A Plea for Industrial Opportunity
November, 1879 — World’s Fair, Philadelphia PA
The Publication Department of The Christian Recorder is weighed down by a comparatively small debt, which cripples its usefulness and thus threatens its existence. This paper finds its way into many a dark hamlet in the South, where no one ever heard of the Philadelphia Bulletin or the New York Tribune. A persistent vitality has kept this paper alive thru a good deal of thick and thin since 1852. In helping to pay this debt we shall also help to keep open an honorable vocation to colored men who, if they will be printers, must “shinny on their own side.” Knowing the conditions of the masses of our people, no large sums were asked for; the people were requested to club together and send on a number of little gifts, which might be at a stated time exhibited and sold at a fair. And thus the debt liquidated by a co-operative effort would be an instructive lesson of how light a burden becomes when borne by the many instead of the few. “Send something which you yourself have made or produced,” we said. “Let what you send be made valuable by your artistic skill, your invention, and your industry.” It was hinted that an exhibition of this sort might be greatly useful and creditable to us as a people, and that anything, from a potato to a picture, would be accepted. The result has been such as to gratify the highest expectations. Responses by donations of articles or money have been received from the following States: Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Florida, Massachusetts, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Indian Territory and the District of Columbia. About two-thirds of the things at this fair were sent from the South, from Texas and some other distant parts, where the expressage on a box would have been large — our sugar cane cost our Florida friends $7 to express — from these points the people sent money; more than $80.00 thus contributed was spent to buy things on commission to help out. It seemed due to the people of the South and West who have so generously sent their little gifts to help keep alive a printing establishment in this city, from which there is no hope of their receiving any pecuniary benefit, it seemed due to them, I repeat, that we should not diminish the profits arising from the sale of these things by the purchase of gaudy and artistic flummery to dress the hall; so those who come to visit us will not , we hope, expect too much. The poor people who have sent us these things have shown a spirit of self-denial and of generous zeal which borders on heroism. All classes, including old people and young children, have vied with each other in sending some little article for the fair. If we had dared last year to predict these wonderful results it would have been set down as transcendental bosh, but we would have spoken “but the words of truth and soberness.” The different kinds of needlework, crochet work and worsted work are very creditable; as also is the model of a church in Providence, Rhode Island, sent by a little boy; two ships, full rigged, and especially the decorated plates, and the pictures, “A Rocky Coast,” the “Coast of Maine,” and the “Wreck at Cape May” last summer, by H. O. Tanner, son of the editor of The Christian Recorder. The last contributors are colored lads, and I venture nothing in saying that their work would be creditable to any exhibition. The well-known artists, Robert Douglass and Wm. H. Dorsey, have many fine paintings on exhibition, especially an oil painting of Mr. Fred Douglass. The agricultural products could have been far larger than they are but for two reasons; first, it was especially understood in the beginning that this exhibition was to show, not what the few can do when they do a great deal, but what the many can do when each does a little; secondly, we were not able to pay the cost of expressage. I mean no reflection in any quarter when I ask thoughtful people if an exhibition of this kind, and for this cause, is not almost as important as holding a convention and reading a lot of “papers.” The great lesson to be taught by this Fair is the value of co-operative effort to make our cents dollars, and to show us what help there is for ourselves in ourselves. That the colored people of this country have enough money to materially alter their financial condition, was clearly demonstrated by the millions of dollars deposited in the Freedmen’s Bank; that they have the good sense, and the unanimity to use this power, are now proved by this industrial exhibition and fair. It strikes me that much of the recent talk about the exodus has proceeded upon the high-handed assumption that, owing largely to the credit system of the South, the colored people there are forced to the alternative, to “curse God, and die,” or else “go West.” Not a bit of it. The people of the South, it is true, cannot at this time produce hundreds of dollars, but they have millions of pennies; and millions of pennies make tens of thousands of dollars. By clubbing together and lumping their pennies, a fund might be raised in the cities of the South that the poorer classes might fall back upon while their crops are growing; or else, by the opening of co-operative stores, become their own creditors and so effectually rid themselves of their merciless extortioners. “Oh, they won’t do anything; you can’t get them united on anything!” is frequently expressed. The best way for a man to prove that he can do a thing is to do it, and that is what we have shown we can do. This Fair, participated in by twenty four States in the Union, and gotten up for a purpose which is of no pecuniary benefit to those concerned in it, effectually silences all slanders about “we won’t or we can’t do,” and teaches its own instructive and greatly needed lessons of self-help, — the best help that any man can have, next to God’s.
Those in charge, who have completed the arrangement of the Fair, have studiously avoided preceding it with noisy and demonstrative babblings, which are so often the vapid precursors of promises as empty as those who make them; therefore, in some quarters, our Fair has been overlooked. It is not, we think, a presumptuous interpretation of this great movement, to say, that the voice of God now seems to utter “Speak to the people that they go forward.” “Go forward” in what respect? Teach the millions of poor colored laborers of the South how much power they have in themselves, by co-operation of effort, and by a combination of their small means, to change the despairing poverty which now drives them from their homes, and makes them a millstone around the neck of any community, South or West. Secondly, that we shall go forward in asking to enter the same employments which other people enter. Within the past ten years we have made almost no advance in getting our youth into industrial and business occupations. It is just as hard for instance, to get a boy into a printing-office now as it was ten years ago. It is simply astonishing when we consider how many of the common vocations of life colored people are shut out of. Colored men are not admitted to the printers’ trade-union, nor, with very rare exceptions are they employed in any city of the United States in a paid capacity as printers or writers; one of the rare exceptions being the employment of H. Price Williams, on the Sunday Press of this city. We are not employed as salesmen or pharmacists, or saleswomen, or bank clerks, or merchants’ clerks, or tradesmen, or mechanics, or telegraph operators, or to any degree as State or government officials, and I could keep on with the string of “ors” until to-morrow morning, but the patience of an audience has its limit.
Slavery made us poor, and its gloomy, malicious shadow tends to keep us so. I beg to say, kind hearers, that this is not spoken in a spirit of recrimination. We have no quarrel with our fate, and we leave your Christianity to yourselves. Our faith is firmly fixed in that “Eternal Providence,” that in its own good time will “justify the ways of God to man.” But, believing that to get the right men into the right places is a “consummation most devoutly to be wished,” it is a matter of serious concern to us to see our youth with just as decided diversity of talent as any other people, herded together into but three or four occupations. It is cruel to make a teacher or a preacher of a man who ought to be a printer or a blacksmith, and that is exactly the condition we are now obliged to submit to. The greatest advance that has been made since the War has been effected by political parties, and it is precisely the political positions that we think it least desirable our youth should fill. We have our choice of the professions, it is true, but, as we have not been endowed with an overwhelming abundance of brains, it is not probable that we can contribute to the bar a great lawyer except once in a great while. The same may be said of medicine; nor are we able to tide over the “starving time,” between the reception of a diploma and the time that a man’s profession becomes a paying one.
Being determined to know whether this industrial and business ostracism lay in ourselves or “in our stars,” we have from time to time, knocked, shaken, and kicked, at these closed doors of employment. A cold, metallic voice from within replies, “We do not employ colored people.” Ours not to make reply, ours not to question why. Thank heaven, we are not obliged to do and die; having the preference to do or die, we naturally prefer to do. But we cannot help wondering if some ignorant or faithless steward of God’s work and God’s money hasn’t blundered. It seems necessary that we should make known to the good men and women who are so solicitous about our souls, and our minds, that we haven’t quite got rid of our bodies yet, and until we do, we must feed and clothe them; and this attitude of keeping us out of work forces us back upon charity. That distinguished thinker, Mr. Henry C. Carey, in his valuable works on political economy, has shown by the truthful and forceful logic of history, that the elevation of all peoples to a higher moral and intellectual plane, and to a fuller investiture of their civil rights, has always steadily kept pace with the improvement in their physical condition. Therefore we feel that resolutely and in unmistakable language, yet in the dignity of moderation, we should strive to make known to all men the justice of our claims to the same employments as other’s under the same conditions. We do not ask that anyone of our people shall be put into a position because he is a colored person, but we do most emphatically ask that he shall not be kept out of a position because he is a colored person. “An open field and no favors” is all that is requested. The time was when to put a colored girl or boy behind a counter would have been to decrease custom; it would have been a tax upon the employer, and a charity that we were too proud to accept; but public sentiment has changed. I am satisfied that the employment of a colored clerk or a colored saleswoman wouldn’t even be a “nine days’ wonder.” It is easy of accomplishment, and yet it is not. To thoughtless and headstrong people who meet duty with impertinent dictation I do not now address myself; but to those who wish the most gracious of all blessings, a fuller enlightment as to their duty, — to those I beg to say, think of what is suggested in this appeal.
We do not ask our white friends to come out and make this fair a success. If the word “grand” was not so abominably ill used, I would say that we have already made it a grand success; come and help us make it a greater one. For ten days the colored citizens have crowded this fair. They have bought more than half our contributions. From the ministers of the churches, irrespective of denomination, to the ladies who are attending tables, and the United Order of Masons who rented us the hall, all have shown a generosity, devotion and a warmth of public spirit worthy of the highest praise.
Believing that all efforts at self-help are worthy of respect, and when a man is using every effort in his power to help himself he may with propriety call upon his friends for encouragement, I now respectfully submit this matter to the citizens of Philadelphia and cordially invite them to visit us. As those of us who have charge of the fair are working-women, we do not open it until five o’clock in the afternoon. It is held in Masonic Hall, on Eleventh street, between Pine and Lombard, and will continue all this week.
Source: Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence Delivered by the Negro From the Days of Slavery to the Present Time, ed. Alice Moore Dunbar, (New York: The Bookery Publishing Company), 1914, pp. 251-256.
Also: Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints on Teaching, by Fanny Jackson-Coppin, (Philadelphia: A.M.E Book Concern) 1913, pp. 30-38.