Russell C. Calhoun of Eatonville, Florida




A NEGRO COMMUNITY BUILDER

By Russell C. Calhoun


I have been asked to here set forth incidents of my life as I remember them, especially as they relate to my life at Tuskegee and my work since leaving there. Though there have been quite a number of events in my life, it is somewhat difficult for me to give them in the way they are now desired, as it never occurred to me that they would be worth repeating.

Concerning my ancestry, it is impossible for me to give anything beyond my maternal grandfather, who was about three-fourths Indian. My recollections of him go back to the time when I was about six or seven years of age. My mother, having more children than she could really care for, decided to allow one of my brothers, who was perhaps a year and a half younger than I, and myself, to live with him and his second wife.

My grandfather was quite seventy-five years of age when we went to live with him, and was too feeble to work. He was supported from the poor-house, which gave him a peck of meal, 2 pounds of bacon, 1 pound of coffee, 1 pound of brown sugar, and once a month 25 cents' worth of flour. That, together with the little his wife could earn from place to place, constituted the "rations" of all of us for a week.

Of my birth no record was kept, my mother having been a slave. All I have been able to learn of the date of my birth is what my mother remembers connected with the close of slavery. In trying to ascertain from her when I was born, she said, "You was born some time just after Christmas, in the month of January, the third year after the surrender."

My mother had twelve children. I was the eighth child and the second one born after slavery. All except two of the children were born in the same one-room log cabin with a dirt floor, in the town of Paulding, Jasper County, Miss. My mother did the cooking for her master's family and the plantation help, did all of the milking, and was also washer-woman.

In the summer of 1896 I again visited Paulding, just after graduating from Tuskegee. I had to go there to move my aged mother to more comfortable quarters. She was quite ill, and died soon after I reached Florida with her. When I went to Paulding I measured the house in which I was born, and found it to be 9 feet wide, 17 feet long, 7 feet high, with no windows, with but one door, and a dirt chimney. The furnishing as I remember it was composed of a chair, a stool, a table, and my mother's bed, which was constructed in one corner of the house. The bed was made by putting a post in the ground and nailing two pieces of wood to the wall from this post, then by putting in a floor, making something like a box to hold the bedding. The children slept in a similarly constructed place, except that the mattress was on the ground and was filled with straw. Our bedding, for the most part, was what wearing apparel we possessed thrown over us at night. Outside the house was a long bench, which was kept for the accommodation of visitors.

A peculiar incident in our home life happened one Sunday morning in March—one Easter Sunday. All of the smaller children were seated on the floor eating their breakfasts from pans and skillets, when a big black snake, without any regard for the children, went into a hole by the fireplace. When one of my older brothers undertook to find him and opened this hole, he found, instead of one, four black snakes that had been wintering in the side of the house.

There was no church or school for us in that whole section. A white man, a Doctor Cotton, to whom I was afterward given until I should become twenty-one years of age, sent his boys to a school which required that they walk eight miles to it and return each day.

When I was perhaps eight years of age I remember that my mother and all of the children went to Spring Hill to a camp-meeting; that was the first service at which I had heard a minister. They had a Sunday-school, and I was put into a class. The teacher gave us leaflets and asked us to read where we found the big letter "A." This was the first and only letter that I knew for many years. This camp-meeting was held once a year, though at times there would be prayer-meetings among the different families on the plantation.

My mother, being a hard-working woman and knowing the value of keeping children busy, compelled every one of us to work in some way around the house or on the farm. I know of no lesson which she taught me and which has been of more value to me than that of "doing with your might what your hands find to do." It was a rule of her household that we should not go to bed without having water in the house. The water had to be brought from a spring a mile and a half away. I remember clearly how one night one of my brothers and myself tried to deceive her; how we secured some not overclear water from a hole near-by our home, and how she pitched it out and sent us the whole distance to the spring. Although this was many years ago, I now see, more and more, what it means to go all the way to the real spring, and I thank her memory for the lesson.

When I was about ten years of age the same Doctor Cotton of whom I have spoken came to my grandmother's to hire one of the boys to mind the bars, as the teams were hauling corn to the barn and the drivers did not want to put them up each time. I was delighted to be the chosen one of the two. My first chance to earn money was thus offered.

I stayed there every day from sunrise to sunset for a little more than three weeks, and it was a happy day when Doctor Cotton requested all hands to come up and be paid off. I do not know what the rest received; though I had boarded from the scanty fare before mentioned at my grandmother's home, he gave me fifteen cents, paying me in three nickels. I had never had any money in my hands before, and for fear I might lose it I put it in my pocket and held the pocket with both hands, and ran for more than two miles, carrying it home. One nickel of the three was given me for my share.

Seemingly this Doctor Cotton was very much impressed with the way I had performed my duty at the bars, for in the next few weeks he again visited my grandmother. I was quite anxious to know what his frequent visits meant, and was very much delighted, as well as surprised, when it was told me, one morning when it was very cold, and I had on only two pieces of clothing made of some very coarse material resembling canvas, that I was to live with Doctor Cotton until reaching manhood, and was to eat at his house. He told me in my grandmother's presence that if I would stay with him until I was twenty-one years of age I would receive a horse, a bridle and saddle, a suit of clothes, and $10, in addition to my "keep." This was such an apparently big offer that my grandmother's and my heart leaped for joy.

When I had lived with him for a few days he had given me the first pair of shoes, of the copper-toe variety, I ever wore.

I have never forgotten my first day's stay at this new home. My whole object that first day was to eat everything in sight. At my own home I slept on the dirt floor; at this new home I slept in the attic, my bed being a pile of cotton-seed with a quilt for covering. My duty at this new home was to attend to the horses, to bring the cows from the pasture, sweep the yard, wait on the table, nurse two children, etc. I stayed at this place for two and one-half years, and as my knowledge of things increased my duties became more and more exacting.

During this whole time, and for two years before, I had not seen or heard from my mother. I was twenty miles from any railroad, and had never seen or heard of a railroad train. We lived on the public road between Paulding and Enterprise, and by some means I heard that my mother had gone to the "railroad." Though I had never been away on my own resources, I resolved to do better than I was doing. I remember very well that it was Monday morning when one of the doctor's daughters said to me, "Russell, you go down to 'Vina's house, tell her to come and scour for me; come by the store and get a package of soda; then come through the field and drive the turkeys home." Providence never favored any one more than it did me on that day. I went by the store and told them to do up the soda, I went by and told 'Vina that she was wanted, but I did not drive the turkeys home.

I started out in search of my mother, and after walking more than half the distance I overtook an ox-team, and the driver allowed me to ride a part of the way. I reached the railroad town about night, and standing there was a freight train of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad.

I was never so frightened in all my life as when the whistle blew and this object moved away. I remember asking the driver of the ox-team where the thing's eyes were, and where the horses were that pulled it.

The doctor, suspecting that I had gone to Enterprise in search of my mother, made plans to capture me and have me returned, but all of this failed. By good fortune I found my brother, who was married and living in this town; here again I became a nurse, having to care for his two children.

Afterward I went to live with a white family which was very kind to me. The young man who carried me to his house as a nurse put into my hands, after I had been there some months, the first spelling-book I had ever had; saying to me that if I would stay with them for two years, he would at the end of that time send me to school. I stayed at this place for some months, when my mother came from somewhere, I know not where, and with five of the boys we joined ourselves together to work on a plantation on "halves." We worked very hard that year.

Our food was furnished by the owner of the plantation. On many of those long, cold days, for all day, we had only a "pone" of corn bread. At the close of the year, after the owner had taken his half, and on account of bad management on the part of an older brother who had charge of affairs, my mother and her younger children received nothing for the year's work, and this, notwithstanding the fact that we made five and one-half bales of cotton and a large quantity of corn and peas. I received as my "salary" for the year's work one shirt worth thirty cents and a pair of suspenders worth about fifteen cents. I resolved to run away again. This trip was made at night, on foot, over newly laid railroad-ties, for a distance of seventeen miles.

I reached Meridian, Miss., at a late hour of the night, and took refuge in a shed used for the storing of railroad iron. The next morning I overheard two colored men, who were on their way to get meat ready for the town-market two miles away, talking. I joined these men, and sought employment along with them, but they soon learned that I knew nothing of "butchering." However, the owner of the pen, who had a large garden, gave me a trial, and I remained with him for three years.

After I was there a little more than a year my work was to plant and care for the small seeds. This man, Mr. Nady Sims, was a good man, and I had no cause for leaving him except that of wishing to get a place to earn more money, that I might help care for my mother and her smaller children.

I went next to a brick-yard, where I received fifty cents per day. There were three boys at each "table," and we had to "off-bear" 5,500 bricks, the task for each day. This was indeed hard work.

Drifting into hotel work, I soon acquired the habit of most of those who are engaged in such work: I spent all I earned for fine clothes.

During my stay on the vegetable farm I boarded at the home of one of the young men previously referred to, whose sister, Mary Clinton, who has since become my wife and devoted assistant, one day heard a woman say she knew of a school in Alabama where boys and girls could work for their education, and that she was going to send her boy to that school. This thought remained in her mind for some months, and she decided to go to Tuskegee, though her brothers and sisters discouraged the idea, feeling, as they said, that if she went to this unknown place her whole life would be a failure.

She reached Tuskegee in September, 1885, at a time when there was but one building. She worked in many places while there, including the laundry, the teachers' dining-room, the sewing division, with Principal Washington's family, as well as with the families of other teachers. On account of poor health, especially because of throat trouble, she was compelled to return home at the end of five years without graduating.

No sooner had she reached home again than she began a crusade for Tuskegee. I was then twenty-one years of age, had never had a day's schooling, and could read but very little. I proposed marriage to Miss Clinton as soon as she returned, but she replied: "You do not know anything except about hotel work. I have been to Tuskegee and see the need of your knowing something. I also need to know more than I do. I can easily marry some one who knows more than you do, but if you will go to school I will assist you in any way that I can." This proposition I accepted, and on September 2, 1890, I reached Tuskegee and began my first day in school.

I had some knowledge of carpentry, and was for that reason assigned to the carpenter-shop for work during the day; I attended school at night.

There were ninety-three young men and women in the class when I entered school; of that number only two, in addition to myself, remained through the entire course. I can never forget my examination by Miss Maggie J. Murray, now Mrs. Booker T. Washington. There were quite three hundred new students in the chapel of Porter Hall, one of the oldest buildings of the institution, taking examinations at the same time.

She gave me two slips of paper, a pencil, and the questions, and said to me: "Write the answers to these questions." She went about other duties, and after about three hours returned to me for my papers; then for the first time in my life I learned the meaning of geography and arithmetic. The slips of paper mentioned asked questions on those subjects. I had not put anything on the paper. She asked me if I knew of any large cities; if I had ever crossed a river or seen a hill; if I knew the name of the railroad over which I had come to reach Tuskegee.

I was able to answer each of these questions very readily; and she said, "Calhoun, that is geography."

She assigned me to one of the lowest classes in the night-school. I bought books which cost $1.70, and had fifty-two cents left. I soon spent the fifty cents.

For seven months during my first year's stay my only possession was represented by a two-cent stamp. I had had many "good friends" before going to Tuskegee, and debated long as to which of them I should devote the two-cent stamp, trusting to receive some financial aid. Finally I decided on one of these "good friends." I used the stamp, and have not heard from him from that day to this.

While carpentry was my special trade, I found the opportunity to get information as to the other industries on the grounds. All of this supplemental study has proved most helpful to me in my present work.

Most persons who enter school for the first time, and especially industrial schools, get wrong impressions at the start. Notwithstanding the fact that I was a young man who had "knocked about" the world quite a little, I thought I had made a mistake in entering school, and did not begin to see that I had done properly until I had been there for eight or nine months. I asked for an excuse to leave school early in the first term; it was denied me. I tried to sell my trunk for $7, so that I might run away. I had a penchant for running away from disagreeable surroundings. I was offered $6, but for the sake of the difference of $1 I decided to remain.

I do not hesitate to say that each day I live in my heart I most heartily thank the good friends who have made it possible for Tuskegee to be; I am also most grateful that I was able to reach it and receive the training which I received there. I did nothing great while at Tuskegee, but I remember with pride that I gave no trouble in any way during my sojourn.

I used my spare hours making picture-frames, repairing window-shades, making flower-stands and flower-boxes, and working flower-gardens for the various Faculty families. The money received I saved until the end of the school term. At the end of each term there were always a large number of students who cared nothing for their books, and all but gave them away. Looking three months ahead, I bought these books and sold them to new students who entered the following year.

One year alone I cleared $40 in this way. The second-hand book business among the students began from this effort on my part to add to my little pile of cash money.

Having completed the course with a class of thirty-one members, May 26, 1896, I started straight for my home, Meridian, Miss.

For six years, as a student, I had been at Tuskegee and under its influences; now I had only my conscience to dictate to me and to keep me straight. Feeling that I could not do much good at Meridian, I started for Texas, having had a position promised me.

I reached Mobile, Ala., while en route, and heard that Miss Mary Clinton, previously mentioned, was in Tampa, Fla. Feeling that she still had some interest in me, I again decided to go to her for advice.

I reached the city of Tampa with but a small sum in my pocket. The town was undergoing a "boom," and I was certain that it would not be long before I would be earning something, but, to my disappointment, I found about thirty men looking for every job in sight. After much wearying search I became thoroughly convinced that Tampa was too large a city not to give me something to do besides "looking up into the air." Finally, one rainy morning I secured work at a freight-house.

It was my lot to go first up the wet, steep, and slippery gang-plank. Not being used to such a task, I fell, the truck with 350 pounds narrowly escaping me. I got up and made a second attempt to carry my load, and with success. I had been there two months when the agent wanted some new shelves built in the storehouse. He told one of his employees to go for a carpenter. He replied, "This man Calhoun can do any such work you want done." The agent had me get my tools and do the work. A few days afterward he wanted a first-class cook to prepare and serve a special Christmas dinner. The same employee told him, "Calhoun can do it."

The motto of my class was, "We Conquer by Labor."

On April 29, 1897, both Miss Clinton and myself were called to a school in South Carolina, and in a simple way, with $50 saved, we married and boarded the train for our new field of labor. After giving up our work and reaching Sanford, 125 miles away, we received a letter asking us to defer our coming until the following October.

This was a very, very sad disappointment and trial to us. It was two weeks before the State examinations would be held. We prepared as best we could, and as a result of the examination we were sent to Eatonville, Fla., to take charge of the public school there. Eatonville is a Negro town with colored officers, a colored postmaster, and colored merchants. There is not a single white person living within the incorporated city; it promises to be a unique community. It is situated near the center of Orange county, six miles from Orlando, the county seat, and is two miles from the Seaboard Air-Line Railroad, and one and one-half miles from the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad.

It was said by the late Bishop H. B. Whipple, of Wisconsin—whose winter home for a number of years was a half mile from this place—who had helped the people of this community, and who was a constant helper and adviser to my wife and me in our work until his death, that you might travel the whole State over and not find a more healthy place. We were here but a few days when we decided that this was the place for us to begin putting into practise the lessons taught us at Tuskegee. We felt that we wanted to do something toward helping our people. We decided to cast our lot permanently at Eatonville.

Our first "industrial" service was done with the aid of the school children: we cleaned the street of tin cans and other rubbish.

We found the lessons in economy which we had received at Tuskegee very valuable to us at this trying time. We felt that if we would properly impress the lessons most needed we should own a home, a cow, some chickens, a horse, and a garden; we felt that there should be tangible ownership on the part of the people of some of these things, at any rate.

These things we started to get as soon as possible. We wanted to teach the people by example.

After talking in a general way for some days of the value of industrial education, coupled with that of intelligent class-room instruction, Mrs. Calhoun succeeded in getting four girls to come to her home for sewing lessons. That was the first step.

Incidentally, we heard of the philanthropic instincts of a gentleman, Mr. E. C. Hungerford, living at Chester, Conn., who had conditionally offered to another school twenty acres of land, and whose offer was not met. I wrote to him asking if he would give us the land. He replied that he would be glad to give us forty acres if we would use it for school purposes.

On February 24, 1899, having the deed in hand, a board of trustees was selected, and, with the aid of nine men who cleared one and one-half acres of land while their wives furnished the dinner, we started what is now the Robert C. Hungerford Industrial School. The new school now owns 280 acres of land secured as follows: From Mr. and Mrs. E. C. Hungerford, 160 acres; from Mr. and Mrs. T. W. Cleavland, 40 acres; from Mrs. Nancy B. Hungerford, 40 acres; by purchase, an additional 40 acres.

The school has two dormitories, Booker T. Washington Hall, the J. W. Alfred Cluett Memorial Hall, and six other buildings used for shops, barn, and dining-room. The total value of the property, clear of all indebtedness, is $22,445. We teach the boys blacksmithing, wheelwrighting, carpentry, agriculture, stock-raising, poultry-raising, and truck-gardening; the girls receive instruction in dressmaking, plain sewing, cooking, laundering, millinery, basketry, and housekeeping. We give no industry at the expense of the literary work.

The academic department covers a useful course of the English branches. The moral, religious, industrial, and financial influence of the school upon the community, as well as upon the students who have attended, who come from many counties in the State, has grown steadily as the years have come and gone. The school has at present forty-five young people in the boarding department, including seven teachers, three of whom have come from Tuskegee; a large enrolment of students from the immediate community and from the surrounding territory.

I have not said very much regarding the difficulties, the struggles, to plant this work, but I am glad to say that from the beginning we have had the friendliest support and advice from all the white people of this section, officials and citizens alike.

I owe much of my success in the work here to the cheerful and freely given counsel at all times of Hon. W. L. Palmer, Representative in the State Legislature, and to the members of the Board of Public Instruction of this (Orange) county.

The colored people have had little to give in cash, but have been most liberal in their contributions of labor. They have been willing to help themselves.

My constant, my most earnest desire is to prove myself worthy of my opportunities, that I may continue to be a worthy representative of Tuskegee. I feel that I owe all that I am, all that I can hope to be, to the training of my mother, to the constant help and counsel of my wife, and to Tuskegee, my Tuskegee, from which I have received so many lessons that have been of incalculable help to me. I look back to my lessons in carpentry, as well as to all the others, with gratitude for the thoroughness insisted upon in all directions. I was rescued from a life of aimlessness, and put in the way of doing something of good for my fellows.





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