Table of Contents
Character Building by Booker T. Washington
Chapter 28 Each One His Part
I desire to call your attention for a few minutes to-night to the fact that one thing is dependent for success upon another; one individual is dependent for success upon another, one family in a community upon other families for their mutual prosperity, one part of a State upon the other parts for the successful government of the State. The same thing is true in nature. One thing cannot exist unless another exists; cannot succeed without the success of something else. The very forces of nature are dependent upon other forces for their existence. Without vegetable life we could not have animal life; without mineral life we could not have vegetable life. So, throughout all kinds of life, as throughout the life of nature, everything is dependent upon some-thing else for its success.
The same thing is true of this institution and of every institution. The success of the whole depends upon having every person connected with the institution do his or her whole duty.
We are very apt to get the idea that there are high positions and that there are low positions, that there is important service and unim-portant service; but I believe that God expects the same amount of conscientious work from a person in a low position as from one in a high position, that He expects the same conscientious service whether the work be a big task or a little one. We are dependent as an institu-tion-every institution is dependent-for success, upon the individual consciences of those connected with it as teachers and students; and there is nothing that gives me more satisfaction and pleasure, and more faith in the future of the school, than to see examples of consci-entious work here.
I remember a special instance of this kind that occurred at one of our Commencements. I believe that Commencement, more than any other time in the school year, is an occasion when there is excitement and a desire to witness the exercises. After the exercises of that year were over, I had occasion to go to the dining room, and I found there one of the teachers who from her appearance I thought had not attended the exercises. When I asked her about this, she said: "No. I intended to go, but at the last minute I saw that there were some dishes here that needed to be washed, and I stayed here to see that they were washed."
Now that was one of the finest exhibitions of conscientious regard for duty that I ever saw, and there are very few persons who would have done a thing like that. That we have teachers here whose hearts are so much in their work that they are willing to do such things as this gives me great faith in the future of this school as the years go on.
It takes a person with a conscience, when there are public men of note here, a great many strangers and many things to attract attention, to be so mindful of her duty that she will stay behind and wash dishes when everyone else is in attendance upon the exercises and seeking enjoyment. When the people connected with this institution can bring themselves up to that point, I have no fear for the success of the insti-tution; and it can succeed only as they do bring their consciences up to that point.
If I were to ask you individually as students to deliver an address upon this platform, or to read an essay, I should not be at all afraid that you would fail. I believe that you would carefully prepare that address or essay. You would look up all the references necessary in order to give you what information you needed, and then you would get up here and speak or read successfully. I feel sure that I would hear something that I should not be ashamed of. The average man and woman do succeed when before the public. But where I fear for your success is when you come to the performance of the small duties-the duties which you think no one else will know about, the things which no one will see you do. It is when you think that no one is going to see you washing dishes, or getting dirt out of crevices, that I am afraid you are going to fail.
I remember that some time ago when I was traveling in a buggy from one New England village to another, after we had gone some miles on our way, the young man who was driving me stopped the horse and got out. I asked him what was the matter, and he said that something was the matter with the harness. I looked with all the eyes I had, and yet I could see nothing at fault. Still the man mended a piece of harness that he said was not as it should be. It had not seemed to me that this fault in the harness had been irritating the horse or hinder-ing him from going so fast as he ought, but after it had been repaired I could see a difference for the better. That, to my mind, was a great lesson. It taught me how the people of New England have educated their consciences so that they cannot allow themselves to let even the smallest thing go undone or be improperly done. It is this trait in the New England character that has come to make the very name itself of that part of the country a synonym for success. Don't we wish that we had a hundred such men as that driver here 1 If I could put my hand on a thousand such persons as that, we could find employment for all of them as soon as they got their diplomas.
One learns to judge persons by their character in this respect. Not long ago I had an opportunity to go through the jail of this county. As the sheriff showed me through the building I was impressed to see how clean everything was, and I noticed that the man who seemed to be the janitor of the jail, although he too was a prisoner, seemed to take a great deal of pride in showing me the cleanness of the corners and the general good appearance of the place. He seemed to put his whole heart into the keeping of that jail clean.
"Who is that man?" I asked the sheriff, after we had got out of the janitor's hearing.
"He is a prisoner," the sheriff replied, "but I believe he is inno-cent. I do not believe that a man can be so honest and faithful about his work and be guilty of a crime. When I see how well he does his work here, notwithstanding the fact that he is shut up here in prison, I believe that he is an honest man and deserves his freedom."
In plain words, then, the problem we must work out here is not: Can you master algebra, or literature? We know you can do that. We know you can master the sciences. The general problem we have to work out here, and work it out with fear and trembling, is: -Can we educate the individual conscience? Can we so educate a group of students that there will be in every one of them a conscience on which we can depend. Can we educate a class of girls here who will not be satisfied when sweeping their rooms to make the middle of the rooms look clean, but leave a trail of dirt in the corners and under the furni-ture? Will they see to it that everything is properly cleaned and put in its appropriate place? Can we educate a class of young men who will do their duty on the farm as they would do it on this platform? Can we educate your consciences so that you will do certain things, not because it is the rule that they-should be done, but because they should be done? These are the problems we must work out here.