleasant surroundings not to return the next year; that I was going out not to return and meet indulgent and persuasive teachers, loving classmates, and devoted friends. I then realized the full meaning of the phrase we had selected that year as our class motto, "Finished, yet just begun." Finished I had at Tuskegee, but I had to begin work and life in the great busy world, with confidence alone as an asset. The Commencement exercises on this particular occasion were most impressive to me, made so in part, I suspect, because I was to be the happy recipient of a coveted diploma. The Commencement speaker was the late Joseph C. Price,[1. Said to be one of the most eloquent speakers of the Negro people. He died in the prime of life. He was President of Livingston College, which is mainly supported by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and has a large membership among the colored people.] of North Carolina, and he was at his best.

Knowing no other field more inviting, I returned to Pratt City, where I had worked successfully. On the 6th of June, 1889, I alighted from the cars, and after spending a few days visiting relatives and friends, applied at No. Four (4) Slope for a set of checks to dig coal. The checks were readily given me because of my previous record as a miner. After working there during the summer months, and with the same success as had attended me previously, I had secured sufficient money to straighten out my little financial affairs and move my parents and a widowed sister with six small children from Tuskegee to Pratt City, where I had decided permanently to live.

About this time Pratt City was made, by act of the Alabama Legislature, a separate and independent school district, and I had the honor of being elected to the principalship of the Negro school. There I had my first experience as a teacher. I put my whole soul into the work. I had before me the example of the Tuskegee teachers, and the lessons so thoroughly taught there. That I must serve my fellows earnestly and unselfishly was never forgotten.

So pleased was the Board of Education with my work that my salary was soon advanced to $110 per month. This salary was somewhat extraordinary, but Pratt City, Birmingham, Ensley, etc., are in one of the richest mining sections in the world, and the money earned by blacks and whites is greatly in excess of that earned in other parts of the State. I held this position for four years, teaching eight and nine months in the year, and spending the remaining three or four months of the time working in the mines.

After a time my physical system had begun so completely to run down, that I was reluctantly compelled to resign the position of teacher. In the meantime I had purchased a home at Pratt City. Leaving my parents there, I went to Milldale, Ala., to take up new work that offered a change of climate. I returned every fifteen or thirty days, however, to look after the needs of my parents. The entire expense of caring for them, my sister and her children, was quite $60 a month. My work at Milldale made good returns. I was with the Standard Coal Company, and after I had been there fifteen months I had to my credit $1,000, an amount I had long striven to save.

During this time my mother was stricken with fever, and after lingering three months (one of which I spent at her bedside) she died. Our little home was cast in deep sorrow. I returned to Milldale and resumed work there. After two years had expired I had to my credit, I am glad to say, $1,460. With this sum in hand I concluded I would take a course in pharmacy. On October 15, 1894, I entered the Meharry Medical College at Nashville, Tenn., the dean of which is that prince of gentlemen and father of Negro physicians, Dr. George W. Hubbard. I completed the course February 4, 1896, graduating at the head of the class with a general average of 94 per cent.

I had pleasant associations while there with many of my former Tuskegee class- and school-mates, among them being Dr. A. H. Kenniebrew, now of Jacksonville, Ill., and for a while Resident Physician of the Tuskegee Institute; Dr. T. N. Harris, of Mobile, Ala., and Dr. A. T. Braxton, of Columbia, Tenn. Each of these is succeeding at the places named most satisfactorily as physicians. At Meharry it was our constant pleasure to refer to our training at Tuskegee, and to acknowledge how indelibly the lessons learned there had been stamped upon our minds and hearts. While there I had the opportunity to compare the instruction received at Tuskegee—that of the academic department—with that of the other institutions of learning in this and even other countries. At Meharry one is thrown in direct contact with educated men and women from the leading Negro colleges of this country, and with many from English institutions of note. After careful investigation I found that the Tuskegee-trained student, at all times, was among the very best there. At Tuskegee I still consider that one of the greatest lessons taught is that of "learning to learn."


A corner in the boys' ward.

At the close of my first year at Meharry I returned to Birmingham, and after a conference with Drs. A. M. Brown and J. B. Kye, colored graduates in medicine and pharmacy, and Mr. George F. Martin, we decided to open a drug-store to be located in Birmingham. About May 7, 1895, the doors of the People's Drug Company were opened to the public, with the above-named gentlemen and myself as the stockholders and owners. Here I invested my first money of consequence in a business enterprise, putting in the greater part of the money to open the business, which invoiced $1,600 or more in about five months after the opening. After affairs were in good running order I left, and returned to Milldale to resume work with the Standard Coal Company. During the spring and summer of that year I realized about $500 from my mining operations.

In the fall of 1895 I returned to Meharry to complete the course already begun. During that fall and winter the business was encouragingly successful under the management of Dr. Kye, aided by Drs. Brown and Mason; for about that time Dr. U. G. Mason, another colored physician, had bought Mr. Martin's interest in the company and had become a partner in the concern. My instructions to the management were to turn over to my father my share of the net proceeds of the business while I was away. My share of the profits kept the family going. My stay at Meharry this last term was most pleasant. I had been promoted to the dignified position of assistant to Dr. W. M. Savier, who was, and is, Dean of the Pharmaceutical Department of the institution.

When I had completed my course I returned to Alabama to begin my work as a pharmacist, and about April 1, 1896, successfully passed the required State examination and was admitted to the practise of pharmacy. I took the examination in Selma, the beautiful little city on the Alabama River where, thirteen years before, I had had my desire for knowledge and better opportunities awakened. I sold my interest in the People's Drug Company at a sacrifice, and immediately opened business on "my own hook" at 34 South Twentieth Street, Birmingham, Ala. In order to begin business with some assurance of success, I organized another company, and had associated with me in this new enterprise (the Union Drug Company) Rev. T. W. Walker, Rev. J. Q. A. Wilhite, and Mr. C. L. Montgomery—all responsible and enterprising citizens of Birmingham.

By hard and diligent work the business proved a success, and from time to time I bought out the interests of the persons named, and accepted as a partner a well-known physician and surgeon, Dr. George H. Wilkerson. Dr. Wilkerson's connection with the business caused it rapidly to increase in volume. When more help was required, as soon it was, we secured the services of Mr. Jimmie James, a young pharmacist who is with me until now. After a period of pleasant business association, Dr. Wilkerson's interests in Mobile, his former home, demanded his presence there. I purchased his interest in the Union Drug Company, and the name was changed to the Union Drug Store. We had but recently located in our own neat little quarters at No. 101 South Twentieth Street, a one-story brick structure, at which place I continued to do business, supported by Drs. W. L. Council and J. B. Goin, who sent their prescriptions to my store, until February 8, 1904. In January, 1904, I secured a lot at No. 601 South Eighteenth Street, Birmingham, and personally erected there a two-story frame building, which I now occupy.

During my short business career since graduation from the medical school, I sought out a partner for life, and was fortunate to win the hand of Miss Pearl L. Strawbridge, of Selma, Ala., who had come to Birmingham to make her home with her brother, Mr. H. Strawbridge, who now holds the honored position of secretary and general manager of one of the largest fraternal insurance concerns in the country owned and controlled by Negroes. Two children, a girl and a boy, have been added to our family since the marriage.

Whatever I have done, or whatever I may do, that will deserve favorable comment, I largely attribute to the fact that I was a student at Tuskegee, and came under the personal care and instruction and guidance of its distinguished Founder and Principal, Dr. Booker T. Washington, and that I have striven, from the first day until now, to put into practise the lessons taught me by him and his excellent body of teachers. At Tuskegee we were taught the truism, "If you can not find a way, make one." I hope I am not immodest in saying that I think I have, in some degree, done this.

Booker T. Washington