While working on a sermon the pastor heard a knock at his office door. "Come in," he invited. A sad-looking man in threadbare clothes came in, pulling a large pig on a rope. "Can I talk to you for a minute?" asked the ma... Read more of On Marriage: One-Liners at Free Jokes.caInformational Site Network Informational
Privacy
  Home - Biography - I Have a Dream Speech - QuotesBlack History: Articles - Poems - Authors - Speeches - Folk Rhymes - Slavery Interviews

A NEGRO SCHOOLMASTER IN THE NEW SOUTH







by: W. E. Burghardt Du Bois
Once upon a time I taught school in the hills of Tennessee, where
the broad dark vale of the Mississippi begins to roll and crumple
to greet the Alleghanies. I was a Fisk student then, and all Fisk
men think that Tennessee--beyond the Veil--is theirs alone, and in
vacation time they sally forth in lusty bands to meet the county
school commissioners. Young and happy, I too went, and I shall
not soon forget that summer, ten years ago.

First, there was a teachers' Institute at the county-seat; and
there distinguished guests of the superintendent taught the
teachers fractions and spelling and other mysteries,--white
teachers in the morning, Negroes at night. A picnic now and then,
and a supper, and the rough world was softened by laughter and
song. I remember how--But I wander.

There came a day when all the teachers left the Institute, and
began the hunt for schools. I learn from hearsay (for my mother
was mortally afraid of firearms) that the hunting of ducks and
bears and men is wonderfully interesting, but I am sure that the
man who has never hunted a country school has something to learn
of the pleasures of the chase. I see now the white, hot roads
lazily rise and fall and wind before me under the burning July
sun; I feel the deep weariness of heart and limb, as ten, eight,
six miles stretch relentlessly ahead; I feel my heart sink heavily
as I hear again and again, "Got a teacher? Yes." So I walked on
and on,--horses were too expensive,--until I had wandered beyond
railways, beyond stage lines, to a land of "varmints" and
rattlesnakes, where the coming of a stranger was an event, and men
lived and died in the shadow of one blue hill.

Sprinkled over hill and dale lay cabins and farmhouses, shut out
from the world by the forests and the rolling hills toward the
east. There I found at last a little school. Josie told me of
it; she was a thin, homely girl of twenty, with a dark brown face
and thick, hard hair. I had crossed the stream at Watertown, and
rested under the great willows; then I had gone to the little
cabin in the lot where Josie was resting on her way to town. The
gaunt farmer made me welcome, and Josie, hearing my errand, told
me anxiously that they wanted a school over the hill; that but
once since the war had a teacher been there; that she herself
longed to learn,--and thus she ran on, talking fast and loud, with
much earnestness and energy.

Next morning I crossed the tall round hill, lingered to look at
the blue and yellow mountains stretching toward the Carolinas;
then I plunged into the wood, and came out at Josie's home. It
was a dull frame cottage with four rooms, perched just below the
brow of the hill, amid peach trees. The father was a quiet,
simple soul, calmly ignorant, with no touch of vulgarity. The
mother was different,--strong, bustling, and energetic, with a
quick, restless tongue, and an ambition to live "like folks."
There was a crowd of children. Two boys had gone away. There
remained two growing girls; a shy midget of eight; John, tall,
awkward, and eighteen; Jim, younger, quicker, and better looking;
and two babies of indefinite age. Then there was Josie herself.
She seemed to be the centre of the family: always busy at service
or at home, or berry-picking; a little nervous and inclined to
scold, like her mother, yet faithful, too, like her father. She
had about her a certain fineness, the shadow of an unconscious
moral heroism that would willingly give all of life to make life
broader, deeper, and fuller for her and hers. I saw much of this
family afterward, and grew to love them for their honest efforts
to be decent and comfortable, and for their knowledge of their own
ignorance. There was with them no affectation. The mother would
scold the father for being so "easy;" Josie would roundly rate the
boys for carelessness; and all knew that it was a hard thing to
dig a living out of a rocky side hill.

I secured the school. I remember the day I rode horseback out to
the commissioner's house, with a pleasant young white fellow, who
wanted the white school. The road ran down the bed of a stream;
the sun laughed and the water jingled, and we rode on. "Come in,"
said the commissioner,--"come in. Have a seat. Yes, that
certificate will do. Stay to dinner. What do you want a month?"
Oh, thought I, this is lucky; but even then fell the awful shadow
of the Veil, for they ate first, then I--alone.

The schoolhouse was a log hut, where Colonel Wheeler used to
shelter his corn. It sat in a lot behind a rail fence and thorn
bushes, near the sweetest of springs. There was an entrance where
a door once was, and within, a massive rickety fireplace; great
chinks between the logs served as windows. Furniture was scarce.
A pale blackboard crouched in the corner. My desk was made of
three boards, reinforced at critical points, and my chair,
borrowed from the landlady, had to be returned every night. Seats
for the children,--these puzzled me much. I was haunted by a New
England vision of neat little desks and chairs, but, alas, the
reality was rough plank benches without backs, and at times
without legs. They had the one virtue of making naps dangerous,--
possibly fatal, for the floor was not to be trusted.

It was a hot morning late in July when the school opened. I
trembled when I heard the patter of little feet down the dusty
road, and saw the growing row of dark solemn faces and bright
eager eyes facing me. First came Josie and her brothers and
sisters. The longing to know, to be a student in the great school
at Nashville, hovered like a star above this child woman amid her
work and worry, and she studied doggedly. There were the Dowells
from their farm over toward Alexandria: Fanny, with her smooth
black face and wondering eyes; Martha, brown and dull; the pretty
girl wife of a brother, and the younger brood. There were the
Burkes, two brown and yellow lads, and a tiny haughty-eyed girl.
Fat Reuben's little chubby girl came, with golden face and old
gold hair, faithful and solemn. 'Thenie was on hand early,--a
jolly, ugly, good-hearted girl, who slyly dipped snuff and looked
after her little bow-legged brother. When her mother could spare
her, 'Tildy came,--a midnight beauty, with starry eyes and
tapering limbs; and her brother, correspondingly homely. And then
the big boys: the hulking Lawrences; the lazy Neills, unfathered
sons of mother and daughter; Hickman, with a stoop in his
shoulders; and the rest.

There they sat, nearly thirty of them, on the rough benches, their
faces shading from a pale cream to a deep brown, the little feet
bare and swinging, the eyes full of expectation, with here and
there a twinkle of mischief, and the hands grasping Webster's
blue-back spelling-book. I loved my school, and the fine faith
the children had in the wisdom of their teacher was truly
marvelous. We read and spelled together, wrote a little, picked
flowers, sang, and listened to stories of the world beyond the
hill. At times the school would dwindle away, and I would start
out. I would visit Mun Eddings, who lived in two very dirty
rooms, and ask why little Lugene, whose flaming face seemed ever
ablaze with the dark red hair uncombed, was absent all last week,
or why I missed so often the inimitable rags of Mack and Ed. Then
the father, who worked Colonel Wheeler's farm on shares, would
tell me how the crops needed the boys; and the thin, slovenly
mother, whose face was pretty when washed, assured me that Lugene
must mind the baby. "But we'll start them again next week." When
the Lawrences stopped, I knew that the doubts of the old folks
about book-learning had conquered again, and so, toiling up the
hill, and getting as far into the cabin as possible, I put Cicero
pro Archia Poeta into the simplest English with local
applications, and usually convinced them--for a week or so.

On Friday nights I often went home with some of the children;
sometimes to Doc Burke's farm. He was a great, loud, thin Black,
ever working, and trying to buy the seventy-five acres of hill and
dale where he lived; but people said that he would surely fail,
and the "white folks would get it all." His wife was a
magnificent Amazon, with saffron face and shining hair, uncorseted
and barefooted, and the children were strong and beautiful. They
lived in a one-and-a-half-room cabin in the hollow of the farm,
near the spring. The front room was full of great fat white beds,
scrupulously neat; and there were bad chromos on the walls, and a
tired centre-table. In the tiny back kitchen I was often invited
to "take out and help" myself to fried chicken and wheat biscuit,
"meat" and corn pone, string beans and berries. At first I used
to be a little alarmed at the approach of bed-time in the one lone
bedroom, but embarrassment was very deftly avoided. First, all
the children nodded and slept, and were stowed away in one great
pile of goose feathers; next, the mother and the father discreetly
slipped away to the kitchen while I went to bed; then, blowing out
the dim light, they retired in the dark. In the morning all were
up and away before I thought of awaking. Across the road, where
fat Reuben lived, they all went outdoors while the teacher
retired, because they did not boast the luxury of a kitchen.

I liked to stay with the Dowells, for they had four rooms and
plenty of good country fare. Uncle Bird had a small, rough farm,
all woods and hills, miles from the big road; but he was full of
tales,--he preached now and then,--and with his children, berries,
horses, and wheat he was happy and prosperous. Often, to keep the
peace, I must go where life was less lovely; for instance,
'Tildy's mother was incorrigibly dirty, Reuben's larder was
limited seriously, and herds of untamed bedbugs wandered over the
Eddingses' beds. Best of all I loved to go to Josie's, and sit on
the porch, eating peaches, while the mother bustled and talked:
how Josie had bought the sewing-machine; how Josie worked at
service in winter, but that four dollars a month was "mighty
little" wages; how Josie longed to go away to school, but that it
"looked like" they never could get far enough ahead to let her;
how the crops failed and the well was yet unfinished; and,
finally, how "mean" some of the white folks were.

For two summers I lived in this little world; it was dull and
humdrum. The girls looked at the hill in wistful longing, and the
boys fretted, and haunted Alexandria. Alexandria was "town,"--a
straggling, lazy village of houses, churches, and shops, and an
aristocracy of Toms, Dicks, and Captains. Cuddled on the hill to
the north was the village of the colored folks, who lived in three
or four room unpainted cottages, some neat and homelike, and some
dirty. The dwellings were scattered rather aimlessly, but they
centred about the twin temples of the hamlet, the Methodist and
the Hard-Shell Baptist churches. These, in turn, leaned gingerly
on a sad-colored schoolhouse. Hither my little world wended its
crooked way on Sunday to meet other worlds, and gossip, and
wonder, and make the weekly sacrifice with frenzied priest at the
altar of the "old-time religion." Then the soft melody and mighty
cadences of Negro song fluttered and thundered.

I have called my tiny community a world, and so its isolation made
it; and yet there was among us but a half-awakened common
consciousness, sprung from common joy and grief, at burial, birth,
or wedding; from a common hardship in poverty, poor land, and low
wages; and, above all, from the sight of the Veil that hung
between us and Opportunity. All this caused us to think some
thoughts together; but these, when ripe for speech, were spoken in
various languages. Those whose eyes thirty and more years before
had seen "the glory of the coming of the Lord" saw in every
present hindrance or help a dark fatalism bound to bring all
things right in His own good time. The mass of those to whom
slavery was a dim recollection of childhood found the world a
puzzling thing: it asked little of them, and they answered with
little, and yet it ridiculed their offering. Such a paradox they
could not understand, and therefore sank into listless
indifference, or shiftlessness, or reckless bravado. There were,
however, some such as Josie, Jim, and Ben,--they to whom War,
Hell, and Slavery were but childhood tales, whose young appetites
had been whetted to an edge by school and story and half-awakened
thought. Ill could they be content, born without and beyond the
World. And their weak wings beat against their barriers,--
barriers of caste, of youth, of life; at last, in dangerous
moments, against everything that opposed even a whim.


The ten years that follow youth, the years when first the
realization comes that life is leading somewhere,--these were the
years that passed after I left my little school. When they were
past, I came by chance once more to the walls of Fisk University,
to the halls of the chapel of melody. As I lingered there in the
joy and pain of meeting old school friends, there swept over me a
sudden longing to pass again beyond the blue hill, and to see the
homes and the school of other days, and to learn how life had gone
with my school-children; and I went.

Josie was dead, and the gray-haired mother said simply, "We've had
a heap of trouble since you've been away." I had feared for Jim.
With a cultured parentage and a social caste to uphold him, he
might have made a venturesome merchant or a West Point cadet. But
here he was, angry with life and reckless; and when Farmer Durham
charged him with stealing wheat, the old man had to ride fast to
escape the stones which the furious fool hurled after him. They
told Jim to run away; but he would not run, and the constable came
that afternoon. It grieved Josie, and great awkward John walked
nine miles every day to see his little brother through the bars of
Lebanon jail. At last the two came back together in the dark
night. The mother cooked supper, and Josie emptied her purse, and
the boys stole away. Josie grew thin and silent, yet worked the
more. The hill became steep for the quiet old father, and with
the boys away there was little to do in the valley. Josie helped
them sell the old farm, and they moved nearer town. Brother
Dennis, the carpenter, built a new house with six rooms; Josie
toiled a year in Nashville, and brought back ninety dollars to
furnish the house and change it to a home.

When the spring came, and the birds twittered, and the stream ran
proud and full, little sister Lizzie, bold and thoughtless,
flushed with the passion of youth, bestowed herself on the
tempter, and brought home a nameless child. Josie shivered, and
worked on, with the vision of schooldays all fled, with a face wan
and tired,--worked until, on a summer's day, some one married
another; then Josie crept to her mother like a hurt child, and
slept--and sleeps.

I paused to scent the breeze as I entered the valley. The
Lawrences have gone; father and son forever, and the other son
lazily digs in the earth to live. A new young widow rents out
their cabin to fat Reuben. Reuben is a Baptist preacher now, but
I fear as lazy as ever, though his cabin has three rooms; and
little Ella has grown into a bouncing woman, and is ploughing corn
on the hot hillside. There are babies a plenty, and one half-
witted girl. Across the valley is a house I did not know before,
and there I found, rocking one baby and expecting another, one of
my schoolgirls, a daughter of Uncle Bird Dowell. She looked
somewhat worried with her new duties, but soon bristled into pride
over her neat cabin, and the tale of her thrifty husband, the
horse and cow, and the farm they were planning to buy.

My log schoolhouse was gone. In its place stood Progress, and
Progress, I understand, is necessarily ugly. The crazy foundation
stones still marked the former site of my poor little cabin, and
not far away, on six weary boulders, perched a jaunty board house,
perhaps twenty by thirty feet, with three windows and a door that
locked. Some of the window glass was broken, and part of an old
iron stove lay mournfully under the house. I peeped through the
window half reverently, and found things that were more familiar.
The blackboard had grown by about two feet, and the seats were
still without backs. The county owns the lot now, I hear, and
every year there is a session of school. As I sat by the spring
and looked on the Old and the New I felt glad, very glad, and yet--


After two long drinks I started on. There was the great double
log house on the corner. I remembered the broken, blighted family
that used to live there. The strong, hard face of the mother,
with its wilderness of hair, rose before me. She had driven her
husband away, and while I taught school a strange man lived there,
big and jovial, and people talked. I felt sure that Ben and
'Tildy would come to naught from such a home. But this is an odd
world; for Ben is a busy farmer in Smith County, "doing well,
too," they say, and he had cared for little 'Tildy until last
spring, when a lover married her. A hard life the lad had led,
toiling for meat, and laughed at because he was homely and
crooked. There was Sam Carlon, an impudent old skinflint, who had
definite notions about niggers, and hired Ben a summer and would
not pay him. Then the hungry boy gathered his sacks together, and
in broad daylight went into Carlon's corn; and when the hard-
fisted farmer set upon him, the angry boy flew at him like a
beast. Doc Burke saved a murder and a lynching that day.

The story reminded me again of the Burkes, and an impatience
seized me to know who won in the battle, Doc or the seventy-five
acres. For it is a hard thing to make a farm out of nothing, even
in fifteen years. So I hurried on, thinking of the Burkes. They
used to have a certain magnificent barbarism about them that I
liked. They were never vulgar, never immoral, but rather rough
and primitive, with an unconventionality that spent itself in loud
guffaws, slaps on the back, and naps in the corner. I hurried by
the cottage of the misborn Neill boys. It was empty, and they
were grown into fat, lazy farm hands. I saw the home of the
Hickmans, but Albert, with his stooping shoulders, had passed from
the world. Then I came to the Burkes' gate and peered through;
the inclosure looked rough and untrimmed, and yet there were the
same fences around the old farm save to the left, where lay
twenty-five other acres. And lo! the cabin in the hollow had
climbed the hill and swollen to a half-finished six-room cottage.

The Burkes held a hundred acres, but they were still in debt.
Indeed, the gaunt father who toiled night and day would scarcely
be happy out of debt, being so used to it. Some day he must stop,
for his massive frame is showing decline. The mother wore shoes,
but the lionlike physique of other days was broken. The children
had grown up. Rob, the image of his father, was loud and rough
with laughter. Birdie, my school baby of six, had grown to a
picture of maiden beauty, tall and tawny. "Edgar is gone," said
the mother, with head half bowed,--"gone to work in Nashville; he
and his father couldn't agree."

Little Doc, the boy born since the time of my school, took me
horseback down the creek next morning toward Farmer Dowell's. The
road and the stream were battling for mastery, and the stream had
the better of it. We splashed and waded, and the merry boy,
perched behind me, chattered and laughed. He showed me where
Simon Thompson had bought a bit of ground and a home; but his
daughter Lana, a plump, brown, slow girl, was not there. She had
married a man and a farm twenty miles away. We wound on down the
stream till we came to a gate that I did not recognize, but the
boy insisted that it was "Uncle Bird's." The farm was fat with
the growing crop. In that little valley was a strange stillness
as I rode up; for death and marriage had stolen youth, and left
age and childhood there. We sat and talked that night, after the
chores were done. Uncle Bird was grayer, and his eyes did not see
so well, but he was still jovial. We talked of the acres bought,--
one hundred and twenty-five,--of the new guest chamber added, of
Martha's marrying. Then we talked of death: Fanny and Fred were
gone; a shadow hung over the other daughter, and when it lifted
she was to go to Nashville to school. At last we spoke of the
neighbors, and as night fell Uncle Bird told me how, on a night
like that, 'Thenie came wandering back to her home over yonder, to
escape the blows of her husband. And next morning she died in the
home that her little bow-legged brother, working and saving, had
bought for their widowed mother.

My journey was done, and behind me lay hill and dale, and Life and
Death. How shall man measure Progress there where the dark-faced
Josie lies? How many heartfuls of sorrow shall balance a bushel
of wheat? How hard a thing is life to the lowly, and yet how
human and real! And all this life and love and strife and
failure,--is it the twilight of nightfall or the flush of some
faint-dawning day?

Thus sadly musing, I rode to Nashville in the Jim Crow car.





Next: THE CAPTURE OF A SLAVER

Previous: HOT-FOOT HANNIBAL



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK