I can give no accurate date as to my birth, as my mother was a slave and thus it was not recorded, but I think I was born in the month of February, 1859. I was born in Coosa, one of the middle counties of Alabama.
I am the third child and the second son of eleven children, seven of whom are still living.
My father I do not remember, as he died when I was very young, but I most vividly remember my stepfather, the only father I ever knew.
Childhood to me was not that long season of "painless play" of which Whittier so beautifully sings, but I do remember that I was early impressed that my feet must have been made for the express purpose of treading "the mills of toil." When seven years of age my stepfather put a hoe in my little hands and bade me go and help my mother weed the cotton-patch, and from that day to the present time I have been constant in my application to some form of labor.
When my mind reverts to that early period of my life I become my own photographer and get various pictures of myself, either as picking, hoeing, or planting cotton, of pulling fodder or splitting rails, for these were the things I did from childhood to manhood.
My stepfather had been the foreman, or "driver," for his master when he was a slave, and I am persuaded to believe that he must have been an excellent one, for I can not remember in all my life when a day's work had been so full, so complete, so well done, that he would not press for a little more the next day.
Mortgaging of crops was then in vogue, as it is to-day, and my mind revolts when I think of how my young life and the lives of my mother, sisters, and brothers were burdened with the constant grind of trying to eke out a living and, if possible, get even a little ahead.
Some years, when conditions had been favorable, we were able to clear ourselves of debt and begin anew. But, seemingly, this prosperity was not for us, for these years of plenty were almost invariably followed by one or two less fruitful ones that came and "swallowed up the whole," leaving us as forlorn and as wretchedly poor as we were before. This failure of the crops because of drouths unduly long, wet seasons, the ravages of worms, caterpillars, and other uncontrollable circumstances, not only meant that the whole of that year's labor was to bring no tangible rewards, but that much property accumulated in more prosperous times was to be dissipated as well. I can recall repeated instances when all of my stepfather's live stock was taken for debt under this crushing system. And thus it was that my stepfather, and my mother, and the rest of the farmers for miles around existed!
During all these years my brothers, sisters, and myself were growing up in ignorance. Until I was ten years old I had never heard of a school for colored children. Even after the privilege of attending school two months of the year—July and August—had been accorded me, I am certain that the instruction received was of that kind that hinders more than it helps. Year after year the course of study would be repeated. Perhaps this repetition was necessary for more than one reason:
First, ten months' vacation does not tend to firmly impress upon one's mind the knowledge acquired in two.
Second, the teachers themselves had such limited knowledge that two months were ample time in which to exhaust their store of knowledge, and, as examinations were so easy, it was not imperative that they do more than "keep school."
I remember quite distinctly that when I did go to school we used the proverbial Webster's blue-back speller. The majority of the pupils began with the "A, B, C," the alphabet, and went as far as "horseback," while apt pupils might be able to reach "compressibility." And so for years we went from "A" to "compressibility" on "horseback."
In those days the three "R's" were not confounded. Only one of them was given to us, and that in broken doses, for I reached manhood without being able to write a single word or to work a problem in mathematics.
Neither my mother nor stepfather could read or write a line; not a book, newspaper, or magazine was ever seen in our home. It was most unusual to see a colored man or woman who could either read or write.
When a mere boy I inwardly protested against this manner of bringing-up. I determined to make my life more useful, to make it better than it was. But how long these years were! However, the day came when I was twenty-one, and I began to create a "life" for myself.
I immediately went to work doing farm labor, and saved my earnings until I had twenty-five or thirty dollars ahead. I then decided to go to school somewhere and to learn something. I found my first opportunity in Montgomery, Ala. I went there in November, 1883, and entered the Swayne School.
Everything was new and strange to me. I had never seen so large a schoolhouse before. I was dazed, bewildered. There I was, a great, grown man, in the class with little children, who looked upon me as a curiosity, something to be wondered at. I, too, looked at them with amazement, for it seemed next to impossible for young boys and girls to know as much as they seemed to know.
I can not say that I was heartily received by the pupils. I was awkward, and I discovered that the city children did not find me pleasingly companionable.
It is probable that at this point I should have grown discouraged and given up had I not met that great and good man, Rev. Robert C. Bedford, who is now, as he has been for many years, secretary of the board of trustees of the Tuskegee Institute, and who travels among and reports upon the work of Tuskegee graduates and former students, but who was at that time pastor of the First Congregational Church in Montgomery. I regularly attended his church and the Sunday-school connected therewith, and received such help and encouragement from him as but few men can impart to others.
It was he who first told me of Tuskegee and advised me to enter there. I felt that this advice, if heeded, would work for my good. I was admitted to Tuskegee for the session beginning September, 1884, three years after the school had been opened.
When I entered Tuskegee I was filled with loathing for all forms of manual labor. I had been a slave to toil all my life and had resolved that, if it were possible for a colored man to make a living by doing something besides farming, splitting rails, or picking and hoeing cotton, I would be one of that number. I was compelled at the school, however, like the others, to work at some industry. I did some work on the farm and was one of the school's "boss" janitors.
Though I had no real inclination to learn a trade or to perform any kind of manual toil, I did desire to be useful, and throughout my whole school life at Tuskegee I had visions of myself seated in an office pondering over Blackstone, Kent, and Storey, with a "shingle" on the outside announcing my profession to all passers-by.
After spending some time in Tuskegee and diligently applying myself, I was much gratified to find that I was able to pass the State examination for a second-grade certificate, and to teach, during the vacation period, the very school in which I had so long before learned to spell "horseback" and "compressibility."
I spent four years in the Tuskegee Institute, graduating with the class of 1888.
Before graduating, I divulged to Mr. Washington my long-cherished ambition, and was somewhat chagrined to find that he did not think much of my dreams. He apparently sympathized with this larger vision, but seemed to think I ought to have more education. I suspect he was right. However, I was determined to make an effort to realize my ambitions. I insisted that he must help me to find a place to read law. After a while it was decided that I should begin in the office of Mr. William M. Reid, of Portsmouth, Va.
With this end in view, I taught in the State of Alabama from May, 1888, until April, 1889. I then left for Portsmouth.
Though I had worked for eleven months, I had but $1.25 when I reached Portsmouth. My salary had been meager, I had paid every cent I owed the school, and had met the many obligations necessary to living in a decently comfortable manner.
I found Mr. Reid to be an intelligent, studious, hard-working young man, with a fairly good practise, and in that hour of uncertainty and embarrassment he proved himself to be "the friend in need." With his aid I was not long in finding work by which I earned enough to pay my board and buy books to help me in my study of law at night.
I worked during the daytime at the United States Navy-Yard in Portsmouth, receiving $1.25 per day. I had never before earned so much money. I was able not only to meet my regular bills but to save something, and soon began to collect a law library. I worked at the Navy-Yard for three years. It was my privilege to work upon the second-class battleship Texas, and upon the steel-protected cruiser Raleigh, both of which rendered admirable service in the Spanish-American War.
In the spring of 1892 I felt that I had sufficient knowledge of law to begin practising. I left Virginia and returned to Alabama. The tug of war had now begun. I found it exceedingly difficult to get examined. After trying for five months, I succeeded in getting a lawyer, a Mr. Thompson, of Macon County, Ala., to recommend me to the chancery court of that county for examination. I was examined in open court before all the practising attorneys of that bar, and was given license to practise law in the State of Alabama.
I was elated, overjoyed—my dream was nearing its realization!
I selected Mobile, Ala., a city of about fifty thousand inhabitants, as my field of labor. I opened my office on September 8, 1892, and have practised law there from that time to the present date. Though I have met many obstacles and have had many difficulties to surmount, I have never had to close my office, or seek other employment to make a living. I have done well.
I have experienced no embarrassment because of prejudice. The judges and juries have discussed cases with me in the same manner that they would with any other lawyer at the bar. I have even had a few white clients.
To get the confidence of my own people is the hardest problem I have had to solve, for I find that men are still sometimes without honor in their own country.
I am daily confronted with many petty difficulties. I sometimes find that even a religious difference will come between me and a probable client. Some think I should be a Baptist, others would have me a Methodist, and others still suggest that I should embrace the Catholic faith. I should also belong to every secret society in the city, and attend every public gathering no matter what the hour, whether it be called at high noon or at dawn of day.
Despite these things to be expected of a people but forty years free, and used to white judges, and juries, and lawyers, and unused to dealing with one of their own, I feel that I am still winning my way. It is my desire to help my fellow men, and in return receive an appreciable share of their help.
After practising my profession for nearly two years, I was married to Miss Sarah E. Ogden, who was at that time a student at the Tuskegee Institute. We have been happily married for ten years and have been blessed with six children, only three of whom, I am sorry to state, are living.
I feel that I can not close this short sketch without paying a closing tribute to my alma mater—Tuskegee. Those lessons of thrift, industry, and integrity dwelt upon by Principal Washington and his coworkers, I shall never forget. My heart thrills and its pulses beat whenever I think of what it has meant to me to come in contact with the quickening influences of that school.
I lift up my voice and call her blessed, my Tuskegee!
Sorry, no summary available yet.