A NEGRO SCHOOLMASTER IN THE NEW SOUTH





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.





THE WIFE OF HIS YOUTH AN APPEAL TO CONGRESS FOR IMPARTIAL SUFFRAGE facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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