The Future of the American Negro

Chapter III

In the heart of the Black Belt of the South in ante-bellum days there was a large estate, with palatial mansion, surrounded by a beautiful grove, in which grew flowers and shrubbery of every description. Magnificent specimens of animal life grazed in the fields, and in grain and all manner of plant growth this estate was a model. In a word, it was the highest type of the product of slave labor.

Then came the long years of war, then freedom, then the trying years of reconstruction. The master returned from the war to find the faithful slaves who had been the bulwark of this household in possession of their freedom. Then there began that social and industrial revolution in the South which it is hard for any who was not really a part of it to appreciate or understand. Gradually, day by day, this ex-master began to realise, with a feeling almost indescribable, to what an extent he and his family had grown to be dependent upon the activity and faithfulness of his slaves; began to appreciate to what an extent slavery had sapped his sinews of strength and independence, how his dependence upon slave labour had deprived him and his offspring of the benefit of technical and industrial training, and, worst of all, had unconsciously led him to see in labour drudgery and degradation instead of beauty, dignity, and civilising power. At first there was a halt in this man’s life. He cursed the North and he cursed the Negro. Then there was despair, almost utter hopelessness, over his weak and childlike condition. The temptation was to forget all in drink, and to this temptation there was a gradual yielding. With the loss of physical vigour came the loss of mental grasp and pride in surroundings. There was the falling off of a piece of plaster from the walls of the house which was not replaced, then another and still another. Gradually, the window-panes began to disappear, then the door-knobs. Touches of paint and whitewash, which once helped to give life, were no more to be seen. The hinges disappeared from the gate, then a board from the fence, then others in quick succession. Weeds and unmown grass covered the once well-kept lawn. Sometimes there were servants for domestic duties, and sometimes there were none. In the absence of servants the unsatisfactory condition of the food told that it was being prepared by hands unschooled to such duties. As the years passed by, debts accumulated in every direction. The education of the children was neglected. Lower and lower sank the industrial, financial, and spiritual condition of the household. For the first time the awful truth of Scripture, “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap,” seemed to dawn upon him with a reality that it is hard for mortal to appreciate. Within a few months the whole mistake of slavery seemed to have concentrated itself upon this household. And this was one of many.

We have seen how the ending of slavery and the beginning of freedom produced not only a shock, but a stand-still, and in many cases a collapse, that lasted several years in the life of many white men. If the sudden change thus affected the white man, should this not teach us that we should have more sympathy than has been shown in many cases with the Negro in connection with his new and changed life? That they made many mistakes, plunged into excesses, undertook responsibilities for which they were not fitted, in many cases took liberty to mean license, is not to be wondered at. It is my opinion that the next forty years are going to show by many per cent. a higher degree of progress in the life of the Negro along all lines than has been shown during the first thirty years of his life. Certainly, the first thirty years of the Negro’s life was one of experiment; and consequently, under such conditions, he was not able to settle down to real, earnest, hard common sense efforts to better his condition. While this was true in a great many cases, on the other hand a large proportion of the race, even from the first, saw what was needed for their new life, and began to settle down to lead an industrious, frugal existence, and to educate their children and in every way prepare themselves for the responsibilities of American citizenship.

The wonder is that the Negro has made as few mistakes as he has, when we consider all the surrounding circumstances. Columns of figures have been gleaned from the census reports within the last quarter of a century to show the great amount of crime committed by the Negro in excess of that committed by other races. No one will deny the fact that the proportion of crime by the present generation of Negroes is seriously large, but I believe that any other race with the Negro’s history and present environment would have shown about the same criminal record.

Another consideration which we must always bear in mind in considering the Negro is that he had practically no home life in slavery; that is, the mother and father did not have the responsibility, and consequently the experience, of training their own children. The matter of child training was left to the master and mistress. Consequently, it has only been within the last thirty years that the Negro parents have had the actual responsibility and experience of training their own children. That they have made some mistakes in thus training them is not to be wondered at. Many families scattered over all parts of the United States have not yet been able to bring themselves together. When the Negro parents shall have had thirty or forty additional years in which to found homes and get experience in the training of their children, I believe that we will find that the amount of crime will be considerably less than it is now shown to be.

In too large a measure the Negro race began its development at the wrong end, simply because neither white nor black understood the case; and no wonder, for there had never been such a case in the history of the world.

To show where this primary mistake has led in its evil results, I wish to produce some examples showing plainly how prone we have been to make our education formal, superficial, instead of making it meet the needs of conditions.

In order to emphasise the matter more fully, I repeat, at least eighty per cent. of the coloured people in the South are found in the rural districts, and they are dependent on agriculture in some form for their support. Notwithstanding that we have practically a whole race dependent upon agriculture, and notwithstanding that thirty years have passed since our freedom, aside from what has been done at Hampton and Tuskegee and one or two other institutions, but very little has been attempted by State or philanthropy in the way of educating the race in this one industry upon which its very existence depends. Boys have been taken from the farms and educated in law, theology, Hebrew and Greek,—educated in everything else except the very subject that they should know most about. I question whether among all the educated coloured people in the United States you can find six, if we except those from the institutions named, who have received anything like a thorough training in agriculture. It would have seemed that, since self-support, industrial independence, is the first condition for lifting up any race, that education in theoretical and practical agriculture, horticulture, dairying, and stock-raising, should have occupied the first place in our system.

Some time ago, when we decided to make tailoring a part of our training at the Tuskegee Institute, I was amazed to find that it was almost impossible to find in the whole country an educated coloured man who could teach the making of clothing. We could find them by the score who could teach astronomy, theology, grammar, or Latin, but almost none who could instruct in the making of clothing, something that has to be used by every one of us every day in the year. How often has my heart been made to sink as I have gone through the South and into the homes of people, and found women who could converse intelligently on Grecian history, who had studied geometry, could analyse the most complex sentences, and yet could not analyse the poorly cooked and still more poorly served corn bread and fat meat that they and their families were eating three times a day! It is little trouble to find girls who can locate Pekin or the Desert of Sahara on an artificial globe, but seldom can you find one who can locate on an actual dinner table the proper place for the carving knife and fork or the meat and vegetables.

A short time ago, in one of the Southern cities, a coloured man died who had received training as a skilled mechanic during the days of slavery. Later by his skill and industry he built up a great business as a house contractor and builder. In this same city there are 35,000 coloured people, among them young men who have been well educated in the languages and in literature; but not a single one could be found who had been so trained in mechanical and architectural drawing that he could carry on the business which this ex-slave had built up, and so it was soon scattered to the wind. Aside from the work done in the institutions that I have mentioned, you can find almost no coloured men who have been trained in the principles of architecture, notwithstanding the fact that a vast majority of our race are without homes. Here, then, are the three prime conditions for growth, for civilisation,—food, clothing, shelter; and yet we have been the slaves of forms and customs to such an extent that we have failed in a large measure to look matters squarely in the face and meet actual needs.

It may well be asked by one who has not carefully considered the matter: “What has become of all those skilled farm-hands that used to be on the old plantations? Where are those wonderful cooks we hear about, where those exquisitely trained house servants, those cabinet makers, and the jacks-of-all-trades that were the pride of the South?” This is easily answered,—they are mostly dead. The survivors are too old to work. “But did they not train their children?” is the natural question. Alas! the answer is “no.” Their skill was so commonplace to them, and to their former masters, that neither thought of it as being a hard-earned or desirable accomplishment: it was natural, like breathing. Their children would have it as a matter of course. What their children needed was education. So they went out into the world, the ambitious ones, and got education, and forgot the necessity of the ordinary training to live.

God for two hundred and fifty years, in my opinion, prepared the way for the redemption of the Negro through industrial development. First, he made the Southern white man do business with the Negro for two hundred and fifty years in a way that no one else has done business with him. If a Southern white man wanted a house or a bridge built, he consulted a Negro mechanic about the plan and about the actual building of the house or bridge. If he wanted a suit of clothes or a pair of shoes made, it was to the Negro tailor or shoemaker that he talked. Secondly, every large slave plantation in the South was, in a limited sense, an industrial school. On these plantations there were scores of young coloured men and women who were constantly being trained, not alone as common farmers, but as carpenters, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, plasterers, brick masons, engineers, bridge-builders, cooks, dressmakers, housekeepers, etc. I would be the last to apologise for the curse of slavery; but I am simply stating facts. This training was crude and was given for selfish purposes, and did not answer the highest ends, because there was the absence of brain training in connection with that of the hand. Nevertheless, this business contact with the Southern white man, and the industrial training received on these plantations, put the Negro at the close of the war into possession of all the common and skilled labour in the South. For nearly twenty years after the war, except in one or two cases, the value of the industrial training given by the Negroes’ former masters on the plantations and elsewhere was overlooked. Negro men and women were educated in literature, mathematics, and the sciences, with no thought of what had taken place on these plantations for two and a half centuries. After twenty years, those who were trained as mechanics, etc., during slavery began to disappear by death; and gradually we awoke to the fact that we had no one to take their places. We had scores of young men learned in Greek, but few in carpentry or mechanical or architectural drawing. We had trained many in Latin, but almost none as engineers, bridge-builders, and machinists. Numbers were taken from the farm and educated, but were educated in everything else except agriculture. Hence they had no sympathy with farm life, and did not return to it.

This last that I have been saying is practically a repetition of what I have said in the preceding paragraph; but, to emphasise it,—and this point is one of the most important I wish to impress on the reader,—it is well to repeat, to say the same thing twice. Oh, if only more who had the shaping of the education of the Negro could have, thirty years ago, realised, and made others realise, where the forgetting of the years of manual training and the sudden acquiring of education were going to lead the Negro race, what a saving it would have been! How much less my race would have had to answer for, as well as the white!

But it is too late to cry over what might have been. It is time to make up, as soon as possible, for this mistake,—time for both races to acknowledge it, and go forth on the course that, it seems to me, all must now see to be the right one,—industrial education.

As an example of what a well-trained and educated Negro may now do, and how ready to acknowledge him a Southern white man may be, let me return once more to the plantation I spoke of in the first part of this chapter. As the years went by, the night seemed to grow darker, so that all seemed hopeless and lost. At this point relief and strength came from an unexpected source. This Southern white man’s idea of Negro education had been that it merely meant a parrot-like absorption of Anglo-Saxon civilisation, with a special tendency to imitate the weaker elements of the white man’s character; that it meant merely the high hat, kid gloves, a showy walking cane, patent leather shoes, and all the rest of it. To this ex-master it seemed impossible that the education of the Negro could produce any other results. And so, last of all, did he expect help or encouragement from an educated black man; but it was just from this source that help came. Soon after the process of decay began in this white man’s estate, the education of a certain black man began, and began on a logical, sensible basis. It was an education that would fit him to see and appreciate the physical and moral conditions that existed in his own family and neighbourhood, and, in the present generation, would fit him to apply himself to their relief. By chance this educated Negro strayed into the employ of this white man. His employer soon learned that this Negro not only had a knowledge of science, mathematics, and literature in his head, but in his hands as well. This black man applied his knowledge of agricultural chemistry to the redemption of the soil; and soon the washes and gulleys began to disappear, and the waste places began to bloom. New and improved machinery in a few months began to rob labour of its toil and drudgery. The animals were given systematic and kindly attention. Fences were repaired and rebuilt. Whitewash and paint were made to do duty. Everywhere order slowly began to replace confusion; hope, despair; and profits, losses. As he observed, day by day, new life and strength being imparted to every department of his property, this white son of the South began revising his own creed regarding the wisdom of educating Negroes.

Hitherto his creed regarding the value of an educated Negro had been rather a plain and simple one, and read: “The only end that could be accomplished by educating a black man was to enable him to talk properly to a mule; and the Negro’s education did great injustice to the mule, since the language tended to confuse him and make him balky.”

We need not continue the story, except to add that to-day the grasp of the hand of this ex-slaveholder, and the listening to his hearty words of gratitude and commendation for the education of the Negro, are enough to compensate those who have given and those who have worked and sacrificed for the elevation of my people through all of these years. If we are patient, wise, unselfish, and courageous, such examples will multiply as the years go by.

Before closing this chapter,—which, I think, has clearly shown that there is at present a very distinct lack of industrial training in the South among the Negroes,—I wish to say a few words in regard to certain objections, or rather misunderstandings, which have from time to time arisen in regard to the matter.

Many have had the thought that industrial training was meant to make the Negro work, much as he worked during the days of slavery. This is far from my idea of it. If this training has any value for the Negro, as it has for the white man, it consists in teaching the Negro how rather not to work, but how to make the forces of nature—air, water, horse-power, steam, and electric power—work for him, how to lift labour up out of toil and drudgery into that which is dignified and beautiful. The Negro in the South works, and he works hard; but his lack of skill, coupled with ignorance, causes him too often to do his work in the most costly and shiftless manner, and this has kept him near the bottom of the ladder in the business world. I repeat that industrial education teaches the Negro how not to drudge in his work. Let him who doubts this contrast the Negro in the South toiling through a field of oats with an old-fashioned reaper with the white man on a modern farm in the West, sitting upon a modern “harvester,” behind two spirited horses, with an umbrella over him, using a machine that cuts and binds the oats at the same time,—doing four times as much work as the black man with one half the labour. Let us give the black man so much skill and brains that he can cut oats like the white man, then he can compete with him. The Negro works in cotton, and has no trouble so long as his labour is confined to the lower forms of work,—the planting, the picking, and the ginning; but, when the Negro attempts to follow the bale of cotton up through the higher stages, through the mill where it is made into the finer fabrics, where the larger profit appears, he is told that he is not wanted.

The Negro can work in wood and iron; and no one objects so long as he confines his work to the felling of trees and sawing of boards, to the digging of iron ore and making of pig iron. But, when the Negro attempts to follow this tree into the factory where it is made into desks and chairs and railway coaches, or when he attempts to follow the pig iron into the factory where it is made into knife-blades and watch-springs, the Negro’s trouble begins. And what is the objection? Simply that the Negro lacks the skill, coupled with brains, necessary to compete with the white man, or that, when white men refuse to work with coloured men, enough skilled and educated coloured men cannot be found able to superintend and man every part of any one large industry; and hence, for these reasons, they are constantly being barred out. The Negro must become, in a larger measure, an intelligent producer as well as a consumer. There should be a more vital and practical connection between the Negro’s educated brain and his opportunity of earning his daily living.

A very weak argument often used against pushing industrial training for the Negro is that the Southern white man favours it, and, therefore, it is not best for the Negro. Although I was born a slave, I am thankful that I am able so far to rid myself of prejudice as to be able to accept a good thing, whether it comes from a black man or a white man, a Southern man or a Northern man. Industrial education will not only help the Negro directly in the matter of industrial development, but also in bringing about more satisfactory relations between him and the Southern white man. For the sake of the Negro and the Southern white man there are many things in the relation of the two races that must soon be changed. We cannot depend wholly upon abuse or condemnation of the Southern white man to bring about these changes. Each race must be educated to see matters in a broad, high, generous, Christian spirit: we must bring the two races together, not estrange them. The Negro must live for all time by the side of the Southern white man. The man is unwise who does not cultivate in every manly way the friendship and good will of his next-door neighbour, whether he be black or white. I repeat that industrial training will help cement the friendship of the two races. The history of the world proves that trade, commerce, is the forerunner of peace and civilisation as between races and nations. The Jew, who was once in about the same position that the Negro is to-day, has now recognition, because he has entwined himself about America in a business and industrial sense. Say or think what we will, it is the tangible or visible element that is going to tell largely during the next twenty years in the solution of the race problem.


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