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Du BoisW. E. Burghardt.

A Negro Schoolmaster in the New South


ONCE upon a time I taught school in the hills of Tennesseewhere the broaddark vale of the Mississippi begins to roll and crumple to greet the Alleghanies.I was a Fisk student thenand all Fisk men think that Tennessee -- beyond theVeil -- is theirs aloneand in vacation time they sally forth in lusty bands tomeet the county school commissioners. Young and happyI too wentand I shallnot soon forget that summerten years ago.

Firstthere was a teachers' Institute at the county-seat; and theredistinguished guests of the superintendent taught the teachers fractions andspelling and other mysteries-- white teachers in the morningNegroes atnight. A picnic now and thenand a supperand the rough world was softened bylaughter and song. I remember how -- But I wander.

There came a day when all the teachers left the Instituteand began the huntfor schools. I learn from hearsay (for my mother was mortally afraid of firearms)that the hunting of ducks and bears and men is wonderfully interestingbut I amsure that the man who has never hunted a country school has something to learnof the pleasures of the chase. I see now the whitehot roads lazily rise andfall and wind before me under the burning July sun; I feel the deep weariness ofheart and limbas teneightsix miles stretch relentlessly ahead; I feel myheart sink heavily as I hear again and again"Got a teacher? Yes." SoI walked on and on-- horses were too expensive-- until I had wandered beyondrailwaysbeyond stage linesto a land of "varmints" and rattlesnakeswhere the coming of a stranger was an eventand men lived and died in theshadow of one blue hill.

Sprinkled over hill and dale lay cabins and farmhousesshut out from theworld by the forests and the rolling hills toward the east. There I found atlast a little school. Josie told me of it; she was a thinhomely girl of twentywith a dark brown face and thickhard hair. I had crossed the stream atWatertownand rested under the great willows; then I had gone to the littlecabin in the lot where Josie was resting on her way to town. The gaunt farmermade me welcomeand Josiehearing my errandtold me anxiously that theywanted a school over the hill; that but once since the war had a teacher beenthere;

 

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that she herself longed to learn-- and thus she ran ontalking fast and loudwith much earnestness and energy.

Next morning I crossed the tall round hilllingered to look at the blue andyellow mountains stretching toward the Carolinas; then I plunged into the woodand came out at Josie's home. It was a dull frame cottage with four roomsperched just below the brow of the hillamid peach trees. The father was aquietsimple soulcalmly ignorantwith no touch of vulgarity. The mother wasdifferent-- strongbustlingand energeticwith a quickrestless tongueand an ambition to live "like folks." There was a crowd of children.Two boys had gone away. There remained two growing girls; a shy midget of eight;Johntallawkwardand eighteen; Jimyoungerquickerand better looking;and two babies of indefinite age. Then there was Josie herself. She seemed to bethe centre of the family: always busy at service or at homeor berry-picking; alittle nervous and inclined to scoldlike her motheryet faithfultoolikeher father. She had about her a certain finenessthe shadow of an unconsciousmoral heroism that would willingly give all of life to make life broaderdeeperand fuller for her and hers. I saw much of this family afterwardand grew tolove them for their honest efforts to be decent and comfortableand for theirknowledge of their own ignorance. There was with them no affectation. The motherwould scold the father for being so "easy;" Josie would roundly ratethe boys for carelessness; and all knew that it was a hard thing to dig a livingout of a rocky side hill.

I secured the school. I remember the day I rode horseback out to thecommissioner's housewith a pleasant young white fellowwho wanted the whiteschool. The road ran down the bed of a stream; the sun laughed and the waterjingledand we rode on. "Come in" said the commissioner--"come in. Have a seat. Yesthat certificate will do. Stay to dinner. Whatdo you want a month?" Ohthought Ithis is lucky; but even then fell theawful shadow of the Veilfor they ate firstthen I -- alone.

The schoolhouse was a log hutwhere Colonel Wheeler used to shelter his corn.It sat in a lot behind a rail fence and thorn bushesnear the sweetest ofsprings. There was an entrance where a door once wasand withina massiverickety fireplace; great chinks between the logs served as windows. Furniturewas scarce. A pale blackboard crouched in the corner. My desk was made of threeboardsreinforced at critical pointsand my chairborrowed from the landladyhad to be returned every night. Seats for the children-- these puzzled me much.I was haunted by a New England vision of neat little desks and chairsbutalasthe reality was rough plank benches without backsand at times without legs.They had the one virtue of making naps dangerous-- possibly fatalfor thefloor was not to be trusted.

It was a hot morning late in July when the school opened. I trembled when Iheard the patter of little feet down the dusty roadand saw the growing row ofdark solemn faces and bright eager eyes facing me. First came Josie and herbrothers and sisters. The longing to knowto be a student in the great schoolat Nashvillehovered like a star above this child woman amid her work and worryand she studied doggedly. There were the Dowells from their farm over towardAlexandria: Fannywith her smooth black face and wondering eyes; Marthabrownand dull; the pretty girl wife of a brotherand the younger brood. There werethe Burkestwo brown and yellow ladsand a tiny haughty-eyed girl. FatReuben's little chubby girl camewith golden face and old gold hairfaithfuland solemn. 'Thenie was on hand early-- a jollyuglygood-hearted girlwhoslyly dipped snuff and looked

 

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after her little bow-legged brother. When her mother could spare her'Tildycame-- a midnight beautywith starry eyes and tapering limbs; and her brothercorrespondingly homely. And then the big boys: the hulking Lawrences; the lazyNeillsunfathered sons of mother and daughter; Hickmanwith a stoop in hisshoulders; and the rest.

There they satnearly thirty of themon the rough benchestheir facesshading from a pale cream to a deep brownthe little feet bare and swingingthe eyes full of expectationwith here and there a twinkle of mischiefand thehands grasping Webster's blue-back spelling-book. I loved my schooland thefine faith the children had in the wisdom of their teacher was truly marvelous.We read and spelled togetherwrote a littlepicked flowerssangand listenedto stories of the world beyond the hill. At times the school would dwindle awayand I would start out. I would visit Mun Eddingswho lived in two very dirtyroomsand ask why little Lugenewhose flaming face seemed ever ablaze with thedark red hair uncombedwas absent all last weekor why I missed so often theinimitable rags of Mack and Ed. Then the fatherwho worked Colonel Wheeler'sfarm on shareswould tell me how the crops needed the boys; and the thinslovenly motherwhose face was pretty when washedassured me that Lugene mustmind the baby. "But we'll start them again next week." When theLawrences stoppedI knew that the doubts of the old folks about book-learninghad conquered againand sotoiling up the hilland getting as far into thecabin as possibleI put Cicero pro Archia Poeta into the simplest English withlocal applicationsand usually convinced them -- for a week or so.

On Friday nights I often went home with some of the children; sometimes toDoc Burke's farm. He was a greatloudthin Blackever workingand trying tobuy the seventy-five acres of hill and dale where he lived; but people said thathe would surely failand the "white folks would get it all." His wifewas a magnificent Amazonwith saffron face and shining hairuncorseted andbarefootedand the children were strong and beautiful. They lived in aone-and-a-half-room cabin in the hollow of the farmnear the spring. The frontroom was full of great fat white bedsscrupulously neat; and there were badchromos on the wallsand a tired centre-table. In the tiny back kitchen I wasoften invited to "take out and help" myself to fried chicken and wheatbiscuit"meat" and corn ponestring beans and berries. At first Iused to be a little alarmed at the approach of bed-time in the one lone bedroombut embarrassment was very deftly avoided. Firstall the children nodded andsleptand were stowed away in one great pile of goose feathers; nextthemother and the father discreetly slipped away to the kitchen while I went to bed;thenblowing out the dim lightthey retired in the dark. In the morning allwere up and away before I thought of awaking. Across the roadwhere fat Reubenlivedthey all went outdoors while the teacher retiredbecause they did notboast the luxury of a kitchen.

I liked to stay with the Dowellsfor they had four rooms and plenty of goodcountry fare. Uncle Bird had a smallrough farmall woods and hillsmilesfrom the big road; but he was full of tales-- he preached now and then-- andwith his childrenberrieshorsesand wheat he was happy and prosperous. Oftento keep the peaceI must go where life was less lovely; for instance'Tildy'smother was incorrigibly dirtyReuben's larder was limited seriouslyand herdsof untamed bedbugs wandered over the Eddingses' beds. Best of all I loved to goto Josie'sand sit on the porcheating peacheswhile the mother bustled andtalked: how Josie had bought the sewing-machine; how

 

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Josie worked at service in winterbut that four dollars a month was "mightylittle" wages; how Josie longed to go away to schoolbut that it "lookedlike" they never could get far enough ahead to let her; how the cropsfailed and the well was yet unfinished; andfinallyhow "mean" someof the white folks were.

For two summers I lived in this little world; it was dull and humdrum. Thegirls looked at the hill in wistful longingand the boys frettedand hauntedAlexandria. Alexandria was "town" -- a stragglinglazy village ofhouseschurchesand shopsand an aristocracy of TomsDicksand Captains.Cuddled on the hill to the north was the village of the colored folkswho livedin three or four room unpainted cottagessome neat and homelikeand some dirty.The dwellings were scattered rather aimlesslybut they centred about the twintemples of the hamletthe Methodist and the Hard-Shell Baptist churches. Thesein turnleaned gingerly on a sad-colored schoolhouse. Hither my little worldwended its crooked way on Sunday to meet other worldsand gossipand wonderand make the weekly sacrifice with frenzied priest at the altar of the "old-timereligion." Then the soft melody and mighty cadences of Negro song flutteredand thundered.

I have called my tiny community a worldand so its isolation made it; andyet there was among us but a half-awakened common consciousnesssprung fromcommon joy and griefat burialbirthor wedding; from a common hardship inpovertypoor landand low wages; andabove allfrom the sight of the Veilthat hung between us and Opportunity. All this caused us to think some thoughtstogether; but thesewhen ripe for speechwere spoken in various languages.Those whose eyes thirty and more years before had seen "the glory of thecoming of the Lord" saw in every present hindrance or help a dark fatalismbound to bring all things right in His own good time. The mass of those to whomslavery was a dim recollection of childhood found the world a puzzling thing: itasked little of themand they answered with littleand yet it ridiculed theiroffering. Such a paradox they could not understandand therefore sank intolistless indifferenceor shiftlessnessor reckless bravado. There werehoweversome such as JosieJimand Ben-- they to whom WarHellandSlavery were but childhood taleswhose young appetites had been whetted to anedge by school and story and half-awakened thought. Ill could they be contentborn without and beyond the World. And their weak wings beat against theirbarriers-- barriers of casteof youthof life; at lastin dangerous momentsagainst everything that opposed even a whim.

The ten years that follow youththe years when first the realization comesthat life is leading somewhere-- these were the years that passed after I leftmy little school. When they were pastI came by chance once more to the wallsof Fisk Universityto the halls of the chapel of melody. As I lingered there inthe joy and pain of meeting old school friendsthere swept over me a suddenlonging to pass again beyond the blue hilland to see the homes and the schoolof other daysand to learn how life had gone with my school-children; and Iwent.

Josie was deadand the gray-haired mother said simply"We've had aheap of trouble since you've been away." I had feared for Jim. With acultured parentage and a social caste to uphold himhe might have made aventuresome merchant or a West Point cadet. But here he wasangry with life andreckless; and when Farmer Durham charged him with stealing wheatthe old manhad to ride fast to escape the stones which the furious fool hurled after him.They told

 

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Jim to run away; but he would not runand the constable came that afternoon. Itgrieved Josieand great awkward John walked nine miles every day to see hislittle brother through the bars of Lebanon jail. At last the two came backtogether in the dark night. The mother cooked supperand Josie emptied herpurseand the boys stole away. Josie grew thin and silentyet worked the more.The hill became steep for the quiet old fatherand with the boys away there waslittle to do in the valley. Josie helped them sell the old farmand they movednearer town. Brother Dennisthe carpenterbuilt a new house with six rooms;Josie toiled a year in Nashvilleand brought back ninety dollars to furnish thehouse and change it to a home.

When the spring cameand the birds twitteredand the stream ran proud andfulllittle sister Lizziebold and thoughtlessflushed with the passion ofyouthbestowed herself on the tempterand brought home a nameless child. Josieshiveredand worked onwith the vision of schooldays all fledwith a face wanand tired-- worked untilon a summer's daysome one married another; thenJosie crept to her mother like a hurt childand slept -- and sleeps.

I paused to scent the breeze as I entered the valley. The Lawrences have gone;father and son foreverand the other son lazily digs in the earth to live. Anew young widow rents out their cabin to fat Reuben. Reuben is a Baptistpreacher nowbut I fear as lazy as everthough his cabin has three rooms; andlittle Ella has grown into a bouncing womanand is ploughing corn on the hothillside. There are babies a plentyand one half-witted girl. Across the valleyis a house I did not know beforeand there I foundrocking one baby andexpecting anotherone of my schoolgirlsa daughter of Uncle Bird Dowell. Shelooked somewhat worried with her new dutiesbut soon bristled into pride overher neat cabinand the tale of her thrifty husbandthe horse and cowand thefarm they were planning to buy.

My log schoolhouse was gone. In its place stood Progressand ProgressIunderstandis necessarily ugly. The crazy foundation stones still marked theformer site of my poor little cabinand not far awayon six weary bouldersperched a jaunty board houseperhaps twenty by thirty feetwith three windowsand a door that locked. Some of the window glass was brokenand part of an oldiron stove lay mournfully under the house. I peeped through the window halfreverentlyand found things that were more familiar. The blackboard had grownby about two feetand the seats were still without backs. The county owns thelot nowI hearand every year there is a session of school. As I sat by thespring and looked on the Old and the New I felt gladvery gladand yet --

After two long drinks I started on. There was the great double log house onthe corner. I remembered the brokenblighted family that used to live there.The stronghard face of the motherwith its wilderness of hairrose beforeme. She had driven her husband awayand while I taught school a strange manlived therebig and jovialand people talked. I felt sure that Ben and 'Tildywould come to naught from such a home. But this is an odd world; for Ben is abusy farmer in Smith County"doing welltoo" they sayand he hadcared for little 'Tildy until last springwhen a lover married her. A hard lifethe lad had ledtoiling for meatand laughed at because he was homely andcrooked. There was Sam Carlonan impudent old skinflintwho had definitenotions about niggersand hired Ben a summer and would not pay him. Then thehungry boy gathered his sacks togetherand in broad daylight went into Carlon'scorn; and when the hard-fisted farmer set upon himthe angry boy flew at him

 

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like a beast. Doc Burke saved a murder and a lynching that day.

The story reminded me again of the Burkesand an impatience seized me toknow who won in the battleDoc or the seventy-five acres. For it is a hardthing to make a farm out of nothingeven in fifteen years. So I hurried onthinking of the Burkes. They used to have a certain magnificent barbarism aboutthem that I liked. They were never vulgarnever immoralbut rather rough andprimitivewith an unconventionality that spent itself in loud guffawsslaps onthe backand naps in the corner. I hurried by the cottage of the misborn Neillboys. It was emptyand they were grown into fatlazy farm hands. I saw thehome of the Hickmansbut Albertwith his stooping shouldershad passed fromthe world. Then I came to the Burkes' gate and peered through; the inclosurelooked rough and untrimmedand yet there were the same fences around the oldfarm save to the leftwhere lay twenty-five other acres. And lo! the cabin inthe hollow had climbed the hill and swollen to a half-finished six-room cottage.

The Burkes held a hundred acresbut they were still in debt. Indeedthegaunt father who toiled night and day would scarcely be happy out of debtbeingso used to it. Some day he must stopfor his massive frame is showing decline.The mother wore shoesbut the lionlike physique of other days was broken. Thechildren had grown up. Robthe image of his fatherwas loud and rough withlaughter. Birdiemy school baby of sixhad grown to a picture of maidenbeautytall and tawny. "Edgar is gone" said the motherwith headhalf bowed-- "gone to work in Nashville; he and his father couldn't agree."

Little Docthe boy born since the time of my schooltook me horseback downthe creek next morning toward Farmer Dowell's. The road and the stream werebattling for masteryand the stream had the better of it. We splashed and wadedand the merry boyperched behind mechattered and laughed. He showed me whereSimon Thompson had bought a bit of ground and a home; but his daughter Lanaaplumpbrownslow girlwas not there. She had married a man and a farm twentymiles away. We wound on down the stream till we came to a gate that I did notrecognizebut the boy insisted that it was "Uncle Bird's." The farmwas fat with the growing crop. In that little valley was a strange stillness asI rode up; for death and marriage had stolen youthand left age and childhoodthere. We sat and talked that nightafter the chores were done. Uncle Bird wasgrayerand his eyes did not see so wellbut he was still jovial. We talked ofthe acres bought-- one hundred and twenty-five-- of the new guest chamberaddedof Martha's marrying. Then we talked of death: Fanny and Fred were gone;a shadow hung over the other daughterand when it lifted she was to go toNashville to school. At last we spoke of the neighborsand as night fell UncleBird told me howon a night like that'Thenie came wandering back to her homeover yonderto escape the blows of her husband. And next morning she died inthe home that her little bow-legged brotherworking and savinghad bought fortheir widowed mother.

My journey was doneand behind me lay hill and daleand Life and Death. Howshall man measure Progress there where the dark-faced Josie lies? How manyheartfuls of sorrow shall balance a bushel of wheat? How hard a thing is life tothe lowlyand yet how human and real! And all this life and love and strife andfailure-- is it the twilight of nightfall or the flush of some faint-dawningday?

Thus sadly musingI rode to Nashville in the Jim Crow car.