During the time that West Virginia was involved in changing its capital, Booker’s reputation as a speaker grew and he was encouraged to enter politics. However, he refused, believing he could find other service, which would prove more helpful to his people. He felt it would be a selfish kind of success - he would be successful at the expense of his duty to help lay a foundation for the masses. He remembered an old colored man who wanted to learn how to play the guitar and applied to one of his young masters to teach him. His young master attempted to discourage the old man by telling him that he would have to charge him $3 for the first lesson, $2 for the second and $1 for the third. The final lesson would only be 25 cents. The old man agreed as long his young master gave him the final lesson first! This metaphor reminded Booker how much he needed to educate his people to be truly independent.
His reputation definitely preceded him for Booker was soon honored by an invitation to give the post-graduate address at the Hampton Commencement. He entitled it “The Force That Wins.” He was warmly welcomed back to his old school and felt elated that Hampton still refused to educate their pupils by dragging them through an educational mold. They looked to give each student what he or she needed specifically. His speech pleased everyone, and he later received a letter from General Armstrong asking him to return to Hampton partly as a teacher and partly to pursue some supplementary studies. General Armstrong’s newest experiment involved Booker educating Indians at Hampton. He found himself in a building with 75 Indians, he being the only one not of their race. They naturally felt superior to the black race, because they had never allowed themselves to be enslaved. However, he felt his responsibility so greatly in this project that he soon had the complete confidence of the Indians as well as their love and respect. The most difficult part, of course, was convincing the Indians that to be successful, they had to cut their hair, shave, bathe, and dress in white men’s clothes. He succeeded and discovered that there was little difference between the colored and the Indians educationally. He is especially gratified to see how the colored students stepped forward to help the Indians in any way they could and made Booker wish he could tell white people how raising up oneself, the more they raises up a race less fortunate. It reminded him of something the Honorable Frederick Douglass once said after he was made to ride in the baggage car of a train even though he had paid the same price as everyone else. He said, “They cannot degrade Frederick Douglass. The soul that is within me no man can degrade. I am not the one that is being degraded on account of this treatment, but those who are inflicting it upon me.” Therefore, when white people degraded colored people or people of other races, the truth is that they were only degrading themselves. His test for knowing a true gentleman became the observation of the man in contact with people less fortunate than himself.
While educating the Indians, Booker also observed the “curious workings of caste in America.” For example, in a restaurant, an Indian could be served, but Booker, a black man, could not. And in a small town once, he saw a Moroccan nearly lynched because of his color, until people saw he didn’t speak English, and then he was let go.
At the end of the first year with the Indians, he was awarded another opening at Hampton. It helped prepare him for his later work at Tuskegee. The job involved a night school for prospective students who had no way to pay the fees for their education. Booker’s responsibility was to see that they worked for ten hours and went to night school for two. They would be paid a little above the cost of their board, which would be applied to their tuition for the next year. The men worked in a sawmill close by, and the women worked in a laundry. They were such enthusiastic students that Booker labeled them “The Plucky Class.” There were twenty-five of them and they all graduated to hold important and useful positions throughout the South.
Booker learned a great deal about life and race by educating the Indians. He learned that his race would always be considered the bottom of the caste system in America, but that they were so much more compassionate and willing to help other races than those who would place themselves higher on the caste system. He was proud of that fact but also realistic about the hardships his people faced in the future.
Clapsaddle, Diane. "TheBestNotes on Up From Slavery".
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