Table of Contents
Character Building by Booker T. Washington
Chapter 37 Last Words
WE have come to the close of another school year. Some of you will go out from among us now, not to return. Others will go home for the summer vacation and return at the end of that for the next school year.
As you go out, there is one thing that I want to especially caution you about. Don't go home and feel that you are better than the rest of the folks in your neighborhood because you have been away at school. Don't go home and feel ashamed of your parents because you think they don't know as much as you think you know. Don't think that you are too good to help them. It would be better for you not to have any education, than for you to go home and feel ashamed of your parents, or not want to help them.
Let me tell you of one of the most encouraging and most helpful things that I have known of in connection with the life of our stu-dents after they leave this institution. I was in a Southern city and going about among the homes of the people of our race. Among these homes I noticed one which was so neat looking that it was conspicu-ous. I asked the person who was with me, "How is it that this house is in such good condition, looks so much better than some of the others in the neighborhood?" "It is like this," said the man who was accompanying me. The people who live there have a son whom they sent to your school, at considerable self denial to themselves. This young man came home from school a few weeks ago. For some time after he came back he did not have work to keep him busy, and so he employed his spare time in fixing up his parents' home. He fixed the roof and chimney, put new palings in the fence where they were needed and did such things as that. Then he got a stock of paint and painted the house thoroughly, two coats, outside and in. That is why the place looks so neat."
Such testimony as that is very helpful. It shows that the students carry out from here the spirit which we try to inculcate.
Another thing, go home and lead a simple life. Don't give the impression that you think education means superficiality and dress.
Be polite; to white and colored people, both.
It is possible for you, by paying heed to this, to do a great deal toward securing and preserving pleasant relations between the people of both races in the South. Try to have your manners in this respect so good that people will notice them and ask where you have been, at what school you learned to be so polite. You will find that polite-ness counts for a great deal, not only in helping you to get work, but in helping you to keep it.
Don't be ashamed to go to church and Sunday school, to the Young Men's Christian Association and the Christian Endeavour Society. Show that education has only deepened your interest in such things. Have no going backward. Be clean, in your person, your language and in your thoughts.
It seems appropriate during these closing days of the school year to re-emphasize, if possible, that for which the institution stands. We want to have every student get what we have-in our egotism, perhaps called the "Tuskegee spirit"; that is, to get hold of the spirit of the insti-tution, get hold of that for which it stands; and then spread that spirit just as widely as possible, and plant it just as deeply as it is possible to plant it.
In addition to the members of our graduating class, we have each year a large number of students who go out to spend their vacations. Some of these will return at the close of vacation, but some, for various reasons, will not return. Whether you go out as graduates, whether you go out to return or not to return, it is important that all of you get hold of the "Tuskegee spirit"; the spirit of giving yourselves, in order that you may help lift up others. In no matter how small a degree it may be, see that you are assisting someone else.
Now, after a number of years' experience, the institution feels that it has reached a point where it can, with some degree of author-ity, give advice as to the best way in which you can spend your life.
In the first place, as to your location-the place where you shall work, I very much hope that the larger part of the students who go out from Tuskegee will choose the country districts for their place of work; rather than the large cities. For one thing, you will find that the larger places are much better supplied with workers and helpers than is true of the towns, and especially of the country districts. The cities are better supplied with churches and schools, with everything that tends to uplift people; and they are at the same time much more prolific of those agencies which tend to pull people down. Not-withstanding this latter fact, the greater portion, by far, of those who need help live in the country districts. I think a census report will show that eighty per cent of our people are to be found in the country and small towns. I advise you, then, to go into the country and the towns, rather than into the cities.
Then, as to the manner of work, you must make up your minds in the first place, as I have said before, that you are going to make some sacrifice that you are going to live your lives in an unselfish way, in order that you may help some one. Go out with a spirit that will not allow you to become discouraged when you have opposition, when you meet with obstacles to be overcome. You must go with a determina-tion that you are going to succeed in whatever undertaking you have entered upon.
I do not attempt to give you specific advice as to the kind of work you shall do, but I should say that in a general way I believe that you can accomplish more good-and perhaps this will hold good for the next fifty years here in the South-by taking a country school for your nucleus. Take three months school, and gradually impress upon the people of the community the need of having a longer school. Get them to add one month to three months, and then another month, until they get to the point where they will have six, seven or eight months of school in a year. Then get them to where they will see the importance of building a decent school-house-getting out of the one room log cabin school-house-and of having suitable apparatus for instruction.
There are two things you must fix your mind on - the building of a suitable school-house and the arousing in the people, at the same time, a spirit that will make them support your efforts: In order to do this you must go into the country with the idea of staying there for some time at least. Plant yourself in the community, and by economical living, year by year; manage to buy land for yourself, on which to build a nice and comfortable home. You will find that the longer you stay there the more the people will give you their confidence, and the more they will respect and love you.
I find that many of our graduates have done excellent work by having a farm in connection with their schools. This is true, also, of many who did not remain here to graduate. I have in mind such a man. He has been teaching school in one of the counties of this State for seven or eight years. He has lengthened the school year to eight months. He has a nice cottage with four rooms in it, and a beautiful farm of forty acres. This man is carrying out the "Tuskegee idea."
There will be some of you who can spend your life to better advan-tage by devoting it to farming than to any other industry. I speak of farming particularly, because I believe that to be the great foundation upon which we must build for the future. I believe that we are coming to the point where we are going to be recognized for our worth in the proportion that we secure an agricultural foundation. Throughout the South we can give ourselves in a free, open way to getting hold of property and building homes, in a way that we cannot do in any other industry. In farming, as in teaching, no matter where you go, remember to go with the "Tuskegee spirit."
I want the boys to go out and do as Mr. N. E. Henry is doing; I want the girls to go out and do as Miss Anna Davis and Miss Lizzie Wright are doing. I want you to go out into the country districts and build up schools. I would not advise you to be too ambitious at first. Be willing to begin with a small salary and work your way up gradu-ally. I have in mind one young man who began teaching school for five dollars a month; another who began teaching in the open air under a tree.
Then, too, I want you to go out in a spirit of liberality toward the white people with whom you come in contact. That is an important matter. When I say this I do not mean that you shall go lowering your manhood or your dignity. Go in a manly way, in a straightforward and honorable way, and then you will show the white people that you are not of a belittling race that the prejudice which so many people possess cannot come among you and those with whom you work. If you can extend a helping hand to a white person, feel just as happy in doing so as in helping a black person.
In, the sight of God there is no color line, and we want to culti-vate a spirit that will make us forget that there is such a line anywhere. We want to be larger and broader than the people who would oppress us on account of our color.
No one ever loses anything by being a gentleman or a lady. No person ever lost anything by being broad. Remember that if we are kind and useful, if we are moral, if we go out and practice these traits, no matter what people say about us, they cannot pull us down. But, on the other hand, if we are without the spirit of usefulness, if we are without morality, without liberality, without economy and property, without all those qualities which go to make a people and a nation great and strong, no matter what we may say about ourselves and what other people may say about us, we are losing ground. Nobody can give us those qualities merely by praising us and talking well about us; and when we possess them, nobody can take them from us by speaking ill of us.