Chapter 7: Early Days at Tuskegee
Near the end of Washington's first year teaching at the night school, General Armstrong approached him with the opportunity to take charge of a school for colored people in the town of Tuskegee, Alabama. Tuskegee was located in what was known as the Black Belt of the south, in which colored people outnumbered whites. Washington expected to find a building and everything needed to begin teaching. While he was disappointed in that regard, he did find "that which no costly building and apparatus can supply - hundreds of hungry, earnest souls who wanted to secure knowledge" (41).
Washington found Tuskegee to be an ideal place for a school. The town had been an educational center for whites, and therefore the white people of the town had more culture and education than in most places. The colored people, though ignorant, did not have the sort of vices found in large cities. In general, race relations were pleasant; for instance, the town hardware store was jointly owned and operated by two men of different races.
While ironically there was money for teacher salaries from the state government, there was no provision for land, buildings, or supplies. Washington initially found a dilapidated building near the Methodist church, which together with the church could be used as an assembly room. Both were in such poor condition that the ceilings often leaked when it rained.
The people he met were intent that he should vote as they did - exactly the opposite of however the white man voted. Washington notes that he is pleased that black voters are now learning to vote for whatever seems to be best for both races.
Washington also traveled through Alabama to learn about the life of the people and to advertise the school. He found that families tended to sleep in one room, along with others outside the immediate family. There was rarely a provision inside the cabin to bathe, although this could usually be found outside. People's diets consisted mainly of fat pork and cornbread, both purchased at high prices from a store in town. Rather than raising vegetables to eat, families planted cotton. In the midst of this poverty, however, Washington often saw sewing machines or showy clocks. One family of four had just one fork, yet they had also purchased a sixty-dollar organ they were paying off in installments - despite having no one in the household who could play it! People typically spent weekdays in the cotton fields and Saturdays in town, doing little more than standing in the streets. The crops were typically mortgaged and most farmers were in debt.
Schooling typically happened in churches or log cabins, with often no way to heat the building during the winter. The teachers in these schools were poorly prepared and often had poor moral characters. School was in session for just a few months a year, and there were few supplies beyond an occasional blackboard. Washington found similar conditions among church buildings and ministers.
Washington explains that the reasons he has described these conditions is in order to later emphasize the many positive changes that have taken place, through the work of the Tuskegee Institute and other institutions.
In this chapter Washington highlights the extremely poor conditions in Alabama before the opening of Tuskegee. In a sense, he is showing the nature of the "rags" in a "rags-to-riches" story, in which through hard work he manages to uplift not only his own life, but also the lives of countless others.
He includes an amusing anecdote that highlights ignorant voting practices: "At the time I went to Alabama the colored people were taking considerable interest in politics, and they were very anxious that I should become one of them politically, in every respect... I recall that one man, who seemed to have been designated by the others to look after my political destiny, came to me on several occasions and said, with a good deal of earnestness: 'We wants you to be sure to vote jes' like we votes. We can't read de newspapers very much, but we knows how to vote, an' we wants you to vote jes' like we votes.' He added: 'We watches de white man, and we keeps watching de white man till we finds out which way de white man's gwine to vote; an' when we finds out which way de white man's gwine to vote, den we votes 'xactly de other way. Den we knows we's right" (42). Notably, Washington did not include this anecdote in his first autobiography, intended for less literate readers, as it could have angered poor black supporters. Its inclusion here lends support to his view on voting rights, as he earlier states that he is in favor of an educational requirement for voting as long as it applies equally to members of both races.
In line with his emphasis on self-reliance, Washington also condemns the wasteful spending of poor colored families. This spending contrasts with the behavior of his mother, whom he earlier praised for sewing him a hat rather than going into debt to purchase one.
Chapter 8: Teaching School in a Stable and a Hen-House
After spending a month seeing the actual life of the colored people in Alabama, Washington was struck with the enormity of his task. He became more convinced than ever that his students needed much more than mere book learning.
He set July 4, 1881 as the opening day for Tuskegee. Both white and colored people were quite interested in the event. However, some whites feared it might bring about trouble between the races. They felt that educated blacks might leave the farms, and that it would be more difficult to find domestic servants.
Washington mentions the men who asked General Armstrong to recommend a director for Tuskegee: Mr. George W. Campbell (a white former slave holder) and Mr. Lewis Adams (a former slave). He is effusive in his praise for these men, both for their vision and their support over 19 years in helping to execute that vision. He felt that Mr. Adams was particularly wise due to his mastery of three different trades as a slave.
Thirty students reported for school on the first day, most from the county in which Tuskegee is located. More had wished to enroll, but Washington had decided to admit just those over 15 who had previously received some schooling. The majority were public school teachers themselves, and some were placed lower in classes than their former pupils. Some had studied Latin or Greek and felt this entitled them to "special distinction" (46). Many were fond of memorizing complicated rules in grammar or math, but they could not apply these rules to anything in their daily life. Most wanted an education because they thought it would help them to earn more money as teachers. By the end of the first month, there were nearly fifty students enrolled, although many said they hoped to get a diploma in their first year as they could attend for only a few months.
After 6 weeks a new teacher arrived: Ms. Olivia A. Davidson, who later became Washington's wife. She was born and educated in Ohio, but had also spent time working in southern schools in Mississippi and Memphis. A humanitarian at heart, she volunteered to nurse a boy with smallpox when nobody else would, and to become a yellow-fever nurse despite lacking immunity to the disease. Like Washington, she believed the people of the south needed more than just book-learning and was attracted to the work of the Hampton Institute. With the help of donors, she studied at Hampton and then at the Massachusetts State Normal School. Soon afterwards she arrived at Tuskegee, where she became an integral part of the school.
Washington and Davidson shared a vision to teach their students far more than books, including bathing, caring for their teeth and clothing, diet, table manners, keeping their room's clean, and the practical knowledge of some industry that would allow them to make a living. Since agriculture was such a large part of life in the South, they wanted to ensure that graduates returned to their plantation districts and showed their communities how to improve farming with new ideas.
At first, the only structures at Tuskegee were an old shanty and an abandoned church, while the number of students was rising daily. After three months, an abandoned plantation came up for sale about a mile from town. The price was low for the dilapidated house and grounds ($500), and the owner agreed to accept half the money down, with the remainder to be paid within one year. However, it was still a challenge to raise these funds, as they were strangers in town with little money and no credit. Fortunately, General J. F. B. Marshall, Treasurer of the Hampton Institute, answered Washington's plea with a loan from his personal funds. While grateful, Washington felt the burden heavily of having to repay such a large amount of money.
The new farm consisted of a cabin, an old kitchen, a stable, and an old hen house, each of which were repaired and used for the school. The students performed nearly all the work after their classes each day. At first they balked at the thought of clearing land to plant crops, as they felt it would be beneath their dignity, and they could not see the connection with their education. However, when Washington himself led the way, they assisted and soon cleared and planted 20 acres.
In the meantime, Davidson worked at raising funds to repay the loan, planning festivals with donations of food from both black and white families in the community and also asking for direct gifts of cash. One elderly woman, a former slave, donated six eggs, all that she could afford. Washington felt it was the most touching donation he ever received.
In this chapter, Washington shares the initial improvements to the school from its bare beginnings described in Chapter 7. These are still "rags" in the "rags-to-riches" story, but he shows how rather than getting discouraged by such a meager start, he began to see progress as the result of hard work.
He expands on the recurring themes of self-reliance and the dignity of labor, showing how Davidson too had realized through her work in the south that students needed to learn practical skills in addition to book learning. He gives the example of Lewis Adams, one of the men who had asked General Armstrong to recommend a leader for Tuskegee, whose mental alacrity he attributes to his knowledge of three trades learned during his time as a slave. Since many of his students come to him with an opposing idea - thinking that education will allow them to avoid working with their hands - he teaches these values by example, leading the way to clear the land on Tuskegee's new property and plant crops. Just as he had been inspired by Miss Mary Mackie cleaning Hampton's facilities at his side, it seems his students were inspired by their leader's willingness to do the work he expected of them.
Washington continues to pander to his white audience, pointing out that whites as well as blacks were generous with their donations to Tuskegee and even directly stating that "Miss Davidson did not apply to a single white family, so far as I now remember, that failed to donate something" (49). He also illustrates his goal of "civilizing" his students, teaching them habits and manners (such as bathing, brushing their teeth, and using good table manners) that would likely appeal to whites.
Sharing stories of generosity - for example, telling of the former slave who donated her savings of six eggs - not only demonstrates the value Washington placed on giving and helping others, but also shows the strong support he had from the community, despite the fact that some whites initially feared what would happen if blacks were educated.
Chapter 9: Anxious Days and Sleepless Nights
Washington gained more insight into the lives of the people of Alabama by witnessing their Christmas traditions. The day before, scores of children knocked on doors asking for "Chris'mus gifts!" (50). Following the traditions of slave times, there followed a week of debauchery with drunkenness and time off work. Visiting local families, he found some with just 10 cents worth of ginger cakes, a few pieces of sugar cane, or a jug of cheap whiskey as the only signifiers of the holy season. He contrasts these observations with the manner in which Tuskegee students were taught to spend the season: caring for others. Some helped rebuild a cabin for a 75-year-old woman, while others who generously donated coats for a fellow student in need.
Washington felt strongly that Tuskegee should be an integral part of its community. While it was important to have friends in Boston, it was just as important to have white friends in Tuskegee. He reports proudly that "the Tuskegee school at the present time has no warmer and more enthusiastic friends anywhere than it has among the white citizens of Tuskegee and throughout the state of Alabama and the entire South" (52). With the help of these white friends, after three months the school had enough money to repay General Marshall's loan. Two months later, they had enough to pay the rest of the money to purchase the property. The majority of this money came from small individual donations and activities such as festivals and concerts.
Their next goal was to increase the cultivation of the land and to train students in agricultural techniques. The choice to begin with farming was practical: "We began with farming, because we wanted something to eat" (52). They also wished to start an industrial system so that students could earn enough money to remain in school for the entire session.
As the school's numbers were growing, it was important to build a large central building, estimated to cost around $6000. A southern white man offered to provide the needed lumber on credit, and Davidson began asking the community for donations. One man gave a hog, and others volunteered several days' labor.
Having raised all that she could locally, Davidson traveled north to solicit donations, speaking in front of individuals, churches, and organizations. Despite not loving the process, she proved to be a competent fundraiser. Her first contributor was a woman who donated $50 after talking with her on the boat north. Davidson was not terribly strong, and once fell asleep in the parlor when calling upon a potential donor in Boston.
The need for money was always acute, but the school had a great deal of luck. Once, Washington had promised a creditor to pay him $400 by a certain day. That morning they had no money at all; yet that morning, a check arrived in the mail for exactly $400. The generous donors, who were two ladies from Boston, ended up giving $6000 every year for 14 years.
The students were responsible for digging the foundations. Although many initially complained, feeling they had come "to be educated, and not to work" (54), they gradually began to realize the value of labor. The laying of the cornerstone was a momentous event, coming just 16 years after the abolition of slavery. The address was given by the Superintendent of Education for the county and was attended by teachers, students, parents, county officials, and leading members of the community. Both blacks and whites wished to place some memento under the cornerstone.
Washington was often anxious about finding the money for buildings and equipment. He felt the weight of his endeavor, noting, "I knew that, in a large degree, we were trying an experiment - that of testing whether or not it was possible for Negroes to build up and control the affairs of a large education institution. I knew that if we failed it would injure the whole race" (55) However, everyone he approached in Tuskegee helped as much as they could, and even General Armstrong donated a large amount from his personal funds. He was careful to keep the school's credit high, recalling the advice of his mentor Mr. Campbell that "credit is capital" (55).
In 1882, Washington married Miss Fannie N. Smith, who had also attended Hampton. After giving birth to a daughter, Portia, she passed away two years later. Washington is lavish in his praise of her efforts towards the school, mourning that she died "before she had an opportunity of seeing what the school was designed to be" (55).
Washington opens the chapter by juxtaposing the behavior of uneducated blacks with those of Tuskegee students at Christmastime. In so doing, he shows his audience how Tuskegee is improving not only the skills and intellects but also the morals of the students - something that is likely to greatly appeal to white supporters.
Drawing such juxtapositions is a repeated literary device. In other chapters he shows how Tuskegee started with just a few dilapidated buildings, yet grew into an impressive and wealthy institution. Here, after telling of the school's first animal - a blind horse - he contrasts it with the wealth of livestock the school now owns of "over two hundred horses, colts, mules, cows, calves, and oxen, and about seven hundred hogs and pigs, as well as a large number of sheep and goats" (52). This rhetorical device not only demonstrates his own achievements, but may also show his black supporters that they, too, can rise above their initial circumstances to achieve greatness, however low their beginnings may be.
Washington also continues to stress that help from strangers can profoundly change others' lives. Just as he is generous with his thanks in earlier chapters to those who helped him obtain an education, he is now generous with praise and thanks for those who give to the school, both from the north and the south.
It is an apt metaphor that Tuskegee students dug the foundation for the school's first major building, as Washington felt that learning to do useful work was the foundation for improving the lives of southern blacks. Just as each experience in Washington's life has served as a foundation for the next, his students learn that success starts with growing food and constructing the buildings that will make possible the education that they crave.