Education of Our Children
November 1901 — Hall of Representatives, Georgia Legislature, Atlanta GA
Old age is susceptible to compliments. I will gladly swallow the taffy just handed to me.
After thanking the General Assembly for this great and unwonted privilege, I must tell you why I gladly accept your invitation to talk to you concerning the “Infirmities of our Public School System,” as applied to the common schools of the state. You are guardians of the public interests of Georgia. You have been selected, yes elected by the people, to protect these interests. It is your bounden duty to perform these tasks to the limit of your ability. As I speak to you you will understand that I am a person without any political influence. I have no vote to give any one of you, I cannot occupy any public office, and it seems I am only a small taxpayer and nothing else, so far as I am estimated by law makers of Georgia.
Last spring, sitting quietly in my own home, engaged busily in domestic sewing, a very pretty young girl walked in and asked for the loan of a small cooking vessel. She said she, with her father and small brother, had walked from a county lying on the Tennessee line and they were seeking work, hoeing cotton. She was a white girl with pleasing features. At some time in the past there had been good blood, gentle raising, because the indications were in her form and face. She told me she was seventeen years old, had never been out of Georgia, and, gentlemen, she had never been to school a day in her life. She was born and raised in a county that had thirty-nine public school teachers last year. The state paid out in her county between four and five thousand dollars last year to schools and school teachers for free schools to educate just such as this girl. Here was a young white woman seventeen years old, a tramp on the public highway, who had never received one cent of this money in her life. With thirty-nine public school teachers in the county she was born in, and had always lived in, with a plentiful supply of tax money to pay the thirty-nine, this girl had never gone to school a day in her life. This public school system was in force when she was born and has been in force ever since. She has no mother, poor child! Her mother lies under the sod and this child, this seventeen-year-old white girl, was over a hundred miles from her home, hunting work in the fields. She was being dragged along by a no-account father, and they had barely a quilt to sleep on, until I provided that girl with something softer for her own use.
Then and there I promised myself that I would, in the fear of God, and in fear of nothing less, plead that girl’s cause in the newspapers, before public schools, woman’s clubs, in temperance meetings, everywhere. Gentlemen, I thank you for this opportunity to plead her cause on this occasion.
I come to you today to ask you face to face why that girl had no educational chance, in the state of Georgia, that spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to educate just such as she? There are thousands of such cases. They are all about us. I hold in my hands the school commissioner’s report, made to the Governor and to you, gentlemen. What about it?
The school commissioner says: “Their condition is pitiful. Apparently they can do nothing but hoe small potatoes, corn, hang together a few rags for clothes, and beat their dirty linen with paddles. Their homes are wretched hovels, their surroundings are forbidding and their minds are sunken in a kind of pauperism out of which it seems impossible to arouse them.
Here’s another sentence. “The child of the mountain districts and our pine plains cannot come here to lift its white hand for a way of escape.” Legislators, here is an aged white woman in your presence today; I lift this worn white hand in their behalf and I dare to say to you that these things are insupportable, when you consider the vast sums of money taken from the taxpayers to furnish education to these children of the mountain and the pine plains. Why has not this money reached these helpless ones?
When this invitation to address you was passed in both House and Senate, a legislator rose to complain at the waste of time and of money to give me an hour to plead for these helpless ones, in this hall. Compare the few dollars that are consumed while you sit in your seats to hear my appeal; with the out-going flood of tax money that was taken from the taxpayers at the limit of the law, and fails to get to the needy children of the mountains and the plains.
Where is that economical gentleman today who was willing to shut out from your presence the humble, but earnest, friend who couldn’t vote against him if she wanted to and who has never opened his mouth to call a halt on this egregious waste of public funds while he draws his four dollars a day from the state treasury? I never cost the state a penny in my whole life, unless you decide I am consuming it while I stand here for an hour or less to tell you that this waste of tax money is an atrocious shame, while these poor children are thus deprived of its benefits.
I have no fault to find with the officials who are in charge of the school business of Georgia. It is only their business to execute the orders of the Legislature, hire the teachers and disburse the money. I went, by invitation, before the Georgia Educational association last June, and said to the teachers whom I respect and honor, what I am now going to say to you. I shall not touch upon any of the state’s educational interests save the poor common schools in the rural districts. That subject is gigantic. Help me by your sympathy. I have been a real friend to education all my life, I am a friend today of good, faithful teachers as I have ever been, and what I say of the system is based upon what I know personally, and from what the official report declares and what the Governor tells you. I do thank Governor Candler that he dared to tell you and the people of the state some plain facts on this line. He may be harshly judged for doing it, and I may suffer in the same way.
Gentlemen of the General Assembly, we know full well and we both understand, there are two sides to the question of common schools in Georgia, namely, the side of those who send children to school, and of the teachers who are employed by the state to teach the schools, and the commissioners and school boards who manage and disburse the school fund, and the other side of the taxpayers who are forced by the state’s demand to raise this school fund, to be thus disbursed for support of rural schools. Every year you are appealed to on the subject of appropriating more money to expend on this common school system. I have noticed these appeals in times past, but so far as I can recollect, I know of no speaker who has been asked or allowed to discuss the taxpayer’s side of this question, unless you will graciously hear me at this time.
There is something singular in this omission or oversight. There are continued addresses on the needs of this and that school, pleadings for more taxation, to raise more school money, but the people who pay the taxes are not here to tell you of their burdens and their difficulties. Yet, gentlemen, the mutterings are loud and deep, and have been growing in intensity for a great many years past.
Georgia began with the “free school” taxation for our schools in 1871. We have had the system on us for thirty years. And since 1871 we have raised by various means and from various sources, eighteen mil lion eight hundred and forty-four thousand of dollars in round numbers ($18,844,000) for common schools in Georgia. That money is gone — sunk out of sight forever. We have been piling up money for common schools for thirty years and the cry of more money has been heard unceasingly.
This money has been demanded for the common schools, not the university or branch colleges. It takes no count of the money raised for local schools, by municipal taxation, nor the Peabody fund, but it is the expense account of the common schools system of the state of Georgia, in less than thirty years time.
In the year 1874 we had 350 state convicts to lease to contractors. In the year 1901 we have something like 3,000 or upward, without taking into notice the misdemeanor camps, county chaingangs, etc.
The state set up the common school system to thwart the evils of illiteracy and ignorance.
This cry for “more money” has been swelling, increasing and reverberating all over Georgia for these thirty years past, but we have surely increased criminals for the state penitentiary in about the same ratio that we have swelled the school fund from year to year, until the people who own property to be taxed are trembling under present and prospective burdens for this extravagant and unsatisfactory school system. Whenever a measure to curtail expenses is presented to the General Assembly, the interested people begin to gather, and button-hole the members, because, gentlemen, we have made teaching a profession, composed of state officials and we have in round numbers some thing like ten thousand common school teachers who hold state positions paid by the state in Georgia, three thousand of them colored and the rest are white. If the Supreme Court of the State had not placed protection over the treasury last summer against the demands of the system, there would have been precious little money in sight to be returned to your attention or consideration. But I need not explain that matter further.
These appeals for more school money have become demands, and influence popular elections.
In last year’s educational report to this body you were shown comparisons between Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York; poor old Georgia, that was swept by a besom of destruction a little over thirty years ago, and millions of property were blown off in ashes, when Sherman’s vandals put a torch to them. The states here mentioned pay in local taxes, says our commissioner, while three-fourths of Georgia’s money is raised by state taxation.
I tell you gentlemen there is no comparison in individual wealth and taxable property between the states mentioned no more than between Canada and Kamsehatka.
We have three thousand negro teachers to pay as well as white ones. In Bartow county nearly one half the white children of school age did not attend school last year, while two thirds of the negro children did attend. We want no comparisons with Massachusetts, Rhode Island or New York, on taxation. Our conditions are different altogether. This new report says “Nobody knows, except those familiar with it, the distressing situation in which they (school teachers) have been placed this present year.” Gentlemen, a great many of us do know how difficult and distressing it has become in many sections to raise this tax money to meet the expense here noted. Bartow Xounty calls on us now for fifteen dollars on the thousand for tax money and men who own farms are obliged to move to town, to educate their children, these rural schools are so very common and generally worthless. We are generally poor in Georgia, while they are rich in the states thus compared with us. We have some other difficulties which I will mention later.
Georgia has a bonded debt of eight millions or thereabouts. Such states as Illinois and Missouri have no bonded debt at all, and the state of Georgia puts upon the taxpayers a direct levy of $800,000 for the present year for schools, the common sort, in addition to the convict hire, fertilizer fees, poll tax, half the rental of W.&A.R.R., show tax and other things.
This common school business has a maw like an elephant. It is forever hungry for more money. There were a million and a quarter dollars fed to the common schools in the country places last year, and as much will be fed this year, and there are colleges all around, cities have their own local schools, and no mention is here made of the millions already invested for colored education in our borders.
The school commissioner says we had six hundred and sixty-five thousand of school age in 1898. He also says we increase twelve or fifteen thousand annually. I am safe in saying we have seven hundred thousand now. He says eight-ninths of these children are in the rural districts. Of all these seven hundred thousand, eight live in the country to one in town. Don’t forget this estimate, gentlemen, because it is official. He also says they go to school less than one hundred days in the year. I understand him to mean we provide country schools for less than one hundred days in the year. But, gentlemen, that does not mean that 700,000 go to school one hundred days in the year. Nothing like it. Less than half attend at all. The commissioner says less than forty per cent attend. I have the figures to show that nearly one-half the white children in Bartow did not go last year, while two- thirds of the negroes did go. I am not complaining of any individual, as I told you, I am discussing the system itself. The fault is in the system. So great is this lack of attendance that the commissioner in his last year’s report uses the following words: “The right to tax the people for the maintenance of the schools carries with it the right to compel every parent or guardian to send the children to school. Less than forty per cent of the children attended school the entire school term. There always have been and there always will be, perhaps, people who are indifferent about the education of their children. In order to reach the children of this class of people a compulsory attendance law must be enacted.”
I have looked over the advance sheets of his forth coming report but I have failed to find a further mention of compulsory attendance but these were brave words and true words, because something must be done to improve these rural schools or quit the business.
Your executive strongly condemns the present system, when he told you it was unwise, unjust, unheard of, and unfair, and especially unsatisfactory. This is a serious indictment, because it is true, and has become a very serious business to those whose labor or real estate is taxed so heavily to support it.
Gentlemen, the time has come to look into this business in a dispassionate way. Because I see and feel that a revolt is pending. I come to you to talk as a mother or elder sister might do of a trouble that menaces the family. You know, gentlemen, there is no way to avoid the harsh compulsory taxation placed upon us for this school business. You know it must come, on demand or a fi.fa. will be issued and the sheriff will sell property to raise it. There has been law enough to take the roof from the heads of the last one of you in this presence, if you fail to pay your share of this direct tax levy. When the state puts its iron hand in your pocket and take therefrom a portion of your income and forces you to disgorge under pain and penalties, what rightfully and honestly belongs to you, under the plea that such tax money is needed to protect your life and property (and you know it would be gross tyranny to claim this authority under any other plea), “then I declare without hesitation that you should apply it to the place where it will do the work the state promised to do, or that money should be returned to you, and the waste checked for all time to come.
“The present system will never be satisfactory to either teachers or taxpayers, because it is unjust, unwise, unfair and unheard of, in any other state in this union. It is unwise because it makes free schools unpopular with the taxpayers. It is unfair and unjust because it makes a few counties bear all the burdens of state government, and after doing this, contribute to the payment of pensions and the support of schools in all the other counties.”
The greatest injustice which the Governor did not mention, is levying a direct tax on the labor and property of this country, and failing to do good work with it. The state is unjust to the taxpayers on this line. The failure is confessed, and the disappointing results speak for themselves.
We raise money and pay teachers about ten thousand of them, to educate the illiterate and less than forty per cent of children go to school. The state is unjust in making the taxpayer turn over money which cannot be applied to a purpose.
The lash of compulsory taxation is laid upon the back of the man who has by thrift, economy and industry earned some property to tax, and no obligation whatever is laid upon the man, whose children are to be educated at public expense, and he fails to accept the benefit.
The obligation should be mutual, gentlemen. The responsibility should be mutual. The pains and penalties should be similar. The duty of school attendance should run parallel with the obligation of compulsory taxation, or the unjust and unfair system should give place to something better, or be promptly abolished. It is the manifest failure to accomplish the work proposed that is disgusting taxpayers. The Governor is right. The fault is in the system itself. It is the gross injustice of compulsion laid upon one class to benefit another class, that refuses to accept the benefit.
In the year 1900 our worthy county school commissioner desired to open a school near where we live. We agreed to open a vacant house to accommodate the school. He employed a competent teacher from Tennessee to teach four months at $25 a month, if an average of 15 pupils each day could be secured.
That many and more were promised, but the school absolutely frittered out at the close and although there were more than thirty names enrolled, a bare average was sustained by serious effort.
The opportunity was not appreciated. The children did not attend. The teacher was there ready, eager, willing, but the flimsiest and most silly excuses were rendered for nonattendance.
The same effort was made this year. It went to pieces in less than two months.
Gentlemen, it will never be any better until a remedy is applied to non-attendance and more money to pay teachers will not do it, ever. The thing is so absolutely free that a chromo will have to be offered to excite curiosity and provoke a trial of the teacher. It is a waste of money.
I have some neighbors adjoining our lands. One sends two children to Cartersville school, four and a half miles, and on the first day of every month for nine or ten school months, he hands over four dollars to pay tuition. I have another neighbor and he sends four. The first day of every month he pays three dollars for three and two for one, five in all. Another neighbor sends three, all to the same place, and pays four dollars for the three. Another with six children can’t send to town and they get no schooling at all. This is what is going on under my own personal knowledge, and yet Bartow county is considered one of the best counties, and Cartersville one of the best towns. These men all are farmers and all pay taxes, at the rate of $15 on the thousand. If you could only gather in the amounts of money paid out by taxpayers to educate their own children, you would open your eyes.
No wonder people rush off to town to get into schools that have interest and vitality in them. Eight ninths of the children live in the country and from what I gather, eight-ninths of the rural schools are not worth the value of a dried apple.
Friends, legislators, this farce ought to stop if it is not improved. It would be a comedy if it was not a tragedy. It reminds me of a farmer feeding wild hogs that he has never seen since they were littered. He takes a basket of corn and hollers for the pigs, and the bushes rustle and the corn rattles on the dead leaves, but no hogs come in sight. The birds, the crows, the squirrels and wild game get the corn, and the hogs are as wild as when they first saw daylight. We have been scattering corn for thirty years and the wild pigs are no more appreciative than before.
The mistake in the last thirty years has been to use a Bible metaphor for unappreciation, casting pearls before swine. There is absolutely no obligation laid upon the parent or guardian who is expected to patronize these schools.
The crowning injustice lies in the fact that this money is extorted whether the pupils attend or not. There is absolute compulsion at one end of the line and no compulsion at the other end of the line at all. The indifferent parent has it in his power to defeat the intent of the school law by his refusal to accept the benefit. Only forty per cent of these patrons or guardians are favorable to the opportunity, for we are told less than forty per cent attend the schools. The application of the money is a failure.
Compulsory taxation presupposes compulsory attendance. There is no equity in compulsion to raise taxes without compulsion to apply them. There is no principle in republican government more strongly emphasized than ownership of what one earns, honestly acquires and properly inherits. This enforced taxation to benefit those who can decline to be benefitted is simple tyranny.
I do not care from what standpoint you view it, it it persistently unjust. There should be proper obligation on the other side to meet the obligation imposed by the state. And there should not be a penny more extorted than can be usefully employed. Georgia should furnish brains enough to work out this problem and patriotism enough to apply the remedy.
Gentlemen are you not responsible for these improvements and failures?
Let us suppose that it is my child which is suffering for a common school education.
The state compels you to furnish the money to do it, not one dollar of which you can or do owe to me or mine. The state says that illiterate child must be educated because illiteracy and crime go hand in hand, and its parent is not able to do it.
You must do it, or have a fifa issued to raise that school money out of your property. If you and yours become homeless, this child must be taught by public school teachers, paid by the state, and that real estate is subject to the school tax, no matter how many times it is sold and resold by sheriff or marshal. I say it will be no greater hardship to compel me to send that child to school, than to wring its tuition out of your honest labor or earnings. Unless I am made to send that child to school, when I refuse to do it, your money will be worse than wasted. You are wronged in every sense of the word. I am no better than you when obligation to accept is laid upon me, especially when it all accrues to my benefit.
I saw a newspaper paragraph in a leading journal a few days ago on this subject. It said: “I’d like to see anybody get up and tell Mrs. Felton it was time to send her child to school.”
Gentlemen, when the money is wrung out of your pockets to send my child to school, you should have the authority to fix the time and what is more apparent, to make me pay for negligence if I fail to send it.
When you are thrashed to the place where your money is taken from you, to benefit my child, it is cowardly for me to cry out if I am made to pay a fine for the non-attendance of my child. There is no more equity in thrashing you to the paying place than in thrashing me to the school house.
If I hide out that child in the cotton patch or cotton factory to earn money for me, while you are paying its tuition under compulsion from the state, you should demand the payment of a proper fine from me, because I refused to school the child.
As before said, the state compels your school tax as a preventive measure. The state says it is easier and more humane to support school houses than jail houses. Under no other claim can this compulsory tax be demanded of you, and the conclusion is imperative. You should be remunerated in some way. If I defeat the intent of the tax law, by non-attendance, the state should, in fair dealing and honesty, refund you the money or compel the child to go to school, or put the officer on me until the fine is paid, or abolish an unjust system.
Some will say, I am the best judge of what my child shall do. No, gentlemen, the state tells you that you shall provide a teacher for my child, and it should tell me “send that child or pay the penalty,” and compel the child to go.
I admit you, I do not like either side of this business. I tell you it is anti-republican in its leadings, but it came along down here when our people did not understand its workings and we had that much of Massachusetts and Rhode Island slapped on to us, when we did not recognize or appreciate our own conditions. “We were told that free schools would make Sunday folks out of freedmen, and we see now that seventy-five per cent of the free school chaingang crowd go in there for forgery and such like. The little learning has worked a disadvantage.
But, gentlemen, in this school report we are told that “the common school is here and here to stay.” Those are the words. Literally interpreted it means school taxation is here and here to stay. I say to you, as parents and honest men, equalize the burdens and divide the responsibility. When you are compelled to furnish the money to school my child, compel me to furnish the scholar. If I do not furnish the scholar that you have paid for, compel me to pay a fine that will cover the loss to the state if not to you. That’s business. Nothing else will ever be honest or satisfactory while the present system obtains. This is only fair dealing with generosity leaning to my side.
When your boy gets to be sixteen years old, the road overseer will say, “Be there tomorrow at six or seven o’clock, bring your hoe, pick, or shovel” as the case may be. The state says work that road under compulsion or pay a fine, and the fine is paid, or that boy works the road.
Now I do not claim that school children should be fined, but I do say, their indifferent and apathetic parents should suffer in pocket if they do not attend, and Massachusetts and Rhode Island say that much. We should swallow the whole pill or hear less of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They compel and fine with a vim.
But maybe you will tell me that you are educating enough free niggers now, and if attendance is compulsory you won’t have a hand to work a farm. Friends, you have been getting less and less labor every year, for a dozen and upwards, with more money for their schools and those that don’t go to school do worse, and as courts and jails do not diminish criminals, then try school houses in dead earnest. We now have about three thousand colored teachers in Georgia, common schools, paid out of this tax money. Divide three thousand by 137, the number of counties, and we will average more than twenty colored teachers to each county, and some counties have no negroes to teach in upper Georgia.
I insist that WE ARE FULLY SUPPLIED WITH TEACHERS, and the average pay of $130 for less than a hundred days in the year is very good pay for the work in rural schools, judging from what I know of farm life and the scarcity of cash. Insist, gentlemen, on full attendance for these schools, and there will be less time for shooting, stabbing, outrages and less opportunity for the politicians among them, because it is a remarkable fact, that every colored teacher joins in the hue and cry of poor salaries, calls for more money and sometimes threatens to vote the treasurer out of office because he waited until the Supreme Court told him what to do with the state’s property fund last summer. There is too much Massachusetts and Rhode Island in this thing to suit me, but if the system is here to stay, then try to get some results from the plant you are working, by compelling school attendance.
It reminds me of a great big cotton factory with a $12,000 engine, any amount of looms and spinning jennys, and a big force of operatives all standing still or operating on half time, because no cotton is in reach, the raw material is lacking. That plant is comparatively useless. We have the common school plant. Heaven knows it is a costly apparatus. It has soaked up nearly twenty millions of dollars in less than thirty years. While the local schools in town are generally good eight-ninths of the country schools are next to nothing. The factory is idle sixty per cent of the time, for there is lack of raw material. Massachusetts and Rhode Island supplied the pupils, we let them go as they please.
We cannot pattern our schools after the pattern of Northern states, and we have reached a place where this state should refuse to engage more teachers than there are children to teach. I say to you gentlemen, we have been running this school business quite long enough on sentiment, gush and political influences.
Pay your taxes with the distinct understanding that no teacher should be sent to a school until the people, the patrons want a school bad enough to ask for it, and will help to support it, by paying in money or work, for at least half the expense of a school house, one suitable for a winter as well as a summer school. And pay no teacher that has no scholars to teach, and no school house to teach in. Then the patrons should sign an agreement with the state to furnish enough pupils to employ a teacher at a stated price. That agreement should have legal force, otherwise it is worthless.
That number of pupils should be kept up, sickness alone preventing. A fine should be collected for every day a pupil is absent.
This haphazard way of providing teachers for any community without regard to attendance is simply preposterous. Let this wild flinging of tax money stop, and only for such schools as will comply with rigid requirements.
The commissioner tells you in his report, that the “burning question” is appropriating more money to keep up this common school. It is burning up the patience of the people who are so heavily taxed to see this tax money so terribly wasted, and it is burning up the hardly earned tax money, when more than six ty per cent refuse to accept the benefit, and the cry for more money, and the state’s demand for more money is becoming exasperating to the last degree. It is disgusting people with the system, and a change is bound to come sooner or later.
Pay only for what may be termed value received, legislators.
A neighbor told me a few days ago he knew of a teacher who was also a preacher, and who boasted he was sent to a school because he had “influence.” He was paid a salary. He told some of the folks that he could teach a small attendance as well as a large one, for he got no more money for one than the other. After a while they dropped down below the limit, and then he got out, to drumming up pupils. It makes all the difference in the world as to limits, and restrictions.
And it would seem that ten thousand teachers for common schools, for the 137 counties should be an ample supply at present. That means about 72 to the county, and remember we have an immense number of pupils in various other schools in Georgia.
We paid out last year about one hundred thousand dollars for county commissioners and local superintendents. Does not that seem high for 137 counties? If you have one capable school overseer in a county can he not overlook the schools without more expense? I am asking you to look closely into this tax money, gentlemen. It is pathetic to know how many poor homes there are in Georgia, that are struggling in all good conscience to live by their labor and keep out of debt. There are many honest, hard-working families that do not see a clear dollar after twelve months of close economy and hard work. They would like to keep their homes, to own land, that has in many in stances been owned by their fathers before them, but gentlemen of the legislature, these taxes are so burdensome that it is cheaper and safer to rent land than to own it, and these schools in the country are so poor, so unsatisfactory, so unproductive of interest or usefulness, that the country places are only endured by those who can send their children elsewhere to school, or by those who are too indifferent to patronize them, or by those who must stay until the sheriff sells the land. It is because this unsatisfactory system is making country life so unattractive, that I plead with you to day.
The cry goes up, yes a wail of disappointment, that COUNTRY-RAISED BOYS WILL LEAVE THE FARM. Why? Because these country homes have to meet such conditions as I here mention. This rural system of schools is barren of educational interest. It pays the teacher if it pays anybody, but nobody else does it pay.
I submit, the state should not go into the business of providing a living or profession for anybody. The school fund is raised for schools, with teachers as secondary in importance. We have tried the unfair system nearly thirty years. We have run away from the country all the private schools.
Before the war we had good country schools. People were interested in keeping them good, and every poor white child enjoyed the same privilege through the county’s poor rate. After the war we mounted stilts and went wild after the pattern of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and we have struck hard pan with a dull thud in heavy taxes and poor country schools. Where will poor old Georgia wind up with a machine that screams all the time for more money to pay teachers and more than sixty per cent of the scholars are in the cotton field or ranging the big road with a gun and dogs. Bartow county was obliged to hang a free school product a few days ago. It was a close shave to get him to the gallows rather than to the lyncher’s fagot. In country places no white woman is safe on the highway or in her own home unprotected. The school commissioner urges the purchase of school wagons to haul white children to school, an additional expense, to be added to the fund for paying the teachers, and makes the plea of danger and the necessity for a safe escort because, he says “every country road is infested with tramps.” My! My! Has it come to this pass in a free school state that has spent nearly twenty millions of dollars since emancipation to aid our civilization?
Can you pick up a newspaper that does not record an outrage on white women, or the lynching of a rapist? But I am told we must raise more money to provide more education. I only state facts when I tell you what you all know, that the best people of the colored race, a class fast dying out, were trained to hard work with modern education left out. God forbid that I should rob the colored race of a real friend, or deprive it of a dollar to which it is honestly entitled. But I will dare to say in this presence in the fear of God and the sight of man, that this unsatisactory school system has not reduced criminals, or checked the state’s expenditure for courts, juries, jails and the hangman’s rope. It has added nothing to the security of rural homes. It has not promoted purity or virtue in the great majority. Some years ago an old darkey woman declined to do some house work on the plea that she must stay at home to mind her husband’s bastard grand children, while their mothers taught a country school. No doubt they were imposed upon the authorities by false statements and concealment. I gave the conversation as spoken in my own presence. We must deal with conditions that do not obtain in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. We cannot apply the same sort of compulsory education in Georgia, that their laws call for; but every dollar of the money which you raise by compulsory taxation should be strictly applied to teaching common schools, and there should never be a teacher supplied until the school is waiting, ready and eager, with a legal agreement between the patrons and the state to provide scholars in full measure for the undertaking. The state has been hallooing for wild pigs long enough; pen the shoats, gentlemen, before you throw out the corn. If you will allow a suggestion, lawmakers, you need to bring these country schools and the country patrons into closer connection. Compel each school district to be present when a teacher is to be supplied. Let them have a voice in the selection. Don’t let this enormous business be left to political influence or personal favoritism.
A few years ago I was a visitor at the commencement of our State University. While we waited in the hotel office to be assigned a room a distinguished educator, a visitor appointed by Gov. Atkinson, came to me, saying, “I must bring my burden to you, because my heart is sick. I came yesterday (mentioning the railroad), and during my trip I walked through the cars to the smoker. I passed a neat colored woman busy with what I saw was a Greek book used in our colleges. As I returned, I asked her if she read Greek. “Oh! yes. I am on my way to teach a summer school and I am refreshing myself in the study.” When I sat down in my own seat in the rear coach, I glanced out at a nearby cotton field. Four young white women were hoeing cotton — shabbily dressed — in the same field with negro men and boys. I have been so heart-sick I come to you and ask if you can suggest any remedy.”
Gentlemen, I bring the story to you. CAN YOU SUGGEST A REMEDY?
These are unwholesome conditions. I bring you some unpalatable facts today. Nevertheless they are facts. I am glad of the privilege of a face to face talk with you on a subject that is not only affecting present conditions, but these young women are to be the coming mothers of our race. They will make or mar the future of this people. I am telling you some things that our politicians whisper, but are afraid to speak aloud. I hope I have lived long enough in Georgia to be recognized as a genuine friend of education and of our girls. The best work of my later years has been devoted to their interests. When our poor white women in Georgia cotton mills were caricatured in a northern magazine, invidious comparisons drawn between colored women and these poor white women, when every reader of The Century magazine was told that these white women were ignorant, debased and exchanged husbands as they changed houses, I went in person to some of the cotton mills to stand by them in real life and to find out the facts. I brought down northern sneers on my devoted head, but while I found a few persons, who said there were some immoral white women in these cotton mill homes, the overwhelming majority were honest, virtuous, self-sacrificing wives and mothers. Have I not earned the privilege of coming into your presence today and begging for uplifting of the white girls of Georgia, in rural districts, while schools and first-class universities are almost in the sound of my voice to provide colored girls with the higher education.
Whatever is done for the poor white people of the South, must be done by our own people. It is folly to fawn or flatter expecting help, in a satisfactory degree. We have an average of seventy odd teachers to every county in Georgia today. We have tried the experiment of throwing schools and paid teachers in generous abundance before the multitude about thirty years, and more than sixty per cent of school children refuse to accept the benefit. Last year in Bartow county there were 57 white teachers and 18 colored. There were 3,756 children admitted, but 1,373 of the whites admitted did not attend school (a little less than half), and two-thirds of the negro children did go. We spent about $2,000 in other ways beside paying teachers, and this year the state’s taxes in Bartow county are up to the limit. The county has laid on heavier taxation than Gov. Bullock’s entire administration called for, and town property is gouged for the last dollar it will bear. Nobody can expect to get more than six per cent on a thousand dollar bond as interest, but Bartow county calls for fifteen dollars tax money, on every thousand dollars returned as property. The end is inevitable. No county can endure such increasing demands. No business can stand such a drain very long.
And it required nearly $12,000 last year to run the school machine in Bartow county with a little over 2,000 children to attend the common schools, managed by state authority.
Commissioner Glenn says we must save the lost boys. From all appearances we had best appeal to and engage foreign missionaries for ourselves. With more than sixty per cent of children of school age declining to attend common schools we must save the lost by some other saving device, than those employed at present by compulsory taxation.
Despite the governor’s condemnation of the system there is no let up in the call for more money. And it would appear also that like the horse leech’s daughter, the biggest part of the machine is “more money.” I once heard of a poor man who complained of a cold head. Somebody told him to put on a night cap. He afterwards called for another night cap when he felt cold about his head. He never removed a night cap and at last accounts his head would not go in a two bushel basket, and he still felt cold in the head. There seems to be but one reply when the unsatisfactory system is complained of, namely “more money.” We never take off anything, but the legislature is asked to put another night cap on the sufferer’s head, and one big enough to go on over the accumulated night caps every year.
We have an average of 72 teachers to the county now. We need scholars, not teachers. We have common school teachers enough to form ten regiments, rank and file, at present, nearly three thousand colored. One third of the night caps are dark colored. Gentlemen of the legislature, have fewer schools and better schools, and apply enough compulsion to make a school large enough to engage the time of the teacher. You have patched and poulticed the system for thirty years. Try a remedy that will save the patient or quit paying for nothing.
Some time ago a young man called for a drink of water. He had been teaching a country school at $40 a month and was on his way home in another county with the money. He received $200 for five months in a common school. He laughed as he remarked “Pa says I have made more clear money in five months than he has received in two years from his fine valley farm.” That is the situation, gentlemen. I believe in paying the teacher and the preacher according to what I get after a hard year’s work. We have ten regiments of teachers in service, and are turning out some hundreds more every year. Like the French people before the Revolution, we will not be long in getting to where privileged classes will be finally eating up our property in taxes. When I think of the fine negro colleges and three thousand colored teachers, in Georgia, paid by the state and the poor child that can’t get to you to raise its white hand to ask for a way of escape, I say: Remember your duty, and do it speedily.
Source: Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth, Also Addresses Before Georgia Legislature Woman’s Clubs, Women’s Organizations and Other Noted Occasions, by Rebecca Latimer Felton (Atlanta: Index Printing Company) 1919, pp. 170-193.