(1896) Hugh M. Browne, “The Higher Education of the Colored People of the South”

Hampton River, 1900
Courtesy Library of Congress

Hugh M. Browne, educator, Presbyterian minister, and college professor in Liberia, positioned himself between the advocates of industrial and higher education for African Americans.  In the speech below given in Washington, D.C., he describes his educational philosophy and the forces and experiences that shaped it.

In my invitation to take part in the discussion of the higher education of the colored people of the South, your Vice-President indicated that the fact that I had lived in Liberia would enable me to speak as one having authority. I am not sure that I understand just what Dr. Wayland meant by this hint,-whether he wished me to give an account of Liberia, the republic which began with an imported college, and has not yet established a common school; nor been able, although maintained financially by friends in the United States, to prevent this college from falling into the condition which Mr. Cleveland calls “innocuous desuetude,”—or whether, possessing himself a knowledge of the retrograding effects of higher education upon that republic, he predicates there from the position which I shall take in this discussion. If the latter, he is perfectly right. No man whose judgement is worth accepting can live one week in Liberia without becoming a radical advocate of the now celebrated ratio of 16 to 1,-not between gold and silver money, for Liberia has neither, but between higher and industrial education. I mean that, in the matter of the education of my people, one part of industrial is worth, in weight, volume, and potential energy, sixteen parts of the best literary or higher education the world has ever seen. After much thought and prayerful consideration, I have arrived at the conclusion that the Great Creator has permitted the foundation and existence of Liberia in order to give to the world a striking and forcible object-lesson on the folly of attempting to prepare an undeveloped race for the “ceaseless and inevitable struggle and competition of life” by higher education.

In the time allotted, it is impossible to enter into anything like a full presentation of this object-lesson. Happily, this is not necessary for this Association. If, therefore, I can succeed in presenting what a friend of mine once called “a brief epitome of a brief syllabus,” it will be hint sufficient to you gentlemen who are wise in matters relating to social evolution.

Zadig, when required to explain his perfect description of the king’s horse, which he had never seen, said:

“Wandering through the paths which traverse the wood, I noticed the marks of horse-shoes. They were all equidistant. “Ah!” said I, “this is a famous galloper.” In a narrow alley, only seven feet wide, the dust upon the trunks of the trees was a little disturbed at three feet and a half from the middle of the path. “This horse,” said I to myself, “had a tail three feet and a half long, and, lashing it from one side to the other, he has swept away the dust.” Branches of the trees meet overhead at the height of five feet, and under them I saw newly-fallen leaves; so I knew the horse had brushed some of the branches, and was, therefore, five feet high. As to his bit, it must have been made of twenty-three carat gold, for he had rubbed it against a stone, which turned out to be a touchstone, with the properties of which I am familiar by experiment. Lastly, by the marks which his shoes left upon the pebbles of another kind, I was led to think that his shoes were of fine silver.”

A nineteenth-century Zadig travelling in Liberia-the people having been swept out of existence-could, by a similar retrospective prophecy, describe what manner of man the Americo-Liberian was. His description would be something like this: He was a man who, in every line of life, was a non-producer. All that he possessed came as a gift, either from another race, or from the wild products of nature. A man who had simply used some of the effects of civilization, without ever manipulating the causes which produce these effects. A man who had memorized the higher education of another race, without ever realizing the fact that knowledge is power. He was like the hello-girl in the central office of a telephone system who uses the phone many times in the day, but knows nothing of the induction coil, the variable contact of the carbon and platinum buttons, and the effect of this contact on the strength of the current passing through it. She simply uses a completed instrument which she can neither repair nor reproduce.

When asked to explain this true description of a man whom he had never seen, the nineteenth century Zadig would answer:

“In my journey through Liberia I find a few iron implements used by civilized races, but I find no remains of an iron foundry of factory; and the iron ore, though plentiful, rests undisturbed. I find some manufactured cotton wares, but I find no remains of a cotton gin or mill, and the cotton plant is only found in its wild state. I find rubber manufactures, but no remains of the rubber-factory, and the wild rubber trees have never been tapped. I find ground coffee, but no remains of the pulping house or pulper; yet the country is overrun with wild-coffee trees of the finest quality. I find cans which contain all kinds of vegetables, but I find no trace whatever of a truck garden or canning factory. I find leather articles, but no remains of a cattle ranch, slaughter-house, or tannery. I find gold coins, but these bear the stamps of other countries; and the rich deposits of gold throughout the country have not been disturbed. I do not find the slightest evidence of the existence of a railroad or a wagon road, nor are there any indications that the streams were ever used as water-ways. I find a few official records, but among these no other evidence of an income to the republic than that derived from import and export duties; and the exports are uncultivated, raw products, furnished by the uncivilized tribes, and exported by white men residing in the country. I do not find one article bearing the stamp of a Liberian manufacture. I find a college in a sad state of decay, but I find no trace whatever of a common school.”

I am not slandering “liberia in this “retrospective prophecy.” I am but hinting at facts to which I called the attention of her people while in that country, and pleaded with them at the peril of my life for a change from a dependent to an independent existence; from a delusive imitation of civilization to a real living civilization; from a memorized knowledge of higher education to that bread-winning, resource-developing industrial knowledge which is a power unto the salvation of both soul and body and which alone can help and undeveloped people to help themselves. I pleaded and labored in that country for industrial education, as I have never pleaded for God’s protection and guidance for myself or labored for my own existence. After studying the country and the condition of the people, I formulated a plan of education for Liberia quite similar to that which has been made famous by Tuskegee. In the letter to the interested white friends in  America accompanying this plan occur such passages as the following, which I now quote to show my position on the question we are now discussing thirteen years ago, while in Liberia, and my position to-day while laboring in the cause of education in this country.

There is too much at stake in the trail which Liberia is making for anyone connected with her, be that connection ever so remote, to be indifferent to the most indifferent of her concerns; but to neglect or unwisely order the education of her youth is to sound he death knell before she has reached her majority.

There is not royal road to civilization for the negro; nor does he need such. He needs now, in Liberia, an industrial institute, common primary schools, and a crops of welltrained and experienced foreign teachers, and these black or white, only that they believe in the brotherhood of man, and, above all, are such as think it not a sin to work.

It was a serious mistake when the affairs and control of the college were committed to the charge of the trustees in Liberia. A board of trustees, composed principally of unlearned and illiterate men, is no more prepared to conduct the affairs of a college than is a canal boatman to direct safely over the Atlantic one of our great streamers. I don’t believe it possible to step out of slavery into such positions,- the distance is too great, and the steps between the two stages too necessary to the securing and maintaining the latter.

Nor do I think it just in those who desire to see a race rise undertake to raise it, as so many of our friends have done since the war. Give the negro the opportunity to grow into such positions and he will stand firm, think correctly, act wisely; but make him the holder of such positions and you expect no more fruit from him than one does perfume from the artificial flower. We must grow, and those who direct our growth must themselves be grown.

This country needs an institution which will put within the reach of the children of the masses, of the Americo-Liberians and of the natives, a common school education coupled with some trade,mental improvement and muscular development of distinct money value.

They need the knowledge which skillfully grapples with the difficulties attendant on the development of a new country by a poor and untrained people, an education which not only trains the mind how to observe and think properly, but which prepares one to intelligently understand the various duties and avocations of life, and enables him to earn a competent livelihood. The child crawls before it walks, and the young nation must struggle first in the rougher roads of material development before she essays to tread the higher paths of purely intellectual culture. For the present, provision for higher education should be made only for exceptional cases of talent and merit. Indeed, it would probably be well if this arrangement were permanent; for, after all, only those of exceptional talent and merit succeed in the walks of higher culture.

Liberia needs thousands of intelligent farmers and skilled artisans. Through these must education show its power and attract the people to its ways. The rising generation here must be taught self-reliance and independence. They must be made producers, who shall bring to markets of the world the products, wares, and manufactures of properly conducted farms, workshops, and manufactories. The institution for this country at present is at Hampton. And I have underscored Hampton four times.

These quotations indicate the conviction which my loyalty to race, wide observation, and experience all unite to confirm, namely, that a people’s education should fit them to succeed in the condition and environment in which their lot is cast.

Let us now come nearer home than Liberia. And let us be perfectly frank and outspoken. The trial of the negro before the bar of nations on the question of his title to the brotherhood of man is too near the jury-stage for sentimentality and weak excuses. The time has arrived for plain speaking and acting, for the presentation of substantial evidence of facts.

The same serious mistake made in Liberia, namely, substituting higher for industrial education, was made in the South. There we had the same disregard of the fact that a wilderness exist between Egypt and Canaan in the progress of a race or people. When we reached the opposite shore of our Red Sea, at the close of the late Rebellion, the majority of our saintly white friends of the North, and the colored men who had ear of the nation at that time, believed that we placed our feet upon the land of Canaan. They, therefore, fed us on the milk and honey of that land.  And to us, in our ignorance, this food was sweeter than manna, though the latter was supercharged with the proper nutriment and came directly from heaven. Now that they and we are beginning to realize that the land was not Canaan, but the shores of a wild, rugged, unexplored wilderness, we are both also discovering that the diet of Canaan does not produce the bone and sinew necessary for the journey.

We were given the higher education of the advanced white man, whose race has fought the good fight in the wilderness and is now concerned about the improvement of Canaan; and with this misfit training we have gone to our people in the wilderness, only to discover that we possess the outfit of leisure where the outfit of labor is needed.

No, my friends, neither man nor race steps from Egypt to Canaan, they journey there through undiscovered roads. The wedding garment of that land is of the crazyquilt pattern, made of pieces of experience gathered only on this journey. I am, therefore, singing daily, not of “arms and men,” but of the sweet uses of this wilderness, where necessity prepares us to win in the struggle for life, and God prepares us to win in the struggle for the life of others. And the burden of my song is that an education and Christian services, which are not adapted to our present condition and environment, are of no more value to us than is a pair of skates to a boy who lives in Madeira.

We have been sent to the Greek and Latin authors, but they do not teach us to bridge the streams we meet nor how to bring bread from the untilled soil. We need schools which put the hoe in one hand and a book on farming in the other; a hammer in one hand and a book on carpentry in the other; a broom in one hand and a book on housekeeping in the other. Christian scientific industrial training is the highway in the wilderness for us. Every circumstance at present makes this way so clear that wayfaring men, though fools shall not err therein, and those colored men who do err are the fools whom the Good Book recommends should be left to perish in their folly.

Labor, though the taste for it is acquired, is the true means of development. That it required, under God’s providence, two centuries and a half to introduce us to a mild form of this means, in the South land of this country, is to me a very significant fact. If we will come to a familiar acquaintance and saving knowledge of labor, we must do so by educating our children to cherish labor as the pearl of great price, and to sell all else to purchase it. We must eradicate the idea that labor is degrading, by training our children to labor, and industrial education alone does this.

I favour the industrial, because the higher or purely literary education is not in touch with out present condition and those parts of our environment with which we are in correspondence. Among others, this higher education produces these three effects which are inimical to the progress of any race or people in our present condition:

First, This purely literary education produces an unmarketable article, thus entailing upon the race three total losses; namely, the cost of its production, the anticipated selling price, and saddest of all, the expense of carrying this article in stock. The avenues of employment which require higher education are to-day over-crowded with white men; among the supply is greater than the demand, and is still increasing. Nor is their higher education a new thing. It is the result of natural growth, and rests upon an experience with the letter which now celebrates not its birthdays, but its centennials.

Colored men deceive themselves when they fancy color prejudice the obstacle which closes against us the avenues in which higher education reaps its harvest. That which closes these avenues tightest is our lack, of that factor of proficiency which is acquired only from experience. And this is the factor which our present condition and environment do not furnish. The whites will not let us practiced upon. I am thoroughly convinced that the best way to established this factor amongst, us in this country, is to extract the greatest possible life from those parts of our environment with which we are at present in correspondence.

Second, This purely literary education puts the average colored man out of touch with our people. The young white man, squandering the wealth of his parents, because he was reared out of touch with the causes which accumulated that wealth presents to my mind no sadder or more demoralizing picture in the social life of this country than the young colored squandering the knowledge of the university, because his people were reared out of touch with the concrete causes which produced that formulated, abstract knowledge.

This purely literary training does not touch the present social condition of our people in sufficient vital points. Its trend is toward the abstract, while we are wrestling with the coarser forms of concrete. The formulated knowledge of the book is but the experience of those who have succeeded in the struggle with the concrete, and can be of little developing value to one whose study of it is divorced from the concrete. When we step out of these seminaries of higher education, we are quite like the girl who thought she was a cook because she had memorized the better part of a scientific course on cooking. When thus equipped she finally entered the kitchen, it was only to discover that the old cook did not understand her theories and scientific terms, and she herself did not know a rolling-pin from a cullenderhence each was disgusted with the other.

We are just learning to manipulate the causes of the higher civilization; the knowledge of the effects if this civilization, therefore, will not help us, and one equipped therewith is out of touch with us.

We form the working masses engaged in fields of unskilled labor the world over, even in Africa. The educated men and women who will help us succeed, round by round, to the top of the ladder, must bring us their learning in our own language.  Herein lies the difference between the average college-bred man amongst us and our distinguished educator, Booker T. Washington: the former speaks to us brokenly in a foreign language, while the latter speaks to us plainly in our own language.

Harvard University honored the race which built her, when she honored Booker T. Washington. I have never known the white race to hesitate in their sanction and praise of men, whatever their color or creed, when they find them storing up energy, the motions arising from which produce social efficiency.

Third, This purely literary training puts the average colored man out of touch with himself. I don’t believe any man, white or black, can in the first generation of hid intellectual life, digest and assimilate the present prescribed course of higher education.

Physically, there is but one way to obtain the full com in the ear, and that is to give the seed the condition and environment essential to its daily growth. The seed thus provided for gradually and slowly takes in, digests, and assimilates each day its daily bread, and build up first the blade, then the ear, and after that the full com in the ear. It is none the less true of the metal development of a people,-they must receive mental food gradually and orderly, first that which pertains to the blade stage, then that which pertains to the ear stage, and after that, that which pertains to the full-corn-in-the-ear stage. To supply all this while in the blade stage produce the worst form of mental indigestion, and a resemblance to an educated man which is ludicrous and yet self-satisfied. In this connection, I do not hesitate to declare that if one should analyze the efforts put forth under this unnatural training, he will find that they aim rather at the impossible task of changing the Ethiopian’s skin than at the possible and God ordained one improving the condition of that skin; and in the name God and humanity, what else can the harvest be than impracticability an discontent? Knowledge, like food, is a power to its possessor only when it is assimilated. There can be very little harmony among the “internal relations” of that man whose head is overloaded with indigested knowledge while his empty stomach is wrestling with the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

A man educated out of touch with himself is like poor little David clothed in the mighty armor of Saul. I rejoice, though, that the time has come when we are learning, even though slowly, that there is at the present stage of our progress more virtue in the sling than there is in the mightiest of such armors.

In conclusion, I am not opposing higher education in itself, I am opposing it at a stage in a people’s history when it destroys efficiency and power. I am pleading for an education specially adapted to the circumstances and conditions of a specific case. I am beseeching our benevolent white friends to look upon us in the terrific plants, and not as so much clay to be cast into various forms by the potter. I am not asking a change in the system of education which the white man has built up. I am, out of the fullness of my heart, begging that it be kindergartenized when brought among us. I am claiming that the best way to teach the young idea of an undeveloped people how to shoot it to practise it in shooting the seed com into the furrow and striking the nail upon the head with the hammer.

I see no reason for blaming the white man for the results of my own inactivity. Nor do I look with alarm upon restrictions placed upon my desire to continue in this inactivity. I do know that his former history gives every assurance that when Ethiopia shall unfold her arms and stretch forth her hands in the rivalry of life he will admit her “on a footing of equality of opportunity.” The altruistic feeling of his civilization will demand this as truly as it demanded the abolition of slavery the world over. The height to which we shall rise in true civilization depends upon the energy and wisdom with which we shall stretch forth her hands in this rivalry.