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James M. Canty of Institute P. O., West Virginia


By James M. Canty

I was born December 23, 1863, in Marietta, Cobb County, Ga. My parents, James and Adella Canty, were slaves. I am the eldest of two brothers and three sisters, who are all living. My father died in the fall of 1895. Since that time, because of circumstances and inclinations, it has been my lot to look after the welfare of my mother, who is still living in Marietta, Ga., a place of about four thousand inhabitants.

At an early age I entered the public school at my home. My father, however, soon put me to work, so that I grew up quite ignorant of books. He was a carpenter and butcher, and fairly skilled in working iron. For a number of years he kept a meat-market. At the age of sixteen I was doing the principal part of the butchering. Some years later, when father was appointed street "boss" of the town, I worked as one of the street laborers. When he changed his occupation from street "boss" to farmer, mine likewise changed. The rule was, a change from one occupation to another, working day by day without attention to mental growth, and having no thought of the future, till I was persuaded to join several other boys who had decided to form themselves into a night-class for purposes of self-improvement.

About this time, in compliance with my father's desire, and to my delight, I entered a carriage factory as an apprentice. It was while working there that I received a newspaper from a girl student at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. The paper contained a long descriptive article, with cuts of buildings, class-rooms, teachers, and students. The student who had sent the paper was from my home, and with it came a letter from her stating that she had spoken to Mr. Washington in my interest, and that if I would come to Tuskegee I would be given a chance to get an education. I shall never forget the impression made upon my mind by that newspaper article and the young woman's letter.


My father was consulted, and advised against my going away to school, saying: "You can continue night-school here at home and at the same time learn a trade. I never went to school a day in my life." Well, I knew that my father, nevertheless, could read and write a little and do some figuring, and that he at one time came within a few votes of being elected to the State Legislature of Georgia. Contrary to his advice, I concluded to go to Tuskegee. Looking back now, and connecting the present with the day on which my decision was made, I think that time and events have vindicated the wisdom of my decision.

After giving my employer two weeks' notice of my intention to give up my work, I hastened to arrange my affairs, fearing that procrastination might allow some event to change my mind and thus alter the whole course of my life. Two weeks after giving notice to my employer, I started for Tuskegee. I bought a ticket to Atlanta, where I spent the night. The next morning I went to the station and asked for a ticket to Tuskegee. The agent, on looking over his guide-books, said to me: "There is no such place as Tuskegee in the guide-books." I walked away from the window, thinking that, after all, Tuskegee was some place that existed only on paper.

Not wishing to give it up, I turned and approached the agent again. He got out maps and guides, and finally found Tuskegee, but said he could not sell me a ticket to that place as it was not on a railroad, and that the best thing for me to do was to purchase a ticket to Chehaw, Ala. So my ticket read, From Atlanta to Chehaw. On turning to leave the ticket-agent, I inquired how I could get to Tuskegee from Chehaw. He replied that he did not know. But I got there, going from Chehaw over a narrow-gauge road. The engine that pulled the one coach composing the train was named the "Klu-Klux," a thing I had heard of but had not understood. That there should be many new things to me in the world was not to be wondered at, when it was known that I had never before been out of the county in which I was born except on three occasions, when my trips extended only to adjoining counties.

It was in the month of March, 1886, while passing through the town of Tuskegee, that I beheld for the first time, standing at a distance, the institution that has, in my opinion, done more than any other one agency to elevate the Negroes of the South. About eight o'clock P. M. I arrived on the campus and was assigned to a room by the commandant, through the officer of the day.[2. The West Point system is followed in training the young men. Except that there are no guns, a complete battalion organization exists.] For about thirty minutes I was alone in the room, the student body being at devotional exercises—the Tuskegee Institute holding its daily devotions at night, instead of in the morning like most schools. This is done on account of the day- and night-school system, it being impossible to get all the students of the school together except at night after the night-school session.

While sitting and thinking of home, of the past, and of the future, I took out my pocketbook and counted $7.50. Not one cent more had I, and as I looked at the money with the thought that $7.50 represented the entire savings of my life up to that time, gloom and despondency almost overcame me.

The next morning I went to the Principal's office. From there I went to be examined, and then again to see the Principal. Mr. Washington explained that board was charged for at $8 per month, and that my books would be sold to me at cost. He informed me further that if I entered night-school I would be able to work out my board and accumulate each month a balance to be used in paying my expenses when I entered day-school. I was made to understand that this offer was on condition that my work and conduct be in every way satisfactory. As the amount of money I had did not justify me in entering day-school, I matriculated as a night-school student. The blacksmith-shop being short of students, I was assigned to this division of industry.

During the remaining part of the year, and the following summer, I worked in the shop ten hours each day, except Sundays, and devoted about two hours and a half at night to study and recitations. It is no easy task, during warm weather in Alabama, for one to work ten hours a day and spend two and a half hours at night studying in a room lighted by several large lamps suspended from the ceiling. Yet this is what hundreds of poor boys and girls have done at Tuskegee. Hundreds still attend the night-school, but electric lights have taken the place of the large oil-lamps. Tuskegee is now more modern than it was when I was a student there. Barrels and boxes are no longer used in the raw state for furniture, as was largely the case at that time. Day-students were required to work one school-day each week and every other Saturday. I was a student nearly five years, counting the time when I was a night-student.

After I entered day-school it was necessary that I should work not only on my regular work-days and two Saturdays each month, but whenever there was work to be done and I could find time in which to do it. During my entire life at Tuskegee I worked every Saturday except three.

I was not long at Tuskegee before an indescribable force began to have its influence upon me. Whatever this power may be called, it was both refining and energizing. People who know the school and have been there and know of its influence, call this force "the Tuskegee spirit." This spirit, to the student possessing a spark of manhood, is irresistible. The change in a student at Tuskegee is not sudden, nor is it wrought by any one element. Things that may seem small when taken separately, are invaluable when considered in the aggregate.

At Tuskegee one's attention is constantly called to little things. It was a habit of mine, I regret to say, to give little or no thought to my hat being on my head when I was in any of the boys' dormitories, or when passing through the halls of the buildings containing the class-rooms. My attention was finally called to this habit by one of the lady teachers. Passing me one day in the hall, she said: "Canty, you have a habit of wearing your hat through the halls. It is a very bad habit." When I entered Tuskegee I had not worn a night-shirt since I was a child. Here it was soon impressed upon me that sleeping in a night-shirt was a sign of cleanliness, of civilization. If there is any place where cleanliness is regarded and practised as one of God's first laws, that place is Tuskegee.

One day Mr. Washington sent for me to come to his office. I received the message with fear and trembling. I had, before this time, had but one opportunity to speak to Mr. Washington, and then only for a few minutes upon the day following my arrival. On my way to the office I wondered if any rule of the institution had been violated by me. Though I had been there only three or four weeks, I knew a request for a student to report at the Principal's office meant that he was to be given notice of imminent punishment, or consulted upon some matter of vital interest.

When I entered the office, Mr. Washington asked me to write to two or three worthy young men at my home and inquire if they desired a chance to work their way through school. Several days had passed when I received an answer from one of the young men to whom I wrote. It so happened that on the day the letter was received I met Mr. Washington on his way to his office, and said, "Mr. Washington [drawing the letter from my pocket], I have received a letter from—" Here my first sentence was cut short by Mr. Washington forcibly gesticulating and saying, "Come to the office; come to the office and see me there." That one lecture on business methods impressed me in a way that a chapter of this length could not have done.

One day I closed a door with considerable force, which attracted the attention of one of the teachers. The teacher, in my presence, again opened the door and gently closed it, noiselessly and without a word. I have never since forgotten the proper way in which to open and close doors. Little details are big essentials in the rounding out of character. They show the influence of the "Tuskegee spirit." But, after all, this spirit would not be so irresistible in its influence for good if the teachers and officers of the institution were not the embodiment and living example of it. Here, as elsewhere and everywhere, example is more potent than precept.

Every institution has policies peculiarly its own. It is necessary that every teacher and officer support that policy to make it effective. Each instructor has a distinct individuality that becomes a part of the student, in smaller or greater degree, and at the same time gives force and strength to the policies of the institution. Though I felt the influence of every one of the thirty-odd teachers then at Tuskegee, the individuality of some of these made a very great impression on me. I remember Mr. W. D. Wilson as a very quiet and effective disciplinarian. Mr. Warren Logan, the treasurer, has the ability to teach the student the value of a dollar by making him sacrifice almost beyond the point of endurance. At the same time, with a smile and a cheerful disposition, he would make the student feel that his burden was light. Through the kindness and special interest manifested in me by Mr. M. T. Driver, who was in charge of wheelwrighting and blacksmithing, I made rapid progress at my trade. Miss Adella H. Hunt, who has since become the wife of Treasurer Logan, was then a teacher who had the faculty of touching a responsive chord in a student. Mrs. Booker T. Washington, then Miss Margaret J. Murray, impressed me very much. Strong and resourceful in dealing with students, she always won the best that was in them. My student-days were almost at an end when she came to Tuskegee.


I shall ever feel grateful to Mr. J. H. Washington for the encouragement he gave me. Being superintendent of industries, he was then, as he is now, in constant touch with every male student. He is a believer in, and a firm advocate of, steady, thorough, earnest work, and is quick to see, appreciate, and encourage the smallest degree of ability shown by any student. No time seemed too valuable for him to give in trying to advance a student in his work. I might add here that the teachers here named are, with two exceptions, among the pioneers in the building of the school.

Mr. Booker T. Washington's personality is the great thing at Tuskegee, and every student who goes there feels the strength of the man's rugged individuality. "Mr. B. T." is an affectionate term used by the students, but it springs from an indescribable, spontaneous feeling of love and veneration. His Sunday evening talks to the students are to me like the Book of Proverbs, always timely, encouraging, and applicable to the affairs of every-day life. It is from these family talks that the students learn, as they never have before, the beauty that lies in real, every-day Christianity, and in living a real and simple life. It is from these talks that the students learn so much of the great heart and center of the institution. Mr. Washington still delivers Sunday evening talks when at school, and they are published in the school's weekly paper, The Tuskegee Student. Graduates throughout the country eagerly read these talks with the same interest and pleasure with which they listened to them while in school.

Mr. Washington taught then, as he teaches now, psychology to the Senior class. The student has not become intimately acquainted with Mr. Washington until he becomes a Senior. It is here that the members of the Senior class talk of their past and future lives and receive the outpourings of a great but simple soul. Mr. Washington's long and frequent absences from the school are no less regretted by the teachers than by the students.

Soon after entering school I began to think of what I should do after graduating. My inclination led me to feel that success would be found along mercantile lines. In spite of this I applied myself zealously to my trade. During my last two years in school I did what teaching in blacksmithing my literary work permitted, the school being without an instructor in this industry for a short while. There was then no course in engineering or in machinery, so I did all the pipe-work and kept the machinery of the school in repair. In this way I learned something of machinery without an instructor. With some pride I recall the fact that I "ironed" the first farm-wagons, the first two-seated spring-wagon, and the first buggy made at Tuskegee. I also "piped" the school's first bathroom for girls.

In May of my Senior year I was very much surprised to receive a note from Principal Booker T. Washington intimating that he desired me to connect myself with the school the following year. Later he stated the nature of the work he wanted me to do. I accepted the offer he made me. I was asked to teach in the night-school and instruct in the blacksmith-shop one-half of each week-day.

A few days after graduation I visited my home with the intention of spending the summer there. I was there about three weeks, when I received a letter from Mr. John H. Washington requesting my return to Tuskegee the next week, if I could so arrange. He at that time was both superintendent of industries and commandant. On my return he informed me that the Principal had decided that since his duties as superintendent of industries were so important, he was to be relieved of all others, and that in lieu of instructing in the blacksmith-shop, I was to be offered the work as commandant.

At once I set about getting the boys' rooms in order for the opening of school. During the two previous years, even while a student, I had virtually been acting as commandant, since no one man could carry double responsibilities such as Mr. J. H. Washington had been carrying. I was appointed commandant, and placed in charge of the night-school for a year. I then resigned, looking forward to following my old-time inclination of engaging in some mercantile business. I knew that I could accumulate means for this purpose sooner by working at my trade, as I received two dollars per day working as a blacksmith during vacation seasons at Birmingham, Ala.

My first marriage occurred in 1891, my wife being Miss Sarah J. Harris. We were classmates at Tuskegee four years, and graduated together. She died in 1894 at Institute, W. Va. Our long association and acquaintance made us understand each other even before we were married. Having become a Christian before myself, she had much to do with my conversion while I was a student. She was a great help to me in many ways, and through her economy I was able to begin the purchase of my first property. Portia, the oldest and only child now living of the three children born to us, is in the Little Girls' Home at Knoxville College, Tenn. In 1897 I was married to Miss Florence Lovett, a graduate of Storer College, Harpers Ferry, W. Va. She shares my burdens, and is in every way a part of whatever success I am able to achieve. Four children have been born to us.

After resigning my position as commandant and head of the night-school at Tuskegee, I spent a few weeks visiting relatives, and then returned to Marietta. Here I worked at my trade in a carriage-shop, where a great deal of machine-work was done for two furniture factories and a planing-mill. Much of my time was spent in repairing machinery and making bits and knives for the factories.

While at home I tried to make myself a part of the people in a helpful way. I lived with my parents about two miles from the town. On my father's farm was a church, the ground for which had been given by my father. I was elected superintendent of the Sunday-school of this church, and filled this position as long as I remained there. Soon after the Sunday-school was started it occurred to me that the young people of the community could be greatly helped by a literary society. With the aid of others I organized a society and was elected its president. We met every Friday night at the house of some member. It was the custom to meet at different places, so that the long distances necessary to walk would be equally shared by all. Even by this arrangement some had to walk three and four miles, but the pleasure and benefit derived from attending the society repaid us for the trouble.

After I had been at my home about a year, I received a letter from Mr. Booker T. Washington requesting that I write to Mr. J. Edwin Campbell, Principal of the West Virginia Colored Institute, then located near Farm, W. Va. Enclosed with Mr. Washington's letter was one Mr. Campbell had written, asking that a Tuskegee graduate be named to take the position of Superintendent of Mechanics. This title has since been changed to Superintendent of Mechanical Industries. On January 3, 1893, I arrived at the West Virginia Colored Institute and entered upon my duties, and have held the position ever since.


Student masons laying the foundation in brick.

In the early summer of 1898 Mr. J. H. Hill, who was then principal, resigned to accept a Lieutenancy in a company of United States Volunteers. During the interim following the resignation of Mr. Hill and the appointment of Mr. J. McHenry Jones, the present principal, I was placed in charge of the school by the Board of Regents. Mr. Jones was elected principal September 21, 1898.

Until the fall of 1898 my duties were many and varied, as I had no assistance in carrying on the industrial work of the school. I taught blacksmithing, carpentering, and mechanical drawing. Besides this, I have had to put the sewerage system into the institution, and the heating apparatus into several of the school buildings. Still, a part of my time in 1894 was devoted to teaching in the literary department. My work now, while as exacting as ever, is more along the line of superintending the mechanical industries and in teaching mechanical drawing.

The school has grown, since my coming here, from 3 teachers and 30 students to a faculty of 18 teachers and 187 students. There are 6 instructors in the mechanical department for boys. We give instruction in carpentry, printing, blacksmithing, brick masonry, plastering, wheelwrighting, and mechanical drawing. These industries are housed in a building—the "A. B. White Trades Building"—that cost $35,000.

In concluding this sketch, I repeat with emphasis what I said in the beginning: Whatever my accomplishments may be, the credit is due to Tuskegee. I do not wish in life to be regarded as a man of chance possibilities, but rather as one who has consistently persevered in all of his struggles. Tuskegee teaches nothing with greater force than that success lies in that direction. Principal Washington, among other things, has taught that it is necessary to get property and have a bank-account. I have complied with that teaching. I own a farm of 100 acres within one-eighth of a mile of the school. My first property, which I still own, consists of a one-acre lot and a seven-room house. It gives me pleasure to contribute annually $10 to Tuskegee, although this but inadequately expresses my gratitude to the institution to which I owe so much.

Booker T. Washington