Character Building  by Booker T. Washington

Chapter 21 What About Our Future?

Last Thursday afternoon I received a telegram from a gentleman stopping for a time in a city in Georgia, asking me to come there at once on important business; and being rather curious to know what he wanted of me, I went. I found that this man was in the act of making his will, and that he had in mind the putting aside of a consid-erable sum in his will-some $20,000, in fact-for this institution.

The special point upon which this gentleman wished to consult me was the future of the Institution. He said that he had worked very hard for his money, that it had come as a result of much sacrifice and hard effort, and that there were friends of his who were beseeching him to use his money in other directions, because they thought it would be more likely to do permanent good elsewhere. And so he wished to know what the future of this Institution is likely to be, because he did not care to risk his money upon an uncertain venture, one that was likely to prosper for a few years, and then fail. He said that he would not like to give his money to an institution where it would not go on through the years, accomplishing a certain amount of good. Accordingly the question he repeated to me over and over again was: "What is to be the future of Tuskegee?" He wished to know whether, if we were given the money, it would go on from year to year, bless-ing one generation after another.

My point in speaking to you to-night is to emphasize what I think our good friend Professor Brown has already brought to our attention in one or two of his talks to us this week, the importance of making this institution what it ought to be, what its reputation gives it, and what its name implies.

More and more I realize-and I remember that the gentleman of whom I have spoken repeated this to me with great emphasis-that so far as the outside world is concerned, Tuskegee is sure; you need not have the least doubt that the institution will be supported. If we keep things right at the institution, if it is worthy of support, the moneyed people of the country will support it and stand by it. More and more each year this impression grows upon me, and more and more each year there are convincing evidences of the fact that the permanence and growth of this institution do not rest upon whether the people of the South or the people of the North are going to support it with their means. I have the most implicit confidence that the institution is going to be supported. But the question that comes to us with the greatest force is: "Are we going to be worthy of that support? Shall we be worthy of the confidence of the public?" That is the question that is most serious; that is the question that presses most heavily upon my heart, and upon the hearts of the other teachers here.

Now these questions can be answered satisfactorily only by evidence that each student, each individual connected with the school in any way, no matter in how low or high a capacity, is putting his or her whole conscience into the work here. When I say work, I mean study of books, work of the hand, effort of the body, willingness of the heart. No matter what the thing is, put your conscience into it; do your best. Let it be possible for you to say: "I have put my whole soul into my study, into my work, into whatever I have attempted. Whatever I have done I have honestly endeavored to do to the best of my abil-ity. "

The questions which this gentleman asked me, and similar kinds of questions, are being asked over and over again by people all over the country. The question can be answered only by our putting our consciences into our work, and by our being entirely unselfish in it. Let every person get into the habit of planning every day for the comfort and welfare of others, let each one try to live as unselfishly as possible, remembering that the Bible says: "He that would save his life, must lose it." And you never saw a person save his life in this higher sense, in the Christ-like sense, unless that person was willing, day by day, to lose himself in the interest of his fellow-men. Such persons save their own lives, and in saving them save thousands of other lives.

Such questions as these can be satisfactorily answered not merely by our putting our consciences into every effort, no matter what the effort may be, but by improving, day by day, upon what has been done the day before. In large institutions and establishments it is comparatively easy to find persons who will sweep a room day by day, or plough a field during certain seasons of the year, and do other work at certain other seasons of the year, but the difficulty comes in finding persons who make improvements in the manner of sweeping rooms, of plowing fields and planting corn. The question for us is: "Are we going to put so many brains into our efforts every year that we are going to go on steadily and constantly improving from year to year?" Are you going to get into the habit of so thinking about your work here that the habit will become, as it were, a part of yourself, so that when you go out into the world you will not be satisfied to take a position and go on in the same humdrum manner, but will not be satisfied until your work has been improved in every possible detail, and made easier, more systematic, and more convenient?

We must put brains into our work. There must be improvement in every department of this institution every year. It is absolutely impossible for an institution to stand still; it must go forward or back-ward, grow better or worse each year. An institution grows stronger and more useful each year, or weaker and less useful.

This institution can grow only by each person putting his thought into his work, by planning how he can improve the work of his partic-ular department, by constantly striving to make his work more useful to the institution, by keeping the place where he works cleaner, and making his work more business-like and more systematic. That is the only way in which the questions which people all over the country are asking about this institution can be satisfactorily answered.

You will find that people will look to us more and more for tangi-ble results. Not only here, but all over the country, our race is going to be called on to answer the question: "What can the race really accomplish?" It is perfectly well understood by our friends as well as by our enemies that we can write good newspaper articles and make good addresses, that we can sing well and talk well, and all that kind of thing is perfectly well understood and conceded. But the question that will be more and more forced upon us for an answer is: "Can we work out our thoughts; can we put them into tangible shape, so that the world may see from day to - day actual evidences of our intellectuality?"

Last winter I was in the town of Clinton, Iowa. I think I had never heard of the place before, and when I got there I was surprised to find it a place of more than 16,000 inhabitants. The gentleman who was to entertain me wanted to take me to a colored restaurant. I expected to go into a restaurant of the kind operated by our people generally, and I was very much surprised when he took me into a large, two-story building. I found the floors carpeted, and everything about the place as pleasant and attractive as it was possible to make it. In fact the restaurant compared very favorably with many in the largest cities in the country. I found the waiters clean, the service good, and everything conducted in the most systematic manner. And there was not the least thing, except the color of the proprietor's skin, to show that the place was operated by colored people.

Afterward my friend took me into another establishment of the same size, operated in the same creditable manner by another colored man. In both I found that these gentlemen not only carried on a regular restaurant business, but manufactured their own candies and ice cream, and did a sort of wholesale catering business. I asked the white people there what they thought of the colored people, and I did not find a single white person who did not have the most implicit confidence in the colored people. The trouble was that there were not many colored people there. That accounts possibly for the good opinion which the white people have of them. But you see what just two black men can do. These people had never seen many black people, but fortunately for us they had with them two of the best specimens of our race that I have ever seen anywhere in this country. As a result you do not find anyone cursing the black man in that town. Everybody had the utmost confidence in black people, and respected them.

Just in proportion as we can establish object lessons of this kind all over the country, you will find that the problem that now is so perplexing will disappear. Until we do this, we shall not be able to talk away, or to argue away, this prejudice. We cannot talk our way into our rights; we must work our way, think our way, into them. And you will find that just in proportion as we do this, we are going to get all we deserve.