Character Building  by Booker T. Washington

Chapter 20 The Negro Conference

FOR eight or nine years, now, it has been our custom to hold here what is known as the Tuskegee Negro Conference. A number of years ago it occurred to some of us that instead of confining the work of this institution to the immediate body of students gathered within its walls, we perhaps could extend and broaden its scope so as to reach out to, and try to help, the parents of the students and the older people in the country districts, and, to some extent, if possible, in the cities also.

With this end in view, we, some years ago, invited a number of men and women to come and spend the day with us, and, while here, to tell us in a very plain and straightforward manner something about their material, moral and religious condition. Then the afternoon of that same day was spent in hearing from these same~ men and women suggestions as to how they thought this institution and other institutions might help them, and also how they thought they might help themselves.

Out of these simple and small meetings has grown what we now call "The Tuskegee Negro Conference," which, in the last few years, has grown until it numbers from nine hundred to twelve hundred persons. We not only have that large number of persons, most of whom come from farms and are engaged in farm work, but we now also have "The Workers' Conference," which meets on the day following the Negro Conference. This Workers Conference brings together representatives from all the larger institutions for the education of the Negro in the South.

Now these meetings for this year begin next Wednesday morning, and the practical question that I wish to discuss with you to-night is what can we do to make that Conference a success? What can you do for the Conference, and what can the Conference do for you?

I wish you to grasp the idea that is growing through the country- that very few institutions now confine themselves and their work to mere teaching in the class-room, in the old-fashioned manner. Very few now confine themselves and their work to the comparatively small number of students that they can reach in that way, as they did a few years ago. In many cases they have their college extension work. In one way or another they are reaching out and getting hold of the young people-and getting a hold on the older people as well. And just so, to a very large degree, through this Conference, Tuskegee is doing something of the same kind of thing.

During these few days we shall have hundreds of the farmers, with their wives and daughters, gathered here. We want each and every one of you here in the institution to make up your mind that you can do something to help these people. We want each one of you here to-night to feel that he or she has a special responsibility during the time these' people are gathered together at Tuskegee. We sometimes speak of it as their one day of schooling in the whole year,-that is, the one day out of the whole three hundred and sixty-five days in the year when, perhaps, they will give the greatest amount of attention to matters pertaining to themselves. In inviting them here, not only the teachers and officers of this institution have a responsibility, but each and every student here also has a responsibility. I want you to feel that, and see to what extent you can take hold of these people while they are here, to inspire and encourage them, so as to have them go away from here feeling that it is worth their while to come to the Institute for this meeting, even if as is true of some of them-they have come a long distance.

Some of these people who will come here are ignorant, so far as books are concerned, but I want you to know that not every person who cannot read and write is ignorant. Some of the persons, whom I have met and from whom I have learned much, are persons who cannot write a word. Very many of the people who will come here may not be able to read or write, but we can learn something from them notwithstand-ing, while they are here, and they can learn something from us.

I want you to take delight in getting hold of these people and taking them through our shops, guiding them through our various agricultural and mechanical departments. Be sure that you exert every effort possi-ble to make them comfortable and happy while they are here. Here-tofore the students have been so generous, at the time of this meeting, that many of them, if necessary, have given up their rooms that these people might have a comfortable night's rest. I do not know where you have slept, but I do not think that in the history of the school a student was ever asked to give up his room to any of these people that he did not gladly and freely do so. I believe that you are going to do the same thing this year.

I want you, also, to remember that you not only can help the Conference to he a success by being polite and kindly to the farmers who come from this and other Southern States, but also by being polite and attentive to the representatives from the large institutions that will be here. We will have present representatives from every large institution engaged in the education of our people. It means much for the princi-pals and instructors in these large colleges and industrial schools to leave their work and come as far as many of them do, to spend these days here. We have a responsibility on their account; we desire them to feel that it has been worth their while to leave their work and spend their time and money to come here for these meetings. We wish them to get some-thing out of our industries here; we wish them to get something out of the training here, in every department, something which they can take back to their own institution to make their work there stronger and better.

Now as to yourselves, you can get something out of this Conference for yourselves, by getting hold of everything possible, so that when you go out from Tuskegee you will have just that much more helpful infor-mation to put into practice. I want to see you go out through the South and establish local conferences. Call them together, and teach the same kind of lessons that we teach at these gatherings at Tuskegee. You can get the most out of this Conference by putting into practice this effort to make other people happy. To get the greatest happiness out of life is to make somebody else happy. To get the greatest good out of life is to do something for somebody else. I want you to find the persons who are most ignorant and most poverty stricken; I want you to find the persons who are most forlorn and most discouraged, and do something for them to make their hours happy. In doing that, you will do the most for your-selves.

I want each boy and each girl who belongs to this institution to be deep down in his or her heart a gentleman or a lady. A gentleman means simply this: a generous person; one who has learned to be kind; one who has learned to think not of himself first, but of the happiness and welfare of others. Let us put this spirit into our Conference day the coming week, and the day and week will be the greatest and most successful and we have ever had. Let our resolution be that the persons who come here, whether they represent a university, a college, an industrial school, a farm, or a shop-let our resolve be that when these people leave here they shall take away with them from Tuskegee some-thing that will make their lives happier, brighter, stronger and more useful.