Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Booker T. Washington,
Pioneer of Negro Progress

Near the end of the days of slavery, on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia, was born a negro boy who was destined to lift himself, by moral and mental strength, into the ranks of the great men of the world. He is the sole representative which we can give here of a race that numbers more than nine millions of people in the United States. Freed from slavery only forty years ago, not yet freed from ignorance, the negro race has had little opportunity to develop the powers it may possess. Frederick Douglass, an able and brilliant orator of the times before the war, was the only man of negro blood who raised himself to a national reputation before the coming of Booker T. Washington, of whose striking career it is our purpose now to speak.

Born in a tumble-down log-cabin on an old Virginia plantation, the boy named came into a world in which he was expected to play so small a part that no record was kept even of the year of his birth. All he knew of it was that it was some time in the years 1858 or 1859. His father, a white man, he never knew. He knew no name except Booker, by which he was called during his few years of slave life on the plantation. A mere toddler as he was, only six or seven years old when the war ended and freedom came, he was kept busy at odd. jobs, cleaning the yard, carrying water to the men, taking corn to the mill, and, as he says, at times falling from the horse with his bag of corn and sitting in tears by the wayside until some one came along to lift him up again.

Schooling was not thought of for any one with a black skin, though the little slave boy already felt a thirst for knowledge. He tells us how he would carry the books of his young mistress when she went to school and gaze wistfully through the door into the school-room, closed against all of his color, but which seemed to him like a paradise to which he was denied entrance.

The slaves, he tells us, knew well the purpose of the war. They had a system of wireless telegraphy of their own, by which they often heard of events in the field before their masters. The fact that "Massa Linkum" had set them free was quickly spread among them, and when the war ended and they could move about without hindrance, many of them hastened to test their new liberty by leaving the plantations on which their lives had been spent.

Booker's reputed father, who had been a slave on a neighboring plantation, made his way to West Virginia, where he got work in the mines and soon sent for his wife and children. Here little Booker was put to work in a salt furnace. His childish desire to learn grew intense as time passed on. The art of reading seemed something magical to the child, who had an alert brain under his sable skin; and, getting possession in some way of a book, he pored over it intently, with no one to help, for all around were as ignorant as himself. All he succeeded in doing was to learn the alphabet from it; the joining of the letters into words was beyond his childish powers.

Some time later a young negro opened a school in the vicinity, but, to his keen disappointment, his father would not let him go, insisting that he should keep at work. Determined to open the closed door of knowledge, he managed to get some lessons at night from the teacher, and appealed so earnestly that his father finally consented to his going to day school for a few months, if he would work in the furnace until nine o'clock in the morning and for two hours in the afternoon after school had closed.

Little Booker was willing to do anything to gain an education. His thirst for knowledge had grown with his years, and there was no danger but that he would be a diligent student. But his first day at school brought him in face of a distressing difficulty. When the teacher called the roll he learned that every boy there had at least two names. He felt a deep sense of shame at the fact that he had only one. He had never been called anything but Booker, and knew of no other name. But a native shrewdness made him equal to the situation. When the teacher asked for his name he calmly replied that it was Booker Washington, appropriating the name of the Father of the Country without a qualm of conscience. Later on his mother told him that his real name was Booker Taliaferro, but he clung to the name he had adopted, and has ever since been known as Booker T. Washington.

From the salt furnace the boy was transferred to a coal mine, a change, in his opinion, much for the worse; but a few months later he got a place as servant in the house of Mrs. Ruffner, the wife of the mine owner. Mrs. Ruffner had the name of being a hard mistress, with whom no servant would stay more than a few months, but Booker soon found that the trouble was more with the servants than with the mistress. What she demanded was that they should keep things clean and do their work promptly and systematically. When her new boy learned what she wanted he did his best to please her, and instead of a harsh taskmaster found her considerate and just. He stayed with her a year and a half, and might have stayed much longer, for he had made Mrs. Ruffner a kind friend, but for a new desire that stirred his soul.

One day, while in the coal mine, he had heard two miners talking about a great school for colored people somewhere in Virginia. He heard also that worthy students could work out part of their board and be taught a useful trade. The news filled him with an intense eagerness to go to this wonderful school, and in the fall of 1872, when he was thirteen or fourteen years old, he determined to get there if it was possible.

His mother strongly opposed the idea, and gave her consent only after long pleading. But the colored people of the vicinity favored it, education seeming to them like an inestimable treasure. Some of them helped the boy with a little money, and at length, with a very slender purse, he set out on his long journey to Hampton, five hundred miles away.

He had expected to ride there, but his first day's journey in the stage coach showed him that his funds would not carry him a fifth of the way, and he changed riding for walking, except when he could beg a ride. He reached the city of Richmond at length. His pockets were empty, and Hampton still far away. No lodging was to be had for a wandering colored urchin, and that night he slept under a raised part of the board sidewalk. The next day he earned a little money by helping unload a vessel at the wharves, and this he kept at for several days, still sleeping under the boards. Years afterwards, when he visited Richmond as a distinguished man, he sought out this spot in the streets and looked with pathetic interest upon his first sleeping place in Virginia's capital city. When he reached Hampton at length, he had just fifty cents with which to get an education in the famous institute.

A sorry picture was the vagrant student when he presented himself tremblingly before the head teacher of the institute. Ill-clad, begrimed, hungry-looking, he waited with sinking heart while others were admitted, but no attention paid to him. At length, after a weary probation, the teacher looked him over disapprovingly, and put a broom into his hands, telling him to sweep one of the recitation-rooms. Now young Booker's severe training under Mrs. Ruffner served him well. He swept and dusted that room so thoroughly that when the teacher, a Yankee house-wife, came in she could not find a speck of dust hiding anywhere. "I guess you will do to enter this institution," she said.

The boy had swept his way into her good graces. She offered him a position as janitor, which enabled him to pay his board, and was ever afterwards his good friend. General Armstrong, that faithful friend of the blacks who was at the head of the institution, was so pleased with the earnestness and intelligence of the boy, one of the youngest under his care, that he induced a friend to pay the $70 a year for the little lad's tuition, and thus he was fairly launched upon the highroad of education.

That Booker worked hard we may be assured. His diligence, fidelity, and studiousness won him friends on all sides. He got work outside during the vacations, and after two years paid a visit home, only to see his mother die. She had been a good mother to him, and he mourned her loss.

His term at Hampton ended in 1875, but his connection with the institution did not cease, for after a time he was made a teacher in the night-school and also put in charge of the Indian inmates. The opportunity of his life, for which he had been unwittingly preparing, came in 188i, while he was still night-school teacher at Hampton. An application had come to General Armstrong for some one to take charge of a colored normal school at Tuskegee, Alabama. The kindly superintendent, who knew well the capability of his night-school teacher, offered him the position, and Booker, with some natural hesitation, agreed to try.

Tuskegee was a town of about two thousand population, nearly half of them colored. It was situated in the Black Belt of Alabama, negroes being plentiful and education sparse. The legislature had voted an annual appropriation of $2000 to pay the running expenses of the school, but when the new teacher reached Tuskegee he was disappointed to find that no building and no equipment had been provided. There were plenty of scholars, but that was all.

Booker went to work with a will, determined to make the most of his chance. The best place he could get for a school-house was an old shanty near the colored Methodist church, and here he opened with thirty students, ranging from fifteen to forty years of age, most of them having already served, in some fashion, as school-teachers. The roof was so leaky that when it rained one of the students had to hold an umbrella over him as he taught.

After three weeks Miss Olivia A. Davidson came to the school as a co-teacher—a bright girl, with new ideas, who afterwards became Mr. Washington's wife. Booker Washington was a born man of business from the start. After he had been in Tuskegee for three months an abandoned plantation near by was offered for sale for the low sum of $500. He determined to obtain it if possible, and succeeded in borrowing from the treasurer of the Hampton Institute $250 for a first payment. The remaining sum was raised by various measures in time to make the final payment and secure the property.

The mansion house of the plantation had been burned down. The buildings remaining consisted of a cabin which had been used as the dining-room, a kitchen, a stable, and an old henhouse. The latter two were used for school purposes, and the others as residences. The first animal obtained was an old, blind horse. It was the pioneer in a troop of animals which now embraces over two hundred horses, oxen, and cows, about seven hundred hogs, and many sheep and goats, while the original tumble-down buildings have been replaced by a large number of well built structures, nearly all erected by the students themselves.

The new principal was a man of ambitious views and genius for affairs. His first daring undertaking was to build a $6000 school-house without a dollar of capital. But he had already won a reputation for ability and integrity and help came in. The necessary lumber was supplied by a dealer in the vicinity who insisted on sending it and waiting for pay. Contributions came from many sources, and the building was completed and paid for. By this time the strenuous and self-sacrificing efforts of the young teacher and the remarkable results he was achieving with the smallest means were becoming known and appreciated throughout the country, and aid began to come in from many sources. He made in subsequent years frequent lecturing tours in the North, describing with simple eloquence the character and needs of his work, and obtaining in this way the annual amount necessary for its prosecution.

His purpose was to develop at Tuskegee an educational and industrial school, teaching the essential elements of education while making each student familiar with some trade, and in this he has had so signal a success that he is looked upon as having solved the problem of the future of the negro in America. It has throughout been his purpose to make his students capable, self-supporting, and self-respecting, a design which has been carried out to a highly gratifying extent, while the present school at Tuskegee has given birth to various off-springs in which the same methods are pursued.

All the ordinary trades are taught in the institution, especially the various branches of farming. Twenty-five separate industries are carried on by the students, the object being to train the colored youth in self-supporting occupations, while the girls are taught the branches most useful to them. Washington holds that the race problem will be solved when the negro becomes a valuable workman and financially independent, and he has done noble work in the effort to bring this about.

The leaky cabin with which he began is now superseded by forty or more handsome and well adapted buildings, large and small, all but four of which have been erected by student labor, even to the making of the bricks and the sawing of the planks. The thirty students with whom he began have increased to over eleven hundred, and his solitary labors have been replaced by the work of some eighty instructors, while the old shanty of 188I has grown in the short space of twenty years to an extensive group of edifices, and his fragment of meeting-house ground to a broad estate of 2460 acres, the whole valued at over $300,000, and with an endowment fund of $215,000. This looks like a magical result from the work of the ragged and penniless boy who made his way on foot to Hampton Institute in 1872, and we cannot but look upon Booker Washington as an extraordinary man.

This was the state of affairs in 1900. Since then the development has continued, and the endowment fund has been greatly increased by the generous gift from Andrew Carnegie of $600,000, to be used as Mr. Washington wishes, except that he and his wife shall be provided for out of its proceeds. Carnegie says of Mr. Washington: "To me he seems one of the greatest of living men, because his work is unique, the modern Moses who leads his race and lifts it through education to even better and higher things than a land overflowing with milk and honey. History is to tell of two Washingtons, one white, the other black, both fathers of their people."

Carnegie is not alone in this opinion. There are many who look upon Booker T. Washington as one of the greatest of living men. He has won the respect and admiration of the South as well as of the North. He went far to win the South by his highly effective address at the opening of the Atlanta Exposition of 1895. The Boston Transcript said of this speech: "It seems to have dwarfed all the other proceedings and the Exposition itself. The sensation it has caused in the press has never been equaled." Its purpose was to show how the whites and blacks could live together in harmony in the South.

Since then Tuskegee has become a place of pilgrimage for our Presidents on their journeys through the land. President McKinley visited it, with the general approbation of the people, and in 1905 President Roosevelt did the same. In history there are few examples of so remarkable a career as that of this Moses of the negro race.