I was born in the town of Henderson, State of Kentucky, January 1, 1867. My father and mother were both slaves. My father rendered service during the Civil War as a Union soldier.
As early as I can remember there was in Henderson a public free school for colored children. In 1872 there came to our town a young man from Louisville, Ky., John K. Mason by name, to take charge of the school. How he secured his education I never learned, but that he devoted his life to the uplift of his race is everywhere in that section clearly in evidence. Unfortunately, I was not permitted as a boy to go to school, but became a factory lad instead; for, almost before I was old enough to begin my education, I was put to work in a tobacco factory, and there I remained. From childhood to manhood I think I spent, all told, not more than three years in school.
Somehow I had a faint idea of the value of education, and manifested a desire for learning by securing the services of a young man, whose country-school term had expired, to give me lessons at night when not otherwise engaged. He was quite a "society" man, so that my school-nights were few in number.
While my father did not provide for my education, he was himself an industrious man and provided that I should not be idle. Each year, when the tobacco season was over, I had regular employment in a cooper-shop with my father, and I learned to make barrels and hogsheads. This trade I found to be quite valuable, for before I was twenty-one years of age I was able to demand wages of two dollars a day as a cooper.
Quite incidentally I heard of the work being done at Tuskegee by Principal Booker T. Washington and the opportunity offered there to get an education. I at once applied for admission. I received a letter from the Principal admitting me to school in the autumn of 1889, when I was twenty-two years of age. I did not enter the school, however, until 1890. I registered as a night-school student and asked to be assigned to the carpenter-shop, as that seemed more in line with coopering. This division was so crowded that I was forced to take shoemaking instead. At this trade I worked two years and attended night-school. At the end of this period I resolved to go to North Alabama and work in the coal-mines to get money for clothing, books, and to help me along with my expenses when the money earned at Tuskegee should run out. Realizing that every dollar in my school life would count, I decided to live most cheaply, even cooking for myself. In the end, following this method, I had more money with which to return to school. I worked all day and returned to work again the same night, that I might not lose the prize of education, the pursuit of which I kept daily before me.
Somewhere I heard this quotation, "If anybody else can, I can, too." With this sentiment I continued to push ahead, until in May, 1895, I completed the course of study with the first honor of my class.
During my stay at Tuskegee I made such a record in the shoemaking-shop that my instructor was anxious to have me take an assistant's place with him. This I refused, preferring to start a career in Texas, of which I had heard such glowing accounts. In the months of June, July, and a part of August, 1895, I was employed with others making the shoes which constituted a part of Tuskegee's Industrial Exhibit at the Atlanta Exposition. At the solicitation of a number of persons living at Mineola, Tex., I decided, even before graduation, to begin my life-work at that place. Reaching Mineola, I found a fight on hand between the teacher of the colored school and the patrons of the school. Immediately on learning this fact I withdrew from the contest, notwithstanding the fact that my cash earnings were almost exhausted and those who had invited me there seemed unable to guarantee me the position. An incident occurred at Mineola which I shall never forget. It was the second meeting with Prof. H. T. Kealing, then president of Paul Quinn College, Waco, Tex., but now editor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church Review, an ambitious magazine publication of the great African Methodist Episcopal Church. The occasion was a Quarterly Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church at Mineola, and Professor Kealing was there to deliver a lecture. Our first meeting was at Tuskegee while I was a student there during my Senior year. In that far-away country I was very glad to see some one I knew, and after the meeting I was not long in making myself known to Professor Kealing. He heard my story, praised the stand I had taken, and expressed regrets that he was not able to offer me a place in Paul Quinn College. He suggested that I take a letter of introduction to Dr. I. B. Scott, then president of Wiley University, Marshall, Tex., but now a Bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, the first colored man to be elected to the episcopacy of that great church.
At Wiley I was kindly received by Bishop Scott, and entered into a contract with him to teach shoemaking for my board and the proceeds of the shop. I entered into the spirit of Wiley with such earnestness that at the close of my first month I was made a salaried teacher at $35 a month, and before the session was half gone my salary had been raised to $40. I completed the year's work with perfect satisfaction to all concerned. What I enjoyed most of all during my year at Wiley was the esteem and personal friendship of Bishop Scott. His letters addressed to me upon the eve of my resignation, the esteem he placed on my work while in the employ of the University, and his entreaties that I should not tender my resignation so embarrassed me that for a time I was unable to tell what I should do. I felt I owed it to Tuskegee to go wherever Principal Washington thought my services were most desired. On two occasions since I left there Bishop Scott has taken occasion to voice his approval of my conduct while at Wiley: once before the East Tennessee Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and in October, 1902, to my students, when he came to visit me at the Christiansburg Institute.
About the first of May, 1896, I received a telegram from Principal Washington requesting me to allow him to present my name to the Board of Managers of the Christiansburg Industrial Institute for the principalship then vacant. I agreed, and was elected to the place. Before entering upon the duties of my new position at Christiansburg I made a visit to Tuskegee, for the purpose of gaining information as to the scope of my work and as to how I should best proceed.
After spending nearly two months at Tuskegee, I made my way to my new field of labor in Virginia, reaching Christiansburg the 15th of July, 1896. The appearance of things at Christiansburg did not come up to my expectations, nor was my reception in accordance with what I had expected. Under the conditions which then existed, one of more experience than I had would have expected just about such a reception as I received. The people seemed almost crazed that a Tuskegee graduate should be planning to engraft the Tuskegee Idea in that section—and this, too, in spite of Hampton. In my effort to carry out the plans sanctioned by Dr. Washington, I soon realized I was facing opposition well-nigh insurmountable. This was due to their misunderstanding of Dr. Washington, and of what Tuskegee really stands for. As far as possible, I gathered around me men and women who, like myself, were thoroughly imbued with the Tuskegee Idea, and together we pushed ahead with our plans.
From the first I was given to understand that the desire of the Board was that there should be at Christiansburg a school similar to Hampton and Tuskegee; though smaller, it should be no less perfect in what it was designed to do. To reach this end the school had to undergo the change from a distinctly literary school to one with both literary and industrial branches; from a regular, ordinary school to one with a boarding department. My plans met the approval of all concerned, yet there was little idea on my part as to the amount of money and labor necessary to put them into operation. The course of study was rearranged to suit the new conditions, and five industries were installed. A circular setting forth the purposes of the school was published and scattered abroad. We then thought that this was nearing the end of the great task, when in reality we had hardly begun.
The Board of Managers did not oppose the boarding department, yet they did not sanction it to the extent of supporting it.
I had confidence in my plans and was willing to start alone. This step was far more perplexing than I had at first imagined. As the time drew near for the opening of school, I was aware that for the boarding department I had to find a suitable house and procure necessary furniture. In the basement of the school building was some lumber which had been used for a platform. With the assistance of one of the teachers this stage-lumber was converted into five bedsteads and three small tables. I succeeded in getting one of the merchants to credit us for several lamps. With this furniture, several stools, an equal number of dry-goods boxes, and a few kitchen utensils, the boarding department of the institution was started. Notwithstanding the scanty arrangement, I am glad to say that for the most part there was but little or no complaint.
Sufficient money was appropriated by the Board of Managers to provide for the purchase of necessary working tools for the added industrial classes.
I kept our friends in the North reminded of our need of additional land. The industrial-school idea with a department of agriculture was not succeeding well on a half-acre of ground. After two years of patient toil this question of land was recognized as a necessity, and accordingly two friends undertook to solicit subscriptions to the amount of $5,000 with which to purchase a farm of 100 acres, two horses, a set of harness, a wagon, and a plow. By this time spring was well on and we were planning to make a crop. In a runaway one of the school horses was badly injured. The purchase of the farm, etc., had about exhausted our Northern resources and the school was in debt. To my credit in the Bank of Christiansburg was a small sum of money, with which I purchased a horse. The crop that year was fairly successful.
Before taking possession of the farm, it was understood that instead of the proceeds of the farm going toward maintaining or paying teachers' salaries, the money should go toward building up the soil, which was well run down, and that we should devote all possible effort in the direction of restoring the soil to its once high state of fertilization. Owning this farm, we had the "Big House" where the master once lived, and several of the slave cabins, which still remain, where the slaves resided. Hundreds of slaves, I have been told, tilled this soil in the days long ago, when its productive power was greater than that of any estate in this whole section.
It is a remarkable and significant fact that where the master once lived is a recitation building for colored boys and girls, and where the slaves once huddled around the flickering light of a pine-knot young Negro students are quartered daily, preparing for the duties of the morrow.
In building up the school to its present position, five persons, almost from the very beginning, have figured most prominently, viz.: E. A. Long and his wife, Miss Willie Mae Griffin, the writer and his wife—all Tuskegee graduates. It is needless that I remark here that the burdens borne by the men have been in no sense heavier than those borne by these faithful women. The road along which we have traveled has not been, by any means, a smooth one. We all had been toilers at Tuskegee and knew well how to face the duties of life. This was decidedly in our favor. I was the oldest of the company and perhaps had seen more of hardship than the others; it therefore fell to my lot to give courage to the others when hope was all but gone.
Some time previous to our taking possession of the farm, some of the occupants had sown about half an acre in a kind of radish commonly known hereabout as "pig radish." It must be remembered that each year, after the eight months' academic work was over, we received no money from any source whatever. Paying the salaries of teachers who were to leave for the summer and meeting other demands of the institution always exhausted the school's treasury before the summer season began. With a "cropping" season of four months ahead, no money, no source from which any could be expected, the nice tender "pig radish," year after year, became our food-supply for the early part of the summer at least. Thus, while pushing the operations of the farm, rebuilding the soil by means of turning under green crops, fertilizers, etc., "pig-radish" greens, western side meat, and corn-meal constituted our chief diet. Beef came to us as a luxury twice a week. The work was divided so that E. A. Long, our treasurer, was gardener, I was farmer, our wives and Miss Griffin were matrons and cooks. The 4th of July, 1900, found the work of the farm in such a prosperous condition that it was decided to celebrate the event with a cake and some ice-cream, for by this time we owned a cow.
One peculiar thing happened about the time we purchased this farm. We were teaching a graded school which we were eager to turn into a boarding institution. The pupils and patrons were in perfect accord with the faculty, but as soon as the fact became known that we had purchased a large tract of land and would endeavor to build a boarding and industrial school thereon, the members of the faculty at once became objects of scorn to almost the entire colored population. There were at that time enrolled in the school 240 children. Within less than a month more than 100 had dropped out. When school closed in May there were only 60 children attending.
We went about our duties, however, without complaint. While we worked, Nature also worked for us. Vegetation flourished wherever seed were sown; the trees bore a harvest of apples such as I have not seen since, and all went well.
As I look back over those years of trial, of privation, of sacrifice, I find they were conditions precedent to laying an enduring foundation. Our hope has been to establish a school where poor but earnest boys and girls can secure an education. It was through our efforts, first of all, that we were able to prove to the supporters of the school that such an institution could live and grow and do great and lasting good for those it is designed to help. Year by year the school has grown. Year by year the people of the community realize the sincerity of my teachers and give them hearty support. Patience, toil, trust in God, and enterprise are the elements which are fast putting this work on its feet.
Every person who visits the school sees earnestness manifested on farm, in shop, in class, about the grounds, everywhere, and goes away a sincere friend. Not alone do we have our visitor's friendship, but he tells the simple story to others and the number of friends increases.
Mr. R. C. Bedford, of Beloit, Wis., after visiting the school in January, 1905, took occasion to address a gentleman in the North who had interested himself in raising funds for the school, in the following language: "I have not visited the school for three years. Great changes have taken place since then. The good there being accomplished is simply immeasurable. Mr. Marshall and Mr. Long work together in such perfect harmony as to constitute a force of singular directness and power. I think the work is carried on most economically, and such a clear and full account of all expenditures is given to the public that you must have the utmost confidence of all your friends."
A few years ago it was difficult for our Treasurer to raise $1,875. The raising of funds for institutions is always difficult, but it is not as hard now to raise $6,000 to $8,000 as it was to raise $1,875 a few years ago.
Mr. E. A. Long, our treasurer, whose faithful assistance I have had in every effort to develop the school, was with me, embarrassed by a debt of the boarding department of more than $600. This condition grew, in a large measure, out of the fact that we attempted to supply students' work on the farm to pay their expenses, and the proceeds of the farm were expended as far as possible in the direction of building up the soil. In the fall of 1902 the board of managers assumed the responsibility of the boarding department, paid all indebtedness, and to-day the school is operated on a cash basis.
During four years there have been contributed toward this work $43,528.77. We have added to the original plant one $10,000 dormitory, a cottage costing $750, a barn at a cost of $2,000, and a shop building valued at $1,000. Much has been spent in the way of repairs. We have $1,000 invested in live stock, and more than $300 worth of farming implements. In each of the industrial departments fairly good equipment can be found. We have grown from a half acre of ground to more than 100 acres; from 2 horses to 43 head of live stock; from a printing-press weighing 75 pounds to one weighing 2,500 pounds. Agriculture, carpentry, printing, shoemaking, laundering, cooking, sewing, and basketry are carried on successfully. The farm produces large crops of cereals, vegetables, fruits, and raises a large share of the meat used by the school. All the flour for the past three years came from the wheat produced on the farm.
The growth of the school has commended itself favorably to those who have had occasion to investigate its claims. A committee appointed to look into the condition of the school some time ago made the following statement: "In conclusion, your committee would say that it feels that Messrs. Marshall and Long and their wives have made many sacrifices for the good of the school and have shown a true missionary spirit in carrying on the work, and their ideals and purposes are in accord with the very best. They have borne an awkward and heavy burden in financing the school, and your committee feels that if released from this care their teaching-work will be much improved and become very valuable in building up the school."
In addition to the cultivation of the home-farm of 100 acres, the increased amount of stock makes it necessary to rent an adjacent pasture of 80 acres, the property of two of our teachers.
I have made an effort to supplement the knowledge acquired at Tuskegee through a school of correspondence and through the Chautauqua Reading Circle with some degree of success.
The success of this school, in a very large measure, is due to the consecrated effort of the members of the Friends' Freedmen's Association of Philadelphia and the board of managers of the institution. From the time I entered upon the work to the present, Principal Washington has also been a constant source of help and encouragement. Five hundred dollars given by him in the spring of 1903 was the first money toward the erection of our new dormitory. A combination woodworking-machine is also a result of his interest.
We have on hand an endowment fund of several thousand dollars which we are anxious to increase. Definite plans have been made for the erection of two new buildings. When the plans thus far mapped out are completed, the plant, now worth $30,000, will easily have a valuation of $75,000.
Sorry, no summary available yet.