Character Building  by Booker T. Washington

Chapter 17 Keeping Your Word

I do not want to speak to you continually upon subjects that tend to show up the weaker traits of character which our race has, but there are some characteristic points in our life so important that it seems to me well that we emphasize those which are especially weak just now.

A few weeks ago I mentioned two or three examples which had come under my own personal observation, of the unreliability of the race, and to those I now add one or two more.

On three distinct occasions, while traveling, I have found it neces-sary to make engagements with hack men to call at a certain hour in the morning to take me to an early train, and on no one of these occasions has the hack man kept his word. In the first case the man disappointed me entirely, so that I had to walk to the station, a distance of a mile or more. In the second instance the hack man was to come at six o'clock, and did not come until half-past six. By that time I had started to walk, and had gone two or three squares, meeting him on the way to the place where I had stopped. In the third case the man was at least an hour late when we met him, after we had walked over half the distance to the station.

I have spoken at another time of the fact that men who employ colored workmen have complained to me that after these men had drawn a week's pay, they could not be depended upon to return to work the next Monday morning. In the city of Savannah, Georgia, there are a great many colored men employed as stevedores men who load and unload ships. If you have read the newspapers carefully you will have noticed that recently the persons who employ these men have made a new rule, by which they refuse to pay the stevedores all of their wages at the end of the week, but retain two days' payout of each week, from every individual who works for them, to be paid to them at the end of the next week. Of course the men do not lose anything in the end by this method; it simply means that so long as they work for one employer there are at least two days' pay due them. Of course the laborers whose wages were thus kept back have made a great noise about it, but when their employers were asked for an explanation, they said: "We find by experi-ence that if we pay you all that we owe you on Saturday night, we cannot depend upon your returning on Monday morning to continue your work. You are apt to get drunk, or to debauch yourselves on Sunday so that you are unfitted for your work the next day." This is the decision these men have arrived at after having employed these men for a number of years.

Now think of the things I have spoken to you about. You may say with regard to the last, that to a great extent this action on the part of the Savannah employers was due to prejudice, to a desire to use the . money withheld for their own selfish purposes, and because they had the power to do so, but you can very easily understand that if a person goes on being disappointed month after month in his business, he will soon conclude that it is best for him to try a hack man of some other color and disposition, and that if these Savannah employers find year after year that they cannot depend on colored men to give them thor-ough, regular, systematic labor, they are going to look out for persons of another race who will do their work properly.

It is not necessary for me to continue in this strain, and to call atten-tion to other incidents of this kind, to show, as I have told you before, that one of the weak points which we as a race must fight against, is that of not being reliable. Of course I understand that it is not always possi-ble for a person to keep an engagement, but if he cannot, it is very rarely the case that he cannot send word to the person with whom he has made the engagement of his inability to keep his part of it. In the case of the hack men who disappointed me, if they had sent word two or three hours ahead of the time, that they could not come, or if they had sent another hack man to fill the engagement for them, I should have thought nothing about it. In the case of those Savannah laborers, when they found they could not go back to their work promptly, if they had sent word to that effect, their absence, perhaps, could have been excused. But it is this habit of disappointing people in business matters without apparent care or concern that has given the race the damaging reputation which it has for unreliability.

I speak of these things repeatedly and so plainly because I am constantly meeting persons who are employers or who would be employ-ers of our people, and they tell me every time when I speak to them about work, that their only objection to employing colored labor is this very matter I have been speaking of, its unreliability. Many of them say that they want to employ colored people, would be glad to give them places of responsibility, but that they cannot find men who will stick to their work.

You may say that it is impossible for us to grow and develop, to get positions of trust and responsibility that will pay good wages, simply because we are colored. I will give you an example on this very point. A few days ago I was in New Orleans, visiting a large sugar refinery. The firm which operates this refinery employs from two hundred to three hundred men. I found the young man who has charge of all the book-keeping of the firm, through whose hands all the business and cash of the firm pass-I found this man to be colored, and that all the other persons filling responsible positions under him were white.

I remember some two or three years ago having met one of the partners of this firm in the White Mountains, and he told me at that time of this young man. He told me that a great many persons came to him and said: "You ought not to have this colored man filling this position when there are so many white persons who want the place.”He told me that he said to these persons" This young man does my work better than anyone else I have yet found, and so long as he does this, so long shall I employ him." This gentleman has since died, but the business is in the hands of his widow, who has so much confidence in the ability of this young colored man to manage the affairs of a great busi-ness- Mr. Lewis is his name ; perhaps some of you know him that he is retained, practically at the head of this great establishment. This single instance shows that notwithstanding his color a man can rise for what is in him; that he can advance when he shows that he can be depended upon.

Remember that whether you are hack men, or business men, it pays whenever you cannot fill an engagement to explain beforehand why you cannot, and that unless you make a practice of doing this, it will be impossible for you to get ahead or to attain to places of trust and responsi-bility, no matter how much education you may have.

As I have so often said before, if we cannot send out from Tuskegee and similar schools young men and women who can be depended upon, our reputation as a race, for the years that are to come, is not going to be very bright. On the other hand, if we can succeed in sending out young men and women with a high sense of responsibility, who can at all times be relied upon to be prompt in business matters, we shall have gone a long way in redeeming the character of the race and in lifting it up. In this important matter all of you can help. Do not wait until you go out from Tuskegee, but begin to-morrow morning, every boy and girl, to be reliable and to keep at it until reliability becomes a part of you.