SIGNS OF PROGRESS AMONG THE NEGROES
by: Booker T. Washington
In addition to the problem of educating eight million negroes in
our Southern States and ingrafting them into American citizenship,
we now have the additional responsibility, either directly or
indirectly, of educating and elevating about eight hundred
thousand others of African descent in Cuba and Porto Rico, to say
nothing of the white people of these islands, many of whom are in
a condition about as deplorable as that of the negroes. We have,
however, one advantage in approaching the question of the
education of our new neighbors.
The experience that we have passed through in the Southern States
during the last thirty years in the education of my race, whose
history and needs are not very different from the history and
needs of the Cubans and Porto Ricans, will prove most valuable in
elevating the blacks of the West Indian Islands. To tell what has
already been accomplished in the South under most difficult
circumstances is to tell what may be done in Cuba and Porto Rico.
To this end let me tell a story.
In what is known as the black belt of the South--that is, where
the negroes outnumber the whites--there lived before the Civil War
a white man who owned some two hundred slaves, and was prosperous.
At the close of the war he found his fortune gone, except that
which was represented in land, of which he owned several thousand
acres. Of the two hundred slaves a large proportion decided,
after their freedom, to continue on the plantation of their former
Some years after the war a young black boy, who seemed to have
"rained down," was discovered on the plantation by Mr. S-----, the
owner. In daily rides through the plantation Mr. S----- saw this
boy sitting by the roadside, and his condition awakened his pity,
for, from want of care, he was covered from head to foot with
sores, and Mr. S----- soon grew into the habit of tossing him a
nickel or a dime as he rode by. In some way this boy heard of the
Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama, and of the
advantages which it offered poor but deserving colored men and
women to secure an education through their own labor while taking
the course of study. This boy, whose name was William, made known
to the plantation hands his wish to go to the Tuskegee school. By
each one "chipping in," and through the efforts of the boy
himself, a few decent pieces of clothing were secured, and a
little money, but not enough to pay his railroad fare, so the boy
resolved to walk to Tuskegee, a distance of about one hundred and
fifty miles. Strange to say, he made the long distance with an
expenditure of only twenty cents in cash. He frankly told every
one with whom he came in contact where he was going and what he
was seeking. Both white and colored people along the route gave
him food and a place to sleep free of cost, and even the usually
exacting ferrymen were so impressed with the young negro's desire
for an education that, except in one case, he was given free
ferriage across the creeks and rivers.
One can easily imagine his appearance when he first arrived at
Tuskegee, with his blistered feet and small white bundle, which
contained all the clothing he possessed.
On being shown into my office his first words were: "I's come.
S'pose you been lookin' for me, but I didn't come on de railroad."
Looking up the records, it was found that this young man had been
given permission to come several months ago, but the
correspondence had long since been forgotten.
After being sent to the bath-room and provided with a tooth-
brush,--for the tooth-brush at Tuskegee is the emblem of
civilization,--William was assigned to a room, and was given work
on the school farm of fourteen hundred acres, seven hundred of
which are cultivated by student labor. During his first year at
Tuskegee William worked on the farm during the day, where he soon
learned to take a deep interest in all that the school was doing
to teach the students the best and most improved methods of
farming, and studied for two hours at night in the class-room
after his hard day's work was over. At first he seemed drowsy and
dull in the night-school, and would now and then fall asleep while
trying to study; but he did not grow discouraged. The new
machinery that he was compelled to use on the farm interested him
because it taught him that the farm work could be stripped of much
of the old-time drudgery and toil, and seemed to awaken his
sleeping intellect. Soon he began asking the farm-instructors
such questions as where the Jersey and Holstein cattle came from,
and why they produced more milk and butter than the common long-
tailed and long-horned cows that he had seen at home.
His night-school teachers found that he ceased to sleep in school,
and began asking questions about his lessons, and was soon able to
calculate the number of square yards in an acre and to tell the
number of peach-trees required to plant an acre of land. After he
had been at Tuskegee two or three months the farm-manager came
into my office on a cold, rainy day, and said that William was
virtually barefooted, the soles of his shoes having separated from
the uppers, though William had fastened them together as best he
could with bits of wire. In this condition the farm-instructor
found him plowing without a word of complaint. A pair of second-
hand shoes was secured for him, and he was soon very happy.
I will not take this part of the story further except to say that
at the end of his first year at Tuskegee this young man, having
made a start in his books, and having saved a small sum of money
above the cost of his board, which was credited to his account,
entered the next year our regular day-classes, though still
dividing his time between the class-room and work on the farm.
Toward the end of the year he found himself in need of money with
which to buy books, clothing, etc., and so wrote a carefully
worded letter to Mr. S-----, the white man on whose plantation he
had lived, and who had been, in slavery, the owner of his mother.
In the letter he told Mr. S----- how he got to Tuskegee, what he
was doing, and what his needs were, and asked Mr. S----- to lend
him fifteen dollars. Before receiving this letter Mr. S----- had
not thought once about the boy during his two years' absence; in
fact, did not know that he had left the plantation.
Mr. S----- was a good deal shocked, as well as amused, over such a
request from such a source. The letter went to the wastebasket
without being answered. A few weeks later William sent a second
letter, in which he took it for granted that the first letter had
not been received. The second letter shared the same fate as the
first. A third letter reached Mr. S----- in a few weeks, making
the same request. In answer to the third letter Mr. S----- told
me that, moved by some impulse which he himself never understood,
he sent William the fifteen dollars.
Two or three years passed, and Mr. S----- had about forgotten
William and the fifteen dollars; but one morning while sitting
upon his porch a bright young colored man walked up and introduced
himself as William, the boy to whom he used to toss small pieces
of money, and the one to whom he had sent fifteen dollars.
William paid Mr. S----- the fifteen dollars with interest, which
he had earned while teaching school after leaving Tuskegee.
This simple experience with this young colored man made a new and
different person of Mr. S-----, so far as the negro was concerned.
He began to think. He thought of the long past, but he thought
most of the future, and of his duty toward the hundreds of colored
people on his plantation and in his community. After careful
thought he asked William Edwards to open a school on his
plantation in a vacant log cabin. That was seven years ago. On
this same plantation at Snow Hill, Wilcox county, Alabama, a
county where, according to the last census, there are twenty-four
thousand colored people and about six thousand whites, there is
now a school with two hundred pupils, five teachers from Tuskegee,
and three school buildings. The school has forty acres of land.
In addition to the text-book lessons, the boys are taught farming
and carpentry, and the girls sewing and general house-keeping, and
the school is now in the act of starting a blacksmith and
wheelwright department. This school owes its existence almost
wholly to Mr. S-----, who gave to the trustees the forty acres of
land, and has contributed liberally to the building fund, as well
as to the pay of the teachers. Gifts from a few friends in the
North have been received, and the colored people have given their
labor and small sums in cash. When the people cannot find money
to give, they have often given corn, chickens, and eggs. The
school has grown so popular that almost every leading white man in
the community is willing to make a small gift toward its
In addition to the work done directly in the school for the
children, the teachers in the Snow Hill school have organized a
kind of university extension movement. The farmers are organized
into conferences, which hold meetings each month. In these
meetings they are taught better methods of agriculture, how to buy
land, how to economize and keep out of debt, how to stop
mortgaging, how to build school-houses and dwelling-houses with
more than one room, how to bring about a higher moral and
religious standing, and are warned against buying cheap jewelry,
snuff, and whisky.
No one is a more interested visitor at these meetings than Mr. S-----
himself. The matter does not end in mere talk and advice.
The women teachers go right into the cabins of the people and show
them how to keep them clean, how to dust, sweep, and cook.
When William Edwards left this community a few years ago for the
Tuskegee school, he left the larger proportion in debt, mortgaging
their crops every year for the food on which to live. Most of
them were living on rented land in small one-room log cabins, and
attempting to pay an enormous rate of interest on the value of
their food advances. As one old colored man expressed it, "I
ain't got but six feet of land, and I is got to die to git dat."
The little school taught in a cabin lasted only three or four
months in the year. The religion was largely a matter of the
emotions, with almost no practical ideas of morality. It was the
white man for himself and the negro for himself, each in too many
cases trying to take advantage of the other. The situation was
pretty well described by a black man who said to me: "I tells you
how we votes. We always watches de white man, and we keeps
watchin' de white man. De nearer it gits to 'lection-time de more
we watches de white man. We keeps watchin' de white man till we
find out which way he gwine to vote; den we votes 'zactly de odder
way. Den we knows we is right."
Now how changed is all at Snow Hill, and how it is gradually
changing each year! Instead of the hopelessness and dejection
that were there a few years ago, there are now light and buoyancy
in the countenances and movements of the people. The negroes are
getting out of debt and buying land, ceasing to mortgage their
crops, building houses with two or three rooms, and a higher moral
and religious standard has been established.
Last May, on the day that the school had its closing exercises,
there were present, besides the hundreds of colored-people, about
fifty of the leading white men and women of the county, and these
white people seemed as much interested in the work of the school
as the people of my own race.
Only a few years ago in the State of Alabama the law in reference
to the education of the negro read as follows: "Any person or
persons who shall attempt to teach any free person of color or
slave to spell, read, or write shall, upon conviction thereof by
indictment, be fined in a sum not less than two hundred and fifty
dollars nor more than five hundred dollars."
Within half a dozen years I have heard Dr. J. L. M. Curry, a
brave, honest ex-Confederate officer, in addressing both the
Alabama and Georgia State legislatures, say to those bodies in the
most emphatic manner that it was as much the duty of the State to
educate the negro children as the white children, and in each case
Dr. Curry's words were cheered.
Here at Snow Hill is the foundation for the solution of the legal
and political difficulties that exist in the South, and the
improvement of the industrial condition of the negro in Cuba and
Porto Rico. This solution will not come all at once, but
gradually. The foundation must exist in the commercial and
industrial development of the people of my race in the South and
in the West Indian Islands.
The most intelligent whites are beginning to realize that they
cannot go much higher than they lift the negro at the same time.
When a black man owns and cultivates the best farm to be found in
his county he will have the confidence and respect of most of the
white people in that county. When a black man is the largest
taxpayer in his community his white neighbor will not object very
long to his voting, and having that vote honestly counted. Even
now a black man who has five hundred dollars to lend has no
trouble in finding a white man who is willing to borrow his money.
The negro who is a large stockholder in a railroad company will
always be treated with justice on that railroad.
Many of the most intelligent colored people are learning that
while there are many bad white men in the South, there are
Southern whites who have the highest interests of the negro just
as closely at heart as have any other people in any part of the
country. Many of the negroes are learning that it is folly not to
cultivate in every honorable way the friendship of the white man
who is their next-door neighbor.
To describe the work being done in connection with the public
schools by graduates of Tuskegee and other institutions in the
South, at such places as Mount Meigs, under Miss Cornelia Bowen;
Denmark, South Carolina; Abbeville and Newville, Alabama;
Christiansburg, Virginia, and numbers of other places in the Gulf
States, would be only to repeat in a larger or smaller degree what
I have said of Snow Hill.
Not very long after the last national election I visited a town in
the South, to speak at a meeting which had for its object the
raising of money to complete the school-house. The audience was
about equally divided between white men and women and black men
and women. When the time for the collection came it was intensely
satisfactory to observe that the white side of the audience was
just as eager to make its small contributions as were the members
of my own race. But I was anxious to see how the late election
had been conducted in that community. I soon found out that the
Republican party, composed almost wholly of the black people, was
represented by an election officer in the person of one of the
best-educated colored men in the town, that both the Democratic
and Populist parties were equally well represented, and that there
was no suspicion of unfairness.
But I wished to go a little deeper, and I soon found that one of
the leading stores in this community was owned by a colored man;
that a cotton-gin was owned by a colored man; that the sawmill was
owned by another colored man. Colored men had mortgages on white
men's crops, and vice versa, and colored people not only owned
land, but in several cases were renting land to white men. Black
men were in debt to white men, and white men were in debt to black
men. In a word, the industrial and commercial relations of the
races were interwoven just as if all had been of one race.
An object-lesson in civilization is more potent in compelling
people to act right than a law compelling them to do so. Some
years ago a colored woman who had graduated at Tuskegee began her
life-work in a Southern community where the force of white public
sentiment was opposed to the starting of what was termed a "nigger
school." At first this girl was tempted to abuse her white
sister, but she remembered that perhaps the white woman had been
taught from her earliest childhood, through reading and
conversation, that education was not good for the negro, that it
would result only in trouble to the community, and that no amount
of abuse could change this prejudice.
After a while this colored teacher was married to an educated
colored man, and they built a little cottage, which, in connection
with her husband's farm, was a model. One morning one of the
white women who had been most intense in her feelings was passing
this cottage, and her attention was attracted to the colored woman
who was at work in her beautiful flower-garden. A conversation
took place concerning the flowers. At another time this same
white woman was so attracted by this flower-garden that she came
inside the yard, and from the yard she went into the sitting-room
and examined the books and papers.
This acquaintance has now ripened and broadened, so that to-day
there are few people in that community more highly respected than
this colored family. What did it all? This object-lesson. No
one could explain that away. One such object-lesson in every
community in the South is more powerful than all the laws Congress
can pass in the direction of bringing about right relations
between blacks and whites.
A few months ago an agricultural county fair, the first ever held
in that county, was organized and held at Calhoun, Alabama, by the
teachers in the Calhoun School, which is an offshoot of the
Hampton Institute. Both the colored people and numbers of white
visitors were astonished at the creditable exhibits made by the
colored people. Most of these white people saw the school work at
Calhoun for the first time. Perhaps no amount of abstract talk or
advice could have brought them to this school, but the best hog,
the largest pumpkin, or the most valuable bale of cotton possessed
a common interest, and it has been a comparatively easy thing to
extend their interest from the best hog to the work being done in
the school-room. Further, this fair convinced these white people,
as almost nothing else could have done, that education was making
the negroes better citizens rather than worse; that the people
were not being educated away from themselves, but with their
elevation the conditions about them were being lifted in a manner
that possessed an interest and value for both races.
It was after speaking, not long ago, to the colored people at such
a county fair in North Carolina that I was asked the next morning
to speak to the white students at their college, who gave me as
hearty a greeting as I have ever received at Northern colleges.
But such forces as I have described--forces that are gradually
regenerating the entire South and will regenerate Cuba and Porto
Rico--are not started and kept in motion without a central plant--
a power-house, where the power is generated. I cannot describe
all these places of power. Perhaps the whole South and the whole
country are most indebted to the Hampton Institute in Virginia.
Then there is Fisk University at Nashville, Tennessee; Talladega
College at Talladega, Alabama; Spelman Seminary, Atlanta
University, and Atlanta Baptist College at Atlanta; Biddle
University in North Carolina; Claflin University at Orangeburg,
South Carolina; and Knoxville College at Knoxville, Tennessee.
Some of these do a different grade of work, but one much needed.
At Tuskegee, Alabama, starting fifteen years ago in a little
shanty with one teacher and thirty students, with no property,
there has grown up an industrial and educational village where the
ideas that I have referred to are put into the heads, hearts, and
hands of an army of colored men and women, with the purpose of
having them become centers of light and civilization in every part
of the South. One visiting the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial
Institute to-day will find eight hundred and fifty students
gathered from twenty-four States, with eighty-eight teachers and
officers training these students in literary, religious, and
Counting the students and the families of the instructors, the
visitor will find a black village of about twelve hundred people.
Instead of the old, worn-out plantation that was there fifteen
years ago, there is a modern farm of seven hundred acres
cultivated by student labor. There are Jersey and Holstein cows
and Berkshire pigs, and the butter used is made by the most modern
Aside from the dozens of neat, comfortable cottages owned by
individual teachers and other persons, who have settled in this
village for the purpose of educating their children, he will find
thirty-six buildings of various kinds and sizes, owned and built
by the school, property valued at three hundred thousand dollars.
Perhaps the most interesting thing in connection with these
buildings is that, with the exception of three, they have been
built by student labor. The friends of the school have furnished
money to pay the teachers and for material.
When a building is to be erected, the teacher in charge of the
mechanical and architectural drawing department gives to the class
in drawing a general description of the building desired, and then
there is a competition to see whose plan will be accepted. These
same students in most cases help do the practical work of putting
up the building--some at the sawmill, the brick-yard, or in the
carpentry, brickmaking, plastering, painting, and tinsmithing
departments. At the same time care is taken to see not only that
the building goes up properly, but that the students, who are
under intelligent instructors in their special branch, are taught
at the same time the principles as well as the practical part of
The school has the building in the end, and the students have the
knowledge of the trade. This same principle applies, whether in
the laundry, where the washing for seven or eight hundred people
is done, or in the sewing-room, where a large part of the clothing
for this colony is made and repaired, or in the wheelwright and
blacksmith departments, where all the wagons and buggies used by
the school, besides a large number for the outside public, are
manufactured, or in the printing-office, where a large part of the
printing for the white and colored people in this region is done.
Twenty-six different industries are here in constant operation.
When the student is through with his course of training he goes
out feeling that it is just as honorable to labor with the hand as
with the head, and instead of his having to look for a place, the
place usually seeks him, because he has to give that which the
South wants. One other thing should not be overlooked in our
efforts to develop the black man. As bad as slavery was, almost
every large plantation in the South during that time was, in a
measure, an industrial school. It had its farming department, its
blacksmith, wheelwright, brickmaking, carpentry, and sewing
departments. Thus at the close of the war our people were in
possession of all the common and skilled labor in the South. For
nearly twenty years after the war we overlooked the value of the
ante-bellum training, and no one was trained to replace these
skilled men and women who were soon to pass away; and now, as
skilled laborers from foreign countries, with not only educated
hands but trained brains, begin to come into the South and take
these positions once held by us, we are gradually waking up to the
fact that we must compete with the white man in the industrial
world if we would hold our own. No one understands his value in
the labor world better than the old colored man. Recently, when a
convention was held in the South by the white people for the
purpose of inducing white settlers from the North and West to
settle in the South, one of these colored men said to the
president of the convention: "'Fore de Lord, boss, we's got as
many white people down here now as we niggers can support."
The negro in the South has another advantage. While there is
prejudice against him along certain lines,--in the matter of
business in general, and the trades especially,--there is
virtually no prejudice so far as the native Southern white man is
concerned. White men and black men work at the same carpenter's
bench and on the same brick wall. Sometimes the white man is the
"boss," sometimes the black man is the boss.
Some one chaffed a colored man recently because, when he got
through with a contract for building a house, he cleared just ten
cents; but he said: "All right, boss; it was worth ten cents to be
de boss of dem white men." If a Southern white man has a contract
to let for the building of a house, he prefers the black
contractor, because he has been used to doing business of this
character with a negro rather than with a white man.
The negro will find his way up as a man just in proportion as he
makes himself valuable, possesses something that a white man
wants, can do something as well as, or better than, a white man.
I would not have my readers get the thought that the problem in
the South is settled, that there is nothing else to be done; far
from this. Long years of patient, hard work will be required for
the betterment of the condition of the negro in the South, as well
as for the betterment of the condition of the negro in the West
There are bright spots here and there that point the way. Perhaps
the most that we have accomplished in the last thirty years is to
show the North and the South how the fourteen slaves landed a few
hundred years ago at Jamestown, Virginia,--now nearly eight
millions of freemen in the South alone,--are to be made a safe and
useful part of our democratic and Christian institutions.
The main thing that is now needed to bring about a solution of the
difficulties in the South is money in large sums, to be used
largely for Christian, technical, and industrial education.
For more than thirty years we have been trying to solve one of the
most serious problems in the history of the world largely by
passing around a hat in the North. Out of their poverty the
Southern States have done well in assisting; many more millions
are needed, and these millions will have to come before the
question as to the negro in the South is settled.
There never was a greater opportunity for men of wealth to place a
few million dollars where they could be used in lifting up and
regenerating a whole race; and let it always be borne in mind that
every dollar given for the proper education of the negro in the
South is almost as much help to the Southern white man as to the
negro himself. So long as the whites in the South are surrounded
by a race that is, in a large measure, in ignorance and poverty,
so long will this ignorance and poverty of the negro in a score of
ways prevent the highest development of the white man.
The problem of lifting up the negro in Cuba and Porto Rico is an
easier one in one respect, even if it proves more difficult in
others. It will be less difficult, because there is the absence
of that higher degree of race feeling which exists in many parts
of the United States. Both the white Cuban and the white Spaniard
have treated the people of African descent, in civil, political,
military, and business matters, very much as they have treated
others of their own race. Oppression has not cowed and unmanned
the Cuban negro in certain respects as it has the American negro.
In only a few instances is the color-line drawn. How Americans
will treat the negro Cuban, and what will be the tendency of
American influences in the matter of the relation of the races,
remains an interesting and open question. Certainly it will place
this country in an awkward position to have gone to war to free a
people from Spanish cruelty, and then as soon as it gets them
within its power to treat a large proportion of the population
worse than did even Spain herself, simply on account of color.
While in the matter of the relation of the races the problem
before us in the West Indies is easier, in respect to the
industrial, moral, and religious sides it is more difficult. The
negroes on these islands are largely an agricultural people, and
for this reason, in addition to a higher degree of mental and
religious training, they need the same agricultural, mechanical,
and domestic training that is fast helping the negroes in our
Southern States. Industrial training will not only help them to
the ownership of property, habits of thrift and economy, but the
acquiring of these elements of strength will go further than
anything else in improving the moral and religious condition of
the masses, just as has been and is true of my people in the
With the idea of getting the methods of industrial education
pursued at Hampton and Tuskegee permanently and rightly started in
Cuba and Porto Rico, a few of the most promising men and women
from these islands have been brought to the Tuskegee Normal and
Industrial Institute, and educated with the view of having them
return and take the lead in affording industrial training on these
islands, where the training can best be given to the masses.
The emphasis that I have placed upon an industrial education does
not mean that the negro is to be excluded from the higher
interests of life, but it does mean that in proportion as the
negro gets the foundation,--the useful before the ornamental,--in
the same proportion will he accelerate his progress in acquiring
those elements which do not pertain so directly to the
Phillips Brooks once said, "One generation gathers the material,
and the next builds the palaces." Very largely this must be the
material-gathering generation of black people, but in due time the
palaces will come if we are patient.
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