Character Building  by Booker T. Washington

Chapter 34 On Mother Earth

One of the highest ambitions of every man leaving Tuskegee Institute should be to help the people of his race find bottom-find bed rock and then help them to stand upon that foundation. If we who are interested in the school can help you to do this, we shall count ourselves satisfied. And until the bed-rock of our life is found, and until we are planted thereon, all else is but plaster, but make-believe, but the paper on the walls of a house without framework.

That is one of the stepping stones with which nature has provided us. Here the path is plain, if we have the courage to follow it. Eighty-five per cent of the people of the Negro race live -or attempt to live by some form of agriculture. If we would save the race, and lift it up, here is the great opportunity around which, in a large measure, indi-vidual, organized, religious and secular effort should centre for the next fifty years.

But to do this we must take advantage of the forces at hand. We must stand upon our own feet, and not upon a foundation supplied by another. We must begin our growth where our civilization finds us, and not try to begin on some other civilization.

To illustrate what I mean, we need not go to another race, nor very far from home. In a little town in Alabama there was a sturdy, indus-trious black man who for nearly twenty years had lived upon rented land, had hired mules and horses to work that land, and had mortgaged his crops to secure food and clothes. He had driven to church on Sunday in a buggy that was not his, and he wore good-looking clothes that were not paid for. In outward appearance he seemed to prosper. He seemed to be what the white men about him were.

But this black man knew that he was trying-to stand upon an imperfect basis. And so, one day about a dozen years ago, he made up his mind that henceforth he would be himself- that he would stand upon his own foundation. He told the white man to take back his mules, to take back his wagon and buggy; and he gave up the rented land. He had resolved to be a man.) A few acres of land were secured. He made his bed in the cotton seed at night. He hired a boy to come to his place at night, and by moonlight he pulled a plough which the boy guided. In this way a cotton crop was made free from debt. With the small surplus which he got from this he bought an ox, and with this beast made a second crop free from debt. A mule was bought, and then another. To-day this man is the owner of a comfortable home, is a stockholder in one of the banks of his county, and his note or check will be honored by any business house there. While others were talking, or debating over second-hand doctrines learned by rote, this strong son of nature had found himself and solved his own problem.

I might tell you the story of another man of our race who began his successful business life in the hollow of a tree for his home; without furniture or bed-clothing. But that tree, and the land on which it stood, were his own. You had better begin life in a hollow tree and be a man, than begin it in a rented house and be a mere tool, the imita-tion of a man. If you were to go into the Western part of this country you would find it filled with men of the highest culture, profound scholarship, and enduring wealth, whose ancestors a few generations ago began life in a dug-out, in a hay loft, or in a hole in the side of a mountain. Young men and young women, there is no escape. If I we would be great, and good, and useful; we must pay the price. And remember that when we get down to the fundamental principles of truth, nature draws no color line.

I do not want to startle you when I say it, but I should like to see during the next fifty years every colored minister and teacher, whose work lies outside the large cities, armed with a thorough knowledge of theoretical and practical agriculture, in connection with his theo-logical and academic training. This, I believe, should be so because the race is an agricultural one, and because my hope is that it will remain such. Upon this foundation almost every race in history has got its start. With cheap lands, a beautiful climate and a rich soil, we can lay the foundation of a great and powerful race. The question that confronts us is whether we will take advantage of this opportunity?

In a recent number of the New York Independent, Rev. Russell H. Conwell, the pastor of the great Temple Baptist Church, in Philadelphia, a church that has a membership of three thousand persons, tells of the pastor of a small country church in Massachusetts who, in perplexity at the eternally recurring question of how to make his church pay its expenses, asked Mr. Conwell's advice. "I advised him," Mr. Conwell says, "to study agricultural chemistry, dairy farming and household economy. I meant the advice seriously, and he took it seriously. He made his studies, and he made them thoroughly. On the Sunday when he preached his first practical sermon which was the outgrowth of his helpful learning, its topic was scientific manures, with appropriate scriptural allusions. He had just seventeen listeners. These seventeen, however, were greatly interested. Later on, they discussed the remarkable departure with their friends who had not attended the service. The result was that within five Sundays the church was packed with worshippers, who had discovered that heaven is not such a long distance from earth after all."

In the present condition of our race, what an immense gain it would be if from every church in the vast agricultural region of the South there could be preached every Sunday two sermons on reli-gion, and a lesson or lecture given on the principles of intelligent agri-culture, on the importance of the ownership of land, and on the importance of building comfortable homes. I believe that if this policy could be pursued, instead of the now too often poorly clothed, poorly fed, and poorly housed ministers, with salaries ranging from one hundred to three hundred dollars a year, we should soon have commu-nities and churches on their feet, to such are extent that hundreds of ministers who now live at a dying rate would be supported in a manner commensurate with the dignity of the profession. Not, only this, but such a policy would result in giving the ministry such an ideal of the dignity of labor and such a love for it, that the minister's own home and garden and farm would be constant object lessons for his follow-ers, and at the .same time sources from which he could draw a support which would make him in a large measure independent.

One of the most successful and most honored ministers I know is a man who owns and cultivates fifty acres of land. This land yields him an income sufficient to live on each year. This man's note or check is gladly honored at the bank Because of his independence he leads his people instead of having to cater to their whims. It may be suggested that what I plead for has not been done by others, after this fashion. It was done in the early years of the settlement of New England, and persevered in by the ministers there until the people of the country had become sufficiently prosperous to support their ministers suitably. Besides, if one race of people, or one individual, is simply to follow in the steps of another, no progress would ever be possible in the world. Let us remember that no other race of people ever had just such a problem to work out as we have.

What I have tried to say to you to-night about agricultural life may be said with equal emphasis about city occupations. Show, me the race that leads in work in wood and in metal, in the building of houses and factories, and in the constructing and operating of machinery, and I will show you the race that in the long run moulds public thought, that; controls government, that leads in commerce, in the sciences, in the arts and in the professions.

What we should do in all our schools is to turn out fewer job-seekers and more job-makers. Anyone can seek a job, but it requires a person of rare ability to create a job.

If it may seem to some of you that what I have been saying over-looks the development of the race in morals, ethics, religion and states-manship, my answer would be this. You might as well argue that because a tree is planted deep down in Mother Earth, because it comes in contact with clay, and rocks, and sand, and water that through its graceful branches, its beautiful leaves and its fragrant blossoms it teaches no lesson of truth, beauty and divinity. You cannot plant a tree in air, and have it live. Try it. No matter how much we may praise its proportions and enjoy its beauty, it dies unless its roots and fibers touch and have their foundation in Mother Earth. What is true of the tree is true of a race.