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A Visit to Tuskegee

Editorial Note: This story originally appeared in the March 31, 1901, issue of The Cleveland Leader. The Chesnutt Archive was unable to obtain images of the original publication.

A Visit to Tuskegee

My approach to Tuskegee was not propitious. I had taken a train at Wilmington, N.C., which, according to a handsome folder, with a beautiful map, decorated with broad red lines, and an alluring time table, was to make connection at Atlanta with a train for Montgomery, Ala., by which Tuskegee was to be reached. For some reason or other the train for Montgomery left Atlanta fifteen minutes before our train arrived, resulting in a wait of half a day for a local train by which I reached my destination at 9 o'clock at night instead of at 9 in the morning. This, however, was not the end of my troubles.

Arrived at Chehaw, the little station from which a five-mile railroad runs twice a day to the town of Tuskegee, the train from the south, due at about the same time, was found to be two or three hours late, and the Tuskegee train would not go until it came in. The prospect of waiting in this lonesome place for several hours, on a raw, damp evening, with no place in sight where food or drink might be procured, was not agreeable. Several gentlemen bound, like myself, for Tuskegee, proposed that we walk. I suggested that we offer substantial inducements to the train conductor to take us over and return for the delayed train. We figured that it was worth about fifty cents to run the diminutive engine and one rickety car five miles and back, but the engineer, who seemed the man in charge, proved obdurate, and even an offer of $2.50 did not move him. We, therefore, decided to walk the five miles, which we did, after procuring a lantern to light our way along the railroad track. We beguiled the journey with speculations as to the value of the railroad. It is five miles long, is capitalized at $40,000, and pays 25 to 50 per cent in dividends, which is not surprising when one considers that the fare for the five miles is fifty cents. It is curious that this profitable property has thus far escaped exploitation at the hands of the professional promoter.

It is but fair to say, however, that my experience was an unusual one, and that passengers direct from the North, traveling by through trains, can make the passage comfortably and directly, and will be well rewarded for their pains.

Tuskegee was a revelation, as it must be to anyone upon the first visit. I was hospitably entertained at Mr. Washington's own handsome house, and in the morning was taken in charge by Mr. Palmer, one of the attaches, who piloted me about the place. In the afternoon I was under the guidance of Mr. Max Bennett Thrasher, who has adopted Tuskegee as his special literary property. He has written a book about Tuskegee, and was able to show it to me from the standpoint of an experienced observer, who had made the school and its work a special study.

There were a number of Northern visitors present on this day, which was the day before the conference, and the unanimous verdict among them was that Tuskegee, to be appreciated, must be seen. One who comes and sees, is conquered. It is not a school in the ordinary sense of the word, but a great industrial university; for, while mental training is not neglected, and care is obviously taken to obtain for the teaching force the best product of the Northern schools, the industrial feature is kept well to the front, and most emphasis laid upon it. It was apparent, too, in the various workshops that something more than a mere superficial smattering of manual training was imparted, and that a student who wished to acquire any art or trade taught could, if he remained long enough, learn it with sufficient thoroughness to qualify himself as an expert workman. There are many, of course, who come and go, but the boy who has learned only to saw a plank, to drive a nail, to make a joint, has increased his social efficiency to just that extent, and the girl who has learned how to do plain sewing and make good bread has vastly increased her value as a wife and a mother. The practical air of the place is an inspiration in itself. The student workers build the houses in which they live, and make the bricks with which to build them. The boys make the shoes and clothes they wear. The girls make the dresses and trim the hats which deck them out so neatly. The furniture for the whole community is made on the grounds, and the surplus handiwork finds a ready sale in the country and towns roundabout. I was shown, in addition to handsome cases of samples made for exhibition purposes, a large filing case in process of construction which had been ordered for the county court house near by.

The work is done, too, on a scale which impresses the imagination. Dairying and butter making are taught with the aid of sixty or seventy fine Jersey cows, requiring model stables and expert attention to keep them in order. There are large farms, truck patches, bee hives, poultry houses, sawmills, and planing mills, a foundry, a machine shop, a dress-making establishment, model kitchens, a millinery department, a laundry, and other things too numerous to mention. Everything seems to be moving smoothly to its appointed end. In fact, so vivid is the impression made by a visit to the various departments that one is swept off his feet, as it were, and feels for the moment that industrial education is the only education worthy of consideration for colored people, or people of any other sort. And while sober reflection reveals what is needed beyond, one is entirely convinced that Mr. Washington has discovered the tremendous importance, to a struggling people, of a branch of education which has been sadly neglected, and which will prove a powerful lever for their uplifting.

One of the most interesting features of Tuskegee is that it is entirely officered and administered, locally, by colored men and women. The names of several white men appear on the board of trustees, however, and the school is, of course, run mainly by the money of good white people. Mr. Washington has accomplished a remarkable feat in finding, and inducing to live in Alabama, so large a number of capable colored men and women. That they do not go there for the loaves and fishes' entirely is evident; for they are not extravagantly paid, and are certainly hard worked. But Mr. Washington has succeeded in inspiring them with his own hopefulness, which sees a bright future for his people, his own philosophy, which makes the best of a hard situation, and his own enthusiasm, which never seems to fatter. Tuskegee is a colored institution, through and through. It has a sort of swing to it which is in a way characteristic of the race.

The present writer does not believe in the wisdom of the separation of the races which prevails in the Southern States, and thinks that it is carried to an extreme which is not only short-sighted, expensive, and troublesome, but which, to an outsider, borders upon the ridiculous.

But Mr. Washington, accepting the situation as inevitable, for the time being at least, has adopted the theory of letting the race develop along characteristic lines. They are permitted to sing extempore "spiritual" songs; marching, counter-marching, and military drill, in which the students take a very evident pleasure, are made a feature of the work. The co-operation and presence of leading colored men is eagerly sought, and a spirit of race pride and self-respect is sedulously cultivated. All this results in a sense of freedom, an independence of bearing, a courtesy and consideration toward one another, a respect for the authority of superiors of their own race, which is extremely gratifying to the thoughtful visitor.

It was my privilege to attend during my brief stay at Tuskegee a session of the Tuskegee Conference, which is held annually for the benefit of the colored farmers in the black belt. The exercises began at 10 o'clock and lasted until 3, but throughout were of very great interest. Mr. Washington made a characteristic address, full of hope and encouragement, and impressing upon his audience the value of patience, industry, thrift, character, and property. Most of the time was taken up by speeches of the farmers, who gave their experience for the benefit of the rest.

For instance, Tillman Vines, of Tallapoosa, Ala., old and black and rugged, made a rattling good speech, characteristic of the old-time Negro. He gave his name, his postoffice address, stated that he was born a slave and was the father of fourteen children, twelve of whom were living. His youngest child, four years old, was able, he proudly averred, to count a hundred.

"When I was a young man," he said, "I couldn't count a hundred and my wife couldn't count at all." He now owns over five hundred acres of land and owes no man anything. The colored people in his neighborhood own 5,000 acres. He acknowledged, in a naive way, one bit of sharp practice in the course of his life, which very palpably suggested the rabbit and the fox of the plantation stories. When he began to appreciate the need of education he went to his own people and told them he wanted their aid to build a school house, which, in their new zeal for learning, they eagerly promised. Then he went to "old Mars Ben," to whom he "use ter b'long." and told him he wanted the land to build a "church house." "Mars Ben," who saw no objection to the Negroes having religion, gave the land. "I call 'im Mars Ben," explained the orator, "beca'se I wuz bawn his'n; he raise' me." This double-dealing was made good by using the new structure for both purposes.

"We helt church in de new building Sunday, an' opened school a-Monday."

Green Weldon, a very dark man from Butler country, said that he was so impressed by what he saw of the improvement of his people that he was "mos' skeered"-he hardly knew what to say. He had started out in life with the idea of having something. Having got a little land and a little money he had felt too rich, and had spent most of his time riding on the railroad. By neglecting his business he lost everything. He took a fresh start and now owns 350 acres of land, all paid for. He sells meat and corn and lard to the best white and black people in the settlement, has a good house with five rooms, and has built a three--room house for his son. "A man with a bad heart," he said, with wisdom worthy of Solomon, "don't live-he just stays here; and if you have a good heart the Lord will let you prosper." His houses, he stated, had been built by a carpenter of his own color. When asked the length of the school term in his district, he replied that it was four months. "We needs he'p down dere on de school question. I come mighty nigh totin' eve'y school dat comes dere, an' I come mighty nigh totin' de church, too. I built two school houses down dere. My boy is got pretty good learnin', an' my gal is got ter come right here, she sho' is!"

Joseph Strickland, a fine looking, well-dressed, and very black man, said to be the most successful colored farmer in Bullock county, advised the Negro farmers to work six days in the week; the most money, he said, was taken away from them on Saturdays, when they were wasting their time in town. Mr. Strickland confesses to thirty-two mules and five horses, a steam grist mill, corn mill, and cotton gin. He owns 660 acres of land, and leases 2,000 acres besides. He believes that no man can make a successful farmer without a good wife, and admits that before he got where he is now, his wife plowed a two-mule team. He has 300 men in his employment, and can take the place of any one of them at a minute's notice. He has 5,000 pounds of well-cured meat in his smoke houses, uses 225 bushels of corn every month to feed his stock, and raises the corn. Mr. Strickland is not without a vein of sentiment in his very excellent make-up. He still has the old mule he started with, and would not take $250 for her. He raises 260 bales of cotton a year. His neighborhood has a five-months' school, and a good teacher.

Another speaker thought that the future of the Negro lay in his being able to make money, so that the North and the South would want to trade with him. "I want every man," he said, "that ain't did nothin', to come here an' hear about the fellow that done somethin'." He modestly admitted that he owned not only land, but money (I was informed that he was a stockholder in a bank) and was glad to say that other men in his community were waking up. "If you go forward," he said, "somebody else in that community is gwine ter spread his wings an' fly up along of you."

Another speaker observed: "Dis yer is one er de bes' countries in de worl'. You kin go mighty nigh naked; up in the No'the'n States they've got to wear de bes' goods de worl' ever made-we kin wear one garment fer eight mont's in de year, an' live. If you ever git de slothful people out er dis country, an' git de No'the'n people ter ownin' it, you're gwine ter have hard wo'k ter keep up wid 'em. We better git dis Ian' while we kin git it cheap, an' befo' de No'the'n man begins ter crowd us."

Mr. Daniels, of Elmore county, was of a somewhat pessimistic disposition. He owned 193 acres of land, and thought there was about a thousand acres in his country owned by colored people and paid for, "If I make no mistake," he added cautiously. There was a time, he said, when land could have been bought for $1.25 an acre, which cannot now be had for less than fifteen dollars. He maintained, however, that some of the colored people wouldn't have land if it were given to them. A sharp cross--examination at the hands of Mr. Washington showed, however, by comparison with conditions ten years ago, that substantial progress had been made. When asked about the churches and the preachers, the speaker replied: "I'm a little off on the preachers for the last ten years. They ought to teach the people that they need homes here. Our preachers save it all for over yonder in the other world. We want to get something in this world. I think people have got as much right to a home here as to a home in heaven. They are getting around to that now, however, and I can hear 'em striking at it away off." When asked the curious and suggestive question as to whether the morals of the ministers were improving, he replied that he thought they were.

There were many other speakers along the same line. Henry Thomas, of Tallapoosa county, told how he had acquired a thousand acres of land. After the war he went to work for his old master-his "ole boss," he called him, who wanted to see the people he used to own have something, and who encouraged him to save and invest his money. First he bought forty acres of land. Having a keen commercial instinct, he bought and sold and saved, and got more land. His idea was, however, that a small farm, well cultivated, with money in the bank, was better than too much land.

Joe Harris said: "I own 320 acres of land and a cottin gin, which white people patronize. If any one hears that Joe Harris says something, they believe it. I can order 200 yards of bagging, and I will get it, with the money or without. The white people in my county have been friends to me, and have led me up to where I am."

Mr. McKinnie, from Coosa county, knew only one man owning land that ever went to the penitentiary from his county, and public opinion was with him, only a false report had been made to his disadvantage. Colored people in Coosa owned 19,000 acres of land; for one stretch of six miles there was not a single white family.

One of the best speeches of the day, which was entirely unexpected by the management, was made by "the boss colored farmer of Talladega county," as he described himself-his name has escaped my memory and I do not find it in my notes.

His address was illustrated by neatly prepared samples of farm products he produced from a satchel which he took with him upon the stage, and which made Mr. Washington a little fearful, at first, lest the speaker might have something to sell which he was seizing a convenient opportunity to advertise. Most of the speakers had been apparently full-blooded Negroes, but this one was a yellow man, with straight hair.

All these speeches were interesting and inspiring. They proved that former slaves, without any education in letters, could work, could save, could prosper under conditions which were not favorable to the highest or quickest development. If they could succeed, better taught men, other things being equal, should easily excel them. The speeches were pervaded by a shrewd business sense, a keen appreciation of the humorous side of things, and many of them not without a certain degree of child-like vanity. They had done well, these men, and knew it, and wished to have proper credit for it. But the finest thing about it all was the spirit of charity which filled these knotted and gnarled old men, whose lives had been spent with the sun and the soil. They stood up for their own race, but were full of good will for all men. What Tuskegee has done for them can be seen in part, but the rest may be imagined. It has furnished them a center of thought, of interest, of communication, of light: a place where they can come once a year, meet in friendly intercourse, and exchange views and experiences, a place to which they will naturally think of sending their children for instruction. The speakers, of course, were picked men; if every Negro farmer in Alabama were as prosperous as some of them, there would be small need of Tuskegee. But the most, even of those who come, are still poor men, who come, often at a sacrifice, to seek knowledge and inspiration. The influence of these meetings does not stop with those in immediate attendance. Each visitor, upon his return home, spreads the leaven among his neighbors who were too poor to go-and the mass of the farm laborers are still desperately poor, and need all the help which enlightened philanthropy can give them. The conference idea, too, has spread beyond Tuskegee, and similar meetings are being held at other points in the South, with like encouraging results.

Following the speeches came an interesting exhibition of stereopticon views, showing the contrasts between the homes of the colored people ten years ago and now. A strong "set of declarations" was then adopted, emphasizing the objects of the conference, viz.: To encourage the buying of land, getting rid of the one-room cabin and the abuse of the mortgage system, the raising of food supplies, building better school houses, the lengthening of the school term, and the securing of better teachers and preachers, the doing away with sectarian prejudice, the improvement of the moral condition of the masses, and the encouragement of friendly relations between the races-in all of which, the declarations state, progress is constantly being made by the masses throughout the South.

To one who is interested in the Southern situation, a visit to Tuskegee is well worth what it costs to go there.