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Faces From The Past-viii

July 2024
3min read

The most damnable outrage ever!” the Memphis Scimitar called it. President Theodore I Roosevelt, it was learned, had entertained a I black man at dinner at the White House, and I the reaction was about what might have been expected in America in 1901. One southern newspaper described the affair as “a crime equal to treason”; an editor warned that “no Southern woman with proper respect would now accept an invitation to the White House.” And “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, the irascible, oneeyed, unsuccessful farmer who was now a senator from South Carolina, spoke for the militant racists: “Entertaining that nigger,” he said, would “necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in tiie South before they will learn their place again.”

The object of this furor was a forty-five-year-old, mildmannered gentleman who had been a slave until about the age of nine. The son of a Negro cook and an unknown father—possibly a white man from a neighboring plantation—he was born in “the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surroundings” on James Burroughs’ plantation in Franklin County, Virginia. With his mother and two other children he lived in a fourteen-by-sixteen cabin which had an open fireplace, a door, several uncovered openings in the walls, and a potato-hole in the middle of the dirt floor, where vegetables were stored. He couldn’t recall ever sitting down to a meal with his family; slave children simply picked up scraps of bread or meat whenever they could, and often he breakfasted on boiled corn that the pigs had left on the ground around the trough. His first shoes were made of wood, and he remembered with horror the flax shirts he had to wear—before you broke them in, it was like having “a dozen or more chestnut burrs, or a hundred small pin-points” next to your skin. Equally memorable was his first glimpse of a school; he had walked as far as the schoolhouse door, carrying books for one of his young mistresses, and, looking inside and seeing several dozen boys and girls studying, imagined it to be “about the same as getting into paradise.”

His first realization that he was a slave came early one morning when he awoke to find his mother kneeling over her children, praying that Mr. Lincoln and his armies would be successful so that she and the little ones might be free. For years the Negro grapevine had passed along the presentiments of freedom—the words of Garrison and Lovejoy, Brown and Lincoln—and late at night in the slave quarters there would be whispered discussions about events far to the northward. Slavery was what the war was about, they knew, and Union victory would mean the end of slavery. During the spring of 1865 freedom was in the air, and as the great day drew closer there was more singing in the slave huts than ever—bolder songs, with more of a ring to them. One momentous morning all the slaves gathered around the veranda of the big house while a stranger—a U.S. Army officer—made a little speech and read the Emancipation Proclamation. When the they turned to his mother he saw tears of joy streaming down lier cheeks.

For a time there was rejoicing, but when they returned to the cabins the boy saw a change come over the Negroes: “The great responsibility of being free, of having charge of themselves, of having to think and plan for themselves and their children, seemed to take possession of them.” And in the months to come he learned more about the demands liberty makes upon people. He saw, among other things, a whole race beginning to go to school for the first time (many of the older folk so they might learn to read the Bible before they died). He went to work in a salt furnace, starting at 4 A.M. so that he might get to school by nine. And here for the first time the boy acquired a name—always he had been called Booker, but when the teacher asked for a surname he had to make one up: “Washington,” he announced proudly. Not until later did he discover that his mother had named him Taliaferro, but Washington was his choice, and as Bookcr Taliaferro Washington he worked his way through Hampton Institute, taught school (children by day and adults at night), and in 1881 was asked to take charge of what was to be a normal school for Negroes in Tuskcgee, Alabama. There was not much there to begin with—”a broken-down shanty and an old hen-house” in such had repair that one of the students had to hold an umbrella over their teacher when it rained—hut by the time he died in igig the institution owned nearly thirty thousand acres of land, one hundred buildings (many built by the students), had an endowment of two million dollars, and was teaching thirty-eight trades and professions. “I want to see education as common as grass, and as free for all as sunshine and rain,” Washington once said, and in this belief he plunged ahead, making Tuskcgee an institution that commanded the respect and support of an entire community—and eventually of the nation—by providing what the community needed.

To some Negroes of his own day—and to many a halfcentury later—“Booker T.” seemed as out-of-date as his collar, a subservient “Uncle Tom,” willing to bow before the Tim Crow laws which came in during the latter part of his life. The young N.A.A.C.P. criticized his failure to push for political rights and his emphasis on industrial education: might that not keep the race in a new bondage? But Washington left no doubts about his philosophy: he was more interested in making his race worthy of the vote than in agitating for it. Hc believed they would be granted it some day, and he wanted them to be ready when the great day came.

He could be patient with both races—as he demonstrated after the storm broke over his visit to the White House. “It is the smaller, the petty things in life that divide people,” he observed. “It is the great tasks that bring men together.”

Richard M. Ketchum

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