Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam


"Evil is good in the making," says the optimist philosopher. Even the more sober view of life reveals

That men may rise on stepping-stones

Of their dead selves to higher things.

Out of the calamities and horrors of war came to the nation a larger life. Communities had been lifted out of pettiness, churches had half forgotten their sectarianism, to millions of souls a sublimer meaning in life had been disclosed. Lowell said it in two lines:

Earth's biggest country's got her soul,

And risen up earth's greatest nation.

The South had suffered far more than the North, and the South reaped the larger profit. The fallacy of the old Southern civilization had been the idea that labor is a curse and is to be shirked on to somebody else. Overthrow and impoverishment brought labor as a necessity to every one, and slowly it was revealed as a blessing.

When General Lee, stately in figure and bearing and splendid in dress, met in surrender the sturdy Grant, in worn and homely service uniform, it was emblematic of the yielding of the aristocratic order to the industrial democracy. There was significance in the victor's kindly words,—"Let your soldiers keep their horses; they will need them when they get home for the spring plowing." That was it,—they turned from chargers to plow-horses, and much to their safety and gain. Their masters, too, from fighters became toilers, and if it seemed a fall it proved a rise.

Before long on the street cars of Charleston and New Orleans were seen young men of good family as drivers and conductors. Anything for an honest living! Our fine old friend, Thomas Dabney, had been ruined along with everybody else. He and his family undauntedly set themselves to do their own household work. General Sherman was reported to have said, "It would be a good thing if this sent every Southern woman to the wash-tub." "Did Sherman say that?" said Dabney; "he shall not send my daughters to the wash-tub!" and the old hero turned laundry-man for the family as long as the need lasted. But the educated class soon found fitter work than as laundry-men or car conductors. The more exacting places called for occupants. There was a great enlistment in the ranks of teachers. Lee took the presidency of Washington university and gave to its duties the same whole-hearted service, the same punctilious care, that he had given to the command of the army of Northern Virginia. In peace as in war he was an exemplar to his countrymen,—and his countrymen now were spread from Maine to California.

But what was to be the fate of the emancipated negro? Jefferson had believed that he must be sent back to Africa. "Colonization" had been the watchword of Southern emancipators, so long as there were any. Even Lincoln apparently looked to that. But wholesale colonization was clearly impossible. The freedmen neither could nor would be transported in a body to Africa. And had it been possible it would have stripped the land of laborers and left it a waste.

The South's assumption was that the negro was intrinsically an inferior and must be kept subordinate to the white man. The North, in its management of political reconstruction, had practically assumed that the negro was the equal of the white man and was so to be treated. There was a third view of the matter,—that the negro was at an inferior stage of manhood, and the necessary task was to develop him. He is a man, but an imperfect man,—make him a whole man. To that end some of the finest forces of the nation were now directed. But the invigorating and commanding spirit, who conceived the saving idea, put it into practice, and gave guidance and inspiration to both races,—the man who found the way out was Samuel Chapman Armstrong.

He came of Scotch-Irish blood, and of sturdy farming stock, bred in the fertile fields of Pennsylvania and in the best traditions of Christianity. His father and mother gave themselves to the missionary work, in that lofty enthusiasm whose wave swept through the country early in the nineteenth century. The boy was born in 1839 in the Hawaiian Islands, and grew up in the joy-giving climate, with a happy boy-life, swimming the sea and climbing the mountains; trained firmly and kindly in obedience and service; impressed by the constant presence in the home of unselfish and consecrated lives. As he grew older, his bright eyes studied the native character, emotional, genial, unstable; he saw the wholesale conversions to Christianity, speedy, happy, and well-nigh barren of fruit. Going to America for his education, he completed it at Williams College under the presidency of Mark Hopkins. Garfield said that his conception of a university was a pine bench with Mark Hopkins at one end and a student at the other. He gave a stimulus alike intellectual and moral; his special teaching was in philosophy, broadly reasoned, nobly aimed, closely applied to the daily need. Armstrong spoke of him in later years as his spiritual father. Graduating in 1862, he enlisted in the Union army, took his share in Gettysburg and other fights, became an officer of negro troops, and rose to a brigadier-generalship. He said that to him, born abroad, the cause of Union made no strong appeal,—what he was fighting for was the freedom of the slaves. The war finished, he left the army, entered the service of the Freedmen's Bureau under General Oliver O. Howard, and was assigned to the Jamestown peninsula in Virginia. There were huddled together thousands of the freedmen,—the unconscious cause of the war, the problem of the future,—simple, half-dazed, a mixture of good and bad, of physical strength, kindly temper, crude morals and childish ignorance. For a time the officials of the Bureau, as best they could, kept order, found work, settled quarrels, and promoted schools. But what was to be the large outcome?

Armstrong had been known to his associates as a man of splendid and many-sided vitality. A college classmate, Dr. John Denison, graphically describes him, "A sort of cataclysm of health, like other cyclones from the South seas"; what the Tennessee mountaineers call "plumb survigrous"; an islander, with the high courage and jollity of the tar; "a kind of mental as well as physical amphibiousness." Extraordinary in his training and versatility; able to "manage a boat in a storm, teach a school, edit a newspaper, assist in carrying on a government, take up a mechanical industry at will, understand the natives, sympathize with the missionaries, talk with profound theorists, recite well in Greek or mathematics, conduct an advanced class in geometry, and make no end of fun for little children." He had had the training of a missionary station in a Robinson Crusoe-like variety of functions. A knight-errant to the core, the atmosphere of Williams under Hopkins gave him his consecration. His comrades recognized him as an intellectual leader, essentially religious but often startlingly unconventional, "under great terrestrial headway," "the most strenuous man I ever saw." He said of himself: "missionary or pirate."

Now after the sobering of three years of campaigning his immediate duties brought him face to face with the tremendous problem of the negro, and the elements of the solution already lay in his own character, experience, personality.

What were the assets of the negro? He had, by inheritance and training, the capacity and instinct of labor. What an advantage that is appears by the contrast with the Indian, who is perishing for want of just that. But the negro knew labor only as the hard necessity of his lot,—it had to him no higher significance. "Education," was the watchword of the generous spirits of another race who were coming to his help. They found at first great promise in the freedman's eagerness to learn reading and writing. But it soon appeared that this was an outreaching toward some vague social advantage, and that the actual acquisition through speller and copybook carried him and his children but a little way up. It was a pressing necessity to provide teachers, and of his own race; so, rightly and naturally, were founded the normal school and the college. He needed his own educated preachers, physicians, lawyers; for these, too, there must be training. So, rightly and naturally, were planted universities,—Atlanta, Fisk, Howard. It was an unquestioned creed that the white man's training as preacher, lawyer, physician, teacher, must begin with years of Latin and Greek; so what other way for the negro? So, as almost inevitable, the early education of the race began as a copy of the white man's methods. But sadly inadequate, alas, as we begin to see, is a classical education for the typical white man of our time; and immense was the gap between the teaching of which that was the core and crown, and the wants of the black field-hands and their children.

Labor, education,—and what of religion? The slave had found in Christianity, often in rude, half-barbaric forms, a consolation, a refuge, a tenderness and hope, to which we can scarcely do justice. Perhaps its most eloquent expression to our imagination is those wonderful old-time melodies, the negro "spirituals," as they have been made familiar by the singers of the negro colleges. Their words are mystic, Scriptural, grotesque; the melodies have a pathos, a charm, a moving power, born out of the heart's depths through centuries of sorrow dimly lighted by glimmerings of a divine love and hope. The typical African temperament, the tragedy of bondage, the tenderness and triumph of religion, find voice in those psalms.

Religion is not to be despised because it is not altogether or even largely ethical. The heart depressed by drudgery, hardship, forlornness, craves not merely moral guidance but exhilaration and ecstacy. Small wonder if it seeks it in whisky; better surely if it finds it in hymns and prayers and transports partly of the flesh yet touched by the spirit. Further, by faithful masters and mistresses there was given to the slave's religion, in many cases, a clear and strong sense of moral obligation. Uncle Tom in his saintliness may be an idealization, but the elements were drawn from life.

Yet the slave's and so the freedman's religion was very one-sided and out of all proportion emotional. Its habitual aim was occasional transport on earth and rapture in heaven. Of the day's task, of homely fidelities and services, of marriage and parenthood and neighborhood and citizenship, it made almost no account.

Face to face with these impoverished and groping souls, what had Armstrong, in his experience, knowledge, personality, with which to meet them? "He was filled through and through"—the quotation is from the admirable biographical sketch by his daughter—"with a deep sense that by hard work alone can any of us be saved—a sense based on many obscure foundations of observation and deduction. Away back in the corners of his mind were recollections of sundry wood-choppings and milkings carried on under protest by himself and his companions; and knowledge, too, of how his father and mother had spent their ambitious youth in work, the mother spinning by the fireside, the father doing chores at his home in Pennsylvania. It was the boys who faced and conquered hard physical jobs that became the men of endurance later." He had seen and shared the devotion of the missionary spirit, and had seen, too, how largely it failed of fruit by being spent on supernatural conversion and mystical emotion. He knew the tropical temperament, common to Hawaiian and negro,—how accessible to transient fervor, how deficient in persistence and continuity. He had watched his father's operations, as minister of public instruction under the Hawaiian king; his experiments in more practical and prosaic education and religion, half frowned on by the ecclesiastics of America, but rich in suggestion. He knew that the Hilo manual labor school, where the boys paid their expenses by labor, slightly trained, was a marked success. His intensely active nature had caught from Hopkins the philosophic outlook, and the human materials were before him in rich abundance. Above all, while unspeculative in religion, and content to employ its traditional forms,—"they're imperfect enough," he said, "but they're the best we've got"—the instincts of his great and disciplined nature sent him straight to the central realities of character, which are the true foundations of society.

His ideal crystallized by that swift and sudden process in which the long subconscious growth of the mind sometimes comes to fruitage. He said in later years that before he entered the Bureau's service, while sailing on a troop-ship to Texas, he saw as in a dream his school much as it afterward became. Twice afterward the vision came to him. Stationed at Hampton in 1866, while he was bringing order out of the chaos around him, his mind was reaching forward surely and swiftly to his larger project.

This was the germ thought: Character is to get its direction and energy in the day's work. Just as man's physical needs drive him to toil, his spiritual necessities find their best field and cultivation in the same toil. The freedmen's first need is to earn a living; then to acquire such a margin as will allow some little ease and comfort and refinement; and along with these goes the need of good habits, high aims, disciplined character. Teach the industrial lesson and the moral lesson together. Train them to work intelligently and cheerfully; teach them at the same time whatever of book knowledge best fits their need; and constantly inspire them with the spirit of service to their kind. Provide in this way for some hundreds of young men and women, who shall go out as teachers to educate and train their people along these lines.

That was the ideal,—the germ of Hampton, of Tuskegee, of the new education of the negro; the suggestion and stimulant of the new education as it is coming to be for the white.