Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam


Armstrong was a man of action, and of words only as far as they helped action. He reached the starting of his school in 1868, within two years after he was assigned to duty at Hampton. For external help he had first the countenance and support of the Freedmen's Bureau. He was in its service and pay until 1872. He had the warm and practical friendship of General Howard, who, after inviting him to take charge of the new university in Washington bearing his own name, skilfully gained for his Hampton enterprise a moderate appropriation from Congress. If the Freedmen's Bureau had accomplished nothing else,—and it did accomplish much, especially in education—it would have been justified merely by giving Armstrong his opportunity. Next he turned to private benevolence. Of the various organizations, church and secular, that were devising and doing for the freedmen, perhaps the most efficient was the American Missionary Association. From its officers Armstrong won response, sympathy, contributions. He had to face the difficulties of a pioneer. There were precedents against him. Experiments somewhat similar had been tried and failed. At Mount Holyoke seminary for women, created by the genius and devotion of Mary Lyon, and at Oberlin college, where the best New England tradition had been transplanted—there had been long and earnest trial of giving the students work by which to partially pay their expenses. But it had been given up,—the women students were taxed beyond their strength; the farmers complained that the boys were thinking of their books, and the teachers said their pupils came with half strength to their lessons. But Armstrong knew the material he was dealing with, and how different from the nervous, high-strung pupils of Oberlin and Mount Holyoke was the vigorous, sensuous material he was to mold.

He began in April, 1868, with small things,—a matron, a teacher, fifteen pupils and buildings worth $15,000. In a month there were thirty pupils. Things moved straight on,—they were moved by the assiduity, the enthusiasm, the inspiration, of Armstrong, and the answering temper which he woke in pupils, teachers, contributors, observers. Presently a special effort, an appeal to friends, solicitude, students zealously making bricks and laying them, help from General Howard—and so, in 1870, a noble building, Academic Hall, and presently again, Virginia Hall,—and the school kept growing.

Its moral success was promptly won. The subject answered to the experiment,—those dark-skinned boys and girls came eager to learn. No one had believed in them, and they had not believed in themselves, but they speedily learned self-respect and gained the respect of others. They did what was asked of them, earned most of their support, showed good workmanship and scholarship, were blameless in morals, caught the spirit of the place, and went out to carry light into the dark places. No holiday task was set them. There was a working day of twelve hours, between the class-room, the work-shop, the drill-ground and the field, with rare and brief snatches of recreation. They met the demand with a resource inherited from their ancestors' long years of patient labor. The hard toil was a moral safeguard. The African race is sensuous, and co-education might seem perilous. The danger was completely averted by the influence of labor, strenuous and constant, but diversified and interesting. The essentials of character,—industry, chastity, truth and honesty, serviceable good-will,—were the aim and result of the Hampton training; and all ran back to the homely root that man should be trained to earn intelligently and faithfully his daily bread.

The story of Hampton is a theme not for a chapter but for a volume. How its founder won favor and friendship by his tact and large-mindedness; how he established good relations with the Virginians; how the Institute became the parent of other schools; how Booker Washington was there fitted for the founding of Tuskegee and the leadership of his race; how the work was extended to the Indians; how Armstrong's spirit and example gathered and inspired a company of teachers perhaps unsurpassed,—mostly women, whose refining influence on the pupils he specially valued; how he dreamed of what he never reached, some day to give industrial education at Hampton to the whites; how a worthy successor took his place, efficient and self-effacing; how deeply the Hampton idea has permeated the education of the Southern negro, and is coming to influence white education North and South,—all this can here be recalled but by a word.

But on the personality of its leader we must for a moment linger, to note one or two of its traits. His splendid vitality overflowed at times in frolic and extravagance. He never lost the spirit of the boy. He would come into a group of his serious-minded teachers and say, "Oh! what's the good of saving souls if you can't have any fun?" and start a frolic or organize an all-day picnic. In his home he introduced "puss in the corner" and "the Presbyterian wardance" among the very elect. He delighted his children with romances. "Like Dr. Hopkins, he believed that the class-room should be a jolly place, and used to say that no recitation was complete without at least one good laugh. 'Laughter makes sport of work,' he said." His teaching sometimes came in a droll story. "Once there was a woodchuck. . . . Now, woodchucks can't climb trees. Well, this woodchuck was chased by a dog and came to a tree. He knew that if he could get up this tree the dog could not catch him. Now, woodchucks can't climb trees, but he had to, so he did."

His devotion to his work was so whole-souled that it was joyous and seemed unconscious of cost. In the touching pages he wrote when death impended, he said, "I never gave up or sacrificed anything in my life." Yet he constantly made what most men count heavy sacrifices. His work involved frequent and laborious trips to the North to arouse interest and raise money. He did it in as gallant a fashion as he had led a charge, or as he made appeal to the students hanging reverently on his words. A glimpse of him on one of these begging tours is given by Professor Francis G. Peabody:

"I suppose that every lover of General Armstrong recalls some special incident which seems most entirely typical of the man's life and heart. For my part, I think oftenest of one of those scenes in his many begging journeys to the North. It was at a little suburban church far down a side street on a winter night in the midst of a driving storm of sleet. There was, as nearly as possible, no congregation present; a score or so of humble people, showing no sign of any means to contribute, were scattered through the empty spaces, and a dozen restless boys kicked their heels in the front pew. Then in the midst of this emptiness and hopelessness up rose the worn, gaunt soldier, as bravely and gladly as if a multitude were hanging upon his words, and his deep-sunk eyes looked out beyond the bleakness of the scene into the world of his ideals, and the cold little place was aglow with the fire that was in him, and it was like the scene on the Mount, that was not any less wonderful and glistening because only three undiscerning followers were permitted to see the glory."

Those frequent and long journeys went far to break up the happy home life in which he delighted, with the wife whose congenial and intimate companionship was his for nine years and the little girls to whom he was the most delightful of fathers. Then for twelve years, until his second marriage, he was almost a homeless man. He wore out his wonderful constitution; he suffered from dyspepsia and sleeplessness; a paralytic stroke crippled him; but for a year and a half he struggled on, cheerful, self-forgetful,—then the end.

His countrymen scarcely yet realize all that he was. He was the successful leader in that real emancipation of the American negro to which the legal emancipation was but a prelude. Beyond that, it would hardly be too much to say that he did more than any other man in either hemisphere to rationalize and Christianize our still half-medieval system of education. The working ideals of Hampton are to-day higher than those of Yale and Harvard. It may be questioned whether any professed preacher has done so much to develop the best modern type of religion; centered in daily work, reaching out into all human service, and consciously inspired by the divine life. It would not be extravagant to say that in the little group—perhaps half a dozen in all—whom America has contributed to the world's first rank of great men, not one stands higher in heroic manhood and far-reaching service than Samuel Armstrong.

But any comparison seems almost unworthy of his lofty spirit. There is no rivalry among the saints. Would that Armstrong could here be portrayed as he appeared in life. The outer man spoke well the inner. To look upon, he was a thoroughbred; of soldierly bearing, alert, vivid, noble; with the twinkle of mirth, the flash of resistless purpose,—a man to love, to revere, to follow. As a sort of mental portrait-sketch, we may glean a few of his sayings. It was as true of him as of Luther that his words were half-battles. They were flashed out like sparks struck from action. As to his special work, these:

"The North thinks that the great thing is to free the negro from his former owner; the real thing is to save him from himself."

On the dissolution of the American Anti-slavery Society, (because nothing remained for it to do): "It failed to see that everything remained. Their work was just beginning when slavery was abolished."

"I cannot understand the prevailing views of the war among pious and intelligent Americans. It is simply barbaric—to whip the South and go home rejoicing, to build monuments of victory, leaving one-third of their countrymen in the depths of distress."

"The reconstruction measures were a bridge of wood over a river of fire."

(In 1878): "Hereafter it will be seen that negro suffrage was a boon to the race, not so much for a defense, but as a tremendous fact that compelled its education. There is nothing to do but attempt its education in every possible way. In their pinching poverty the Southern States have seized the question of negro education with a vigor that is the outcome of danger."

(In 1887): "The political experience of the negro has been a great education to him. In spite of his many blunders and unintentional crimes against civilization, he is to-day more of a man than he could have been had he not been a voter."

"The war was the saving of the South. Defeat and ruin brought more material prosperity to the South than to the North, and the future has untold advantages in store. Education is part of it, but capital and enterprise, which make men work, are the greater part. The negro and poor white, and, more than all, the old aristocrat, are being saved by hard work, which, next to the grace of God, saves our souls."

"We hew from the raw material, men who have come out of deep darkness and wrong, without inheritance but of savage nature, the best product we can, and care as much to infuse it with a spiritual life and divine energy as with knowledge of the saw, plane, and hoe."

And, of his broader outlook on life, these: "I am convinced of the necessity of organizing pleasure as well as religion in order to sustain Christian morality."

"The chief comfort in life is babies."

"Politics and philanthropy are a grind; only when one is at the post of duty and knows it, there is a sensation of being lifted and lifting (et teneo et teneor) which sometimes comes gradually over one. Detail is grinding, the whole inspiring. God's kings and priests must drudge in seedy clothes before they can wear the purple."

"From the deep human heart to the infinite heart there is a line along which will pass the real cry and the sympathetic answer—a double flash from the moral magnetism that fills the universe. Its conditions are not found in theological belief, but in the spirit of a little child. We can no more understand our human brother than our Father in heaven without bringing faith—the evidence of things unseen, the substance of things hoped for—to our aid."

"All progress of strong hearts is by action and reaction. Human life is too weak to be an incessant eagle flight toward the Sun of Righteousness. Wings will be sometimes folded because they are wings. . . . The earthly struggle must be enduring—that is all. There must be no surrenders; we can't expect much of victory here."

"The longer I live, the less I think and fear about what the world calls success; the more I tremble for true success, for the purity and sanctity of the soul, which is as a temple."

"Doing what can't be done is the glory of living."

"What are Christians put into the world for but to do the impossible in the strength of God?"

In the contemplation of such a spirit we rest for a little from the turmoils of politics, the mixture of motives, the half-successes. Here is what glorified the whole business,—the development of souls like this; and in such is the promise of the future. Fitly to Armstrong belongs what Matthew Arnold has written of his father, a kindred soul:—

Servants of God!—or sons

Shall I not call you? because

Not as servants ye knew

Your Father's innermost mind,

His, who unwillingly sees

One of his little ones lost—

Yours is the praise, if mankind

Hath not as yet in its march

Fainted, and fallen, and died!

See! In the rocks of the world

Marches the host of mankind

A feeble, wavering line.

Where are they tending?—A God

Marshal'd them, gave them their goal—

Ah, but the way is so long!

Years they have been in the wild!

Sore thirst plagues them, the rocks,

Rising all round, overawe;

Factions divide them, their host

Threatens to break, to dissolve—

Ah, keep, keep them combined!

Else, of the myriads who fill

That army, not one shall arrive;

Sole they shall stray; on the rocks

Batter forever in vain,

Die one by one in the waste.

Then, in such hour of need

Of your fainting, dispirited race,

Ye, like angels, appear,

Radiant with ardor divine.

Beacons of hope, ye appear!

Languor is not in your heart,

Weakness is not in your word,

Weariness not on your brow.

Ye alight in our van! at your voice,

Panic, despair, flee away.

Ye move through the ranks, recall

The stragglers, refresh the outworn,

Praise, re-inspire the brave.

Order, courage, return;

Eyes rekindling, and prayers,

Follow your steps as ye go.

Ye fill up the gaps in our files,

Strengthen the wavering line,

Stablish, continue our march,

On, to the bound of the waste,

On, to the City of God!