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The Training Of Negroes For Social Reform


Editor and Founder "The Crisis"

[Note 53: From the New York Outlook.]

The responsibility for their own social regeneration ought to be placed
largely upon the shoulders of the Negro people. But such responsibility
must carry with it a grant of power; responsibility without power is a
mockery and a farce. If, therefore, the American people are sincerely
anxious that the Negro shall put forth his best efforts to help himself,
they must see to it that he is not deprived of the freedom and power to
strive. The responsibility for dispelling their own ignorance implies
that the power to overcome ignorance is to be placed in black men's
hands; the lessening of poverty calls for the power of effective work;
and the responsibility for lessening crime calls for control over social
forces which produce crime.

Such social power means, assuredly, the growth of initiative among
Negroes, the spread of independent thought, the expanding consciousness
of manhood; and these things to-day are looked upon by many with
apprehension and distrust. Men openly declare their design to train
these millions as a subject caste, as men to be thought for, but not to
think; to be led, but not to lead themselves.

Those who advocate these things forget that such a solution flings them
squarely on the other horn of the dilemma: such a subject child-race
could never be held accountable for its own misdeeds and shortcomings;
its ignorance would be part of the nation's design, its poverty would
arise partly from the direct oppression of the strong and partly from
thriftlessness which such oppression breeds; and, above all, its crime
would be the legitimate child of that lack of self-respect which caste
systems engender. Such a solution of the Negro problem is not one which
the saner sense of the nation for a moment contemplates; it is utterly
foreign to American institutions, and is unthinkable as a future for any
self-respecting race of men. The sound afterthought of the American
people must come to realize that the responsibility for dispelling
ignorance and poverty, and uprooting crime among Negroes cannot be put
upon their own shoulders unless they are given such independent
leadership in intelligence, skill, and morality as will inevitably lead
to an independent manhood which cannot and will not rest in bonds.

Let me illustrate my meaning particularly in the matter of educating
Negro youth.

The Negro problem, it has often been said, is largely a problem of
ignorance--not simply of illiteracy, but a deeper ignorance of the world
and its ways, of the thought and experience of men; an ignorance of self
and the possibilities of human souls. This can be gotten rid of only by
training; and primarily such training must take the form of that sort of
social leadership which we call education. To apply such leadership to
themselves and to profit by it, means that Negroes would have among
themselves men of careful training and broad culture, as teachers and
teachers of teachers. There are always periods of educational evolution
when it is deemed quite proper for pupils in the fourth reader to teach
those in the third. But such a method, wasteful and ineffective at all
times, is peculiarly dangerous when ignorance is widespread and when
there are few homes and public institutions to supplement the work of
the school. It is, therefore, of crying necessity among Negroes that the
heads of their educational system--the teachers in the normal schools,
the heads of high schools, the principals of public systems, should be
unusually well trained men; men trained not simply in common-school
branches, not simply in the technique of school management and normal
methods, but trained beyond this, broadly and carefully, into the
meaning of the age whose civilization it is their peculiar duty to
interpret to the youth of a new race, to the minds of untrained people.
Such educational leaders should be prepared by long and rigorous courses
of study similar to those which the world over have been designed to
strengthen the intellectual powers, fortify character, and facilitate
the transmission from age to age of the stores of the world's knowledge.

Not all men--indeed, not the majority of men, only the exceptional few
among American Negroes or among any other people--are adapted to this
higher training, as, indeed, only the exceptional few are adapted to
higher training in any line; but the significance of such men is not to
be measured by their numbers, but rather by the numbers of their pupils
and followers who are destined to see the world through their eyes, hear
it through their trained ears, and speak to it through the music of
their words.

Such men, teachers of teachers and leaders of the untaught, Atlanta
University and similar colleges seek to train. We seek to do our work
thoroughly and carefully. We have no predilections or prejudices as to
particular studies or methods, but we do cling to those time-honored
sorts of discipline which the experience of the world has long since
proven to be of especial value. We sift as carefully as possible the
student material which offers itself, and we try by every conscientious
method to give to students who have character and ability such years of
discipline as shall make them stronger, keener, and better for their
peculiar mission. The history of civilization seems to prove that no
group or nation which seeks advancement and true development can despise
or neglect the power of well-trained minds; and this power of
intellectual leadership must be given to the talented tenth among
American Negroes before this race can seriously be asked to assume the
responsibility of dispelling its own ignorance. Upon the
foundation-stone of a few well-equipped Negro colleges of high and
honest standards can be built a proper system of free common schools in
the South for the masses of the Negro people; any attempt to found a
system of public schools on anything less than this--on narrow ideals,
limited or merely technical training--is to call blind leaders for the

The very first step toward the settlement of the Negro problem is the
spread of intelligence. The first step toward wider intelligence is a

free public-school system; and the first and most important step toward
a public-school system is the equipment and adequate support of a
sufficient number of Negro colleges. These are first steps, and they
involve great movements: first, the best of the existent colleges must
not be abandoned to slow atrophy and death, as the tendency is to-day;
secondly, systematic attempt must be made to organize secondary
education. Below the colleges and connected with them must come the
normal and high schools, judiciously distributed and carefully manned.
In no essential particular should this system of common and secondary
schools differ from educational systems the world over. Their chief
function is the quickening and training of human intelligence; they can
do much in the teaching of morals and manners incidentally, but they
cannot and ought not to replace the home as the chief moral teacher;
they can teach valuable lessons as to the meaning of work in the world,
but they cannot replace technical schools and apprenticeship in actual
life, which are the real schools of work. Manual training can and ought
to be used in these schools, but as a means and not as an end--to
quicken intelligence and self-knowledge and not to teach carpentry; just
as arithmetic is used to train minds and not skilled accountants.

Whence, now, is the money coming for this educational system? For the
common schools the support should come from local communities, the State
governments, and the United States Government; for secondary education,
support should come from local and State governments and private
philanthropy; for the colleges, from private philanthropy and the United
States Government. I make no apology for bringing the United States
Government in thus conspicuously. The General Government must give aid
to Southern education if illiteracy and ignorance are to cease
threatening the very foundations of civilization within any reasonable
time. Aid to common school education could be appropriated to the
different States on the basis of illiteracy. The fund could be
administered by State officials, and the results and needs reported upon
by United States educational inspectors under the Bureau of Education.
The States could easily distribute the funds so as to encourage local
taxation and enterprise and not result in pauperizing the communities.
As to higher training, it must be remembered that the cost of a single
battle-ship like the Massachusetts would endow all the distinctively
college work necessary for Negroes during the next half-century; and it
is without doubt true that the unpaid balance from bounties withheld
from Negroes in the Civil War would, with interest, easily supply this

But spread of intelligence alone will not solve the Negro problem. If
this problem is largely a question of ignorance, it is also scarcely
less a problem of poverty. If Negroes are to assume the responsibility
of raising the standards of living among themselves, the power of
intelligent work and leadership toward proper industrial ideals must be
placed in their hands. Economic efficiency depends on intelligence,
skill and thrift. The public school system is designed to furnish the
necessary intelligence for the ordinary worker, the secondary school for
the more gifted workers, and the college for the exceptional few.
Technical knowledge and manual dexterity in learning branches of the
world's work are taught by industrial and trade schools, and such
schools are of prime importance in the training of colored children.
Trade-teaching can not be effectively combined with the work of the
common schools because the primary curriculum is already too crowded,
and thorough common-school training should precede trade-teaching. It
is, however, quite possible to combine some of the work of the secondary
schools with purely technical training, the necessary limitations being
matters of time and cost: e. g., the question whether the boy can
afford to stay in school long enough to add parts of a high-school
course to the trade course, and particularly the question whether the
school can afford or ought to afford to give trade training to
high-school students who do not intend to become artisans. A system of
trade-schools, therefore, supported by State and private aid, should be
added to the secondary school system.

An industrial school, however, does not merely teach technique. It is
also a school--a center of moral influence and of mental discipline. As
such it has peculiar problems in securing the proper teaching force. It
demands broadly trained men: the teacher of carpentry must be more than
a carpenter, and the teacher of the domestic arts more than a cook; for
such teachers must instruct, not simply in manual dexterity, but in
mental quickness and moral habits. In other words, they must be teachers
as well as artisans. It thus happens that college-bred men and men from
other higher schools have always been in demand in technical schools. If
the college graduates were to-day withdrawn from the teaching force of
the chief Negro industrial schools, nearly every one of them would have
to close its doors. These facts are forgotten by such advocates of
industrial training as oppose the higher schools. Strong as the argument
for industrial schools is--and its strength is undeniable--its cogency
simply increases the urgency of the plea for higher training-schools and
colleges to furnish broadly educated teachers.

But intelligence and skill alone will not solve the Southern problem of
poverty. With these must go that combination of homely habits and
virtues which we may loosely call thrift. Something of thrift may be
taught in school, more must be taught at home; but both these agencies
are helpless when organized economic society denies to workers the just
rewards of thrift and efficiency. And this has been true of black
laborers in the South from the time of slavery down through the scandal
of the Freedmen's Bank to the peonage and crop-lien system of to-day. If
the Southern Negro is shiftless, it is primarily because over large
areas a shiftless Negro can get on in the world about as well as an
industrious black man. This is not universally true in the South, but it
is true to so large an extent as to discourage striving in precisely
that class of Negroes who most need encouragement. What is the remedy?
Intelligence--not simply the ability to read and write or to sew--but
the intelligence of a society permeated by that larger vision of life
and broader tolerance which are fostered by the college and university.
Not that all men must be college-bred, but that some men, black and
white, must be, to leaven the ideals of the lump. Can any serious
student of the economic South doubt that this to-day is her crying need?

Ignorance and poverty are the vastest of the Negro problems. But to
these later years have added a third--the problem of Negro crime. That a
great problem of social morality must have become eventually the central
problem of emancipation is as clear as day to any student of history. In
its grosser form as a problem of serious crime it is already upon us. Of
course it is false and silly to represent that white women in the South
are in daily danger of black assaulters. On the contrary, white
womanhood in the South is absolutely safe in the hands of ninety-five
per cent. of the black men--ten times safer than black womanhood is in
the hands of white men. Nevertheless, there is a large and dangerous
class of Negro criminals, paupers, and outcasts. The existence and
growth of such a class far from causing surprise, should be recognized
as the natural result of that social disease called the Negro problem;
nearly every untoward circumstance known to human experience has united
to increase Negro crime: the slavery of the past, the sudden
emancipation, the narrowing of economic opportunity, the lawless
environment of wide regions, the stifling of natural ambition, the
curtailment of political privilege, the disregard of the sanctity of
black men's homes, and, above all, a system of treatment for criminals
calculated to breed crime far faster than all other available agencies
could repress it. Such a combination of circumstances is as sure to
increase the numbers of the vicious and outcast as the rain is to wet
the earth. The phenomenon calls for no delicately drawn theories of race
differences; it is a plain case of cause and effect.

But plain as the causes may be, the results are just as deplorable, and
repeatedly to-day the criticism is made that Negroes do not recognize
sufficiently their responsibility in this matter. Such critics forget
how little power to-day Negroes have over their own lower classes.
Before the black murderer who strikes his victim to-day, the average
black man stands far more helpless than the average white, and, too,
suffers ten times more from the effects of the deed. The white man has
political power, accumulated wealth, and knowledge of social forces; the
black man is practically disfranchised, poor, and unable to discriminate
between the criminal and the martyr. The Negro needs the defense of the
ballot, the conserving power of property, and, above all, the ability to
cope intelligently with such vast questions of social regeneration and
moral reform as confront him. If social reform among Negroes be without
organization or trained leadership from within, if the administration of
law is always for the avenging of the white victim and seldom for the
reformation of the black criminal, if ignorant black men misunderstand
the functions of government because they have had no decent
instruction, and intelligent black men are denied a voice in government
because they are black--under such circumstances to hold Negroes
responsible for the suppression of crime among themselves is the
cruelest of mockeries.

On the other hand, a sincere desire among the American people to help
the Negroes undertake their own social regeneration means, first, that
the Negro be given the ballot on the same terms as other men, to protect
him against injustice and to safeguard his interests in the
administration of law; secondly, that through education and social
organization he be trained to work, and save, and earn a decent living.
But these are not all: wealth is not the only thing worth accumulating;
experience and knowledge can be accumulated and handed down, and no
people can be truly rich without them. Can the Negro do without these?
Can this training in work and thrift be truly effective without the
guidance of trained intelligence and deep knowledge--without that same
efficiency which has enabled modern peoples to grapple so successfully
with the problems of the Submerged Tenth? There must surely be among
Negro leaders the philanthropic impulse, the uprightness of character
and strength of purpose, but there must be more than these; philanthropy
and purpose among blacks as well as among whites must be guided and
curbed by knowledge and mental discipline--knowledge of the forces of
civilization that make for survival, ability to organize and guide those
forces, and realization of the true meaning of those broader ideals of
human betterment which may in time bring heaven and earth a little
nearer. This is social power--it is gotten in many ways by experience,
by social contact, by what we loosely call the chances of life. But the
systematic method of acquiring and imparting it is by the training of
youth to thought, power, and knowledge in the school and college. And
that group of people whose mental grasp is by heredity weakest, and
whose knowledge of the past is for historic reasons most imperfect, that
group is the very one which needs above all, for the talented of its
youth, this severe and careful course of training; especially if they
are expected to take immediate part in modern competitive life, if they
are to hasten the slower courses of human development, and if the
responsibility for this is to be in their own hands.

Three things American slavery gave the Negro--the habit of work, the
English language, and the Christian religion; but one priceless thing it
debauched, destroyed, and took from him, and that was the organized
home. For the sake of intelligence and thrift, for the sake of work and
morality, this home-life must be restored and regenerated with newer
ideals. How? The normal method would be by actual contact with a higher
home-life among his neighbors, but this method the social separation of
white and black precludes. A proposed method is by schools of domestic
arts, but, valuable as these are, they are but subsidiary aids to the
establishment of homes; for real homes are primarily centers of ideals
and teaching and only incidentally centers of cooking. The restoration
and raising of home ideals must, then, come from social life among
Negroes themselves; and does that social life need no leadership? It
needs the best possible leadership of pure hearts and trained heads,
the highest leadership of carefully trained men.

Such are the arguments for the Negro college, and such is the work that
Atlanta University and a few similar institutions seek to do. We believe
that a rationally arranged college course of study for men and women
able to pursue it is the best and only method of putting into the world
Negroes with ability to use the social forces of their race so as to
stamp out crime, strengthen the home, eliminate degenerates, and inspire
and encourage the higher tendencies of the race not only in thought and
aspiration but in every-day toil. And we believe this, not simply
because we have argued that such training ought to have these effects,
or merely because we hope for such results in some dim future, but
because already for years we have seen in the work of our graduates
precisely such results as I have mentioned: successful teachers of
teachers, intelligent and upright ministers, skilled physicians,
principals of industrial schools, business men, and above all, makers of
model homes and leaders of social groups, out from which radiate subtle
but tangible forces of uplift and inspiration. The proof of this lies
scattered in every State of the South, and, above all, in the
half-unwilling testimony of men disposed to decry our work.

Between the Negro college and industrial school there are the strongest
grounds for co-operation and unity. It is not a matter of mere emphasis,
for we would be glad to see ten industrial schools to every college. It
is not a fact that there are to-day too few Negro colleges, but rather
that there are too many institutions attempting to do college work. But
the danger lies in the fact that the best of the Negro colleges are
poorly equipped and are to-day losing support and countenance, and that,
unless the nation awakens to its duty, ten years will see the
annihilation of higher Negro training in the South. We need a few
strong, well-equipped Negro colleges, and we need them now, not
to-morrow; unless we can have them and have them decently supported,
Negro education in the South, both common-school and industrial, is
doomed to failure, and the forces of social regeneration will be fatally
weakened, for the college to-day among Negroes is, just as truly as it
was yesterday among whites, the beginning and not the end of human
training, the foundation and not the cap-stone of popular education.

Strange is it not, my brothers, how often in America those great
watchwords of human energy--"Be strong!" "Know thyself!" "Hitch your
wagon to a star!"--how often these die away into dim whispers when we
face these seething millions of black men? And yet do they not belong to
them? Are they not their heritage as well as yours? Can they bear
burdens without strength, know without learning, and aspire without
ideals? Are you afraid to let them try? Fear rather, in this our common
fatherland, lest we live to lose those great watchwords of Liberty and
Opportunity which yonder in the eternal hills their fathers fought with
your fathers to preserve.

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