By the standards of African American history, Bishop Randall Albert Carter is a little known figure. Born in Fort Valley, Georgia on January 1, 1867, he was educated at Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina and Paine College in Augusta, Georgia. An active pastor in the Colored (later Christian) Methodist Episcopal Church, he was elected Bishop at the denomination’s national convention in St. Louis in 1914. On May 30, 1923, Bishop Carter was asked to give the Commencement Address at his alma mater, Paine College. He used the occasion to challenge his audience to set lofty personal goals and maintain high ethical standards even in the face of overwhelming racial bigotry. This presentation is included precisely because it was typical of many thousands of speeches given by hundreds of African American orators during the era of segregation. His presentation appears below.
I presume the reason I have been invited to come back to Paine College and talk to you today, after thirty years of fighting and climbing, until I have gained some laurels and reached the top of my calling, is that you may have the privilege of reading some pages out of my book of experience. As I stand here today in this beautiful chapel I can scarcely realize that more than three decades have passed since I walked, with others, from the old remodeled horse stables, which, in those days, served as dormitories and classrooms on this campus, down to old Trinity to the commencement exercise, and dreamed great dreams as I received my diploma from the hands of the lovable, lamented George Williams Walker. I little knew then to what I was going, when I stepped forth that day, eager, happy and hopeful, into the great world to make a name for myself. If I had known what awaited me perhaps I would have shrunk back aghast. However, I can say with all modesty, I have fought bravely, I have kept the faith fairly well, and I have weathered the many storms and fierce gales of spars and sails. And, today I have returned to the home port, like some grizzled and weather-beaten captain, to tell you something of the hardships and dangers of the voyage which you are about to begin. I warn you that this is truly the commencement of life for you. Those years you have spent here have been merely years of training for the real battles that are now before you. So I am asking you two vital questions, whence and whither? I myself shall try to answer my question whence? But I cannot answer the question whither? I can only give you some directions, which may help you on the way, while the passing years shall give answer to that question, whither?
To every thoughtful and aspiring young Negro man and woman, whence are we as a race? Is an all-important question; for you must understand the whence of your race in order to know clearly whither you may carry it, as you journey onward.
In the beginning, let me emphasize the fact that there are many embarrassments and annoyances, but no disgrace in being a Negro. As Negroes, we may be as proud of our origin as any other race. For many years Africa, the country whence the Negro came, has been called the “dark continent,” because the white world knew little or nothing of it. But it has been recently discovered that Africa is a land as rich n its ancient civilization and culture as it is in its present wealth of minerals, forests, and fertile fields. It is becoming well-known that Africa had evolved and developed a culture and civilization of its own which compares favorably with the famous civilizations of ancient Asia and Europe.
Professor George Reisner of Harvard University has been conducting researches in the Sudan. He states that his researches have established that the culture of Ethiopia stood as an outpost of Egyptian civilization in middle Africa, that in the art of the Ethiopian a Greek influence obtained, and, that the invention of a script of their own was evidence that the Ethiopians were a people of genius. The glory and grandeur that was Egypt’s more than three thousand years ago was disclosed recently when the tomb of King Tut-Ankh-Amen was located and opened in the Valley of the Kings’ Tombs.
Since the discoveries of the former greatness of the ancient Egyptians and Ethiopians, it has suddenly been discovered that they were not Negroes. The same professor Reisner says: “The Ethiopians are not and were not African Negroes.” He describes them as “dark races in which brown prevailed.” I fear the learned professor would have a hard time convincing his own people that the “dark, colored races in which brown prevails” in this country are not Negroes. Happily, you cannot sponge out ethnological facts with the bitter waters of race prejudice. The Negro has been called “Sons of Ham,” “African,” and “Ethiopian” in scornful derision for all these years, and now it is too late to try to make him something else when it is discovered that these designation link him with the greatest civilizations of the past. As Negroes, therefore, we claim kinship with the ancient Ethiopians and Egyptians, and all colored races, and share the greatness and glory of their achievements and history.
I was looking recently at some drawings of Egyptian kings and queens. Any unprejudiced observer would decide from those drawings that they were at least Negroid; for they have the lips, noses and hair which are characteristic of the Negro. The, King Tut-Ankh-Amen claimed Amenhotep III as his father. Dr. Alexander Francis Chamberlain of Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, show that this king had a strain of Negro blood. In his book, “The Contribution of the Negro to Human Civilization,” we read: “The contributions of the Negro to human civilizations are innumerable and immemorial. Let us first get some glimpses of him, chiefly as an individual, in contact with the hosts of other cultures than his own. Ancient Egypt knew a few of the mighty Pharaohs. Nefertari, the famous queen of Aahmes, the King of Egypt, who drove the Hyksos from the land and founded the Eighteenth Dynasty (ca. 1700 B.C.), was a Negress of great beauty, strong personality and remarkable administrative ability. She was for years associated in the government with her son, Amenhotep I, who succeeded his father. Queen Nefertari was highly venerated, and many monuments were erected in her honor; she was venerated as ‘ancestress and founder of the Eighteenth Dynasty’ and styled ‘the wife of God Ammon,’ etc. Another strain of Negro blood came into the line of the Pharaohs with Mut-em-ua, wife of Thothmes IV, whose son, Amenhotep III, had a Negroid physiognomy.” So the evidence is conclusive that we are kin to the planners and builders of the great palaces of Baalbec, Karnak, Luxor, ancient Memphis, the pyramids, and the Sphinx.
The question has often been asked why the Negro can so easily adapt himself to present day civilization, and can compete on terms of equality with other races in every walk of life. The answer is what scientists call atavism, which is defined as intermittent heredity, reversion to an ancestral type or trait. Atavism explains why the Negro race has produced a Coleridge-Taylor and a Harry Burleigh in music, a Pushkin, Dumas, Dunbar and DuBois in literature, a Frederick Douglass and Robert Brown Elliott in statescraft, a Booker T. Washington and Lucy Laney in education, a Price, Holsey and Turner in oratory, a Ned Gourdin, Harry West and Jack Johnson in athletics. It is a harking back of the race to the centuries of civilization and culture of its great ancestors. Atavism explains why the race in this country has made a progress which, as President Harding wrote a great convention of Negroes the other day: “has been one of the wonders of civilization’s advance.” It gives the reason why the Negro race has acquired, in the short space of the sixty years since its emancipation in this country, twenty-two millions of acres of land, six hundred thousand homes, forty-five thousand churches, and operates seventy-eight banks, a hundred insurance companies, besides seventy thousand other business enterprises, with a capital of one hundred and fifty million dollars.
This is the answer that history and learning give to the question of the whence? of the Negro race. We are justly proud.
I say to you today that our past obligates us to high endeavor for the future. We, you and I, must “carry on” for the race, until we have shown to our critics we are worthy descendants of ancient great sires. Professor Kamerer, a Viennese biologist, makes the statement that “the skill, mental and physical, acquired by men and animals during their lives can be handed down to posterity.” If this statement is true, and if the demonstration offered by this Austrian student is accepted by the scientists of Cambridge University, England, then we have as a heritage all the culture and skill and civilization of the past ages of our ancestors of Egypt and Ethiopia. This points us to the whither of the race. But I warn you that the race will go only so far as its individual members go. Therefore, the future of the race is in the keeping of such as you who hear me today.
Your coming in this institution, and spending years of toilsome study and privation preparing for your future activities, may be taken as indicative of your determination to help lift the race up to and beyond the heights which it once attained. I wish to mention a few of the qualities which are necessary for you in this great mission of racial renaissance.
First, you must have the God consciousness. I mean, you must realize that there is a God, and that he governs and guides you, directs, leads and protects you, in all of your ways. A constant study of the lives of men and women who have lived worthily, and have lifted the human race, convinces me that young men and women cannot accomplish much which will add to the sum total of human and racial betterment without a deep consciousness of the fact that God is with them. The stories of the lives of youthful Joseph in Egypt, and the early struggles of David, the poet-king of Israel, are gripping and instructive because of the constant emphasis laid upon the God consciousness. I cannot lay too much stress upon the thought that you cannot get along without God, and do anything of permanent value in the great world into which you are going.
I was reading recently a story of the life of Henry Ford, the automobile manufacturer, written by William L. Stidger, who knows him well. He tells of the simple faith of this great captain of industry. He believes in God and reads his Bible daily. Mr. Stidger says, when he asked Mr. Ford what part of the teachings of Jesus he liked best and thought most applicable to life, he replied, “The Sermon on the Mount.” When he asked him, “Do you try to run your industry by the Sermon on the Mount?” he replied, “I do. It is our constitution. And it works.” He was reminded during the interview, that Bishop Quayle had said of the late John Burroughs, the famous naturalist, and the intimate friend of Ford, “He knew the garden but never found the Gardener,” he replied, “yes. That was too bad. It doesn’t seem possible that one could fail to find the Gardener, with all of these beautiful things and all of these great things about us. It is too bad that Burroughs never found the Gardener.”
In the beginning of your journey in search of the whither in the world, God’s great garden, I pray you be sure to find the Gardener first. It will simplify greatly your search, and lighten the burdens of the way. Then, you must have thorough preparation.
You have finished a specified course of study here under the direction of teachers, but you have merely been learning how to make thorough preparation for real life. You have merely gotten the rudiments, but you have been trained to think clearly and systematically. If you are wise, you will be adding daily to your little store through all the coming years, by constant reading, and pondering, and storing the shelves of memory against the time of need. Do not get the idea that you are thoroughly prepared for the fierce conflicts which await you by what you have learned here. I recall this incident which happened some years ago at a General Conference of our church. During a sharp parliamentary battle over a question of procedure, a delegate was busily hunting up the mooted point in his parliamentary manual. The late Dr. Bonner laughingly said to him: “You haven’t time to learn it now, son. You should have known it.” That is the thought I am trying to impress. You must be thoroughly prepared when the time comes, by knowing the thing which you are called upon suddenly to say or do. Although I have been away from this institution more than thirty years, I read and study more now than I did while I was a student here. Unceasing acquisition of information and knowledge is the only sure path to the whither of wealth, or honor, or service. Do not be envious of those who excel you in ability or attainments or knowledge. Keep after them.
Also, you must have undaunted courage.
When I speak of courage I mean that “quality of mind which meets danger or opposition with intrepidity, calmness and firmness. Courage is of the intellect and will, and may be possessed in the highest degree by those who are constitutionally timid.” Courage is stoutness of heart, self-reliance, red-bloodedness of spirit. As you go forward in life you will meet with ostracism on account of your race and color. You will encounter envy on account of your mental and material possessions. You will have to grapple with the green-eyed monster, jealousy, because of your achievements and popularity. You will meet ingratitude, that meanest of all sins, from those for whom you have done most and suffered most. You will be slandered by open and secret foes. There will be many hours of deep despondency, when you will debate whether it is worth while to continue to struggle and sacrifice for others. It is then you will need unfaltering courage to nerve your arm and strengthen your soul to march onward. But remember only those hearts of oak ever accomplish anything worth while. Some one has well said: “Everywhere and at all times, the men who have had definite convictions upon the great issues, and have courageously chosen righteousness, are the men who have directed the course of nations.”
Also, you must have the ability to go the route morally.
When I say “the route,” I am using a phrase used by baseball writers, meaning the ability to last through the entire game. One of the greatest assets which a young man or woman can possess on leaving school is a high moral standard—an acute sense of moral values. And this equipment must be able to stand the wear and tear of ever-changing circumstances and condition. You must not think that you can select the Commandments which you will keep and reject those which you do not like. The moral code of mankind, crystallized into the Ten Commandments by Moses, is the result of the reasoned experience of men who lived ages before Moses. Observation and experience convinced thoughtful men long ages ago that it is harmful to the individual, as well as to the community, to lie, to steal, to kill, and to commit adultery. I wish to emphasize that it is just as immoral to steal the good name of folks whom you do not like as it is to steal their goods. It is just as immoral to destroy the reputation and hinder the progress of those whom you envy as it is to take their lives.
I have in mind some brilliant men, whose great intellects gave promise, through their young manhood, of lives of usefulness and eminence, but they could not go the route morally, and today they are wrecks along the shore, and are but sad memories to their friends. Whatever the temptation to weaken morally as the years pass, and you reach places of authority and power, resolve to play the game through without faltering. My observation is that an immoral man or woman in a position of responsibility and power and, perhaps, possessed of wealth, and the influence which wealth carries with it, is a curse to every young person with whom they come in contact. Such persons contaminate the moral atmosphere and lower the moral temperature wherever they go.
Take along with you also as you go from here a great loyalty to some high vision and for some true friendship. You go out to a race poor, despised and ostracized. Get the vision of service. Resolve to live for them, not for yourself. “In a very deep and true sense it is wheat a man sees that either makes or unmakes him. The effect of vision upon character and service is transforming. It elevates or debases, according to its qualities. Whether a man grovels or soars, whether he remains in the realm of animalism or rises into the spiritual, and lives in the high places of the Sons of God, is determined by his seeing.” The red-haired, dreamy-eyed shepherd boy, David, because Israel’s hero-king because he was possessed of such a loyalty to his vision and friendship. One can not read of the bonds which bound him to his royal-souled friend, Jonathan, and of his sublime loyalty to his vision of service to his race, without being mightily impressed with the beauty of such a nature. You can do nothing worth while in this great world unless you are a dreamer of great dreams. You will never amount to much unless you are loyal to your dreams. When I speak of loyalty to friends I do not mean partners in crime, nor associates in questionable transaction, I mean loyalty to some true, high-thinking person whom you have discovered during your school days here. You will not mean much to aspiring young men and women as you rise in the world unless they find you loyal to your friends. The man or woman who uses friends as stepping stones on which to rise, or as tools with which to attain some purpose or desired end, and then throws them aside like a worn-out garment after the thing sought has been obtained, will reap an abundant harvest of hate and contempt as people learn of the baseness of their natures, and will die with none so poor to do them reverence.
Take with you reverence for law and authority.
Do not get the idea that you are above all authority and may break laws or disobey rules and regulations, however high you may climb in the world. Remember the man in authority who advises others to break laws or to disrespect others in authority is undermining his own authority. Only those who reverence law and authority have any business ruling over others. Only such persons can successfully rule men and women. People may fear the lawless, but will never love nor respect them. It matters not what you may think of the law or what may be your estimate of those placed over you, I counsel you to revere the law and bow to authority.
Further, let me urge you to be economical and thrifty. Do not spend every cent you lay your hands upon. If you know you are loose-fingered, tie your hands or tie your money in some way. Edison, the great electric wizard, had to do that. Recently, he told the story of taking a perfected carbon transmitter to Philadelphia in the hope of selling it for $5,000, which would just about pay his debts. The directors asked him if $100,000 would buy the transmitter. He was so astonished that he remained silent for a moment, and they inquired if they had offered enough. “The price is all right,” said Edison, “yes, that’s all right. But on condition that you pay me it at the rate of $7,500 a year. If you paid it to me all at once I’d probably put it into some fool invention and lose every cent of it.” Store some of your wages or salary where you can not squander them. Savings banks or real estate are safe places for money.
And now a last word about race prejudice. You will meet it at every turn and everywhere you go. Sad to say, it is growing steadily. Your color will be against you in almost every field of activity. Do not deceive yourselves into believing that anywhere in this country you will escape this curse of the age. Often it will be veiled and stealthy. Frequently, it will walk openly and unafraid, but it will be the same illogical and unreasoning thing. Learn to expect it, and face it, and conquer it. You may console yourselves, however, with the fact that the Negro race is not the only race which suffers from race prejudice. Deport yourselves in such a gentle and quiet and confident and unassuming manner that you will make those ashamed who practice it. Wherever you go, let people learn that a colored skin can cover just as much culture and refinement and decency as any other kind of skin. Also, I exhort you, try to make friends with and command the respect of those with whom you live. Do not depend upon friends who are far away. Whatever the color of the people with whom you deal daily, they will respect refinement, modesty, integrity, scrupulous honesty, industry, and money.
If you equip yourselves with the qualities which I have outlined in this talk, you will surely reach the whither you seek in the great world into which you are going and you will take the race with you. Some of you will aspire to climb the mountain of fame and honor and responsibility, you may succeed in doing so. Listen to the expression of the thoughts of one who has climbed to the top of that mountain, Lloyd George, perhaps the most noted Englishman of today. Speaking in the Methodist church of his boyhood home, he said: “Mr. Davies has told you that I have climbed the mountain of fame, responsibility, and honor, and in a sense that is true; but, dear friends, let me assure you that the mountain is not an ideal place for any of us. There isn’t much peace there, no real rest and comfort. The higher you climb, the colder it becomes. How exposed and bleak it is! You are at the mercy of the storm and tempest. The wind makes sport of you. On the mountain a man feels lonely. Often thick mists envelop him, and he misses his way: he can hardly see a yard ahead. What is the good of a telescope in the mist? When a person thinks he is on the right path, suddenly he comes to a part where he can go no farther, and a deep chasm opens before him. He retraces his steps and makes an effort to regain the path from which he strayed. Yes, that is the lot of the man who attempts to climb the mountain.”
His experience is the experience of all of us who have climbed the mountain. Still youth will aspire to climb the mountain, and it is well that it should be thus. Else what would mankind do for leaders? Whether you are to essay climbing the mountain, or plan to serve the race in the quiet paths which lie at the base of the mountain, always bear in mind:
“Wherever’s a will there’s a way, my lad, If the will have the strength to serve; But the goal is not reached in a day, my lad, And the winning takes patience and nerve. It’s a long, long way and a hard, hard road, And a lifetime is hardly enough; But you’ll win if you stick To the roadway you pick And your heart is the right kind of stuff.
“Oh, a bit of a song will help, my lad, And a grin will ease many a pain. The coward goes down with a yelp, my lad, Get up and go at them again. It’s a long, long way and a hard, hard road To the thing that you’re longing to do, And the key to the game Is to stick to your aim, And the courage will carry you through.
“Aye, many a path leads out, my lad, From the road to the thing you want, And they’re pleasant to travel, no doubt, my lad, And it’s hard to know that you can’t. It’s a long, long way and a hard, hard road And you haven’t the time to rest, So pick up your load And stick to your road; You will win, if you give it your best.”