Table of Contents
Character Building by Booker T. Washington
Chapter 25 What You Ought To Do
IT is comparatively easy to perform almost any kind of work, but the value of any work is in having it performed so that the desired results may be most speedily reached and in having the means with which the worker labors arranged so as to meet certain ends. It is the constant problems of those organs which have charge of the well-being of the body, to cause digestion to take place, so that what is nourishing in tie food may reach every part of the body; not only the portions near the organs in which digestion takes place, but also the most extreme parts of the different members.
Just so it is the aim of all persons who are accustomed to making public addresses to try to make those who are far away from them hear them as well as those who sit near. In this same way, it seems to me more and more every year, it is going to be the main object of all our schools in the South to make their influence felt most forcibly among those who are remote from them.
How can we reach the masses who are remote- I mean remote from educational advantages and from opportunities for encourage-ment and enlightenment? The problem in the rural districts is difficult because of the vastness of the number to be reached, and of the frequent difficulty of reaching them. We must keep this fact before us, then; that institutions of this kind are of little value unless they can pave the way to make the results of their work felt among the masses of the people who are especially remote from these institutions.
It is a fact, as most of you know, that we very seldom meet with a thoroughly well-educated teacher in the rural districts, in spite of the passing of over thirty years since we became men and women. You know, too, that the same thing is, in too large a measure, true of the ministry. The responsibility for reaching these people, for, affecting them for good, rests upon the young men and young women who are being educated in these Southern institutions today.
What are you going to do as your part towards reaching these people, towards carrying to them the light which they need so much and so earnestly long for? Difficult as this problem is, it is not a discour-aging one, because these people are ready to follow the light as soon as they are sure that the right kind of light is set up before them. You very seldom meet with a colored man who is not conscious of his ignorance, and who is not anxious to get up as soon as he finds himself down. In this respect the problem is encouraging.
One of the ways in which the problem is serious is with respect to labor. In almost every city and town in the South a large propor-tion of the colored people are shiftless so far as manual labor is concerned, although I think there is already improvement. The masses of our people are given to thrift and industry, and to unremitting toil, in their way. The hard thing about it, the discouraging thing, is that they do not know how to realize on the results of their toil; because they have no education and little idea of industrial development, they do not know how to make their work tell for what it ought to. As a general thing the people-those in the country especially -do not ask anybody to come and give them food, clothing and houses; all they ask is for some person, some honest, upright man or woman who is interested in their welfare, to come among them and show them how to direct their efforts and their energy, show them how best to realize an .the results of their work, so that they can supply their own moral, religious and material needs and educate their children.
And you will find that wherever this institution, Hampton, Talladega, Fisk, Atlanta or any other, can put in the midst of the people young men and young women who will settle down among them and make their lives object lessons for the people -plant a good school and convince the people that the teacher has settled down there to stay through encouraging or discouraging circumstances-you will find that such a teacher will not only be encouraged, but will be supported ma-terially. In every way there will be an opportunity for that person to revolutionize the community. That opportunity is open to you. It is an opportunity which is being opened to no other set of young men and young women who are being educated anywhere else in the world. Are you going to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of this oppor-tunity?
I was talking with a gentleman last night who has recently spent some time in one of the Southern states, and he told me that in hardly any country district in that state was there a public school which is kept open longer than four months. He tells me that the average salary in some of those districts is little more than fifteen dollars a month. In another state the condition of the people is about the same. In our own state perhaps the conditions are worse even than in the states referred to. In some counties in Alabama, the people are this year receiving no money to run their schools more than three and a half months in the year; except, of course, in the cities and towns. In some counties the teachers are being paid only twelve to twenty dollars, and there are possibly some where the teachers get not more than ten dollars from the state fund.
I was talking with a gentleman from another state not long ago about the material condition of the people in that state, and he told me that so far as their industrial life is concerned, the masses are in a very bad condition this year; that they are too often at the mercy of the landowners- I refer to the persons who run the large plantations and that the same thing is largely true of all of the cotton-raising states. I need not go on to describe to you the moral results that must inevitably follow such a condition of things. I need not take your time to tell you that there can be little morality or religion among people who are so ignorant as these people, and who do not know where they are going to get anything to eat. It is needless to describe the train of moral evils that must follow such conditions as these.
What I have attempted to describe to you as existing to-day in these country districts may not be very encouraging, but it seems to me that every young man and young woman who has enjoyed the privileges afforded by this and by other institutions in the South- I speak especially now to the members of the next graduating class should feel that such conditions as these present one of the most invit-ing fields possible for labor. Every young man and woman here is being educated by money that is given by others. None of you are paying for the education you are receiving. You might pay for your board, but you would have to do that elsewhere. Everyone must pay for his or her own clothing, but the cost of buildings, rent, tuition, expenses and other matters pertaining to the institution you do not pay. Your education, in a large measure, is a gift from the public, and it seems to me that one of the first things you should do is to repay, to as large an extent as is possible with your services, what has been spent in giving you so large a part of your education.
This is a debt that you owe not only to yourselves, but to our race and our country. It is a religious debt as well, that you be willing to go out into these country districts and suffer, as it were, for a few years, until you can get a foothold, so that you can plant yourselves in one of these dark communities. I feel sure that you would not have to suffer very long. I believe that the hardest part of the struggle would come during the first two or three years. When you can con-vince the people that you are in earnest, the battle is won. When you can convince them that it is cheaper to keep an educated teacher than to keep one who is ignorant, and when you can once demonstrate your value to them not only in an educational respect but industrially and morally, the battle is won, and these people will stand by you and support you. In many cases, it is my belief that you will eventually find yourselves better supported financially than you would if you had gone to work in cities and large towns. No matter from which side you look at this problem, good is bound to come from it.
And while we ate talking about the reward that will come as a result of your services, let me tell you that no greater satisfaction can come to anyone than that which you will get from the worship and praise which will come to you from these old mothers and fathers who will be benefited by your services. I know of instances where teachers have gone and planted themselves in these country districts who, even if they do not make such a very great success financially, receive the love and most sincere worship from year to year, because of the feeling of gratitude which the people among whom they have settled have for them on account of their having helped them in so many ways.
This same kind of pioneer work had to be done all over the world before the right kind of civilization was planted. It was such work as this that the people did who settled the great West, where they were deprived of the comforts of life. The people who planted Oberlin College lit what was then a wilderness had to suffer many such hard-ships. The men who went to Washington, Oregon, and California and established what now large Cities there are, had to suffer many such hardships; they had to suffer just what you must and should suffer. Are you going to suffer for your own people until they can receive the light which they so much need? If the young men and women before me have the right kind of stuff in them they will do this. Most certainly do I hope that you are going to carry out into these dark communi-ties the light which you receive here from day to day. I hope you will fill these districts with men and women of education. When you go out from here with your diploma, whether it be next Mayor at some other time, resolve to plant yourself in one community and stay there. No matter what your work is, you cannot accomplish much if you become the wandering Jew. Find the community where you think you can use your life to the best advantage, and then stay there.
In the time that has elapsed since this talk was given, I think there has been improvement in many of the country schools in the South, and in the general condition of the people as described to me then-B. T. W.