Character Building  by Booker T. Washington

Chapter 14 On Being Reliable

I am going to call your attention this evening to a tendency of the people of our race which I had occasion to notice in the course of a visit recently made to certain portions of North Carolina and South Carolina.

I find that with persons who are the employers or who might be the employers of numbers of our people, there is a very general impression that as a race we lack steadiness-that we lack steadiness as laborers. Now you may say that this is not true, and you may cite any number of instances to show that we are not unreliable in that respect; whether it is true or not, the results are the same; -it works against us in the matter of secur-ing paying employment.

Almost without exception, in talking with persons who are in a position to employ us, or who have been employing us, or who are think-ing of employing us, I have found that this objection has been very largely in their minds, that we cannot be depended upon, that we are unsteady and unreliable in matters of labor. I am speaking, of course, of that class of people of our race who depend mainly upon a day's work - working by the day, as we call it - for their living. These men with whom I talked gave several illustrations of this tendency. In the first place, I think they mentioned, without exception, this fact-that if the colored people are employed in a factory, they work well and steadily for a few days, say until Saturday night comes, and they are paid their week's wages. Then they cannot be depended upon to put in an appearance the following Monday morning.

That special criticism was made without exception. The colored people, these men said, would work earnestly, and give good satisfaction until they got a little money ahead, and got food enough assured to last them two or three weeks; then they would give up the job, or simply remain away from the factory until others had been put in their places. That was one of the statements that was made to me over and over again.

People also mentioned to me as an unfavorable tendency the incli-nation which the people of our race have to go on excursions. They said that if an excursion were going to Wilmington or Greensboro, or Charleston, and the colored people had a little money on hand, you could not depend on their going to work instead of going on the excur-sion; that people would say that they must go on this or that excursion, and that nothing should stop them. A great many people lose employ-ment and money because of this tendency to go on excursions.

Another thing that was mentioned to me was the Sunday dinners. Our people are too likely to starve all through the week, and then on Sunday invite all the neighbors to come in and eat up what they have made through the week. People say that we take our week's earnings on Saturday night, and go to the market and spend it all, and then invite all of our kindred and neighbors to come in on Sunday to have a great party. Then by Monday morning we have made ourselves so ill by over-eat-ing that we are unfit for work. This was given as one of the reasons which cause people to complain of our race for unsteadiness.

Then there was complaint of a general lack of perseverance, of an unwillingness to be steady, to put money into the bank, to begin at the bottom and gradually work toward the top. You can easily see some of the results of such a reputation as this. I have noticed some of the results in many of the places where our people have been securing paying employ-ment. One result is a general distrust of the entire race in matters per-taining to industry. Another is that people are not going to employ persons on whom they cannot depend, to fill responsible positions. Employers are not likely to employ for responsible positions persons who are likely to go away unexpectedly on excursions.

Another result is loss of money. You will find many of our people in poverty simply because, in so large a measure, we have got this reputation of being unsteady and unreliable. Wherever our people are not getting regular, paying employment, it is largely on account of these things of which I have been speaking; and gradually the opportunities for employment are slipping into the hands of the people of other races. You can easily understand that where people are not getting steady employment - but a job this week and a job next week -- and perhaps nothing the week after - it is impossible for them to put money in the bank, impossible to acquire homes and property, and to settle down as reliable, prosperous citizens.

Now, how are we going to change all these things? I do not see any hope unless we can depend upon you to change them, you young men and young women who are being educated in institutions of learning. It rests largely with you to change public sentiment among our people in all these directions, to a point where we shall feel that we must be as reliable and as responsible as it is possible for the people of any other race to be. But in order to do this it is necessary for you to learn how to control yourselves in these respects.

Young men come here and want to work at this industry or that, for a while, and then get tired and want to change to something else. Some come with a strong determination to work, and stay until something happens that is not quite pleasant, and then they want to leave and go to some other school or go back home. Now we cannot make the leaders and the examples of our people that we should make, if we are going to be guilty of these same weaknesses in these institutions. Let each of you take control of himself or herself, and determine that whatever you plan to be you are going to be; you are going to keep driving away, pegging away, moving on and on each hour, each day, until you have accomplished the purpose for which you came here.

Such are the persons, the men and women, that the world is looking for. These are the men and women we want to send to North Carolina and South Carolina, to Georgia, to Mississippi, and about in our own State of Alabama, to reach hundreds and thousands of our people, and to bring about such a sentiment that these people can control themselves in the directions I have mentioned and become steady and reliable along all the avenues of industry.

I have spoken very plainly about these things, because I believe that they are matters to which as a race we ought to give more attention. No race can thrive and prosper and grow strong if it is living on the outer edges of the industrial world, is jumping here and there after a job that somebody else has given up. At the risk of repeating myself, I say that we must give attention to this matter, we must be more trustworthy and more reliable in matters of labor. As you go home, and go into your churches, your schools and your families, preach, teach and talk from day to day the doctrine that our people must become steady and I reliable, must become worthy of confidence in all their occupations.

I am sorry to say that it is too often true of young people that they overlook these matters in their conversation. We are always ready to talk about Mars and Jupiter, about the sun and moon, and about things under the earth and over the earth-in fact about everything except these little matters that have so much to do with our real living. Now if we cannot put a spirit of determination into you to go out and change public sentiment, then the future for us as a race is not very bright.

But I have faith in you to believe that you are going to set a high standard for yourselves in all these matters, and that if you can stay here two, four, five years, some of you will control yourselves, in all those respects, and will bring yourselves to be examples of what we hope and expect the people whom you are going to teach are to become. If you will do this you will find that in a few years there will be a decided change for the better in the things of which I have spoken, a change in regard to these matters that will make us as a race firmer and stronger in these important directions.