"Two Methods with the Negro." Independent, 31 March 1898, pp. 401-2.

Dublin Core


"Two Methods with the Negro." Independent, 31 March 1898, pp. 401-2.


Booker T. Washington; race; African Americans; education


“Two Methods with the Negro”

By Rebecca Harding Davis

The recent Negro Conference at Tuskegee[1] was especially useful, as it set before the public more clearly than ever before the black actor who is playing his part with the others on the national stage; and, what was more important, showed him the full meaning of his part and how he ought to play it. The public unfortunately was not very attentive to the Conference; with the noise of the “Maine” explosion in its ears,[2] it did not listen as it should have done to the plans of these earnest black leaders for the uplifting of their race, much less to the funny, pathetic speeches of the old Uncles and Mammys whose experience was so significant. 

And yet a war with Spain is an affair of months, while the progress of these people will concern us for all time. 

I know of no more important or dramatic action in contemporary history than the slow upgrowth of this nation with the American nation.

Mr. Booker Washington, its chief leader, has a common-sense which is as successful as genius, and never has used it more effectively than in his effort to combine his people, to give them coherence, the sense of race, the courage which comes to a man from the sound of other men marching in step with him.[3]

Several Afro-Americans whom I have known have lost their chance in life by ignoring their birth, by not seeing that it was their business to be black, to identify themselves with their people. As spokesmen for their own race they would have won respect and fame; but among the whites they were lost in the mob of the rank and file.

The Tuskegee Annual Council and the many local conferences founded by Mr. Washington are among his devices to produce this kinship and unity. The most garrulous old woman, the most conceited young man had a hearing. There was a shrewd young man had a hearing. There was a shrewd wisdom in this. Each one of them went home with the belief that he was at work for the whole; his hand, too, was on the rope for the tug of war. They carried back to their filthy cabins and weedy fields white with gopher hills, the report of other negroes as poor as themselves who had cleaned their cabins and plowed their fields; how much cotton they had picked and the money, to a cent, which they had cleared in the year. Nothing could be more homely than this council and nothing more useful. The Northern newspapers, which saw in it only matter for ridicule, failed to recognize a most able bit of generalship.

Note, too, the words by which this keen-signed leader strove to inspire the ignorant, unable hosts before him. Not a hint of their wrongs, past or present; not a single mention of slavery; not a moan for their chance in life, but sharp, ringing orders, to be obeyed now and here. 

“Go to work. Buy land. Build a cabin. Keep it clean. Don’t buy bogus jewelry, sewing-machines you can’t run, organs you can’t play. Pay for a good teacher for your children. Be clean, be honest. Make yourselves decent Christian men and women. But, first of all, go to work.”

One must travel through the South and see the interminable wastes of pine forests and swamps, with their wretched “clarins,” swarming with half-starved idle negroes, and remember that these hordes are numbered not by the thousands but by millions, to understand the task which this man has set himself. He shouts in their ears only such words as they can understand. He does not try to hide their shortcomings for themselves or the public. He knows that the surgeon must probe to the bottom of the ghastly sore before he can heal it.

Unfortunately, there are other leaders of this people who do not pursue so wise a policy. They are young, educated men, naturally made bitter and resentful by the cruel injustice of their treatment by the whites. They probably find themselves ostracized and insulted by people whom they believe, perhaps justly, to be their inferiors. They then make the mistake of considering their whole race as in the same condition as themselves, and try to instill into them their own antagonism to the whites. 

I have before me now, for example, a pamphlet containing six lectures delivered to the pupils of Hampton and Tuskegee, by one of the most prominent men of their race in the country.[4] They are avowedly intended for the teachers who “are beginning their life-work in the humble negro huts.” They give to these teachers a brief resume of the history of the black race in this country to be taught to their pupils. The horror of slavery, bad enough in reality, as we all know, are intensified and exaggerated beyond measure. They are told that the masters, as a class, “spent their days in horse-racing, cockfighting, gambling and grog-drinking.” The slaves brought into the mansion-house “imitated the vices of their owners.” The mansion-house influence “proved to be the very damnation of negro manhood and womanhood.”[5] 

There is no mention of the fact that the Washingtons, the Madisons, the Marshalls, the patriots and lawgivers whose wisdom and integrity made this country honored among nations, the faithful gospelers, servants of Christ in every sect, and their kindly God-fearing flocks, generation after generation, were also slave-owners. There is no mention of the fact that whatever change had taken place in the negro, as he was in his emancipation, from the brutal savage who left the coasts of Africa, was due to the influence of these slave owners, and their influence only. Nor of the fact that when they were freed the large class of respectable self-respecting negroes at the South were those who had been brought into contact with their masters, while the field hands bore and still bear too significant a resemblance to their imported ancestors.

I came from a slave State, and the evils that I saw in slavery made me an Abolitionist before these excitable young men probably were born. But facts are facts, and to ignore them fatally weakens any cause.[6]

In these lectures we are told that the “infernal mansion-house influence” still exerts its debasing and malignant power upon the waiters, chambermaids, etc., who are earning their living among us. The teachers are instructed, too, to tell the negro child that the failure of his race as laborers in the South, skilled and unskilled, is also due to the injustice of his white enemy. “The white Northern contractor, has stepped in. He has brought his own white workmen.” The negro is thrust out of the field, etc., etc. 

The negro child must be dull indeed who does not know that no contractor will import workmen at a high price if he can find equally good workmen on the ground, of any color.

If this discontented leader will go through the Gulf States to-day he will find farms, mills and phosphate works without numbered abandoned for want of laborers, while negroes by the thousand are standing idle. The explanation is everywhere the same. They would work for two or three days and then stop and live on the money earned, or they would throw up a job to move in a body to another place.

These morbid cries of discontent from the educated Negro against the unjust white are natural, but useless. Let him face facts, and if he wishes to help his ignorant brother in the South, take Booker Washington’s method to do it. Don’t talk to him of slavery, which is dead and buried. Talk to him of his own laziness, which is a worse enemy to him than any slave-owner ever was or could be. Don’t antagonize him to the people who gave their lives to free him and are now giving their money to educate and civilize him. If he ever succeeds in this country it must be with the white man as his neighbor and friend, not as his enemy.

There are tens of thousands of negroes educated and not educated in both the South and North who are leading useful, honorable lives. They are teachers, merchants, skilled craftsmen and helpers in the “mansion-house.” They have their own self-respect and the respect of their white neighbors. No such men or women, I venture to say, are let or hindered in their quiet road to success by the whites. I know such men who own large farms and others who have built blocks of houses in the very heart of the old confederacy.

If the teacher who goes out from Hampton and Tuskegee wishes to convert the field-hands into such men, let him not waste his time in bewailing the wrongs of his grandfathers or the malign influence of his white neighbors upon him; but let him say with Booker Washington: 

“We have a splendid chance now to make of ourselves a great people. Let us go to work and do it.”

The white Washington never spoke a wiser or more timely word.

Philadelphia, Penn.


[1] Started by Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) in 1892, The Annual Negro Farmers’ Conference invited economically-disadvantaged African Americans to the Tuskegee Institute for educational purposes focused on improving health and home life.

[2] Explosion of the USS Maine in Cuba’s Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, killing 260 of the Americans on board. Though the cause of the explosion was unclear, some newspapers in the United States blamed Spain and galvanized the Spanish American War.

[3] An advocate of vocational training for African Americans, Washington (1856-1915) was an American educator, author, orator, and dominant leader in the African American Community in the late 19th and early 20th century.

[4] Focusing on industrial education for African Americans, the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute was founded in 1868 by Samuel Chapman Armstrong (1839-1893) and emphasized industrial education for African Americans in the rural, post-Civil War south.  Booker T. Washington attended Hampton from 1872 to 1875 and later joined the staff before leaving in 1881 to lead the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, which also emphasized practical education for African Americans. Davis refers to To Teach the Negro History (1897), a collection of six lectures originally delivered by fellow Philadelphia resident John Stephens Durham (1861-1919) at Hampton and Tuskegee. A prominent African American journalist, lawyer, and United States Minister to Haiti, Durham agreed with Washington’s approach to education.

[5] Quotations are drawn from Durham’s To Teach the Negro History (1897).

[6] Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910) lived near Florence, Alabama, until 1837 when her parents moved to Wheeling, Virginia, where she lived until her marriage to Lemuel Clarke Davis in 1863. When Virginia seceded from the Union, western Virginia, including Wheeling, initiated the process to become a separate state and joined the Union in 1863.


Laney Jolley Smith




Alicia Mischa Renfroe



Laney Jolley Smith, “"Two Methods with the Negro." Independent, 31 March 1898, pp. 401-2.,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed June 6, 2023, https://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/226.

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