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Ch. 4: What Girls Are Taught, And How

By Mrs. Booker T. Washington

"We wants our baby gal, Mary Lou, to come up to Tuskegee to git eddicated and learn seamstress; kase we doesn't want her to work lak we is," says the farmer. "I wish to help you plant this new industry, broom-making," writes Miss Susan B. Anthony, "because you are trying so earnestly to teach your girls other means of livelihood besides sewing, housework, and cooking." This is the problem we have been trying to solve at Tuskegee for over twenty years: What handiwork can we give our girls with their academic training that will better fit them to meet the demand for skilled teachers in the various avenues of the industrial and academic world now opening so rapidly to women?


Director of Industries for Girls.

Learning to sew, with the ultimate end of becoming a full-fledged dressmaker, has been the height of ambition with the major part of our girls when brought to the institution by their horny-handed fathers and mothers fresh from the soil of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, or Florida. After the last gripless hand-shake, with the tremulous, "Take care of yourself, honey," the hard-working father and mother have turned their faces homeward, visibly affected by the separation, but resolved to shoulder the sacrifice of the daughter's much-needed help on the plantation, which oftentimes is all that they are able to contribute toward her education.

Not infrequently the girl has begun in the lowest class in night-school. Her parents send her articles of clothing now and then on Christmas; but the largest contributions to her wardrobe come from the boxes and barrels sent to the institution by Northern friends. She has remained in school during the summer vacation, and within two years has entered day-school with enough to her credit to finish her education. When the happy parents return to see their daughter graduated, after six or seven long years, their faces are radiant because of their realized hopes. When they see their white-robed daughter transformed from the girl they brought here clad in the homespun of the old days, and receiving her certificate, the tears come unchecked, and the moving lips no doubt form a whispered prayer.

In a recent class there was graduated a young woman of twenty-five. She came to the school in her eighteenth year from the "piney woods" of Alabama. She entered the lowest preparatory class in night-school and was assigned to work in the laundry. She was earnest and faithful in work and study. She passed on from class to class, remaining at school to work during the vacation. After two years in the laundry she was given an opportunity to learn plain sewing in that division. She was promoted to the Dressmaking Division at the end of the year, and received her certificate at the close of two years, after working every day and attending night-school. She spent the last two years of her school life in the Millinery Division, and received her certificate from that division with one from the Academic Department on her graduation. During these two years she taught the sewing-classes in the night-school of the town of Tuskegee. At the outset she bought the materials used with $1, left over from the sales of the previous year. From this small nest-egg as a starter, seventeen girls were supplied with work. But so efficient and frugal was the young teacher that she sold articles, bought supplies for her class, and ended the year with $3.45 in the treasury.

This is just a leaf from the history of one girl. Of the 520 girls entering the institution during this year (1903-'04), 458 have remained for the full scholastic year. About 50 per cent came from country districts all over the United States. A large majority of them asked to enter the Dressmaking Division to learn that trade; but, after the field of industries was opened to their view, they were scattered about in the different divisions, a very large per cent still leaning to the side of dressmaking and millinery.

Taking into account the number of girls working their way through at their trades by day and attending night-school, they were distributed as follows: Horticulture, 4; training-kitchen, 13; housekeeping, 38; dining-room, 29; hospital, 20; kitchen-gardening, 8; poultry-raising, 7; tailoring, 14; dairying, 10; printing, 6; broom-making, 26; mattress-making, 18; upholstering, 18; laundering, 54; plain sewing, 72; millinery, 51; dressmaking, 69. All the girls were required to take cooking twice a week and 209 of the girls in the normal classes took basketry.

As the trades were the great attraction in the school curriculum, it was deemed necessary to separate the school into two divisions, that students might have an opportunity to receive instruction equally in the Academic and Industrial Departments. This year this scheme worked successfully by an arrangement that placed one division in the Academic Department on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, while the other was at work, and the other division in the Trades Department on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, while the other was in school, and so on regularly.

Girl life at Tuskegee is strenuous. Though study and work are constantly to the fore, character is effectively developed with brain and muscle, and the well-earned recreation-hour comes just frequently enough to lend the highest source of pleasure. Though the girl usually comes with a hazy conception of what the days in school will really mean for the ripening of those powers that she earnestly intends to use for the best development of herself, there is always a spirit of learning, that she may be of service to others. That is what counts in the school-days of the average girl in her struggle for more light.

The girl, coming a stranger from her home in the city or country, is lost in a crowd of girls new to dormitory life. New surroundings and new conditions are everywhere. New emotions, new purposes, new resolutions chase one another in her thoughts, and she becomes a stranger to herself only to find her bearings first in her own room. Here Maine and California, far-away Washington and Central America, meet on common ground. Alabama and Georgia alone feel kinship from geographical propinquity.

Beds, one double and one single, chairs, a table, mirror, bookcase, wardrobe, wash-stand, and screen, all manufactured on the grounds, compose the simple furniture of the room. But a few pictures, a strip of carpet before each bed, a bright table-covering, soon give the room the appearance of home, and the untried life has begun. The duty-list assigns to each girl her work, and perhaps the first lessons in order and system will be fairly instituted.

How many and varied are the associations that cluster about the life of the girl in her room, that refuge from a day of discouragement in schoolroom or workshop, and a haven of peace during the quiet hours of the Sabbath! Roommate meets roommate, quick to resent and as quick to forgive—and the petty strife and envy suppressed at birth only serve to discipline them for the coming days.

Up with the rising bell at five, the duties of the room are almost finished when the girl leaves her beds to air while she takes her six o'clock breakfast. Social amenities, the niceties of table-training, and the tricks of speech that betray the sectional birthright, proclaim to the ever-observant table-mates the status of each newcomer, and she rises or falls in estimation just so far as her metal rings true. Thus another element enters into her life, one that will prove a potent force in balancing character; for the frankly expressed criticisms of schoolmates play no small part in the development of students.

If a girl be one of the forty-five waitresses on the eighty-nine tables of the dining-room, she eats her breakfast as the other students march out, then finishes her room-duties and is ready for work at ten minutes of seven wherever she happens to be assigned. If she is a dishwasher, she does that work, waits for inspection of the table that she has set, finishes her room-duty, and is admitted into her work division at half past seven.

Gardening and greenhouse work are becoming so attractive through the Nature-Study classes of the Academic Department that there are constant applications for transfers from the sewing divisions to this outside work. Equipped in an overall gingham apron and sunbonnet of the same material, the girl begins her duties, and no prouder girl can be found than she who takes her first basket of early spring vegetables to the Teachers' Home.

If the day is to be spent with the whole agricultural force of girls picking strawberries for the tables of the Boarding Department and the local market, the stage takes the group out to the patch two miles back on the farm—and that is happiness unalloyed for the schoolgirl. When she correlates her outing with her school work on the day following, there is seen nature at first-hand in the class-room.

If other classmates have been working in the Plain-Sewing Division turning out cotton underwear and plain articles of clothing to supply the demand of the Salesroom of the institution, the lesson in English has a natural, practical bearing, arising from the fact that one hour has been spent with the theory class of the workroom studying the warp and woof of the materials used, perhaps the sixth or seventh lesson in a series on cotton, introduced to the class first in its native heath. Correlation comes in wherever it may, and the association of ideas obtained in class-room and workroom is closely joined.

The large class of the Dressmaking Division, spending the day from seven until half past five making the blue uniform dresses, filling orders for tailor-made dresses in silk and cloth, measuring, drafting, cutting, and fitting, has many a representative in the schoolroom the succeeding day; and still more is the lesson varied by the practical illustrations in Mathematics or the recital of the experiences of the day in the English classes.

The girl in the millinery work, shaping forms, trimming hats, blending colors, drawing designs, studying textiles and fabrics for analysis in her theory classes twice during her three days of work, finds added inspiration for her three days of class-room study. If she is in the Senior class, she specializes in geometry on her school-days and mechanical drawing on her work-days. When our girl has finished her course in drawing and begins one of the uniform hats worn by the hundreds of girls, she ranks among the first milliners of the land in the estimation of the beginners. She completes hat after hat, drapes them until the number meets the requirement, and then comes her own creation, a pattern hat, undersized of course, but a real dress hat and a thing of beauty. It usually finds its way to the old home for her mother and neighbors to admire. The commendation that comes back to the school is worth its weight in gold.


But there are backward learners. Some there are who excel in embroidery, crocheting, making ties and other fancy articles, but who have no aptitude for shaping and trimming hats. They plod on, and win at last. Then there is the girl whose parents wish her to open a millinery establishment in their town. She tries, but finally agrees with her long-suffering instructor that she would succeed at mattress-making and upholstering instead.

The work in the Mattress Division begins with sheet, pillow-case, table-linen, and comforter-making for the endless demands of the lodging division of the boys and girls. Pulling shucks for the mattress is the next step in advance, and when shucks are covered by the cotton layers in the making, they prove an excellent substitute for the hair filling of a more expensive manufacture, and they have an advantage in the matter of cleanliness. Covering screen frames made in the Carpentry Division for the numerous rooms, caning couches, rockers, and stools, help add to the variety of work in the division. The girl is not awarded her certificate until she has completed the round of work, including the fashioning of a bedroom suite from barrels finally covered with neat-figured denim. The semiweekly theory classes are not unlike those of the plain-sewing division, and the girl is as proud of her achievement with needle, hammer, and saw as if she were an adept in lighter work.

When the machinery was introduced for Broom-making, the girls looked askance at the appliances. But when the broom-corn was delivered from the farm, and the pioneer girl broom-maker began threshing of the seed in the cleaner, an interest was evinced that has increased with the knowledge that the work, study, or manufacture (call it what you will) is very productive, especially in the confines of the girls' broom-factory at Tuskegee Institute. The poultry-yard bought the seeds threshed off the broom-stalks; the hundreds of old handles collected cost nothing, and when the wiring, stitching, and clipping were finished and the girl saw the first broom turned out, there was triumph in the fact that the industry was the most inexpensive and still the most productive of credit of all the girls' industries under the roof of Dorothy Hall. The evolution from the flag-straw broom used in cabins of the South to the ones now completed and labeled, creates the sensation of the girl-world in the trades school. The wonders brought out in the theory class in connection with broom-making were marvelous. Broom-making has come to remain with our other girls' industries.

Work in the Laundry presents another aspect to the onlooker, and he doubtless decides on the spur of the moment that all is drudgery here. Girls are then assorting countless pieces received on Mondays from students and teachers. They are placing the assorted articles in cages in the basement. Two boys are filling three washers with bed-linen, and in another apartment two girls are weighing and measuring materials to make more soap to add to the boxes standing in the soap-room. Girls up-stairs in the wash-room are busy rubbing at the tubs. Some girls are starching, and others are sending baskets down on the elevator for girls below to hang in the drying-room. Others are in the assorting-room putting away clothes-bags into numerous boxes. The ironing-room farther on is filled with busy workers. Days come during every week when time is spent in the study of laundry chemistry. Rust and mildew stains and scorching are some of the problems of the Laundry, and they find solution. Soap, starch, water, and bluing have their composite qualities and are analyzed, and no more interesting correlation is there than that of the laundry with the class-room.

Although each Tuskegee girl is expected to become proficient in one trade at least, all are required to attend the cooking classes. Girls belonging to certain classes are scattered in the various divisions, each busily engaged at her chosen trade. At the ringing of the bells in each division at stated hours, classes form and pass to the training-kitchen for their lesson in cooking. Both night-school and day-school girls report every day until every girl has received her lesson weekly. The normal classes have theory and practise one hour each, the preparatory girls one hour weekly for their trades.

This is true also of girls in the normal classes. They spend one hour in basketry study, making in all three hours away from their individual trades each week. Theory is combined with practise, and many a fanciful thought is woven in with the reed and raffia of the Indian baskets, African purses, belts, and pine-needle work-baskets. The shuck hats and foot-mats are so foreign in design that one often wonders how it were possible to utilize the same material in so widely different purposes. But our girl is progressive, and not a few instances have occurred when one has been informed of the presence of a Tuskegee student in a remote country district, by the inevitable shuck hat prettily designed and worn by an utter stranger. So remunerative has been the work that many have earned money enough from the sales of these hats to purchase books for the school year and pay their entrance fees.

Few girls work at typesetting. Those learning the trade are in the Boys' Trades Building. The same is true of the girl tailors, who are as capable workers in the trade as the boys. The majority of these girls are in night-school, and of late years have not earned much for their work. In former years the greater body of the students were working their way through school, and by their labor would earn enough to complete their education in the Academic Department and the Industrial as well. Last year the pay schedule was reduced, and many appeals for assistance came from those battling their way through. A young girl whose monthly statement warned her that she owed the school $15, at the end of the school year wrote the following:

"Dear Mrs. Washington: I write to inform you of the enormous sum that I owe on my board bill. I am not satisfied, because I want to earn something in life, but it seems that means and opportunity will not permit me. I can't help from crying when I think how anxious and willing my people are to help me to be something, and yet they are unable to help me.

"My mother has struggled to bring up eight of us, and now is to the point where she can give me no more help, and that leaves me alone to be something by myself. I am anxious to enter day-school so I may finish my course of study and my trade, and at last let my mother see me a good, noble woman, who will take care of her.

"I will thank you very much for your kindness, if you will look into my board bill and help me as soon, and as much, as possible. Yours gratefully."

As the day girls have put in so many hours of work recently under the new system, it eliminates the necessity of so many night-school girls being paid for their work. It is to the interest of the school and its day-students that fewer work their way through school, and the time has come to teach this fact. The boy or girl for a time will stagger in the attempt to gain education, but will be all the more able, later, to reach the desired goal.

All girls are taught housekeeping incidentally in the care of their rooms; but the number assigned to the regular division yearly are instructed in all branches of home industry. The course covering two years is mapped out thoroughly, and when the girls reach the Senior class, all have their turn at housekeeping in the Practise Cottage of four rooms. No girl is graduated from the school without the finishing touch of the little home. Marketing, the planning of meals, table-setting, the care of table- and bed-linen, dusting, sweeping, and everything else pertaining to a well-kept house, are taught by the teacher in domestic science who is in charge of the training-kitchen where the senior girls received their first lessons in cookery. The young housekeepers have reached the stage of efficiency when they may prepare a meal for a distinguished guest.

A red-letter day in the history of the cottage came when a warm-hearted and much-beloved trustee of the institution expressed a wish to dine with the girls during one of his visits to the institution. The flowers that graced the small table on this day were brought by the distinguished visitor, who came from a stroll in the "piney" woods. The girls, apprehensive of their success in preparing the dinner for one with so cultured a palate, felt visibly relieved on the disappearance of the roast, the vegetables, and the dessert. The corn bread was voted the best ever eaten, and the dinner, as a whole, a delicious preparation. If ever, in the years to come, any of the four forgets the kindly heart that made all forget station or condition, "the right hand will forget its cunning."

Days pass all too quickly in work and study. After the supper at six, the girls in the normal classes go to their rooms or the Carnegie Library for study, the girls in the preparatory classes go to the study-hour, and those who have been working at the trades during the day spend two hours in night-school covering half as much ground as those in day-school, and consequently spend a longer period in school. At the ringing of the bell at half past eight all the girls form in line to pass to the Chapel for prayers.

School and work over for the day, every girl seems to lose her personality in her blue braided uniform, with her red tie and turnover on week-day evenings at Chapel, and her white ribbon on Sundays when she passes the platform as she marches by out of the Chapel to her room. Her carriage at least identifies her class-standing, and one may easily note the difference in the manner of her who has newly arrived and another who has been in school with the advantages of several years.

Friday afternoons mark an hour for lectures, girls' clubs, and circle entertainments. Saturday evenings are spent optionally. Time for class gymnastics or sewing or swimming is always spent pleasantly on schedule time during the week. Our girl attends the Christian Endeavor Sunday mornings at nine, Chapel at eleven, Sunday-school at one, and, after dinner is out of the way, spends the enforced quiet hour in her room from three until four o'clock reading. The band concert on the lawn calls all to listen, some walking, some sitting on the seats on the green, but all presenting a picturesque appearance in the blue skirts and white waists of the spring season.

Thus the days and weeks pass, mingled with the sorrows and joys of school-life, its encouragements and disappointments. The months and seasons come and go, and, before one is scarcely aware of the fact, the Commencement Week is here and the hundreds of young people whose lives have come in touch with one another pass on to their homes. Some go out as helpful workers, giving useful service to others; many will return to complete the course begun, but all, we hope, will give out the light that will not fail. Some are workers with ten talents, some with five, some with one; but all, we trust, will be using them for the upbuilding of the kingdom here on earth.

Booker T. Washington