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Martin A. Menafee of Denmark, South Carolina


By Martin A. Menafee

I was born on a plantation in Lee County, Ala., and, as my parents were very poor, I was placed in the field and did not see the inside of a schoolroom until I was twelve years old. I then had a chance to attend a three months' school for six months, or for two years, as we usually called it. Before this I had had one of my shoulders dislocated through an accident and have been able to use but one arm since.

At this period I made up my mind to secure an education, and a gentleman who was teaching school at my home took me to an Alabama college, thinking that he could perhaps get me in school there. I told the president of the college that I wanted an education, and offered him my services in return for such opportunities as he would open to me, but seeing my condition, he soon concluded that I could render but little in the way of services. I pleaded with him for a trial, but he refused me admittance, albeit in a very nice and polite manner.

I returned home, then at Oakbowery, Ala. Very soon after my return I heard of the Tuskegee Institute, and I think it was in July of that year when I made up my mind that I would start for this school, which was about forty miles from where I lived. After walking to Auburn, Ala., twelve miles, I waited for the train and, as she glided up, I walked in and took my seat. Before I left home I knew some walking would be necessary, and preferred doing it at the beginning of the journey. I was admitted on my arrival, after some parleying, and was promptly assigned to work in the brick-yard. After I had been there for two days I found that the sun had no pity on, or patience with, me; it seemed to blister me through and through. I finally concluded that the sun, together with the brick-yard, was blasting the hopes I had entertained and the determination I had fostered, of securing an education. I tried to get my work changed, but the Director of Industries did not see it as I did, and would not do it.

The next thing that I settled upon for relief was to get sick, but a day's trial of that showed that would not work. I decided that I would return home, where I was sure I would at least find no brick-yard to harass or disturb. My stay at the school was just about seven or eight days. I would like to add just here, however, that I am very glad that I was put on the brick-yard, as it certainly left in me the spirit of work after I got over that first affliction of heat.

Very soon after I had returned home I received a letter from one of the teachers of Talladega College, a Miss S. J. Elder, who met me when I was there seeking entrance, asking me to go to Jenifer, Ala., and attend a school there conducted by two white ladies; she said she would "foot" all of my bills. This greatly relieved me, and I considered it a great thing. Very soon thereafter I had my clothes ready, and was at Jenifer. I was there for one year, but Tuskegee was constantly on my mind; in fact, I had made up my mind to give it a second trial.

On October 29, 1894, I again went to Tuskegee and asked for admission. I was admitted with the understanding that I should stand up in the Chapel and make a public acknowledgment of the wrong I had done in leaving the school without permission. This seemed like a great humiliation, as I could hardly talk to one person, to say nothing of the thousand students and teachers then there, as I stammered so much. Mr. Washington seemed to understand the situation and was kind enough to help me out by asking questions.

I was given work on the farm, and started out again with renewed vigor and determination to complete a course of study. The farm manager, Mr. C. W. Greene, was very kind to me and gave me work that I could do. After I had been on the farm about two weeks he placed me at the gates to keep out the cows and hogs that might be tempted to walk in on the school-lawns. This work I enjoyed, and very soon established an "office" under a tree near the gate. I held this position and kept this "office" for two years.

I was then taken from there and placed in Mr. Greene's office to help him. It was at Tuskegee that I first saw a typewriter and shorthand writing. I made up my mind that I would be a stenographer and typewriter, and thought that if I could learn this, that would be as high up as I cared to go in life. I borrowed a book on shorthand, not being able to purchase one, and began the study without a teacher. Very soon I realized that I had learned a little, and my ambition grew. I wanted a typewriter.

I got up enough courage to go to the Rev. R. C. Bedford, who often visited the school, and who was one of my best friends, and, in fact, is largely responsible for my being able to stay at Tuskegee as long as I did, and told him I wanted a typewriter; I repeatedly told him that my success in life largely depended upon my securing it. Mr. Bedford said he would see what could be done, and, in a very short time, he came from the North and brought the machine. When he informed me that he had brought it, it did seem that I could not stay on the grounds. I felt then that I had all that was necessary to make me a stenographer, and very soon declared myself a member of the stenographic world.

I advanced very well in these new studies and was given some work to do in the offices. The regular school stenographers helped me all they could.

The saddest experience I ever had in connection with the Tuskegee Institute was at the end of my second summer. I was very anxious to remain in the employ of the school, as my people were very poor and I did not care to be home on them unless I could become a full field hand, and I felt that the school had much work that I could do. I appealed to the Director more than once to let me remain, but he replied each time that the work department was closed; that he could not take any more, and furthermore, that it was best that I return home. Mr. Bedford encouraged me all he could and told me that I might find something to do; that I should launch out for myself. I went to Opelika, and Mr. Bedford was on the same train. He and I were in Opelika together for about a half day. He was on his way to Beloit, Wis., his home, and I was on my way home to Oakbowery. About thirty minutes before it was time for my train to leave, I noticed a man who was very busy superintending the hauling of some lumber. This man asked my name, what I could do, and where I was from. For a moment I hesitated to tell him, but finally did. I found that he was the principal of the colored city school at Opelika, Professor J. R. Savage. Mr. Savage proved to be a true friend. He gave me work at once in the Summer Normal School he was conducting. I went to my home that evening, rejoicing that I had found work. When I returned to Opelika Mr. Savage asked me to take charge of the business department of the Summer Normal and teach shorthand and typewriting. I worked with him in this way for three summers, my vacation periods, with much success. We worked well together and in perfect harmony.

At the opening of each school year at Tuskegee I would be among the first to get there to begin my studies. I found that, in order to remain at Tuskegee, students had to have a real purpose. I had one, and I think so impressed the Faculty before leaving there.

I did not have all smooth sailing, and, at times, I would all but give up.

I was at Tuskegee for six years, and I recall those years with much pleasure and satisfaction. During my stay there I made many friends, and I can not refrain from mentioning the Rev. R. C. Bedford, who has helped me in so many ways; Mr. Warren Logan, the Treasurer of the school; Mrs. F. B. Thornton, the Matron, who took me as her son, and my dear friend, the farm manager, Mr. C. W. Greene. Many others were also very kind to me.

I completed my course of study in 1900. By this time Mr. Bedford had secured a position for me at Denmark, S. C., as stenographer to the principal, Miss Elizabeth E. Wright, a Tuskegee graduate. I did not hold this position very long before it was decided in a meeting of the board of trustees to have me act as the school's treasurer. On being asked to take this place, I answered that I would do my best. I have now been here since the fall of the year of my graduation. I like the work immensely.

A word about the school: It is known as the Voorhees Industrial School, and is located in the midst of an overshadowing Negro population. It has just completed the seventh year of its existence. Miss Wright, the principal, founded it on faith. She is a delightfully spiritual woman, and was at first greatly opposed in her efforts by both the black and white people of this section. She persevered, however, and all the people are now her friends. Her work here has been but little short of marvelous. The pride of the grounds is a splendidly arranged Central Building, which cost $3,000. It contains offices, class-rooms, and a chapel that will seat 600 persons. A large building for girls, costing $4,000, has also been erected. A Tuskegee graduate drew the plans for both of these buildings. A barn which cost $800 we have also been able to complete, and are now using.

In our Faculty, in addition to Miss Wright, who is of the Class of 1904, Tuskegee Institute, we have six other Tuskegee graduates: a farm superintendent, a carpenter, a teacher of drawing, a principal of the primary department, a sewing and cooking teacher, a millinery teacher and industrial helper, and a treasurer and bookkeeper, myself.

The day- and boarding-pupils number 300.

Voorhees is one of the sixteen larger "offshoots" of Tuskegee Institute, manned and controlled by Tuskegee graduates. It is a chartered State institution, and has on its board of trustees white and colored persons, Northern and Southern. One of its very best and most helpful supporters and friends is a Southern white man who has helped it in ways innumerable, and has backed it when the courage of all of us has all but faltered.

By precept and example the school is helping the black masses of rural South Carolina to help themselves. The work we do is far different from that done by any other school in the State; we provide the way for our students, as at Tuskegee, because of their poverty, to work on the farm and in the shops during the day and attend school at night. Without this help most of them would be without any chance to attend school. Our students are learning to dignify labor. None have yet graduated, as our school is young and most of those who come to us can not read or write a word. They are wofully ignorant, but so willing to learn, so earnest, and so persevering.

During the last school year, 1903-'04, we received from all sources $18,310.43. This will give some idea as to the scope and importance of our work, and of my work in disbursing this large sum as the treasurer of the school.

Our present property valuation is $25,000, and consists of 300 acres of land, 3 large buildings, a large barn, a schoolhouse for primary children, 4 cottages, an industrial building, 10 mules, 6 horses, 30 cows, 3 wagons, 3 buggies, etc., all free from indebtedness of any character. We stay out of debt; that for which we can not pay we do without.

We afford instruction in the following industries: Farming in its various branches, shoemaking, carpentry, cooking, sewing, housekeeping, laundering, millinery in a small way, printing, and blacksmithing.

The training received at Tuskegee has been of so much help to me since leaving there. I made up my mind after graduation that I would urge my parents and relatives to cease paying five and six bales of cotton each year for rent, and instead take the same amount of cotton and buy a place of their own. I am glad to say, through my efforts in this regard, they have been placed on a tract of 160 acres of good land, and it is practically paid for, they paying four bales of cotton a year. They are doing well and are making something for themselves. This project seemed a little strange to them for the first two years, but they are now used to it.

"He that hath a trade," saith Franklin, "hath an estate, and he that hath a calling, hath a place and honor." Since being out in the world I have learned not to wait for a higher position or a better salary, and have steadily sought to enlarge the ones I have had. I have tried to fill such positions as I have had as they were never filled before, by doing better work, by being more prompt, by being more thorough, more polite, and, in fact, I have filled them so completely that no one else could slip in by me. I have always laid great stress on work as a means of developing power; I am called by some of my friends a fanatic on this subject. My experience at Tuskegee taught me that our racial salvation is to come through hard, earnest, intelligent, sincere work. I owe a world of gratitude to the Tuskegee Institute for the training I received there and for the great work it is doing for the Negro people.

I repeat, if I accomplish anything in life that is worth while, it will be due wholly to the Tuskegee Institute, to its officers and teachers. No true graduate of Tuskegee ever forgets the lessons learned there. I am sure I shall not.

Booker T. Washington