Wisdom for the Soul of Black Folk


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The tendency is here, born of slavery and quickened to renewed life by the crazy imperialism of the day, to regard human beings as among the material resources of a land to be trained with an eye single to future dividends. And above all, we daily hear that an education that encourages aspiration, that sets the loftiest of ideals and seeks as an end culture and character rather than bread-winning, is the privilege of white men and the danger and delusion of black. Especially has criticism been directed against the former educational efforts to aid the Negro. In the four periods I have mentioned, we find first, boundless, planless enthusi- asm and sacrifice; then the preparation of teachers for a vast public-school system; then the launching and expansion of that school system amid increasing difficulties; and finally the training of workmen for the new and growing industries.

This development has been sharply ridiculed as a logical anomaly and flat reversal of nature. Soothly we have been told that first industrial and manual training should have taught the Negro to work, then simple schools should have taught him to read and write, and finally, after years, high and normal schools could have completed the system, as intelligence and wealth demanded. That a system logically so complete was historically impos- sible, it needs but a little thought to prove.


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Progress in human affairs is more often a pull than a push, a surging forward of the exceptional man, and the lifting of his duller brethren slowly and painfully to his vantage-ground. Thus it was no accident that gave birth to universities centuries before the common schools, that made fair Harvard the first flower of our wilderness. So in the South: the mass of the freedmen at the end of the war lacked the intelligence so necessary to modern workingmen.

They must first have the common school to teach them to read, write, and cipher; and they must have higher schools to teach teachers for the common schools. The white teachers who flocked South went to establish such a common-school system. Few held the idea of founding col- leges; most of them at first would have laughed at the idea.

But they faced, as all men since them have faced, that central paradox of the South,—the social separation of the races. At that time it was the sudden volcanic rupture of nearly all relations between black and white, in work and government and family life. Since then a new adjustment of relations in economic and political affairs has grown up,—an adjustment subtle and difficult to grasp, yet singularly ingenious, which leaves still that frightful chasm at the color-line across which men pass at their peril. Thus, then and now, there stand in the South two separate worlds; and separate not simply in the higher realms of social intercourse, but also in church and school, on railway and street-car, in hotels and theatres, in streets and city sections, in books and newspapers, in asy- lums and jails, in hospitals and graveyards.

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There is still enough of contact for large economic and group cooperation, but the separation is so thorough and deep that it absolutely precludes for the present between the races anything like that sympathetic and effective group-training and leadership of the one by the other, such as the American Negro and all back- ward peoples must have for effectual progress.

Southern whites would not teach them; Northern whites in sufficient numbers could not be had. If the Negro was to learn, he must teach himself, and the most effective help that could be given him was the establish- ment of schools to train Negro teachers.

This conclusion was slowly but surely reached by every student of the situation until simultaneously, in widely separated regions, without consultation or systematic plan, there arose a series of institu- tions designed to furnish teachers for the untaught. Above the sneers of critics at the obvious defects of this procedure must ever stand its one crushing rejoinder: in a single generation they put thirty thousand black teachers in the South; they wiped out the illiteracy of the majority of the black people of the land, and they made Tuskegee possible.

Such higher training-schools tended naturally to deepen broader development: at first they were common and gram- mar schools, then some became high schools. And finally, by , some thirty-four had one year or more of studies of college grade.

Wisdom for the Soul of Black Folk

This development was reached with different degrees of speed in different institutions: Hampton is still a high school, while Fisk University started her college in , and Spelman Seminary about In all cases the aim was identical,—to maintain the standards of the lower train- ing by giving teachers and leaders the best practicable train- ing; and above all, to furnish the black world with adequate standards of human culture and lofty ideals of life.

It was not enough that the teachers of teachers should be trained in technical normal methods; they must also, so far as possible, be broad-minded, cultured men and women, to scatter civili- zation among a people whose ignorance was not simply of letters, but of life itself. It can thus be seen that the work of education in the South began with higher institutions of training, which threw off as their foliage common schools, and later industrial schools, and at the same time strove to shoot their roots ever deeper toward college and university training.

That this was an inevitable and necessary development, sooner or later, goes without saying; but there has been, and still is, a question in many minds if the natural growth was not forced, and if the higher training was not either overdone or done with cheap and unsound methods. Among white Southerners this feeling is widespread and positive. A prominent Southern journal voiced this in a recent editorial. Even though many were able to pursue the course, most of them did so in a parrot-like way, learning what was taught, but not seeming to appropriate the truth and import of their instruc- tion, and graduating without sensible aim or valuable oc- cupation for their future.

The whole scheme has proved a waste of time, efforts, and the money of the state. While most fair-minded men would recognize this as ex- treme and overdrawn, still without doubt many are asking, Are there a sufficient number of Negroes ready for college training to warrant the undertaking? Are not too many stu- dents prematurely forced into this work? Does it not have the effect of dissatisfying the young Negro with his environment? And do these graduates succeed in real life?

Such natural questions cannot be evaded, nor on the other hand must a Nation naturally skeptical as to Negro ability assume an unfavorable answer without careful inquiry and patient open- ness to conviction. We must not forget that most Americans answer all queries regarding the Negro a priori, and that the least that human courtesy can do is to listen to evidence. The advocates of the higher education of the Negro would be the last to deny the incompleteness and glaring defects of the present system: too many institutions have attempted to do college work, the work in some cases has not been thor- oughly done, and quantity rather than quality has sometimes been sought.

But all this can be said of higher education throughout the land; it is the almost inevitable incident of educational growth, and leaves the deeper question of the legitimate demand for the higher training of Negroes un- touched. And this latter question can be settled in but one way,—by a first-hand study of the facts. If we leave out of view all institutions which have not actually graduated stu- dents from a course higher than that of a New England high school, even though they be called colleges; if then we take the thirty-four remaining institutions, we may clear up many misapprehensions by asking searchingly, What kind of insti- tutions are they?

The number in itself is enough to put at rest the argument that too large a proportion of Negroes are receiving higher training. Fifty years ago the ability of Negro students in any appre- ciable numbers to master a modern college course would have been difficult to prove. Slavery as a concept is demeaning to the victims. They are made to be tools, taking away their rights as human beings.

Here we have, then, nearly twenty-five hundred Negro gradu- ates, of whom the crucial query must be made, How far did their training fit them for life? It is of course extremely difficult to collect satisfactory data on such a point,—difficult to reach the men, to get trustworthy testimony, and to gauge that testimony by any generally acceptable criterion of suc- cess. In , the Conference at Atlanta University undertook to study these graduates, and published the results. First they sought to know what these graduates were doing, and suc- ceeded in getting answers from nearly two-thirds of the liv- ing.

The direct testimony was in almost all cases corroborated by the reports of the colleges where they graduated, so that in the main the reports were worthy of credence. Fifty-three per cent of these graduates were teachers,—presidents of institu- tions, heads of normal schools, principals of city school- systems, and the like.

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Seventeen per cent were clergymen; another seventeen per cent were in the professions, chiefly as physicians. Over six per cent were merchants, farmers, and artisans, and four per cent were in the government civil- service.

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Granting even that a considerable proportion of the third unheard from are unsuccessful, this is a record of use- fulness. Personally I know many hundreds of these graduates, and have corresponded with more than a thousand; through others I have followed carefully the life-work of scores; I have taught some of them and some of the pupils whom they have taught, lived in homes which they have builded, and looked at life through their eyes. Comparing them as a class with my fellow students in New England and in Europe, I cannot hesitate in saying that nowhere have I met men and women with a broader spirit of helpfulness, with deeper devotion to their life-work, or with more consecrated determi- nation to succeed in the face of bitter difficulties than among Negro college-bred men.

With all their larger vision and deeper sensibility, these men have usually been conservative, careful leaders. They have seldom been agitators, have withstood the temptation to head the mob, and have worked steadily and faithfully in a thousand communities in the South.

W. E. B. Du Bois

As teachers, they have given the South a commendable system of city schools and large numbers of private normal-schools and academies. And to-day the institute is filled with college graduates, from the energetic wife of the principal down to the teacher of agriculture, including nearly half of the executive council and a majority of the heads of departments.

In the professions, college men are slowly but surely leavening the Negro church, are healing and prevent- ing the devastations of disease, and beginning to furnish legal protection for the liberty and property of the toiling masses. All this is needful work. Who would do it if Negroes did not?

How could Negroes do it if they were not trained carefully for it? BOOK Wisdom for the Soul of Black Folk "We are truly blessed to have access to this treasury of voices speaking so eloquently of ancient wisdom and contemporary understanding. The ancestors must be extremely gratified. Unless we learn the lesson of self-appreciation and practice it, we shall spend our lives imitating other people and deprecating ourselves. Never confuse knowledge with wisdom. By wisdom I mean wrestling with how to live. Proverbs are full of poetry and twists.

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About Larry Chang. Larry Chang.

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