Chapter 4: Helping Others
At the end of his first year at Hampton, Washington found himself without money to go home for vacation. He tried to raise funds by selling a second-hand coat, but his prospective buyer could only purchase it on credit. Hoping to raise funds for clothing and other necessities and to repay the institution the $16 that he owed, he found work at a restaurant near the school, but his wages were little more than his board. Despite working hard and spending little, he had not yet raised enough money by the end of the summer. During his last week at the restaurant, he found a ten-dollar bill under one of the tables; however, when he showed it to the proprietor, the proprietor decided that the money was rightfully his. Thankfully, he was allowed to reenter Hampton, with the treasurer trusting him to repay the debt when he could.
At Hampton, Washington continued to learn many life lessons in addition to his book learning. He was greatly impressed by the unselfishness of the teachers and concluded that "those who are happiest are those who do the most for others" (25), a lesson he repeats many times throughout the book. He also learned about the Bible, both as a source of spiritual guidance and as literature. His Bible teacher, Miss Lord, also gave him lessons in public speaking. He joined the existing debating society and formed another, relishing the opportunity to improve his skills while contributing to the school.
At the end of his second year, aided by money from his mother, brother John, and one of the teachers, Washington was able to return home during the summer vacation. There he found that workers were on strike, something that Washington did not understand as it seemed to him that the striking workers ended up worse off in the end. His family and friends were overjoyed to see him, and he spent much time-sharing his experiences with his community. Due to the strike, however, he could find no work. His burden increased with the news that his mother had died. His younger sister did not yet know how to keep house, and the family struggled to feed and care for themselves.
With the help of Mrs. Ruffner, Washington was finally able to earn enough money to return to school. Miss Mackie, the lady principal, asked him to return early, in order to assist in getting things ready for the coming year. During these two weeks, Mackie and Washington worked together to clean windows, dust rooms, put beds in order, and so on. Washington was impressed that a woman of her social standing could take such delight in doing this service. Ever since then he felt that all southern schools for blacks should teach students the "dignity of labour" (27).
During his last year at Hampton, Washington worked hard enough to be placed on the honor roll. He felt the most important benefits of Hampton were contact with General Armstrong and learning what education should do: teach a person to love labor, both for its own sake and for the independence and self-reliance it brings. He learned, too, that the happiest people are those who do the most for others.
After graduation, Washington worked for a short time as a waiter in a hotel in Connecticut and then returned to his hometown of Malden, VA to be a teacher. He was overjoyed to help the people of his community. Working 14-hour days, he not only taught his students to read and write, but also to keep themselves clean. The demand for education was so great that he opened a night school to serve students who had to work during the day. In addition to this work, Washington also established a reading room, started a debating society, taught two Sunday schools, and gave private lessons to several young men he wished to prepare for Hampton. He was happy to send his brother John to Hampton as well, and to assist him with his expenses. When John returned, he and Washington worked together to send their adopted brother James to the school. Both of Washington's brothers later obtained jobs at the Tuskegee Institute.
It was at this time that the "Ku Klux Klan" was at its height. Their purpose was to regulate the conduct of the black people of the south, in particular crushing any political aspirations. They operated mostly at night and resembled the "patrollers," bands of white men who prevented slaves from holding meetings without permission before the Civil War. The Ku Klux Klan burned both schoolhouses and churches, and many innocent people suffered. These lawless acts made a big impression on Washington. He saw one battle between colored and white people in which one of the injured was General Ruffner, husband of his good friend Mrs. Ruffner, because he tried to defend the colored people. In Washington's view, much had changed between that time and the time he wrote the book, with public sentiment no longer allowing such things to exist.
This chapter is aptly named, as it highlights both the ways that Washington was helped and the ways in which he helped others. Indeed, finding happiness through helping others is one of the two most important lessons he learned from Hampton. The second, that there is dignity in labor, is another recurring theme. Washington learns this lesson first-hand when the lady principal joins him to wash windows and prepare beds, serving others despite her high social standing.
The anecdote Washington shares about bringing the $10 bill to the proprietor may lead the reader to draw parallels between Washington and his namesake, the first president of the U.S., whose honesty was supposedly assured when he confessed to cutting down a cherry tree.
It is at the close of this chapter that Washington unintentionally makes one of his most ironic statements: “I have referred to this unpleasant part of the history of the south, simply for the purpose of calling attention to the great change that has taken place since the days of the ‘Ku Klux.’ To-day there are no such organizations in the south, and the fact that such ever existed is almost forgotten by both races. There are few places in the South now where public sentiment would permit such organizations to exist” (30). It is unfortunate that Washington was so mistaken, with two other movements of the KKK flourishing in the 1920s and then again during the Civil Rights movement.
Washington may again be making a deliberate choice to look towards a better tomorrow rather than dwelling on the dismal reality faced by members of his race, given the direct knowledge he had of the life of a black person during his time. Rather than reviling the Klan, he diplomatically notes only that "during this period not a few coloured people lost their lives" (29), and furthermore shares that the white General Ruffner was seriously wounded defending blacks during a melee. This choice reflects Washington's character and strong belief that cooperation rather than anger is the key to a stable future.
Chapter 5: The Reconstruction Period
The Reconstruction period (1867-1878) included the time Washington spent as a student at Hampton and as a teacher in West Virginia. During this time, the majority of his race were clamoring to both obtain Greek and Latin learning and to hold office. Schools overflowed with students, both during the day and at night. However, many people had the idea that "as soon as one secured a little education, in some unexplainable way he would be free from most of the hardships of the world, and, at any rate, could live without manual labour" (30). They also felt that knowing a little Latin and Greek would make them somehow superior.
Most of those who received a little education became either teachers or preachers. While there were some capable men and women, many did so as an easy way to make a living without being properly qualified. The ministry, especially, suffered from ignorant and sometimes immoral men claiming they had been "called to preach" (30). Washington notes that the situation has improved somewhat, and that more men and women were being "called" to industrial occupations.
Washington's people looked to the Federal Government during the Reconstruction period to provide them with what was needed, as it was the central government that had given them freedom. Washington feels it was unfortunate that this government did not make it a requirement that both races possess a certain amount of education, property, or both in order to vote. He also feels that Reconstruction policy was "artificial and forced" (32), and that there were some in the North who forced Negros into positions over southern whites in order to punish southern white men.
Washington, too, was at one time tempted to enter politics, but he felt he could do more help through education. He saw many colored politicians who could not read or write, and who had weak morals. Without education or experience in government, such politicians understandably made a lot of mistakes. Washington believes his race had grown much stronger and wiser by the time of the book's publication, and that blacks would not repeat such mistakes if given political rights. He advocates for voting laws to apply equally to both races, arguing that any other arrangement would be unjust to blacks and whites alike.
After teaching in Malden for two years, Washington studied for eight months in Washington, D.C. Unlike Hampton, this institution did not offer industrial training. Washington found that students there were wealthier and, in some cases, more intelligent than the students at Hampton. The majority did not have to work to pay for their board, books, clothing, and other expenses, and consequently cared more for outward appearances but understood less about life. Hampton students were more self-reliant, as they had learned to help themselves through the industries. They were more likely to work for the betterment of others in the rural and impoverished parts of the South, rather than becoming hotel waiters or porters.
Washington's emphasis on self-improvement extended to the colored people living in the city. Many had been drawn there in the hopes of living an easy life, while others either worked in government or hoped to do so. While there were many worthy black citizens, there were also many who had become alarmingly superficial and would, for instance, spend half their weeks' wages to ride up and down the street in a buggy. Some had little ambition, but expected the government to create a position for them. He also saw girls who were taught the industry of laundering by their mothers, but after attending public school for six or eight years, they no longer wished to practice this occupation and at the same time had more expensive tastes: "In a word, while their wants have increased, their ability to supply their wants had not been increased in the same degree" (34). Washington states that in each case, much would have improved by training the men and women in an industry.
In this chapter Washington explains how blacks during the Reconstruction period aspired to escape a life of manual labor through education and/or politics. Unfortunately, many felt they were qualified to teach or to preach with very little education, and others entered politics without the training or experience needed to do their job properly. He shows how an education lacking in industrial training leads to unsustainable lifestyles, which ultimately adds to people's misery. As such, he continues to support his primary message: that the path to success for his race is through hard work and industrial training, rather than in avoiding such labor.
It is somewhat ironic that Washington highlights his own choice not to enter politics, as he eventually wielded more political power than any other black American of his time. He had a close relationship with Theodore Roosevelt, who regularly consulted Washington on matters involving race and southern policies; furthermore, the president cleared nearly all black political appointments with Washington first. He maintained secret contacts with journalists, even owning partial interests in some black newspapers that allowed him to plant stories and influence coverage. He used his power to keep other black schools from locating near Tuskegee, to obtain political appointments for his supporters, and to keep tabs on organizations that opposed his leadership.
Washington also introduces his political views on voting rights, advocating a meritocracy of sorts in which men of either race must demonstrate a certain level of education and/or property ownership in order to vote. Rather than acknowledging the very real barriers to education and wealth inherent in society, he reveals an underlying belief that with hard work, anyone can lift him or herself out of poverty and ignorance, as he did himself. This rather non-confrontational view later earned him the criticism of prominent African Americans who felt that much more should be done to advocate for civil rights.
It is interesting that Washington does not give the name of the institution he attended in Washington, D.C. Since he compares its students unfavorably to those at Hampton, his choice may be a diplomatic one, as he likely wishes to offend no one who might potentially support his cause.
Chapter 6: Black Race and Red Race
At the close of Washington's time in Washington, D.C., he received an invitation from a committee of whites in Charleston to advocate on behalf of the city to become the new capital of West Virginia. He accepted and spent three months speaking around the state, successfully influencing their choice of capital. He began to form a reputation as a speaker and was encouraged to enter politics. Feeling that he could do more in education, however, he refused, noting that political preferment would be a "selfish kind of success" (35). He felt that it would be more beneficial for him to take steps to pave the way for black people to succeed in their professional goals.
He also returned to Hampton to deliver the commencement address, receiving a warm welcome from teachers and students. Soon afterwards, General Armstrong invited him to return to Hampton, partly as a teacher and partly to continue his studies, due to the fact that the faculty had been very impressed by the students he had prepared and sent to Hampton.
At the time, General Armstrong was experimenting with educating American Indians at Hampton. Washington's initial job was to live with the Indian men as a sort of "house father." He expresses his attitudes and beliefs about the Indians: that they considered themselves to be above both whites and blacks, and that most people considered that the experiment would be a failure. Determined to succeed, however, he established good relationships with his students. He also shares some of the Indians' struggles: "The things that they disliked most, I think, were to have their long hair cut, to give up wearing their blankets, and to cease smoking; but no white American ever thinks that any other race is wholly civilized until he wears the white man's clothes, eats the white man's food, speaks the white man's language, and professes the white man's religion" (37).
Washington found there was little difference between colored and Indian students in terms of learning trades and mastering academic studies. He was also delighted at the positive relationships that developed between the two, with many colored students taking on Indian roommates to teach them English and "civilized habits" (37). He expresses his belief that people "lift themselves up in proportion as they help to lift others" (37), and shares an anecdote in which Frederick Douglass, forced to ride in a baggage car, told his sympathizers that it was not he who was being degraded, but rather those who were inflicting such unjust treatment upon him. He also tells a story of George Washington, who, when meeting a colored man who politely lifted his hat, lifted his own hat in return. In response to his friends' criticism, George Washington said, "Do you suppose that I am going to permit a poor, ignorant, coloured man to be more polite than I am?" (38)
Washington also reflects on the ways in which caste works in America. Once, he was charged with taking a sick Indian boy to Washington, D.C. so that he could be returned to his reservation. On the steamboat, he learned that the Indian could be served dinner, but he could not. Similarly, at a hotel in the city, the clerk told him he could admit the Indian but not Washington. In a second incident, he witnessed a dark-skinned man who had caused a large stir for stopping at the local hotel. When locals thought the man was an American Negro, they were ready to lynch him; but when they found out he was a citizen of Morocco, they were no longer upset.
At the end of Washington's first year with the Indians, he also took charge of the night school. This school allowed students to attend classes for two hours at night, with the condition that they would work for ten hours during the day. They were paid something above their board costs for their work, with most of their earnings held in a fund to pay their board when they later entered the day school. Washington gladly taught a dozen men and women who worked in the sawmill and the laundry during the day, and earnestly studied each night. Due to their eagerness to both work and study, Washington gave them the nickname "The Plucky Class." The night school quickly grew, and at the time of the book's publication served between three and four hundred students.
Washington opens the chapter by reiterating his decision to stay out of politics, noting that doing otherwise would be a "selfish kind of success - individual success at the cost of failing to do my duty in assisting in laying a foundation for the masses" (35). As noted in the analysis to chapter 5, his statement is quite ironic, given the immense amount of political power he eventually wields. It also implies that the way to help his race is through education rather than politics, supporting his view that the path to improved race relations is for blacks to become economically self-sufficient rather than agitating for civil rights.
His description of the Indians at Hampton belies his own stereotyping of other races, just as whites were doing to blacks. He describes them as "wild and for the most part perfectly ignorant" (36) and states other stereotypes as facts: "I knew that the average Indian felt himself above the white man, and, of course, he felt himself far above the Negro, largely on account of the fact of the Negro having submitted to slavery - a thing which the Indian would never do" (36).
The decision to educate Indians at Hampton was, in fact, a political decision by General Armstrong, who understood that Virginia's elites would be more likely to accept an African-American school that also enrolled Native Americans. In addition, both northern and southern philanthropists would be likely to support such an endeavor. The idea was to "civilize" the "savage" Indians and teach them how to dress, speak, work, and behave like whites, much as reservation schools purported to do. The first such Indians were defeated Plains warriors who had been held as prisoners of war in St. Augustine, FL. The black students were made to feel superior in terms of their work habits, language skills, and general progress, in the hopes that Natives' hostilities towards whites would be redirected towards blacks. While Washington's account suggests a greater degree of cooperation between the two races, it does imply a certain superiority of blacks, allowing them to magnanimously demonstrate their high moral character by helping their more ignorant Indian classmates.
This theme of helping others is an oft-recurring one. Washington gives examples of both Frederick Douglass (at the time the de facto leader of the black race) and George Washington to make his point that those who act unjustly demonstrate their own weakness of character, whereas those who behave kindly towards others lower in status lift themselves up. His choice to include these particular men may be a deliberate ploy to draw parallels between himself and well-known leaders, so as to enhance his own image.
It is notable that Washington tells about being the victim of racism while accompanying an Indian youth evenhandedly and without anger or malice. In so doing he expresses both the enormous challenges he faced in improving race relations and his own strength of character, to suppress any emotions that might detract from his image and cost him the support of sympathetic whites.