The Story of a Negro Pioneer
By THE PIONEER
The Woodruff Press
The Woodruff Press
Entered according to the Act of Congress in the year 1913,
by the Woodruff Bank Note Co., in the office of the
Librarian of Congress, at Washington, D.C.
by the Woodruff Bank Note Co., in the office of the
Librarian of Congress, at Washington, D.C.
First Edition, May 1, 1913
HONORABLE BOOKER T. WASHINGTON
This is a true story of a negro who was discontented and the circumstances that were the outcome of that discontent.
DISCONTENT—SPIRIT OF THE PIONEER
GOOD gracious, has it been that long? It does not seem possible; but it was this very day nine years ago when a fellow handed me this little what-would-you-call-it, Ingalls called it "Opportunity." I've a notion to burn it, but I won't—not this time, instead, I'll put it down here and you may call it what you like.
Yes, it was that little poem that led me to this land and sometimes I wonder well, I just wonder, that's[Pg 10] all. Again, I think it would be somewhat different if it wasn't for the wind. It blows and blows until it makes me feel lonesome and so far away from that little place and the country in southern Illinois.
Master of human destinies am I.Fame, love, and fortune on my footsteps wait.Cities and fields I walk. I penetrateDeserts and seas remote, and passing byHovel, and mart, and palace—soon or lateI knock unbidden once at every gate.If sleeping, wake—if feasting, rise beforeI turn away. It is the hour of fate,And they who follow me reach every stateMortals desire, and conquer every foeSave death; but those who doubt or hesitate,Condemned to failure, penury, and woeSeek me in vain and uselessly implore,I answer not, and I return no more.
I was born twenty-nine years ago near the Ohio River, about forty miles above Cairo, the fourth son and fifth child of a family of thirteen, by the name of Devereaux—which, of course, is not my name but we will call it that for this sketch. It is a peculiar name that ends with an "eaux," however, and is considered an odd name for a colored man to have, unless he is from Louisiana where the French crossed with the Indians and slaves, causing many Louisiana negroes to have the French names and many speak the French language also. My father, however, came from Kentucky and inherited the name from his father who was sold off into Texas during the slavery period and is said to be living there today.
He was a farmer and owned eighty acres of land and was, therefore, considered fairly "well-to-do," that is, for a colored man. The county in which we lived bordered on the river some twenty miles, and took its name from an old fort that used to do a little cannonading for the Federal forces back in the Civil War.
The farming in this section was hindered by various disadvantages and at best was slow, hard work. Along the valleys of the numerous creeks and bayous that empty their waters into the Ohio, the soil was of a rich alluvium, where in the early Spring the back waters from the Ohio covered thousands of[Pg 11] acres of farm and timber lands, and in receding left the land plastered with a coat of river sand and clay which greatly added to the soil's productivity. One who owned a farm on these bottoms was considered quite fortunate. Here the corn stalks grew like saplings, with ears dangling one and two to a stalk, and as sound and heavy as green blocks of wood.
The heavy rains washed the loam from the hills and deposited it on these bottoms. Years ago, when the rolling lands were cleared, and before the excessive rainfall had washed away the loose surface, the highlands were considered most valuable for agricultural purposes, equally as valuable as the bottoms now are. Farther back from the river the more rolling the land became, until some sixteen miles away it was known as the hills, and here, long before I was born, the land had been very valuable. Large barns and fine stately houses—now gone to wreck and deserted—stood behind beautiful groves of chestnut, locust and stately old oaks, where rabbits, quail and wood-peckers made their homes, and sometimes a raccoon or opossum founded its den during the cold, bleak winter days. The orchards, formerly the pride of their owners, now dropped their neglected fruit which rotted and mulched with the leaves. The fields, where formerly had grown great crops of wheat, corn, oats, timothy and clover, were now grown over and enmeshed in a tangled mass of weeds and dew-berry vines; while along the branches and where the old rail fences had stood, black-berry vines had grown up, twisting their thorny stems and forming a veritable hedge[Pg 12] fence. These places I promised mother to avoid as I begged her to allow me to follow the big boys and carry their game when they went hunting.
In the neighborhood and throughout the country there had at one time been many colored farmers, or ex-slaves, who had settled there after the war. Many of them having built up nice homes and cleared the valley of tough-rooted hickory, gum, pecan and water-oak trees, and the highlands of the black, white, red or post oak, sassafras and dogwood. They later grubbed the stumps and hauled the rocks into the roads, or dammed treacherous little streams that were continually breaking out and threatening the land with more ditches. But as time wore on and the older generation died, the younger were attracted to the towns and cities in quest of occupations that were more suitable to their increasing desires for society and good times. Leaving the farms to care for themselves until the inevitable German immigrant came along and bought them up at his own price, tilled the land, improved the farm and roads, straightened out the streams by digging canals, and grew prosperous.
As for me, I was called the lazy member of the family; a shirker who complained that it was too cold to work in the winter, and too warm in the summer. About the only thing for which I was given credit was in learning readily. I always received good grades in my studies, but was continually criticised for talking too much and being too inquisitive. We finally moved into the nearby town of M—pls. Not so much to get off the farm, or to be near more colored people (as most of the younger[Pg 13]negro farmers did) as to give the children better educational facilities.
The local colored school was held in an old building made of plain boards standing straight up and down with batten on the cracks. It was inadequate in many respects; the teachers very often inefficient, and besides, it was far from home. After my oldest sister graduated she went away to teach, and about the same time my oldest brother quit school and went to a near-by town and became a table waiter, much to the dissatisfaction of my mother, who always declared emphatically that she wanted none of her sons to become lackeys.
When the Spanish-American War broke out the two brothers above me enlisted with a company of other patriotic young fellows and were taken to Springfield to go into camp. At Springfield their company was disbanded and those of the company that wished to go on were accepted into other companies, and those that desired to go home were permitted to do so. The younger of the two brothers returned home by freight; the other joined a Chicago company and was sent to Santiago and later to San Luis DeCuba, where he died with typhoid pneumonia.
M—pls was an old town with a few factories, two flour mills, two or three saw mills, box factories and another concern where veneering was peeled from wood blocks softened with steam. The timber came from up the Tennessee River, which emptied into the Ohio a few miles up the river. There was also the market house, such as are to be seen in towns of the Southern states—and parts of the Northern.[Pg 14] This market house, or place, as it is often called, was an open building, except one end enclosed by a meat-market, and was about forty by one hundred feet with benches on either side and one through the center for the convenience of those who walked, carrying their produce in a home-made basket. Those in vehicles backed to a line guarded by the city marshall, forming an alleyway the width of the market house for perhaps half a block, depending on how many farmers were on hand. There was always a rush to get nearest the market house; a case of the early bird getting the worm. The towns people who came to buy, women mostly with baskets, would file leisurely between the rows of vehicles, hacks and spring wagons of various descriptions, looking here and there at the vegetables displayed.
We moved back to the country after a time where my father complained of my poor service in the field and in disgust I was sent off to do the marketing—which pleased me, for it was not only easy but gave me a chance to meet and talk with many people—and I always sold the goods and engaged more for the afternoon delivery. This was my first experience in real business and from that time ever afterward I could always do better business for myself than for anyone else. I was not given much credit for my ability to sell, however, until my brother, who complained that I was given all the easy work while he had to labor and do all the heavier farm work, was sent to do the marketing. He was not a salesman and lacked the aggressiveness to approach people with a basket, and never talked much;[Pg 15] was timid and when spoken to or approached plainly showed it.
On the other hand, I met and became acquainted with people quite readily. I soon noticed that many people enjoy being flattered, and how pleased even the prosperous men's wives would seem if bowed to with a pleasant "Good Morning, Mrs. Quante, nice morning and would you care to look at some fresh roasting ears—ten cents a dozen; or some nice ripe strawberries, two boxes for fifteen cents?" "Yes Maam, Thank you! and O, Mrs. Quante, would you care for some radishes, cucumbers or lettuce for tomorrow? I could deliver late this afternoon, you see, for maybe you haven't the time to come to market every day." From this association I soon learned to give to each and every prospective customer a different greeting or suggestion, which usually brought a smile and a nod of appreciation as well as a purchase.
Before the debts swamped my father, and while my brothers were still at home, our truck gardening, the small herd of milkers and the chickens paid as well as the farm itself. About this time father fell heir to a part of the estate of a brother which came as a great relief to his ever increasing burden of debt.
While this seeming relief to father was on I became very anxious to get away. In fact I didn't like M—pls nor its surroundings. It was a river town and gradually losing its usefulness by the invasion of railroads up and down the river; besides, the colored people were in the most part wretchedly poor, ignorant and envious. They were set[Pg 16] in the ways of their localisms, and it was quite useless to talk to them of anything that would better oneself. The social life centered in the two churches where praying, singing and shouting on Sundays, to back-biting, stealing, fighting and getting drunk during the week was common among the men. They remained members in good standing at the churches, however, as long as they paid their dues, contributed to the numerous rallies, or helped along in camp meetings and festivals. Others were regularly turned out, mostly for not paying their dues, only to warm up at the next revival on the mourners bench and come through converted and be again accepted into the church and, for awhile at least, live a near-righteous life. There were many good Christians in the church, however, who were patient with all this conduct, while there were and still are those who will not sanction such carrying-on by staying in a church that permits of such shamming and hypocrisy. These latter often left the church and were then branded either as infidels or human devils who had forsaken the house of God and were condemned to eternal damnation.
My mother was a shouting Methodist and many times we children would slip quietly out of the church when she began to get happy. The old and less religious men hauled slop to feed a few pigs, cut cord-wood at fifty cents per cord, and did any odd jobs, or kept steady ones when such could be found. The women took in washing, cooked for the white folks, and fed the preachers. When we lived in the country we fed so many of the[Pg 17] Elders, with their long tailed coats and assuming and authoritative airs, that I grew to almost dislike the sight of a colored man in a Prince Albert coat and clerical vest. At sixteen I was fairly disgusted with it all and took no pains to keep my disgust concealed.
This didn't have the effect of burdening me with many friends in M—pls and I was regarded by many of the boys and girls, who led in the whirlpool of the local colored society, as being of the "too-slow-to-catch-cold" variety, and by some of the Elders as being worldly, a free thinker, and a dangerous associate for young Christian folks. Another thing that added to my unpopularity, perhaps, was my persistent declarations that there were not enough competent colored people to grasp the many opportunities that presented themselves, and that if white people could possess such nice homes, wealth and luxuries, so in time, could the colored people. "You're a fool", I would be told, and then would follow a lecture describing the time-worn long and cruel slavery, and after the emancipation, the prejudice and hatred of the white race, whose chief object was to prevent the progress and betterment of the negro. This excuse for the negro's lack of ambition was constantly dinned into my ears from the Kagle corner loafer to the minister in the pulpit, and I became so tired of it all that I declared that if I could ever leave M—pls I would never return. More, I would disprove such a theory and in the following chapters I hope to show that what I believed fourteen years ago was true.
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