I was born January 18, 1877, on a plantation called Perry's place, in East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, and was the sixteenth and last child of my parents. My early childhood was uneventful, save during the year 1882, when, by reason of the breaking of the Mississippi River levee near my home, I was compelled, together with my parents, to live six months in the plantation cotton-gin, fed by the Federal Government and by the determination never to live so close to the "Big Muddy" again; and during 1886, in which year my mother died.
Up to this latter year my life had been nothing more than that of the average Negro boy on a cotton-farm. While I had been too young to feel the burden of farm-life toil, I had not been spared a realization of the narrowness and the dwarfing tendencies of the lives which the Negro farmers and their families were living, and, in my heart, I cursed the farm and all its environs as being in verity an inferno on earth. A broader knowledge of the causes which operated to produce the cheerless life against which my child-nature rebelled, and a clearer insight into the possibilities of rural life, have altered this early impression; and to-day I find myself thinking some thoughts relative to the life lived near to nature's heart which are not at all complimentary to the bustle and selfishness of city life.
The death of my mother furnished the opportunity to leave the farm and go to a city; and I took advantage of this, going to Vicksburg, Miss., to live with an older sister. I had always desired to go to school, and had spent four terms of six months each in the country school near my home; but for some reason, which I can not now remember, I attended the city school in Vicksburg but one year, after which I was employed as a cake-baker's assistant and bread-wagon driver. A short time before this I was a house-boy in the city. I was, at the time of my employment in the bakery, an omnivorous reader of the newspapers, and, in fact, of all kinds of literature; but my hours of labor at both places were so long and incessant that I found it almost impossible to do any reading during my employment at either place.
Finally I saw and took advantage of an opportunity to secure employment with the drug firm of W. H. Jones & Brother; and I count my work in this store, and with these gentlemen as employers, as the turning-point in my life, because there my work demanded some intelligence above the average. I had some chance to study, and in addition, when it was found by these white men that I loved to read, all magazines, newspapers, and drug journals, not needed by the firm and the physicians whose offices were with them, were given to me. I never make any mention of my life in Vicksburg without mentioning, in particular, Mr. W. H. Jones; for not only was he a kind and considerate employer, but I learned from his actions that a white man could be kind and interested in a Negro—a fact which no amount of reasoning could have driven into my stubborn understanding previous to that time.
There came a time when I learned that at the Tuskegee Institute, in Alabama, any poor Negro boy who was willing to work could pay for all his education in labor. To hear was to act. I wrote to Mr. Washington, asking if my information was correct. The affirmative answer came at once. It was the middle of August, and school began in September, but I determined to be present at the opening of the school year. I was then a boy wearing short trousers, but I immediately set about preparing to deliver a "lecture" to help raise funds for my trip. With a knowledge of the subject, and an assurance which I have never since assumed, I spoke to a large audience in Vicksburg on the question, Will America Absorb the Negro? I settled the question then and there to my own satisfaction, even if I did not convince the nation that my affirmative conclusion was rational. The "lecture" netted me my fare to Tuskegee, with a few dollars over, and brought me from Rev. O. P. Ross, pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Vicksburg, the offer of a scholarship at Wilberforce College at the expense of his church. I respectfully declined the offer, feeling that I did not want to bind myself to any particular denomination by accepting so great a gift; but I have always felt very kindly toward that church ever since.
My first glimpse of Mr. Washington was had in the depot in Montgomery, Ala., where a friend and I, on our way to Tuskegee, had changed cars for the Tuskegee train. Two gentlemen came into the waiting-room where we were seated, one a man of splendid appearance and address, the other a most ordinary appearing individual, we thought. The latter, addressing us, inquired our destination. Upon being told that we were going to Tuskegee, he remarked that he had heard that Tuskegee was a very hard place—a place where students were given too much work to do, and where the food was very simple and coarse. He was afraid we would not stay there three months. We assured him that we were not afraid of hard work, and meant to finish the course of study at Tuskegee at all hazards. He then left us. Very soon after, the gentleman who had so favorably impressed us, and whom we afterward found to be the capable treasurer of the Tuskegee Institute, Mr. Warren Logan, came back and told us that our interlocutor was none other than the President of the school to which we were going.
Arriving at Tuskegee, I found what it meant to be in a school without a penny, without assurance of help from the outside, and wholly dependent upon one's own resources and labor; and I found further that in the severe, trying process through which Mr. John H. Washington, superintendent of industries, brother of Mr. Booker T. Washington, and familiarly though very respectfully known to the students as "old man John," put all students who offered to work for their education, only the fittest, and the fittest of the fit at that, survived.
I was assigned work with the resident physician, a very efficient woman doctor from Philadelphia; and I have a recollection, by no means dim, that when this good woman made her monthly report to the treasurer, she could write, "Health Department to Isaac Fisher, Dr., $12.50—value received." Every morning before breakfast it was my duty to go to the rooms of six hundred young men to see if any were ill, have those who were, carried to the hospital, report all such to four departments, take meals to those confined in the hospital, attend to all their wants, keep their building heated and supplied with fuel, and— But space will not permit the full catalogue of duties. At the end of such a day's work I would attend the night-school during its session of two hours.
Desiring to learn a trade, I asked permission to enter the printing-office for the next year. This was not granted until it was found that I would not leave the school during the summer, but would remain and work until the beginning of the next school year. Accordingly, when my second year began I entered the printing-office as an apprentice. During that year I suffered actual want and privation in the matter of shoes and clothes; but later came under the notice of Mrs. Booker T. Washington, who made arrangements by which I could procure some of the second-hand clothes and shoes sent from the North to the school for just such cases. At the end of this year my health, as a result of my work in the office, was so poor that the resident physician recommended my removal therefrom. To the surprise of Mr. J. H. Washington, I asked to be transferred to the farm; and I think I proved while working on the school-farm that I was sincere when I said that I would work wherever I was placed.
It was during this summer that Mr. Booker T. Washington showed me that I had come favorably under his notice. At one of the weekly prayer-meetings, conducted by the chaplain, Mr. Penney, and at which Mr. Washington was present, I made some remarks relative to the agnosticism of the late Col. Robert G. Ingersoll. The following day Mr. Washington sent for me, inquired my age and class in the school, and then said some very kind things about the talk which I had made in the prayer-meeting, and made me a conditional promise of his friendship, which, despite my oft-proven unworthiness, he has ever since given me in unstinted measure. After that second year my hardships as a "work-student" were practically over.
In my third year I entered the day-school, working one day in every week and every other Saturday, and going to school the remainder of the time. While the school made compulsory the earning of some money on the part of all students, it set no maximum limit on the amounts to be earned. I elected to earn as much as I could under the circumstances, earning, by reason of the many odd jobs which I did, often as much as $20 per month, going to school every day in the meantime. The average amount usually earned is $5 and $6 per month. At one time I worked eight days per month on the farm, sent notes of the school to 127 Negro newspapers, cleaned one laboratory every day, played in both the brass band and the orchestra, blew the bugle for the battalion, and taught two classes in the night-school, for each of which duties I received pay; and even though I broke down under the accumulated strain soon after my graduation, I carried my point and completed the course of study as I had planned.
In my fourth year I won the Trinity Church (Boston) Prize of $25 for oratory; and in my senior year won the Loughridge Book Prize for scholarship, and also the valedictory of my class, graduating in 1898.
I was immediately sent to the Schofield School, a Quaker institution for Negroes in Aiken, S. C., to organize farmers' conferences on the order of those conducted by the Tuskegee Institute, and to serve as a teacher in the school. After one year's service in that position Mr. Washington asked me to accept the position of Assistant Northern Financial Agent for Tuskegee. I accepted, and remained two years in New England, helping to interest friends in my alma mater. At my own request I was transferred from the Northern work to the South, being assigned this time to the Negro Conference work in Alabama. Before beginning this work I was married to a Tuskegee girl, Miss Sallie McCann.
Within a few months a principal was needed for the Swayne Public School of Montgomery, Ala., and this in the middle of the school year. Mr. Washington recommended me for the work, and I was elected to the position. At the close of the term I went to New York to study the public-school system of that city as far as possible. While there I was reelected principal of the Swayne School, and a notice of the election reached me one morning. Three hours later I received a letter from the secretary of the University of Arkansas (white) informing me that my name had been presented to the board of trustees of that institution, and I had been elected to the presidency of the State Branch Normal College at Pine Bluff, Ark. I was not a candidate for the position, but seeing in it an opportunity for greater usefulness, I accepted the position in my twenty-fifth year, and have just been reelected to serve a third term as president of the school. The Branch Normal College was established in 1875 as one of the Land Grant colleges, and has a property valuation of $100,000.
Over my desk hangs a picture of the Principal of Tuskegee; and in my desk are views of the institution which he has built. But these may be removed. In the book of my memory and in the secret chambers of my heart I have enshrined the two names which, with God and the parents now on the other side of the Great Divide, have shaped and given direction to my whole life—Tuskegee and Booker T. Washington.
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