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A Plea For Industrial Opportunity


FANNY MIRIAM JACKSON COPPIN, the first Negro woman in America to
graduate from college--Oberlin, 1865. From 1837 to 1902, teacher and
principal of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia.

[Note 30: Delivered at a fair in Philadelphia, held in the interest
of the Christian Recorder.]

The great lesson to be taught by this Fair is the value of co-operative
effort to make our cents dollars, and to show us what help there is for
ourselves in ourselves. That the colored people of this country have
enough money to materially alter their financial condition, was clearly
demonstrated by the millions of dollars deposited in the Freedmen's
Bank; that they have the good sense, and the unanimity to use this
power, are now proved by this industrial exhibition and fair.

It strikes me that much of the recent talk about the exodus has
proceeded upon the high-handed assumption that, owing largely to the
credit system of the South, the colored people there are forced to the
alternative, to "curse God, and die," or else "go West." Not a bit of
it. The people of the South, it is true, cannot at this time produce
hundreds of dollars, but they have millions of pennies; and millions of
pennies make tens of thousands of dollars. By clubbing together and
lumping their pennies, a fund might be raised in the cities of the
South that the poorer classes might fall back upon while their crops are
growing; or else, by the opening of co-operative stores, become their
own creditors and so effectually rid themselves of their merciless
extortioners. "Oh, they won't do anything; you can't get them united on
anything!" is frequently expressed. The best way for a man to prove that
he can do a thing is to do it, and that is what we have shown we can do.
This Fair, participated in by twenty four States in the Union, and
gotten up for a purpose which is of no pecuniary benefit to those
concerned in it, effectually silences all slanders about "we won't or we
can't do," and teaches its own instructive and greatly needed lessons of
self-help,--the best help that any man can have, next to God's.

Those in charge, who have completed the arrangement of the Fair, have
studiously avoided preceding it with noisy and demonstrative babblings,
which are so often the vapid precursors of promises as empty as those
who make them; therefore, in some quarters, our Fair has been
overlooked. It is not, we think, a presumptuous interpretation of this
great movement, to say, that the voice of God now seems to utter "Speak
to the people that they go forward." "Go forward" in what respect? Teach
the millions of poor colored laborers of the South how much power they
have in themselves, by co-operation of effort, and by a combination of
their small means, to change the despairing poverty which now drives
them from their homes, and makes them a millstone around the neck of any
community, South or West. Secondly, that we shall go forward in asking
to enter the same employments which other people enter. Within the past
ten years we have made almost no advance in getting our youth into
industrial and business occupations. It is just as hard for instance, to
get a boy into a printing-office now as it was ten years ago. It is
simply astonishing when we consider how many of the common vocations of
life colored people are shut out of. Colored men are not admitted to the
printers' trade-union, nor, with very rare exceptions are they employed
in any city of the United States in a paid capacity as printers or
writers; one of the rare exceptions being the employment of H. Price
Williams, on the Sunday Press of this city. We are not employed as
salesmen or pharmacists, or saleswomen, or bank clerks, or merchants'
clerks, or tradesmen, or mechanics, or telegraph operators, or to any
degree as State or government officials, and I could keep on with the
string of "ors" until to-morrow morning, but the patience of an audience
has its limit.

Slavery made us poor, and its gloomy, malicious shadow tends to keep us
so. I beg to say, kind hearers, that this is not spoken in a spirit of
recrimination. We have no quarrel with our fate, and we leave your
Christianity to yourselves. Our faith is firmly fixed in that "Eternal
Providence," that in its own good time will "justify the ways of God to
man." But, believing that to get the right men into the right places is
a "consummation most devoutly to be wished," it is a matter of serious
concern to us to see our youth with just as decided diversity of talent
as any other people, herded together into but three or four occupations.

It is cruel to make a teacher or a preacher of a man who ought to be a
printer or a blacksmith, and that is exactly the condition we are now
obliged to submit to. The greatest advance that has been made since the
War has been effected by political parties, and it is precisely the
political positions that we think it least desirable our youth should
fill. We have our choice of the professions, it is true, but, as we have
not been endowed with an overwhelming abundance of brains, it is not
probable that we can contribute to the bar a great lawyer except once in
a great while. The same may be said of medicine; nor are we able to tide
over the "starving time," between the reception of a diploma and the
time that a man's profession becomes a paying one.

Being determined to know whether this industrial and business ostracism
lay in ourselves or "in our stars," we have from time to time, knocked,
shaken, and kicked, at these closed doors of employment. A cold,
metallic voice from within replies, "We do not employ colored people."
Ours not to make reply, ours not to question why. Thank heaven, we are
not obliged to do and die; having the preference to do or die, we
naturally prefer to do.

But we cannot help wondering if some ignorant or faithless steward of
God's work and God's money hasn't blundered. It seems necessary that we
should make known to the good men and women who are so solicitous about
our souls, and our minds, that we haven't quite got rid of our bodies
yet, and until we do, we must feed and clothe them; and this attitude of
keeping us out of work forces us back upon charity.

That distinguished thinker, Mr. Henry C. Carey, in his valuable works on
political economy, has shown by the truthful and forceful logic of
history, that the elevation of all peoples to a higher moral and
intellectual plane, and to a fuller investiture of their civil rights,
has always steadily kept pace with the improvement in their physical
condition. Therefore we feel that resolutely and in unmistakable
language, yet in the dignity of moderation, we should strive to make
known to all men the justice of our claims to the same employments as
other's under the same conditions. We do not ask that anyone of our
people shall be put into a position because he is a colored person, but
we do most emphatically ask that he shall not be kept out of a position
because he is a colored person. "An open field and no favors" is all
that is requested. The time was when to put a colored girl or boy behind
a counter would have been to decrease custom; it would have been a tax
upon the employer, and a charity that we were too proud to accept; but
public sentiment has changed. I am satisfied that the employment of a
colored clerk or a colored saleswoman wouldn't even be a "nine days'
wonder." It is easy of accomplishment, and yet it is not. To thoughtless
and headstrong people who meet duty with impertinent dictation I do not
now address myself; but to those who wish the most gracious of all
blessings, a fuller enlightment as to their duty,--to those I beg to
say, think of what is suggested in this appeal.

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