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The Limitless Possibilities Of The Negro Race


[Note 24: An address delivered before the Tennessee Centennial
Exposition, Nashville, Tenn., June 5, 1897.]

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I sometimes feel that we, as a race, do not fully appreciate the
importance of industrial education. I feel that the day is near at hand
when the physical apparatus of civil education will play a larger part
in the progress of the world than it has hitherto done. In other words,
I firmly believe that the industrial victories are in the future and not
in the past. We have done much and wrought many miracles, but the
miracles are but evidences of possible powers rather than the high-tide
marks of development. In my mind the possibilities of physical and
scientific achievement are limitless, and beyond the compass of human
conception. Look at iron alone. See what has been done with it in the
last fifty years. See what you are able to do with it here in Tennessee.
From it are made things dainty and things dangerous, carriages and
cannon, spatula and spade, sword and pen, wheel, axle and rail, as well
as screw, file, and saw. It is bound around the hull of ships and lifted
into tower and steeple. It is drawn into wire, coiled into springs,
woven into gauze, twisted into rope, and sharpened into needles. It is
stretched into a web, finer by comparison than the gossamer of the
morning along the bed of the ocean, and made to tick out the yesterday
of Europe on the to-day of America. All of this variety of use has been
made out of the stubbornness of metals by the sovereign touch of
industrial and scientific education. There is inexhaustible promise in
this development. It has brought, and is still bringing, the two great
races closer together. These iron veins and arteries which interlock our
cities and confederate our States do much to familiarize each race with
the hopes and aspirations of the other, and to weave their histories
into one harmonious contexture, as telegraphic messages fly
instantaneously across them, and screaming trains rush back and forth
like shuttles upon a mighty loom. When our fullest expectations shall
have been fulfilled, both races will have the freest opportunity for the
development of their varied capabilities, and, through mutual bonds of
interest and affection and mutual bonds of sympathy and purpose, will
rise the unmatched harmonies of a united people to the imperial
accompaniment of two mighty oceans.

It is a peculiar fact that immediately after the abolition of human
slavery the country started upon an unparalleled career of prosperity.
The West, then almost unexplored, began to develop, and has continued to
do so until now it is studded with proud cities, teeming with throbbing
life, growing like the grass of the prairies in spring-time, advancing
like the steam-engine, baffling distance like the telegraph, and
spreading the pulsations of their mighty hearts to the uttermost parts
of the world. There they stand with their echoing marts of trade, their
stately spires of worship and their magnificent institutions of
learning, as free as the encircling air, as independent as the soaring
eagle, and more powerful than the Roman Empire when in the plenitude of
her power. All of this has been accomplished since the energies of men
were unfettered. Thus it may be said that both races started almost
simultaneously on their careers to fulfill the destiny of this great
country among the countries of the world. And as we started together
substantially, we must end together. We started with most unequal
equipment, to be sure, and under conditions as far apart as the sky from
this pavilion, but we have marched to the same music and in the same
direction ever since, with varying fortunes and unequal steps, but with
no steps backward, until to-day we are able to recognize in each other
and be recognized by all mankind as equals in our attachment to the
land, the laws, the institutions, and the flag of our common country.

The responsibility now rests upon you to improve each minute of your
lives in fitting yourselves for a wiser, better and worthier discharge
of the obligations of American citizenship. You may be constrained to
ask, "What shall we do?" or, with Archimedes of old, exclaim "Give me
where to stand and I will move the world." Let me advise you to stand
where you are. That's the place. Act well your part, and you shall have
accomplished all that is expected of you. My friends, a country like
ours is not governed by law, or courts of justice, or judges, however
wise or puissant. It is governed by public sentiment. Once poison it,
and courts are impotent and judges powerless. Therefore we are
responsible, each and all of us, according to our talents and influence,
for the public sentiment of the day. If it is healthy and just, it is we
who have made it so; if it is unhealthy and unjust, it is we who have
made it or permitted it to become so. And what is this all-powerful, but
imperceptible, entity, this potent influence which controls presidents,
cabinets, congresses, courts, judges, juries, the press and--I regret to
say it--the pulpit? What is public sentiment or public opinion? It is
the multiplied, accumulated opinion of all the people. Every word spoken
or written by man or woman goes to make up this great stream of public
opinion, just as every drop of dew or water goes to make up that mighty
river which divides this imperial continent and turns the spindles of
the ten thousand factories which hug its shores. Hence we are all
responsible for our contribution to the public opinion of the day,
whether our contribution be a raindrop or a Niagara. We are responsible
for what we say and what we leave unsaid, for what we do and what we
leave undone, for what we write and what is unwritten. We are
responsible for the errors we have committed and for those we have taken
no part in overthrowing. So, whether we realize it or not, we are
consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally, directly
or indirectly, according to our opportunities and our influence,
responsible for the public sentiment which secures or deprives every
citizen of his rights and of the opportunity for the highest
intellectual and industrial development.

I know that it is sometimes said that we have done very little. Be that
as it may. Thirty years is but a brief time compared with the centuries
in which Norman, Saxon, and Dane have been fusing into the English race.
And yet, we have something to remember when great names are counted,
something to show when great deeds are told. At the same time I would
not have you sit supinely down and wait for the millennium. Far from it.
It is said that all things come to him who waits. That is in part true,
but it is only fifty per cent. of the whole truth. All things come to
him who waits, if he hustles while he waits.

You will need not only education and character, but you also need
level-headedness and accuracy of judgment. Acquire intellectuality, but
acquire practicality at the same time. Do not join that large and
constantly increasing class in this country to whom nothing is desirable
but the impossible. Do not indulge in the pastime of throwing stones at
the stars. Learn to be practical, and, whatever you attempt in life,
remember to think out a plan and a policy before you begin the work.
When you are called upon to go out and do battle, stop and reflect, and
see if there is a reasonable probability of your whipping anybody. If
the probability is not apparent, I would advise you to decline the glove
and reserve your lance for a more "convenient season." Martyrdom is very
attractive, especially attractive to vigorous young men, but it "butters
no parsnips." Therefore, cultivate prudence as well as valor, and study
men as well as books; for you will needs be prepared to meet the living
issues of the present; and if you are wise, you will anticipate the
possible exigencies of the future. To do this you will want both courage
and discretion. Learn the proper value of organization and union, and
never cease to remember that an army divided is an army defeated. You
will neither be able to help yourself nor hurt the enemy by firing paper
bullets. You must organize.

To make steam effective you must bind it up in an engine; to make water
serviceable, you must harness it in a mill; to make electricity
manageable, you must mask it in a battery; and to make men useful in
reformatory or remedial work, you must recruit them into an

And to those present who have not enjoyed the advantages of an
education, let me direct a few remarks. You must not believe that you
cannot assist in the work of building character for the race. Every man
or woman who plays his or her part according to the best lights, who
bears a respected name, or bears the proud title of a "good citizen,"
who is industrious, temperate, upright, law-abiding, and devoted to
whatever is lovely and of good report, is unconsciously pleading the
cause of the race before the great tribunal of the civilized world.

To all such we can only render the tribute which history accords to
those who fight as privates in the battles of human progress, with all
the more devotion and fidelity because their names will never be known.
Whenever a man earns the respect of the community in which he resides,
some part of that respect, some breath of that fragrance is reflected
upon the race of which he is a member.

As a race, we have done much, but we must not forget how much more there
is still to do. We have already demonstrated the possession of powers,
but we must now bring forth the fruits of sustained racial achievement.
To some extent we have been given opportunity, but we must not cease to
remember that no race can be given relative rank--it must win equality
of rating for itself. Hence, we must not only acquire education, but
character as well. It is not only necessary that we should speak well,
but it is more necessary that we should speak the truth. We must not
only acquire that culture which is the golden key that unlocks all doors
and unbars all gates, but we must cultivate that straightforwardness of
purpose and unconquerable determination which enables a people to face
conditions "without fear and without reproach."

And so the last suggestion comes which the hour presents. In the work of
race advancement, we need the service and assistance of all true men and
women. We must have the co-operation of all sections and all conditions.
The cotton-fields of Alabama, the sugar-plantations of Louisiana, and
the coal-mines of Tennessee; the great lakes of the North which winter
roofs with ice, and from which drips refreshing coolness through the hot
summer months, from the fisheries and the factories, from wheat-fields
and pine forests, from meadows billowed with golden grain and orchards
bending beneath their burdens of golden fruit, this advance movement
must receive support. The humble laborer following his plow afield must
do his part; the blacksmith at his forge, the lawyer at the bar, the
fisherman on the banks, the man of science putting nature to the
question, all, without distinction and without exception, must
contribute, according to his station and his opportunity, to the
hastening of the day when the Negro shall take his place by the side of
the other great race of men and form that grand spectacle which Tennyson
had in mind when he spoke of "the parliament of man, the federation of
the world."

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