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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Educating the Negro

By George Washington Williams (1849–1891)

[From History of the Negro Race in America, from 1619 to 1880. By George W. Williams, first Colored Member of the Ohio Legislature, etc. 1883.]

THE WORK of education for the negro at the South had to begin at the bottom. There were no schools at all for this people; and hence the work began with the alphabet. And there could be no classification of the scholars. All the way from six to sixty the pupils ranged in age; and even some who had given slavery a century of their existence—mothers and fathers in Israel—crowded the schools established for their race. Some ministers of the Gospel after a half century of preaching entered school to learn how to spell out the names of the twelve Apostles. Old women who had lived out their threescore years and ten prayed that they might live to spell out the Lord’s prayer, while the modest request of many departing patriarchs was that they might recognize the Lord’s name in print. The sacrifices they made for themselves and children challenged the admiration of even their former owners.

The unlettered negroes of the South carried into the school-room an in-born love of music, an excellent memory, and a good taste for the elegant—almost grandiloquent—in speech, gorgeous in imagery, and energetic in narration; their apostrophe and simile were wonderful. Geography and history furnished great attractions, and they developed ability to master them. In mathematics they did not do so well, on account of the lack of training to think consecutively and methodically. It is a mistake to believe this a mental infirmity of the race; for a very large number of the students in college at the present time do as well in mathematics, geometry, trigonometry, mensuration, and conic sections as the white students of the same age; and some of them excel in mathematics.

The majority of the colored students in the Southern schools qualify themselves to teach and preach, while the remainder go to law and medicine. Few educated colored men ever return to agricultural life. There are two reasons for this: First, reaction. There is an erroneous idea among some of these young men that labor is dishonorable; that an educated man should never work with his hands. Second, some of them believe that a profession gives a man consequence. Such silly ideas should be abandoned—they must be abandoned! There is a great demand for educated farmers and laborers. It requires an intelligent man to conduct a farm successfully, to sell the products of his labor, and to buy the necessaries of life. No profession can furnish a man with brains, or provide him a garment of respectability. Every man must furnish brains and tact to make his calling and election sure in this world, as well as by faith in the world to come. Unfortunately there has been but little opportunity for colored men or boys to get employment at the trades; but prejudice is gradually giving way to reason and common sense; and the day is not distant when the negro will have a free field in this country, and will then be responsible for what he is not that is good. The need of the hour is a varied employment for the negro race on this continent. There is more need of educated mechanics, civil engineers, surveyors, printers, artificers, inventors, architects, builders, merchants, and bankers than there is demand for lawyers, physicians, or clergymen. Waiters, barbers, porters, boot-blacks, hack-drivers, grooms, and private valets find but little time for the expansion of their intellects. These places are not dishonorable; but what we say is, there is room at the top! An industrial school, something like Cooper Institute, situated between New York and Philadelphia, where colored boys and girls could learn the trades that race prejudice denies them now, would be the grandest institution of modern times. It matters not how many million dollars are given toward the education of the negro; so long as he is deprived of the privilege of learning and plying the trades and mechanic arts his education will injure rather than help him. We would rather see a negro boy build an engine than take the highest prize in Yale or Harvard.