Prairie View A&M University
Historically Black College

 

 

 

Sketch from Twentieth Century Negro Literature

WHAT IS THE NEGRO TEACHER DOING IN THE MATTER OF UPLIFTING HIS RACE?

Prof. E. L. Blackshear was born in Montgomery. Ala., in 1862. He was educated in the negro public schools of Montgomery. So rapid had been his progress that he graduated from Tabor College at the age of eighteen.

Prof. Blackshear is now principal of Prairie View State Normal School and Industrial College of Texas.

The following is the testimony of Prof. Blackshear concerning his grandmother. These words give us a glimpse of the bright side of slave life, and of the ideal "mammy" of the ante-bellum Southern plantation home.

"My grandmother was a remarkable woman. She idolized my mother, the only child that slavery had allowed her to keep. When grandma was sold from Georgia to Alabama, the humanity of her Georgia owners caused them to sell mother and child to the same people.

"My grandmother, although ignorant, had a profound belief in education. But if she knew absolutely nothing of the world of letters, she had something as good, perhaps better—a warm, honest, loving heart and Christian principles. She had genuine hatred for dirt and disorder, a regard, amounting to a fearful reverence, for white people of 'quality,' and a great and ill-disguised contempt for common, shiftless, 'darkies,' and low-bred whites. She was the best type of the faithful and efficient slave. But it was as a cook that 'Grandma's' reputation was known in two States. To my youthful imagination she was a magician; things she cooked for the white folks seemed so good to me. I think now of the batter-cakes, the light rolls, the syllabub, the sally-lunn, the ship-ships and the wafers grandma made. The light-bread she made is made no more. It is a lost art, an art that died with grandma."

When the Negroes were set free the first aim of thousands was to learn to read and write. Gray-haired veterans of the plantations sat side by side in the day schools as well as in the night schools with the smallest pickaninnies. And all seemed eager to learn the mysterious arts of the schoolroom. The school-book, in the eyes of the unlettered slave, was a sort of fetich to which he attributed the power of the white man. The young slave could follow his master to the door of the schoolhouse, but thus far and no farther. The mysterious rites and ceremonies which went on within were forbidden him. Human nature has ever been curious to know that the knowledge of which is prohibited, and so the slave had a great curiosity to master the printed page and to be admitted to the privileges of the schoolroom. It was not surprising that the whole race tried to go to school, and it need not surprise us if, in the enthusiasm for book-learning, from which the race had been so strictly debarred, too much stress may have been placed on mere book learning and too much confidence placed in the formal processes of the schoolroom. But, better even this exaggerated enthusiasm than indifference to all education of the schoolroom. The race would soon learn that the blue-back Webster's Speller was not the magic wand that would turn all troubles and difficulties into success and prosperity; that the ability to spell B-a-Ba, k-e-r-ker, baker, would buy no bread of the baker; while the power to read, "Do we go up by it!" with painful praiseworthy effort, would help the ex-slave but little as he strove to "go up by" the dangers ahead of him.

But they went to school, all of them at first, or all that could possibly do so, either by day or by night. It is not recorded that the chickens of that time had rest, but it must be that they did, for verily, in the first mad rush of letters, even chickens must have been forgotten by a race whose predilection for them has furnished the point for many a joke, as well as the occasion for painful if not indignant regret on the part of those whose fowls may have been abstracted. And it is a hopeful sign for the future of the Negro that while his first wild enthusiasm for the school-house has been moderated, his real desire for educational improvement continues strong and steady. He will go to school—the public school—when he can, and the higher institutions for his race are all filled to their capacity and are expanding. Will not this thirst for knowledge on the part of a so lately savage race bear good fruit both for the Negro and for humanity?

But who were to teach these black fanatics, seeking initiation for the first time, in the long and gloomy history of their race, into the mysteries, elusinian, of a modern, and, to them, totally foreign cult? A faithful band of Christian missionary white women gave answer by coming in the face of an inevitable social ostracism to light the torch of thought in a region hitherto unblessed by a single ray of education's light. The first Negro schools were taught by these white ladies at Charleston, at Atlanta, at Montgomery, at New Orleans, at Austin, and at the other great centers of the South's Negro population. The success of the first labors of this devoted band led to the foundation of permanent institutions for the elementary and later for the normal and collegiate instruction of the Negro youth. At Nashville, at Atlanta, at Raleigh, at Memphis, and at New Orleans institutions were founded which have become great schools and have contributed beyond measure to the process of civilizing the Negro as a mass—a process confessedly still far from completion. Complicated and annoying as the race problem assuredly is and will be for years to come at the South, it would be far worse—much farther away from even a hopeful degree of solution—but for the work done by the missionary colleges.

The missionary schools, of which Fisk, Atlanta, Straight, Roger Williams and Central Tennessee may be taken as types, furnished the first Negro school teachers and the Negro owes to these schools, founded and maintained in the spirit of the purest Christian philanthropy, a debt he can never repay in either kind or equivalence. The nearest like payment he can make is to imitate the beautiful, pure, devoted, lives of the missionary teachers. Too much cannot be said in praise of their labors. Perhaps if only the missionary Christian teachers had come and the political missionaries had remained at home, all might have been better.

But the missionary schools could reach but few. How was the great mass of the colored population to be educated? This was the question, and it was a most serious one. But the answer came not from the federal government, as some expected—that source from which so many had looked to get the mythical "mule" and the legendary "forty acres"—it came from the South, from the wasted resources of the former master. History furnishes no precedent as it affords no parallel to the action of the ex-slaveholders—a dominant race—in entering at once—before any opportunity had been afforded for recuperation from the losses of the Civil War—on the expensive work of giving a public school system to their former slaves—now technically, at least, their political equals. And nothing can be gained by the Negro in refusing gratitude to the South for this most magnanimous act and policy. An instance of this unselfish policy of the South in its attitude toward Negro education is seen in the history of Texas, the most liberal as well as the most progressive of the Southern commonwealths. The Constitutional Convention of 1876, which of course was Democratic, framed the present state constitution of Texas, and in it absolutely equal provision is made for both the elementary and the higher education of the Negro youth of Texas. And it is to the credit of Texas as an enlightened state as well as fortunate for her Negro population, that in the distribution of the magnificent school fund of the state, no discrimination is made between the races.

The Negro public schools are doing a great work for the elevation of the colored people. In a silent, unobtrusive way, these schools are leavening the thought and life of the race. The status and progress of the Negro are too commonly gauged by the deeds of the loafing and criminal element. The honest, law-abiding Negro who has a home, is getting a little property, has a small bank account, and is educating his children to useful citizenship, attracts little or no attention. But a race that has in a generation since chattel slavery gotten property worth by reliable estimate upward of $400,000,000 has been doing something. All of such a race are not either lazy, vicious, or immoral. The public school is doing effective work for the Negroes of the South in awakening in them a desire for better ways of living and higher ideals of conduct. Much remains to be done but that already accomplished is an earnest of better work yet to be done.

The Negro public school teacher has been more than a mere schoolkeeper. No class of educators in any race has done more, all things considered. The colored teacher has been a herald of civilization to the youth of his people. His superior culture and character have acted as a powerful stimulus to the easily roused imagination of the colored youth, and the black boy feels, in the presence of the black "professah," to him the embodiment of learning, that he too can become "something." At first he does not know what that something is, but he determines to be "somebody" and to make a place and a standing for himself in the world. In this way the colored school teacher is leading his race "up from slavery;" that is from the slavery of ignorance and superstition, of intellectual and moral inertia, of aimlessness and shiftlessness, into the freedom of intelligence, of energy, ambition and industry. Lincoln removed the formal yoke of a legal bondage, but the colored teacher is helping his race to get free a second time from a bondage just as galling—the bondage of intellectual and moral blindness and of industrial independence. Booker T. Washington is such a teacher—a teacher, indeed, and the leader of a race. And what Mr. Washington, himself a product of the missionary schools, is doing in a large way as the teacher and leader of the entire Negro race in America, hundreds, yea, thousands, of colored teachers in city and village, in the malarial river bottoms and among the pine-clad hills, are doing in a local but no less effective, though less comprehensive way. These colored men and women, many of whom are people of genuine culture and character, are giving their lives to the upbuilding of a race. And it is for them a labor of love.

These teachers teach by example as well as by precept. Their homes are models in neatness and refinement that are readily imitated by the other colored people of the community. It is to the credit of the colored teacher that he is, with rare exceptions, a model in his moral conduct and home life, and sets a high standard for his race, which they invariably—some of them—seek to follow. The colored teacher, too, has always been conservative and has been the wise adviser of his people. Himself dependent on the sentiment of the best white people of the community, he has usually won the confidence and respect of the white people, and they in turn have given him their moral support in the work of improving the minds, morals, and habits of the Negro youth of the community. In this way it is throughout the entire South—the best white people of the community by maintaining public schools for the Negro youth and by co-operation with the colored teacher, and often by personal interest in the work of both teacher and pupil, are actually aiding most effectively if not really directing the educational development of the colored race.

It is also greatly to the credit of the colored teacher in the South that he has not gotten above his race or tried to leave them, but has remained at his post and in his place doing the duty Providence has assigned and content to leave results to God and the future.

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