Chapter 10: A Harder Task than Making Bricks Without Straw
Washington's plan at Tuskegee was to have students do not only the agricultural and domestic work, but also to construct their own buildings. They were to be taught the best methods for doing so, so that not only would the school benefit from their labor, but also students would learn to love labor for its own sake. While some doubted the wisdom of his plan, over nineteen years 36 of 40 buildings at Tuskegee were built nearly entirely using student labor. During this process, hundreds of men learned mechanical skills, such that by the time of the book's publication any building could be entirely constructed by Tuskegee instructors and students, from drawing plans to installing electrical fixtures.
The most trying experience in those days was attempting to make bricks. The bricks were needed to construct Tuskegee buildings, but also there was a demand in the general market. However, the work was hard and dirty, and it was difficult to persuade students to help. The process required special skills and knowledge that nobody initially had. The first three kilns failed, and there were no funds to try again. Ever persistent, Washington pawned a watch for $15 and with the money was able to successfully construct a fourth kiln. At the time of the book's writing, brickmaking had become such an important industry at the school that last season students constructed twelve hundred thousand bricks, and scores of men had mastered the trade.
Making bricks taught Washington an important lesson: that providing a need for the community can improve race relations. Many whites realized that education for Negros was a good thing, as it added to the wealth and comfort of the community. Furthermore, members of each race had more opportunities to interact as whites came to buy bricks. Tuskegee graduates who learned the trade were able to replicate this easing of racial tensions in other parts of the south, as communities became in a way dependent upon these graduates for their skills. Washington believes merit will always be rewarded no matter what race a person is, and that tangible signs of one's worth can soften prejudices: "The actual sight of a first-class house that a Negro has built is ten times more potent than pages of discussion about a house that he ought to build, or perhaps could build" (58).
The same principle applied to wagons, carts, and buggies which students built. Just like bricks, Tuskegee was able to supply the community with needed vehicles, and men who learned to build and repair wagons and carts were highly valued.
Not all students and families subscribed to Washington's view of the value of industrial labor, and many parents requested that their children be exempt from having to engage in labor while at school. Washington did not heed their requests, but rather visited many parts of the state to show the value of this type of education. Despite the lack of popularity of industrial work, enrollment increased to 150 by the middle of the second year.
In the summer of 1882, Washington and Davidson went on a fundraising tour of the North. An officer of a missionary organization along the way refused to give him a recommendation and advised him to turn back, believing he would never make anything more than what would cover his traveling expenses. In Northampton, MA, he searched for a colored family with which to board, as he believed he would never be accepted at a hotel. He was pleasantly surprised to learn this was not the case.
The two were able to raise enough money to hold their first service on Thanksgiving Day in the chapel of Porter Hall, although the building was not yet complete. Washington asked Rev. Robert C. Bedford, a white pastor from Wisconsin, to give the sermon. Bedford later became a trustee of the school and worked tirelessly for the good of the school. Washington praises both Bedford and Mr. Warren Logan, who later became the treasurer of Tuskegee and the acting principal whenever Washington was away.
As soon as the first building was complete enough that they could occupy part of it, Tuskegee opened a boarding department. Students dug out the basement to make a rough kitchen and dining room. Merchants allowed them to purchase food on credit, but it was difficult to cook without stoves and to eat without dishes. At first, they cooked outside using pots and skillets over a fire and ate on carpenters' benches converted into tables. There was often something wrong with meals, students had to share cups and dishes, and sometimes they had trouble even getting water from the well.
Gradually, however, conditions improved. Washington shares his philosophy of perseverance: "With patience and hard work, we brought order out of chaos, just as will be true of any problem if we stick to it with patience and wisdom and earnest effort" (61). He notes that he is glad they had to endure such discomforts in the beginning, as it prevented them from becoming "stuck up": "It means a great deal, I think, to start off on a foundation which one has made for one's self" (61). Former students who return to Tuskegee and see the vastly improved conditions also often note that they are glad they started as they did and grew naturally year-by-year.
This chapter highlights, through numerous examples, the importance of perseverance. Washington persevered when parents asked him to exempt their children from industrial labor, holding true to his beliefs and explaining the reasons for them rather than caving in to pressure. He did not give up after three failed attempts at making bricks, instead trading in a watch in order to try a fourth time. He refused to be discouraged when his military acquaintance told him to turn back from his fundraising efforts in the north. The closest he came to becoming discouraged, he admits, is when in the early days of the boarding program he overheard a student complain that she could not even get water at the school; yet even then, he kept going, following his vision for Tuskegee's future.
Once again, Washington juxtaposes the old and the new to highlight the way that this perseverance, coupled with hard work, brings incremental progress that can lead to great success. He describes in detail the dining room the way it is at the time of the book's writing, so very different from the initial room dug into the basement and furnished with crude carpenters' benches. He points out that these changes came gradually, "by a slow and natural process of growth" (61), suggesting that others, too, can achieve success if they work hard and have enough patience. This incremental progress parallels his own life, in which tiny first steps - teaching himself the alphabet, moving the clock's hands so he could go to school on time, setting off for Hampton with very little money, and so on - can eventually bring enormous results.
Washington reiterates his belief that individual merit is far more important than race in achieving success. His strategy is practical: make yourself useful, and you will be valued. Certainly in his life, this belief proved to be true. He made himself indispensable as a janitor at Hampton so that he could continue his studies, and he was later offered a teaching job at his alma mater because he had prepared students from his home community so well. His skill at public speaking won him a spot on the lecture circuit, and he made such an impression on others that he was eventually invited to dine at the White House. What he failed to realize, and what critics have pointed out, is that an unjust society can make it difficult for ordinary people to achieve this kind of success.
Chapter 11: Making Their Beds Before They Could Lie On Them
A little later, Washington received a number of visitors from the Hampton Institute: General Marshall, the treasurer who had given the institute its first loan; Mary Mackie, the head teacher who had admitted him into the school; and General Armstrong himself. Most of the teachers at Tuskegee by that time were graduates of Hampton. The visitors were quite impressed by the school's progress.
Washington had previously assumed that Armstrong would have feelings of bitterness towards southern white men, having fought against them in the Civil War. However, he soon learned that Armstrong was as anxious about the prosperity of southern whites as southern blacks. This attitude caused Washington to respect him even more: "From his example in this respect I learned the lesson that great men cultivate love, and that only little men cherish a spirit of hatred. I learned that assistance given to the weak makes the one who gives it strong, and that oppression of the unfortunate makes one weak" (62). Washington endeavored to become like Armstrong in this respect, and reports that as of the book's writing he no longer had any ill feelings towards southern whites for wrongs they may have inflicted upon his race.
He also reflects upon the acts of certain southern whites who have tried to get rid of the force of black votes. He argues that doing so is actually worse for the white man than for the Negro, as the white man only temporarily hurts the Negro but permanently injures his own morals. He learns to be dishonest in all areas of his life, including in his dealings with other white men. Similarly, a white man who lynches a Negro may later lynch a white man.
Soon after the boarding department opened, students began arriving in greater numbers. In order to house the newcomers, the school rented a number of dilapidated cabins near the school that did a poor job of protecting students from the cold. Students paid $8 a month for their room, board, fuel, and washing, but received a credit on their board bills for any work they did for the school. The cost of tuition was $50 per year per student, which they could not always pay right away. These fees provided little capital for the department, and there were not enough blankets or even mattresses for all of the students. During the coldest nights, Washington had trouble sleeping due to worrying about the students, and would sometimes visit them in order to comfort them. Even though it was sometimes too cold to sleep and students even got frostbite, no one complained, and they even asked what they could do to lighten the burden for teachers.
Washington had heard people say colored people would not respect members of their own race who were placed in positions of authority over them. Contrary to this belief, he notes that no student or staff member ever treated him with disrespect. Instead, he has been often impressed by many acts of kindness, such as offers to carry heavy loads or to hold an umbrella over his head. Nor has he received any insults from southern whites, noting that instead the white people near Tuskegee go out of their way to show him respect.
Washington notes that strangers, too, now treat him with respect. When on a train between Dallas and Houston, there were whites at every station who came and thanked him for the work he was doing. On another trip from Augusta to Atlanta, two ladies from Boston insisted he sit and eat with them in their section. When he finally extricated himself from the situation (for segregation laws required him to sit elsewhere), he found that the southern white men, rather than chastising him for being in the wrong section of the train, instead expressed their gratitude for what he was trying to do for the south.
He also stresses that Tuskegee belongs not to him, but to his students, and that they have as much interest in it as the teachers or trustees. He notes that he is not their overseer, but rather their friend and advisor. Several times a year, he asks students to write him letters with their criticisms or complaints, or to have a talk with him about the school. Doing so allows him to impart responsibility upon his students, and to show them his trust in them. Washington believes many labor problems could be avoided by employers similarly getting closer to their employees, consulting with them, and letting them know their interests are common.
Washington wished for students not only to construct the buildings at Tuskegee, but also the furniture. He marvels at the patience of students who slept on the floor while waiting for a bed or a mattress. Few students in the beginning were used to carpentry, and much of the early furniture was poorly constructed. They eventually made mattresses by sewing together cheap cloth into bags, which they filled with pine needles. Now, the school teaches mattress making to many girls, and the mattresses are as good quality as those sold in stores. The furniture in students' rooms was initially rudimentary and sparse; now, it is more plentiful and well constructed.
Washington valued cleanliness and insisted on it for his students, explaining, "people would excuse us for our poverty, for our lacks of comforts and conveniences, but that they would not excuse us for dirt" (66). He insisted that every student use a tooth-brush, explaining the civilizing influence of such a device: "I have noticed that, if we can get a student to the point where, when the first or second tooth-brush disappears, he of his own motion buys another, I have not been disappointed in the future of that individual" (66). Similarly, students were required to bathe regularly, and many learned for the first time how to sleep between two sheets and to wear a nightgown. Their clothing was inspected daily, and they learned never to have missing buttons, torn areas, or grease-spots.
In this chapter Washington details the early growth of the school. He also shows how his own fame has started to grow, with strangers greeting him at railway stations. He highlights the warm welcome he receives from southern whites and reiterates that neither he nor General Armstrong harbor any ill will against them, thereby demonstrating to his audience that it is possible to have harmonious relations between the races. This treatment is a marked change from earlier days, when he had to sleep under the sidewalk and was refused service even when the Indian student he accompanied was not. Indeed, considering the racial tensions of the day (see "Racism in the 1890's"), his attitude is particularly optimistic and reflects his vision that education will bring a brighter future for both races in the south.
Washington keeps his audience in mind as he discusses his views about the suppression of black votes and the problem of lynching, arguing that injustices carried out by whites actually hurt whites more than blacks due to the permanent harm they cause to their morals. Many black activists such as William Monroe Trotter, editor of the Boston Guardian, and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois have criticized Washington for not being more outspoken about such practices. In fact, he secretly provided support to fight violence, segregation, and black disfranchisement, but he did not wish to do so publicly as he was afraid of jeopardizing the support of white politicians and philanthropists.
Washington draws clear parallels between himself and his mentor, General Armstrong. When Washington attended Hampton, Armstrong used to visit the students living in tents who suffered through cold nights to give them moral support; so, too, did Washington visit Tuskegee students shivering all night in their dilapidated cabins. In addition, just as students were eager to help Armstrong in any way they could, he reports that his own students often offered to carry his books or hold umbrellas over his head when it rained.
Washington also continues his "then and now" juxtapositions by comparing the initial furniture in students' rooms with the way that rooms are furnished now. In detailing how much of the construction students performed, Washington may be illustrating not only how hard working his Negro students are, but also how the money given by potential donors is stretched to yield the maximum benefit.
Chapter 12: Raising Money
When the school opened its boarding department, they provided rooms for girls in the attic of Porter Hall, their first building. However, the number of students continued to grow. They could find rooms outside the school grounds for the young men, but they wished to keep the girls on campus. They eventually decided to construct a larger building that would have rooms for the girls and boarding accommodations for everyone. This building would cost around $10,000. Despite having no money to begin with, they named the proposed building Alabama Hall. Miss Davidson began fundraising around the community, and students began digging out the foundations.
At this time, General Armstrong invited Washington to spend a month traveling with him in the North. Using Hampton's funds, he had generously arranged to hold meetings in important cities, along with a quartet of singers, in order to solicit support for Tuskegee. In this way they both raised funds for the construction of Alabama Hall and brought the school and its work to the attention of the public.
After this initial introduction, Washington began traveling North on his own to fundraise. He had two "rules": first, to do his best to make Tuskegee's work known to individuals and organizations; and second, to not worry about the results. He realized that the men who have achieved the most are those who were always calm, patient, and self-controlled, and that the way to get the most out of one's work is to forget oneself in one's cause.
Washington has little patience for those who condemn the rich, explaining how frequently wealthy people are asked for help and how much money anonymous donors give away. For example, two ladies from New York gave the school enough money to erect three large buildings, in addition to other donations; yet their names rarely appeared in print.
Although he has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, Washington avoids using the term "begging." Persistently asking for money, he explains, does not usually yield results. Instead, it is more effective to share the facts about Tuskegee and its graduates, and let the wealthy decide on their own whether or not it is a worthy cause. He does not generally enjoy asking for money, but he does enjoy the opportunity to study human nature and to meet the "best people in the world" (69). He finds many who consider it a privilege to help such a good cause, and who "regard men and women who apply to them for help for worthy objects, not as beggars, but as agents for doing their work" (70). In Boston, he finds that people tend to thank him for calling before he can even thank the donors for their money.
Results did not always come immediately. Once, Washington spent many hours visiting a man in Connecticut who did not at the time donate anything. Two years later, however, he sent a check for $10,000. This money came at a most opportune time, when funds were particularly low and Washington was feeling the weight of his endeavor: "If the institution had been officered by white persons, and had failed, it would have injured the cause of Negro education; but I knew that the failure of our institution, officered by Negroes, would not only mean the loss of a school, but would cause people, in a large degree, to lose faith in the ability of the entire race" (71).
In a similar way, it was not always possible to tell where a small donation would lead. Collis Huntington, a railroad man, initially donated just $2 to the school, but a few months before he died he gave $50,000 towards the endowment fund. He also gave many gifts in between. Washington did not blame Huntington for the small size of the initial gift, but rather decided to convince him through tangible results that the school was worthy of larger gifts. As the school's usefulness grew, so too did the size of the donations.
Another donation came after Washington invited the Rev. E. Winchester Donald, rector of Trinity Church in Boston, to give the Commencement sermon. Since there was no room large enough for all attendees, they held the address outside under an improvised shelter. Soon after the reverend began speaking, the rain came pouring down. He remarked that it would be a good thing to have a large chapel at Tuskegee; the next day, a letter arrived from two women who had decided to give the money for such a chapel.
Other donors included Andrew Carnegie, who gave $20,000 for a library building despite his disinterest in the school ten years earlier; the State Legislature of Alabama, due to the hard work of a Tuskegee graduate in the legislature; the John F. Slater Fund; and the Peabody Fund. Washington acknowledges two men who work for these funds, Hon. J.L.M. Curry and Mr. Morris K. Jessup, both of whom he lavishly praises. The majority of the school's gifts, however, were small donations from people who were less wealthy. In particular, Christian societies and Sunday schools gave a lot of small gifts, along with Tuskegee graduates.
While on the surface this chapter is not much more than a list of acknowledgements for gifts to the school, it also reflects Washington's hard work and perseverance in demonstrating that Tuskegee is worthy of such donations. Washington rewards past contributors with public praise, but also plants the idea in future donors' minds that Tuskegee is giving them an opportunity to make a tangible difference with their money. He also reminds readers that there is always a need for more charitable giving and also that each donation, large or small, is a step towards a better tomorrow.