I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed. But I was determined to succeed. Despite this disappointment, however, I determined that I would learn something, anyway. While at work there, I heard of a vacant position in the household of General Lewis Ruffner, the owner of the salt-furnace and coal-mine. The great and prevailing idea that seemed to take possession of every one was to prepare himself to lift up the people at his home.
I not only had no money with which to go home, but I had none with which to go anywhere. Some had studied Latin, and one or two Greek. Bruce, was in the Senate. I went by way of my old home in West Virginia, where I remained for several days, after which I proceeded to Tuskegee. The noon meal and the supper were taken in much the same way as the breakfast. Life at Hampton was a constant revelation to me; was constantly taking me into a new world.
What I said soon reached every Negro minister in the country, I think, and the letters of condemnation which I received from them were not few. I had no schooling whatever while I was a slave, though I remember on several occasions I went as far as the schoolhouse door with one of my young mistresses to carry her books. Ten slaves all under the age of 19 tell their stories of enslavement, brutality, and dreams of freedom in this collection. In talking to me about this, the man told me that he knew that he did not have to pay the debt, but that he had given his word to his master, and his word he had never broken. He is an amazing writer. Second, at Hampton, for the first time, I learned what education was expected to do for an individual.
The Struggle for an Education. This man was riding in the part of the train set aside for the coloured passengers. The most distinct thing that I now recall in connection with the scene was that some man who seemed to be a stranger a United States officer, I presume made a little speech and then read a rather long paper - the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. When two men wrote to General Armstrong looking for someone to take charge of a new school for coloured people in Tuskegee, Alabama, Washington was recommended and accepted the job. When I reached there, tired, hungry, and dirty, it was late in the night. After looking the garment over carefully, he asked me how much I wanted for it. The ambition to secure an education was most praiseworthy and encouraging.
I recall that during the first months of school that I taught in this building it was in such poor repair that, whenever it rained, one of the older students would very kindly leave his lessons and hold an umbrella over me while I heard the recitations of the others. The time that I was permitted to attend school during the day was short, and my attendance was irregular. Tuskegee by that time was able to run itself in his absence, although he was kept informed of its proceedings through daily reports. Washington sharing his personal experience of having to work to rise up from the position of a slave child during the Civil War, to the difficulties and obstacles he overcame to get an education at the new Hampton Institute, to his work establishing the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to help black people learn useful, marketable skills and work to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. It never occurred to me that General Armstrong could fail in anything that he undertook. How often I have wanted to say to white students that they lift themselves up in proportion as they help to lift others, and the more unfortunate the race, and the lower in the scale of civilization, the more does one raise one's self by giving the assistance.
With few exceptions, I found the teachers in these country schools to be miserably poor in preparation for their work, and poor in moral character. Without asking as to whether I had any money, the man at the desk firmly refused to even consider the matter of providing me with food or lodging. The next morning I found myself somewhat refreshed, but I was extremely hungry, because it had been a long time since I had had sufficient food. It is a recognition that will do more to cement the friendship of the two races than any occurrence since the dawn of our freedom. These stories cover the range of the slave experience, from the passage in slave ships across the Atlantic to daily life as a slave both on large plantations and in small city dwellings, and from escaping slavery to fighting in the Civil War.
As soon as it became known that General Armstrong would be pleased if some of the older students would live in the tents during the winter, nearly every student in school volunteered to go. More than once, while on my journeys, I found that there was no provision made in the house used for school purposes for heating the building during the winter, and consequently a fire had to be built in the yard, and teacher and pupils passed in and out of the house as they got cold or warm. Perhaps few, if any, had anything like the same experience that I had, but about that same period there were hundreds who found their way to Hampton and other institutions after experiencing something of the same difficulties that I went through. If the people who gave the money to provide that building could appreciate the influence the sight of it had upon me, as well as upon thousands of other youths, they would feel all the more encouraged to make such gifts. I sit back and wonder whether some of the views he expressed were influenced by political and social realities of his day, and his goal of advancing his race through the work of the Tuskegee institute. One may get the idea, from what I have said, that there was bitter feeling toward the white people on the part of my race, because of the fact that most of the white population was away fighting in a war which would result in keeping the Negro in slavery if the South was successful.
Naturally, most of our people who received some little education became teachers or preachers. He conceived the idea of starting a night-school in connection with the Institute, into which a limited number of the most promising of these young men and women would be received, on condition that they were to work for ten hours during the day, and attend school for two hours at night. Simply to be able to talk in public for the sake of talking has never had the least attraction for me. At the beginning of this school there were about twelve strong, earnest men and women who entered the class. The rejoicing on the part of all classes of the coloured people, and especially the older ones, over my return, was almost pathetic.