Character Building  by Booker T. Washington

Chapter 19 The Gospel of Service

THE subject on which I am going to speak to you for a few minutes to-night, "The Gospel of Service," may not, when you first hear it, strike a very responsive chord in your hearts and minds, but I assure you I have nothing but the very highest and best interest of the race at heart when I select this subject to talk about..

The word "service" has too often been misunderstood, and on this account it has in too many cases carried with it a meaning which indi-cates degradation. Every individual serves another in some capacity, or should do so. Christ said that he who would become the greatest of all must become the servant of all; that is, He meant that in proportion as one renders service he becomes great. The President of the United States is a servant of the people, because he serves them; the Governor of Alabama is a servant, because he renders service to the people of the State ; the greatest merchant in Montgomery is a servant, because he renders service to his customers; the school teacher is a servant, because it is his duty to serve the best interests of his pupils; the cook is a servant, because it is her duty to serve those for whom she works; the housemaid is a servant, because it is her duty to care for the property entrusted to her in the best manner in which she is able.

In one way or another, every individual who amounts to anything is a servant. The man or the woman who is not a servant is one who ac-complishes nothing. It is very often true that a race, like an individual, does not appreciate the opportunities that are spread out before it until those opportunities have disappeared. Before us, as a race in the South to-day, there is a vast field for service and usefulness which is still in our hands, but which I fear will not be ours to the same extent very much longer unless we change our ideas of service, and put new life, put new dignity and intelligence into it.

Perhaps I am right in thinking that in no department of life has there been such great progress and such changes for the better during the last ten years as in the department of domestic service, or house-keeping. The cook who does not make herself intelligent, who does not learn to do things in the latest, and in the neatest and cleanest manner, will soon find herself without employment, or will at least find herself a "drug on the market," instead of being sought after and paid higher wages. The woman who does not keep up with all the latest methods of decorating and setting her table, and of putting the food on it properly, will find her occupation gone within a few years. The same is true of general housekeeping, of laundering and of nursing.

All the occupations of which I have been talking are at present in our hands in the South; but I repeat that very great progress is being made in all of them in every part of the world, and we shall find that we shall lose them unless our women go forward and get rid of the old idea that such occupations are fit only for ignorant people to follow. At the present time scores of books and magazines are appearing bearing upon every branch of domestic service. People are learning to do things in an intel-ligent and scientific manner. Not long ago I sat for an hour and listened to a lecture delivered upon the subject of dusting, and it was one of the most valuable hours I ever spent. The person who gave this lecture upon dusting was a highly educated and a cultivated woman, and her audience was composed of wealthy and cultivated people. We must bring ourselves to the point where we can feel that one who cooks, and does it well, should be just as much honored as the person who teaches school.

What I have said in regard to the employments of our women is equally true of the occupations followed by our men. It is true that at the present we are largely cultivating the soil of the South, but if other people learn to do this work more intelligently, learn more about laborsaving machinery, and become more conscientious about their work than we, we shall find our occupation departing. It used to be the case in many parts of the North that the Negro was the coachman; but in a very large degree, in cities like New York and Philadelphia, the Negro has lost this occupation, and lost it, in my opinion, not because he was a Negro, but because in many cases he did not see that the occupation of coachman was constantly being improved. It has been improved and lifted up until now it has almost become a profession. The Negro who expects to remain a coachman should learn the proper dress for a coach-man, and learn how to care for horses and vehicles in the most approved.

What is true of the coachman is true of the Butler. In too many cases, I fear, we use these occupations merely as stepping stones, holding on to them until we can find something else to do, in a careless and ship shod manner. We want to change all this, and put our whole souls into these occupations, and in a large degree make them our life-work. In proportion as we do this, we shall lay a foundation upon which our children and grandchildren are to rise to higher things. The foundation of every race must be laid in the common every-day occupations that are right about our doors. It should not be our thought to see how little we can put into our work, but how much; not how quickly we can get rid of our tasks, but how well we can do them. I often wish that I had the means to put into every city a large training-school for giving instruction in all lines of domestic service. Few things would add more to the funda-mental usefulness of the race than such a school. Perhaps it may be suggested that my argument has reference only to our serving while people. It has reference to doing whatever we do in the best manner, no matter whom we serve. The individual who serves a black man poorly will serve a white man poorly. Let me illustrate what I mean. In a Southern city, a few days ago, I found a large hotel conducted by colored people. It is one of the very cleanest and best and most attractive hotels for colored people that I have found in any part of the country. In talking with the proprietors I asked them what was the greatest obstacle they had had to overcome, and they told me it was in finding colored women to work in the house who would do their work systematically and well, women who would, in a word, keep the rooms in every part of the hotel thoroughly swept and cleaned. This hotel had been opened three months, and I found that during that time the proprietors had employed fifteen different chambermaids, and they had got rid of a large proportion of these simply because they were determined not to have people in their employment who did not do their work well.

One weakness pertaining to the whole matter of domestic employ-ment in the South, at present, is this: it is too easy for our people to find work. If there was a rule followed in every family that employs persons, that no man or woman should be hired unless he or she brought a letter of recommendation from the last employer, we should find that the whole matter of domestic service would be lifted up a hundred per cent. So long as an individual can do poor work for one family, and perhaps be dishonest at the same time, and be sure that he or she will be employed by some other family, without regard to the kind of service rendered the last employer, so long will domestic service be poor and unsatisfactory.

Many white, people seldom come in contact with the Negro in any other capacity than that of domestic service. If they get a poor idea of our character and service in that respect, they will infer that the entire life of the Negro is unsatisfactory from every point of view. We want to be sure that wherever our life touches that of the white man, we conduct ourselves so that he will get the best impression possible of us.

In spite of all the fault I have found, I would say this before I stop. I recognize that the people of no race, under similar circumstances, have made greater progress in thirty-five years than is true of the people of the Negro race. If I have spoken to you thus plainly and frankly, it is that our progress in the future may be still greater than it has been in the past.