A Boys' Life of Booker T. Washington/Chapter 5

CHAPTER V

BEGINNING LIFE IN THE OUTSIDE WORLD

General Armstrong handed Washington his diploma in June, 1875, and he walked forth from the college walls a very proud and happy boy. He had a right to be. No boy had ever striven harder for an education. For three years, day and night, he had worked, as few people ever had. But he had enjoyed it. Don't get the idea that Washington was discouraged or that he was unhappy, for he was not. He got an immense amount of genuine satisfaction and pleasure out of his school days. His teachers were good to him, and he was devoted to them. His classmates were always kind to him and helpful and thoughtful. Everybody was his friend. No boy ever left Hampton with more warm friends, was more beloved by students and faculty, than Booker Washington. And these friendships were truly worth winning, because they were greater and better than anything else in the world.

One of the fine things about Washington was his independence. He knew how to take care of himself. He knew he could make his own way in the world. He was unusually robust, because he had always taken good care of himself. With health, with an education, and with an overwhelming desire to help his people, he left Hampton and started his life in the outside world.

Washington left Hampton in exactly the same financial condition as when he entered. He had a diploma in his pocket but no money. However, he was not ashamed of work, if it was honorable, and he was not afraid of any amount of it. Along with some other Hampton boys, he was offered a job in a summer hotel in Connecticut.

When he began his new work, he had an embarrassing experience. The head waiter, somehow, got the idea that he had done this kind of work before. He sent him to serve at a table where several rich people were seated. Washington was very awkward and confused, and the people scolded him soundly. It frightened him so that he went away and would not return to the table, leaving the guests without anything to eat.

For this offense, the head waiter reduced him from his position as waiter and put him to washing dishes. Thereupon, he made up his mind that he would learn to do this job well. So successful was he that the head waiter soon put him back at serving, and he made one of the best waiters in the hotel.

When his summer's work was done, Washington returned to his old home at Malden. Soon after his arrival, he was chosen to teach the school there. He accepted the place and began the work at once. He taught this school for two years, and it is doubtful if he ever did better work in his life than during these two years.

All his life the idea had been in Washington's mind that he must help his people. This was what he wanted most to do. This was why he wanted an education. Many people want an education for selfish reasons, such as, to make money for themselves, to have an easy time or to get honors for themselves, but this was never true of Booker Washington. His great desire was to help his people. He looked about him and saw how poor and helpless and ignorant they were, and his heart was touched. He wanted to do something that would make his people better and happier.

Now he had his first chance. He went at his work with great joy. He opened his school at eight o'clock in the morning, and he usually quit work about ten o'clock at night. He taught the children reading, writing, geography and arithmetic, but he taught them something else too. He made them comb their hair. He made them keep their hands and faces clean. He taught them to keep their clothing clean. He taught them to use a toothbrush, and to know the value of a bath.

He organized a debating society for the men and boys. He opened a night school so that those who worked and could not go to school during the day could go at night. He established a reading room. He taught several boys privately in order to get them ready to enter Hampton. He taught in two Sunday schools. In fact, he did more to make his community a good, clean, happy community than anybody had ever done before.

One of the good things he did was to help his brother John who had helped him so much while he was at Hampton and now wanted to go to school himself. What a joy it was to Booker to be able to do something for this kind and generous brother! John did go to Hampton, as did another brother, James, who was an adopted child; and both helped Washington loyally in later years at Tuskegee.

After teaching two years at Malden, Washington decided to go to school again. This time he went to Washington, D. C, and entered Wayland Seminary, where he remained eight months. He did not care so much for his work here. It was very different from the work at Hampton. The students were all well dressed. They did not have to work as they did at Hampton. They had plenty of money, and their studies were different. They did not have trades, industries, agricultural work, or dairying, or anything of that kind. They had Latin and Greek and literature and higher mathematics and other studies of a similar kind. Washington felt that he did not get the benefit that he did at Hampton.

Nor did he like Washington any better than he liked this school. He saw too much extravagance to suit him. Too many people were trying to get something for nothing. Too many of them were trying to get jobs with the Federal Government that would be easy work and high pay. Many of the negroes seemed to think it was the business of the Federal Government to support them. Washington did not think this was right. He thought all men should do good, honest work, and that, if they didn't, they would sooner or later find trouble. He was glad to get away, for he felt that the life that most of the negroes lived at that time in Washington was most unsatisfactory.

At the end of the eight months, he returned to Malden again. At this time there was a big campaign on in West Virginia to remove the capital, which was located at Wheeling. It was far up in the northern part of the state. Many of the people wanted another city to be chosen. The legislature selected three cities to be voted upon by the people and Charleston was one of these. Malden, you remember, was five miles from Charleston. Just after he returned from Washington, Booker was greatly pleased to receive an invitation from a committee of white men to come to Charleston and then go on a speaking tour in behalf of that city. He accepted the invitation, and for three months he went about the state speaking for Charleston as the capital. When the election was held, Charleston won; and no small part of the credit was due to the brilliant speeches made by the young negro teacher of Malden.

He made such a reputation as a speaker in this campaign that everybody took it for granted that he would now study law and enter politics. A well-known judge tried to persuade him to do this and offered to teach him law. This was very flattering, and for a while Washington considered it. But all the time he had the feeling that there was something else he must do. He felt that he could succeed in law and politics, but he also felt that it would be selfish; that he would be doing something largely to benefit himself only.

Most of the negro men in politics, at that time, were vicious and ignorant. Of course there were many exceptions; but, as a general thing, the negro who was in politics during that period was uneducated and often dishonest. Washington tells of passing a crowd of men one day as they were at work on a building. He heard the men saying to one of the others, "Hurry up, Gov.," and "Hurry, Governor." He paid no attention at first but finally made inquiry and found that the negro spoken to had at one time been the lieutenant governor of the state.

Washington felt that the greatest thing he could do was to engage in the kind of work that would help his own people most. He did not want to preach. He thought there were too many preachers already. He had the belief that the most important thing to do was to engage in the kind of work that would fit men of his own race to be good preachers, good teachers, and good citizens.

In the midst of these thoughts, and before he had definitely made up his mind as to his career, he received a letter from General Armstrong, inviting him to deliver the "postgraduate" address at Hampton at commencement, 1879. This honor brought Washington great joy. He accepted the invitation and chose as his subject, "The Force That Wins." He worked hard for three months on his speech. It made a great impression on all who heard it, and he was acclaimed one of the real orators of his race.