(1905) Roscoe Conkling Bruce, “Freedom Through Education”

Roscoe Bruce
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Roscoe Conkling Bruce, born in 1879, was the only son of U.S. Senator Blanche K. Bruce and his wife Josephine. He attended Phillips Exeter and graduated from Harvard Phi Beta Kappa in 1902. Bruce became an educator. From 1903 to 1906 he supervised Tuskegee Institute’s Academic Department. Afterwards he assumed the post of principal of Armstrong Manual Training High School. Bruce, supported by Booker T. Washington, eventually rose to the post of Assistant Superintendent in charge of the Colored Schools of the District of Columbia, a position he held until 1924. Despite his own elite education, Bruce’s advocacy of industrial education for black students put him at odds which much of Washington, D.C. African American leadership. Selected to give a Memorial Day address at Harvard in 1905, Bruce describes his views on the role of education for African Americans.

We gather to commemorate the resolute and faithful men who fought and fell in the Civil War for nationality and free institutions. Now and then it is urged that the North fought to free the slave; but, looking back over the years, can we say that was all that the men whose names are written upon these walls—Shaw, and Lowell, and Pickering—died for? It was not merely the Sorrow Songs of the plantation and swamp, the anguished cry of fugitive slave, the burning eloquence of Frederick Douglass—it was not so much pity as nationality and Anglo-Saxon ideals and institutions that impelled your heroes to strike the fetters from the toiling slave. Your soldiers recognized the fact that fundamental Americanism demands the free play of each individual’s best powers in the service of the community. In the interest of social justice, national economy, free institutions, human nature itself, your heroes fought to set my people free.

In camps and fields many a New England soldier with the blue-black spelling book on his knees, had clumsily taught black soldiers and contrabands the first hand lessons in the great mystery of letters. Hard on the heels of the soldiers, when the air was not yet purged of the horrid smell of powder and blood, the schoolma’m ventured. She came to liberate; but, she came with benediction and grace, her power was over the heart and conscience of the people. It was the teacher’s service to grant the slave that moral freedom which emancipation of the body made possible; that is the teacher’s service at this hour. The free lay of each individual’s best powers can be secured only through education.

It must be remembered that in slavery Massachusetts and Mississippi, Georgia and Vermont sinned together. Slavery was recognized by statute in 1641 by Massachusetts, in 1650 by Connecticut, in 1661 by Virginia, and later by the other colonies. If emancipation was compassed or in progress throughout the North before 1800, who shall say it was not economic rather than moral reasons that vouchsafed the North this preeminence in public righteousness? Who, then, shall cast the first stone? Slavery was the nation’s sin; freedom through education is the nation’s opportunity, the nation’s duty to itself.

The fact that in Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Mississippi, and Virginia over one-half the Negro males of voting age are illiterate, today shows that the nation’s duty is not done. Although the total Negro enrollment in the common schools of the South has almost trebled in twenty-six years, it is true that in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas the number of Negro illiterates today exceeds the aggregate Negro population of similar age in 1860; the enlargement of school facilities has lagged far behind the sheer increase in population. Only about one-half the Negro children of school age are enrolled in school and less than one-third of those enrolled attend six months or more. The fundamental principle of the American common school, I mean the impartial disposal of public funds to educate all the children of all the people,—despite substantial improvement in public sentiment, that principle is very far indeed from recognition in Southern practice. Black Americans in the South cast no ballots. And so, not more than one-fifth of the school income, the United States Commissioner of Education very cautiously estimates, goes at present to the support of Negro schools. Says Mr. Carl Holliday, a southern white college professor, in the South Atlantic Quarterly (October, 1904), with unusual candor, “In Alabama where the number of children of school age is almost equally divided between the whites and the blacks, the Negro obtains scarcely more than fifteen per cent of the income for public education. Under such conditions the mental development of the Negro is a matter not of years but of ages.”

Of the nine million Negroes in the United States, seven millions live in country districts; the primary problem is that of the peasant. By an automatic process whose current causes are social, the Negro farming population tends to segregate in rather sharply defined areas. For example, in Alabama, there are twelve counties, which form a continuous belt across the state largely coinciding with the cotton soils of the Central Prairie, in each of which the Negroes comprise over seventy per cent of the population. The aggregate population of these counties is nearly half a million, of which eighty-five per cent is Negro; in 1880 the blacks outnumbered the whites by thirty-six to ten, and 1900 by fifty-five to ten. Now, the white county Negro seems to occupy a higher level of life and certainly displays a higher industrial efficiency than his black county brother. Comparing twelve white counties in northern Alabama with the twelve black counties, I find that in 1900 fifty-one per cent of the Negroes were illiterate in the white counties as against sixty-seven per cent in the black. In the white counties the Negroes were in charge less than three thousand agricultural holdings but owned thirty-seven per cent; in the black counties they were in charge of fifty thousand holdings and owned only eight per cent. The white belt produces from one-fourth to one-eight per cent. The white belt produces from one-fourth to one-half bale of cotton to the acre on poor land—the same product that the black belt produces on next to the best land in the South. To no small extent the whites use selected seed, plant an increasing variety of crops, rotate their crops, use fertilizers with intelligence, plow diligently to avert the effects of drouth, readily take to new implements and machinery, stick to their tasks with constancy, and practice many minute economies in production and in consumption. These things are full of instruction and stimulus to the black farmer; but example and stimulus are absent in the black belt. The industrial condition and efficiency and the moral quality of the black farmer in the Alabama black belt have, I believe, improved substantially, but at a snail’s pace. The black belt folk are not stolid and stunned; they are good-hearted, hopeful despite the serfmaking proclivities of the crop lien, eager to learn. On the whole, however, the general efficiency of the white county Negro is higher than that of his brother in the black belt and this is largely due to the presence in the one case and the absence in the other of examples of intelligence, thrift, and energy.

You must remember that, in the United States, whereas nineteen per cent of the Negroes engaged in gainful pursuits are grouped as farmers, planters, and overseers, thirty-four per cent are agricultural laborers. Idle a large part of the year, burdened with no particular responsibility, a member of no particular community with position and reputation to make or to sustain, without a home or even a fixed abode, accessible to few of the incentives to probity and thrift and progress that wholesome family life exerts, exposed to the myriad temptations of careless roving—the black farm hand presents a very grave problem.

Is it not clear, unless extraordinary effort put forth, the Negro masses herding in black belts in the way I have suggested, will indefinitely remain below what ought to be our national minimum?—that some of the richest agricultural resources in America will remain undeveloped?—that a vast supply of labor will remain inefficient?—that these slumbering masses of black men and women and children will remain in their helplessness a temptation to unscrupulous shrewdness and a menace to the spirit and practice of Anglo-Saxon institutions? Education is a vast resource; yet the public schools are wretchedly housed, wretchedly furnished, wretchedly taught. Their effort does not vitally connect itself with the actual life and need of these people; if the school arts be ill taught, agriculture and the household arts are hardly taught at all. Now, the moral and industrial regeneration of Negro life in the Black Belt must come from within; the job must be done by teachers, preachers, mechanics, farmers, housewives educated and trained in Negro schools and inspired to help their people. Institutions seeking to contribute to this far-reaching service should educate their students to ideals and train them in habits and arts that they may spread among the masses intelligent methods in farm and garden and household work; patient thrift and sustained industry; clear foresight and prompt initiative; rugged honesty and steady self-control; moral courage, chastity; public spirit and racial confidence and pride. In a school community like Tuskegee all the elements of real life are adequately represented. The students participate to the fullest extent in the whole circle of activities; they gain experience and a reasonable confidence in their own powers and a sense of responsibility. Such school communities, resting upon agriculture as the basic industry, should be established at the center of each of the greater black belts; they should, as President Eliot has recently suggested, receive the nation’s aid. Such institutions secure the free play of the best powers of men and women of unusual quality. In a deeper and truer sense than your conquering armies were, a Tuskegee is an instrument of emancipation. I voice today not the prayer of pity, but the august demand of a vast national responsibility.

“The country Negro,” says Professor Kelly Miller, “is embalmed…in a state of nature, where he will be preserved…until his opportunity comes. With the city Negro, on the other hand, it is immediate rescue or destruction.” For better schools, better police protection, greater variety of interest, greater personal independence, the Negro flees crop lien, plantation store, and overseer, for the city. Today there are 700,000 Negroes in our large cities. The large number of persons concerned, their steady and rapid increase, their unpreparedness for the new and merciless life, their practical exclusion from the trades, and their congestion in black wards challenge attention. The urban Negro dwells in sullen poverty, his death rate is alarming, he commits excessive crime. “The rich man’s wealth is his strong city; the destruction of the poor is their poverty.” The starved body, the starved mind, the starved soul predisposed to crime; and poverty starves the body, mind, and soul. I cannot forget that behind the marshaled statistics of poverty and crimes and death stand suffering, withered hopes, desolate homes, distorted human nature. To me Marlowe’s noble art does not more vividly present the eternal tragedy between human aspiration and human power than these dreary statistics portray the awful contrast between the open-hearted buoyancy of the plantation Negro lured to the city’s breathless life and the degradation in which he and his children and his children’s children find themselves enmeshed. Fundamentally, the situation is due to the fact that the Negro peasant is wholly unprepared for the complications, the composition, the moral stress of city life; and little or no provision is made to train him in the arts and industries by which he might sustain himself. Memphis, Atlanta, Washington, Baltimore, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and New York,—in which the Negro population varies from two per cent of the total in New York to forty-nine per cent in Memphis, and from 36,000 in St. Louis to 87,000 in Washington—contain a total black population of over half a million souls; and in not one of these cities does there exist a Trade School for Negroes even remotely comparable to the Baron de Hirsch School in New York City for immigrant Jews. It is certainly to the interest of the cities to place within reach of their Negro populations not only the usual facilities of good grammar schools and good high schools, but also adequate training directly for economic independence. It is rather more far-seeing to train than to imprison; it costs less in moral liability and in dollars. As to the matter of death rates and some other matters, a modern city is like an ocean liner; yellow fever in the steerage does not stay there. As domestic servant and unskilled laborer, the urban Negro does not offer the city his best powers as an instrument of production. Embittered by an industrial boycott to which he cannot in sufficient numbers oppose high efficiency, at his wit’s end for a crust of bread and a couch, his vote is the prompt resource of scamp and scoundrel. For the education and training that shall liberate the black citizen’s best powers in the service of the community, it is not pity that pleads—it is social justice and free institutions and the common welfare and the national responsibility.

Dominant opinion North and South is at one in conviction and insistence that the development of the Negro people in America is essential to the progressive well-being of the nation, to the integrity of free institutions in this land; and that this development shall be in a very definite sense separate. Perhaps the most significant fact in recent Negro history is the rapid growth in this rising people, under stress of differential treatment, of self-consciousness and race pride. If this self-consciousness degenerates on occasion into hypersensitiveness and insolence, you must remember that the prejudice often flouts all the equities of democratic life and occasionally revels in excesses which in Jamaica and in Egypt English administration and good sense sternly repress. The rose, I beg you to remember, does not flourish under a millstone; the cactus may.

Discrimination at the soda fountain has been capitalized by the black druggist and is everywhere in the South yielding him “handsome returns”! To the Negro physician race prejudice and differential treatment are in some of their effects a positive asset and bounty. He does not insist in his very salutation upon defining his patient’s social inferiority; he is not dreaded as a callous stranger with a terrible knife. The Negro physician’s service is largely that of spreading among his people in the multifarious contacts of social life an appreciation of the importance of personal hygiene and good sanitation. It is he who, not only in the sickroom but in all the assemblies of the people, has aroused Negroes to the infectious character of tubercular diseases and the means for checking the advance of the great White Plague. The successful careers of hundreds of Negro physicians and pharmacists in the Lower South is the clearest possible evidence of the opportunities awaiting trained men.

And who can preach the Word of God to black men but a Negro—be he Crummell, with his Oxford education, or the Right Reverend John Jasper, with his “sun-do move” theology? In country districts, the churches are the centers of organization in Negro life, in potency of influence the preacher overshadows teacher and landholder; but too often the whole weight of the untrained and ignorant preacher’s influence is thrown sheer against both material and moral progress. In cities the control of the church over the Negro’s life needs strengthening if only for restraint of crime. Everywhere the elaborate ecclesiastical organization should be directed and represented by men of high character and keen intelligence. The divergence in views and sentiments between the older and younger generations of Negroes expresses itself very pointedly in religious matters. The church must remain the House of God, but at the same time the preacher must enrich the formalities of religion not only with the sweet spirit of sociability but also with the serious interests of daily life. The church, as well as the school, must be a social center rich in interest if it is to exercise a reasonable control over the more vigorous elements in the community. The preacher faces a situation in which the utmost tact and intelligence and breadth of appreciation and power of leadership are requisite. Without unduly shocking the ingrained beliefs of the fathers, he must attach the religious sentiment to the moralities of common life. He must preach honesty, chastity, fidelity to contract, home-getting—the religion of character and thrift. How can such service be rendered by an illiterate—a weakling? Here and there, particularly in private institutions like Spelman Seminary and Hampton Institute and in Universities like Atlanta and Fisk and Shaw, white teachers—most from the North but some from the South—of the finest culture and the noblest devotion will always, I pray and believe, continue to teach Negro youth in the heart of the South. For this service, the Negro people will always feel as they have always felt—profoundly grateful. But, schools—industrial and normal, elementary and secondary, great and small—even colleges and professional schools,—such separate institutions for Negro students will more and more seek teachers and executive officers in men and women of Negro blood. In point of fact, the teachers of Negroes are today in the vast majority of cases black, and neither South nor North questions for a moment the competency of black men and women for such service or the wholesome effects of such an arrangement upon the spirit and attitude of the students and upon the whole present social situation. The quickening of Negro life must come more and more from within, the uplifting forces in Negro life must be more and more in hands of Negroes. Now, the fundamental problem of any school is not land and buildings but personnel—the personnel of the teaching body. It is a grievous error to suppose that a good heart and some ability to read and write adequately equip a teacher of the common branches; or that sobriety and some knack with saw and plane and hammer, make a teacher of carpentry. One of the most serious problems that a great institution like Tuskegee, for example, has to face is the dearth f men and women of liberal education, specific training in teaching, and professional spirit and ideals. Negro public schools are everywhere gravely embarrassed by lack of principals and teachers with a sound and thorough education. This issue is now upon us; the demand for well-equipped Negro teachers for all classes of Negro schools is at this moment very far in excess of the supply. The Negro teacher of the best education and the best training is never out of a job; the field of his influence and service is almost limitless. Where, then, can the teachers, the preachers, the physicians for the Negro people be educated and trained unless the South has colleges and professional schools for selected Negro youth? Now, the truth is that the superior education and training has suffered from popular distrust of the educational value of Greek and Latin in the teaching of Negro youth. A black boy can get education, it has been felt, out of making a horse-shoe or building a wagon; but how out of reading De Senectute? But, the effects of education are really to be sought in the mind and character and growing power of the student; the process is, in any case, essentially intangible, and to estimate the thoroughness of the process and its value a fundamental error. Anything is practical that is of service to the community. Clear thinking and an insight into human nature certainly have as many practical uses as deftness with hammer and tongs; ordinarily, a teacher influences more people in more important ways than does a blacksmith. In so far as the popular distrust assumes Negro nature to be as unlike human nature as chalk is unlike cheese, I may be permitted to hope the distrust blinks the facts. But, it is unquestionably true that the curriculum of the New England college which New England teachers planted in the South is not adequately adjusted to the life of white youth in New England today, much less to the life of black youth in the lower South. The misfortune is that, while in New England that curriculum has since the sixties been brought into vital relations with present-day conditions, in the South it retains much of the old-time rigor and narrowness and there is much worship of the fetich. The Negro college in the South should admit students who have never studied Latin or Greek, and should enrich its curriculum by the addition of thorough courses in natural science with its applications to trade and industry; in history and social science with special attention to the traditions and progress of Negro peoples in Africa and in America, and to the sociological problems in which Negro life in America is enmeshed today. The Negro college should render its curriculum flexible and more widely serviceable through the introduction of an elective system by the provisions of which the dead languages might give way to the living languages and history and social science, and advanced mathematics to psychology and ethics and the principles and practice of education. And, finally, the Negro university should organize well-equipped schools of education, of engineering, of agriculture alongside of the school of medicine. Some of these reforms have already been compassed or are in progress, I am glad to say, in the best Negro colleges and universities of the South.

It is essential, says President Eliot, “that the teachers, preachers, physicians, lawyers, engineers, and superior mechanics, the leaders of industry throughout the Negro communities of the South, should be trained in superior institutions. If any expect that the Negro teachers of the South can be adequately educated in primary schools or grammar schools or industrial schools pure and simple, I can only say in reply that that is more than we can do in the North with the white race. The only way to have good primary schools and grammar schools in Massachusetts is to have high and normal schools and colleges in which the higher teachers are trained. It must be so throughout the South, the Negro race needs absolutely these higher facilities for education.” And yet, for example, after nearly four decades of splendid service, with over a thousand graduates, many of whom are in positions of high trust and responsibility, and with a present enrollment of nearly nine hundred selected Negro youth, the total endowment of Atlanta and Fisk Universities taken together is only $125,000!

When the black soldiers of the sixty-second and sixty-fifth regiments of United States colored infantry were discharged, they contributed a fund over $6,000 to establish in Missouri a school where their children might enjoy the blessings of a useful education. Those Negro soldiers gave their savings to the same cause for which they had gladly offered their lives—the cause of freedom. The Harvard men who fell in the Civil War gave their lives for social justice, national economy, free institutions, human nature itself. When I stand before the memorial to Robert Gould Shaw, representing in bronze, as your chairman (Professor George Herbert Palmer) has said, “a subject race moving toward freedom, gaining that freedom through its own exertions, yet under the guidance of a people more developed than itself,” I am glad to know that a memorial glorified if not by the same art, yet by an equal motive, will be erected to William H. Baldwin, who sought under peace to vouchsafe black Americans opportunity to win a larger freedom. The Baldwin memorial will be erected not on Boston Common but in the heart of the South on soil once tilled by Negro slaves but now consecrated to the education of the children of those slaves under Negro teachers. Baldwin advanced the education and training of selected Negro youth in whose hands may more and more be entrusted the great uplifting forces in Negro life. These two sons of Harvard whose names I would like today, the soldier and the citizen, chiefly served free institutions in America.

Until the fetters fall from the minds and hearts and energies of nine million black Americans, the blood of your heroic soldiers cries aloud from the battle-field and the nation’s duty is not done.