American Book of Golden Deeds - James Baldwin

The Little Mother

They call her the Little Mother—this woman of whom I am telling you. Why they gave her that name will appear as my story proceeds.

The Little Mother devotes much of her time to the doing of golden deeds among those who are commonly supposed to be undeserving of kindness.

She is the friend of wrongdoers, although not of wrongdoing.

You ask how this can be? I will tell you.

In the state prisons of our country, like that of Sing-Sing in New York, there are many men who are undergoing punishment for crimes committed against their fellow-men.

Some of these are hardened criminals without friendships and without friends—men whose lives have been given to wrongdoing.

Some are men who were once respectable and are now suffering punishment for, perhaps, their first offenses against the laws.

Some have wives and children, mothers, sisters, or other loved ones struggling in poverty and disgrace, and with many misgivings hoping darkly for the day of their release.

The most of these men will sooner or later have served out their terms of punishment. They will be given their freedom. They will go out again into the warm sunlight and the wholesome air and the fellowship of their kind.

What will they do then?

Has their punishment made better men of them?

Too often it has not. Too often it has only filled their minds with an ever increasing bitterness towards all the rest of mankind. Too often it ahs shut the door of hope, and closed the hearts of these men to every kindly influence. Too often it has made them worse instead of better.

And what of the few who go out earnestly wishing to live honest lives and do right?

Do good men offer them a helping hand? Do friends encourage them? Or are they not shunned, mistrusted, shut out from every worthy endeavor?

Can we wonder, therefore, that only a small number of men who have once been in prison ever become good citizens again? Can we wonder that so many are never reformed but return at once to their evil practices?

A hundred a fifty years ago, John Howard, a great and good Englishman, devoted his life to the befriending of prisoners and the improvement of prisons in Europe. A hundred years ago, Elizabeth Fry, a sweet-faced Quakeress, visited the jails of Great Britain and wrought many a golden deed in behalf of the wretched men who were confined in them.

All prisons the world over are to-day far less horrible than they were in the days of John Howard and Elizabeth Fry.

But the problem of what shall become of the criminal after he has suffered his punishment is perhaps greater now then it ever was before.

It is the problem which came into the mind of the Little Mother one Sunday morning when for the first time she was the inside of a state prison.

It was in the penitentiary at San Quentin, California. The prisoners were in the chapel. Their faces, "plainly bearing the marring imprint of sorrow and sin," were turned toward her. They were impatiently waiting for such words as she might speak to them, yet hoping for no comfort.

It was the first time that she had seen the prison stripes. It was the first time that she had heard the iron gates; the first time that she had realized the hopelessness of the prisoner's life.

From that day she was resolved to be the friend of the friendless, yes, the friend of even those who have forfeited the right to friendship.

"The touch of human sympathy—that is what every man needs in order to bring out the best that is in him. No man was ever so hopelessly bad that there was not somewhere in his mind or heart some little spark of goodness that might be touched by true sympathy truly expressed."

So argued the Little Mother. She therefore organized a prison league or society for mutual help, and she invited prisoners everywhere to become members of it.

Each member of the league promised to do a few simple things faithfully, as God gave him strength: —

To pray every morning and night.

To refrain from bad language.

To obey the prison rules cheerfully and try to be an example of good conduct.

To cheer and encourage others in welldoing and right living.

Then he was given a little badge to wear on his coat—a white button bearing the motto of the league: LOOK UP AND HOPE. And as soon as the league in any prison numbered several members they were given a little white flag to float above them as they sat in the chapel on Sunday mornings.

All this was very simple. It did not seem to be much, and yet it worked wonders.

It united the men in a bond of brotherhood. It gave them a definite and noble object to strive for. Above all, it told them that they had one friend who was earnestly striving to do them good.

And they united in lovingly calling that one friend their LITTLE MOTHER.

They talked with her about their aims and hopes. They were like children going to their mother for counsel and encouragement.

And they wrote her letters such as this:—

"Little Mother: As I entered the chapel Sunday and looked at our white flag, I thought again of the promises I had made, of all they ought to mean, and I promised God that with his help I would never disgrace it. No one shall see anything in my life that will bring dishonor or stain to its whiteness."

The field of the Little Mother's work widened. From the great prisons in all parts of the country came the call. Would she not visit and talk with the prisoners? Would she not organize a prison league among them?

It was surprising how many of them really and earnestly wished to be better men. The touch of human sympathy—that was what was needed.

And so the Little Mother's golden deeds multiplied. She became known as the prisoners' friend, and hundreds of prisoners vowed to be faithful to her.

Men served their terms of punishment and went home, changed in heart and in purpose. They might meet with scorn, with cruel rebuffs, with cold neglect. But the Little Mother had taught them how to be brave; she would help them to be strong. Every member of the league learned to look up to her; and his conduct after gaining his freedom was made her personal care.

Then through the aid of benevolent men, of prison officers, and of the prisoners themselves, she founded homes in which those who were newly liberated could find shelter until they were able to support themselves by honest labor.

Thus they were prevented from falling into the snares of former evil associates. They were encouraged to persevere in their efforts to attain to a nobler manhood.

These sheltering homes were called Hope Halls. To many a man who otherwise would have despaired and returned to a life of crime, they were the means of salvation.

Thus the Little Mother's golden deeds have produced golden fruit, and hundreds of men have been reclaimed to good citizenship; hundreds of families have been made happy that otherwise would have remained in wretchedness; and the world has been shown that the work of punishment is most efficient when tempered by the touch of human sympathy.

And now shall I tell you the name of this Little Mother? Her name is Maud Ballington Booth. Shall we not say that it is worthy to be placed in the same honor roll with those of Clara Barton, Dorothea Dix, Peter Cooper, and other lovers of humanity?