Hampton Institute Address

by Chauncey Depew
Speech given at Hampton Institute (a school for Blacks and Indians)
April 7, 1891

I feel that I am an intruder here. I am sure everyone would rather listen to this music than to any tune that I can play. I came to hear it myself. I have never been so fortunate as to be able to hear your singers in the North, and I have been immensely gratified in hearing them to-day.

I look upon this Hampton School as one of the most interesting exhibitions in the United States. I regard my friend, General Armstrong, as having accomplished more for this country than almost any man who fought for it has done since the war. The war, which settled some questions, left us a great problem which had to be solved by other means. The time for the guns and bayonets and cavalry charge was past. The time had come when a most interesting and perplexing condition had to be met and overcome. It is a fortunate peculiarity of the American people that they never hesitate to grapple with a problem because it is untried. and difficult. We are a nation of experimenters; the more difficult the situation, the more interesting it is to us. Because it seems impossible is the best reason to us for our determination to prove its possibility. This is the spirit that has given the world all the great American inventions. When something new was needed, American talent was roused to supply the want. When there was some great need of humanity, America was ready with advocates, teachers, and self-sacrificing missionaries. This was the spirit that led an American to apply steam to navigation, which has bridged oceans. This was the spirit that led another American to apply electricity to telegraphy, which has belted the globe with lightning. This is the spirit which has given us the sewing machine, and all other American machinery that so multiplies the power of man and the forces of nature. But there was a problem that machinery could not reach and science could not solve, a problem that affected whole races of people. That problem my friend General Armstrong set himself to solve at the close of the war. This assembly before me, and these songs I have heard, tell the spirit that has solved this problem. Nothing permanent had been done to alleviate distress or elevate mankind in general, until Christianity came with its spirit of helpfulness and good will, with its recognition of the equal value, before God and before the law, of every individual of every race. At the time of the birth of Christ, two-thirds of the inhabitants of the globe were slaves. It was the habit of the Roman conquerors, when they captured a city, to carry away captive men, women, and children, and sell them to slave dealers who always followed the army. They took them to the markets and sold them-men, women, and children of every race-whatever might be their culture and learning and position and refinement.

During the reign of the Caesars the conquests of Rome became so frequent, and the accumulation of slaves was so great, that in the island of Sicily cultivated young men and young women were sold for twenty-five cents apiece, branded with a hot iron on forehead and check and sent on the plantations, where their average length of life after they got there was one month. Nobody cared; it being. cheaper to work them to death and buy others than to feed them and take care of them. In one of your songs here to-day you have sung how Christ,

King of kings, Lord of lords,
Broke the Roman Kingdom down.

That is the whole secret and the whole history of our Christian civilization. It has taken two thousand years, but the accumulated superstition and jealousy of ages had to be overcome.

We in America had slavery imposed upon us, and it cost millions of lives and thousands of millions of dollars to get rid of it. When America did get rid of it, then it speedily ceased throughout the civilized world; and now there is no civilized nation where slavery exists. The civilized nations of the world send out their navies to prevent the slaver from reaching port. Civilized nations combine to stamp out this evil where it still exists in Asia and Africa.

But when the war struck the shackles from the limbs of the slave, it left us millions of people who had not been educated to fit them for self-government or for citizenship, or for taking care of themselves and earning their own living. To these millions were given at once freedom and its responsibilities the right of suffrage, and all the privileges of full manhood and American citizenship. It was to them the most critical period of their history. They had to show the world whether they were worthy or unworthy of all these great privileges. The world always moves steadily on, and never stops for anyone. If people have capacity or disposition to move on with it, it carries them along; if they have not the capacity or disposition to move on with it, like one of those great steam rollers they flatten the street with, it just rolls on, and rolls over them. Thus it became necessary for the colored people of this country to demonstrate that they could be other than children; to demonstrate that they had minds that could be taught; that they had souls that could be purified and ought to be saved. It is safe to say that, twenty-five years ago, out of fifty millions of people of this country, not five millions believed that the colored people could be brought to a point where they could safely be trusted with the powers of citizenship. More than half believed that they had not minds and intelligence to become useful, responsible, free men and women. There was but one way to test the question. It must be tried on a plane large enough for demonstration. It could not be decided in the country schoolhouse with a few half-trained teachers; or in the plantation church with a minister ignorant as his people, where white people would come only to laugh at the show he would make of himself. The work had to be done by the same processes that other races are tested by. How is it proved that the white race is worthy of citizenship and the powers of free men and women? It is done through schools where there are competent teachers, through opportunities to learn and to demonstrate that they are fitted for citizenship.

Twenty-two years have passed, I am told, since this experiment was tried by General Armstrong. So it is of age. And what are the results? The results are that hundreds of graduates have gone forth, in the same spirit as the first apostles of Christianity; for the same purpose; each one a beacon light of truth, intelligence, and morality, to lead their race up to higher and better planes of living, and point out to them the larger opportunities which had come to those who had educated minds and trained hands, and to aid in their uplifting through teaching and training and example to happiness in this world and eternal happiness in the world to come. Had this experiment failed, into which General Armstrong has put his life, twenty-five years would not have passed before the power of the government that gave would have taken away again every political privilege and relegated them to a position of wards and children of this country, but children uncared for and unprotected.

The same is true in regard to the Indians. We found the Indian in possession of the soil, and we took it away from him. We have abused him in every possible way that an intelligent people could a wild people, by sending agents to rob him and then soldiers to shoot him. These two processes have been going on ever since Captain Miles Standish inaugurated the gospel of the shotgun. But I am going to be careful not to mention any particular shotgun, for I always get into trouble when I mention names. I alluded to Winchester rifles in a speech once, and the next day I received from the manufacturing company a letter and a catalogue. I thought at least they might have sent me a gun. Another time I alluded to the Kodak, remarking that there comes a time in every man's life when he only has to press a button and the rest is done. A few days after, my little boy received a Kodak. And once I had occasion to just mention Pierce's Pellucid Pills, and I received a box by the next mail. So now, in alluding to guns, it is the shotgun in general that I do not believe in.

I once had the curiosity to ask General Sherman if he was the author of the saying that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." He said no, that Miles Standish was the author of it and he only stole it from him, though he firmly believed in the doctrine. General Armstrong undertook the most difficult of his problems when he attempted to prove that the Indian could be fitted for citizenship.

The experimental period is past. We have the records of Indian Commissioners, and of intelligent army officers that have seen the work of returned Indian students from Hampton and Carlisle and other schools, and it is most encouraging. The best of tests was that of the ghost-dance craze last year, when the people were carried away by the same sort of wave of popular sentiment, of the influence of environment, hereditary and tribal relations, which carried thirteen States at once into rebellion; and, with one exception caused by ties of relationship, every single student from Hampton stood up bravely, manfully before his people, to warn them against their insane frenzy, and the destruction into which they were blindly rushing, and to lead them into practices which would make them intelligent, useful, and law-abiding citizens of the Republic.

I want to say this to all you young men and all you young women: the only thing that succeeds in this world is work! Nobody is ever pushed along by anyone else or by circumstances. I remember when I started in life in a little village on the Hudson River, with some fifty other boys of about my own age, with much the same opportunities, and the same schooling. None of us had any money. Some of us worked, and worked hard and cheerfully; others didn't work. Some lounged about taverns, some played, while others worked. I look back and I count up those who took to the taverns; every one of them is dead; they led miserable lives; they made their wives miserable and their children paupers, and they sank into drunkards' graves. Then, those that were always looking for something to turn up, and never used a spade to turn something up for themselves-every one is sitting now holding a chair down in some corner grocery; holding it down hard, and talking about this man and that one, who in the village or out of it has been successful: "That man has got to be a great preacher," and "that man has got to be a judge," and "that man has got to be a millionaire - well, there's nothing like luck in this world." Every time I go to my native town and go round among those fellows, they say to me: "O Chauncey! well, there's nothing like luck in this world, and you've got it."

Yes, there is luck in this world, but nobody ever had it unless he reached for it; unless he seized it, and with all his mind and all his might developed his opportunity when it came. There are plenty of apples on the trees, but it's only those fellows who make a spring and climb for them that get them.

There's another thing I want to say to you. Every man and woman should have an honest pride in the country, or the State, or the town he lives in, or the institution where he was educated; an overwhelming sort of pride, that makes him think, "There never was such a great country as ours. Nobody has lived in such a good State or town. Nobody was ever graduated from an institution that was quite so good as Hampton." It is the same spirit you see above all in a Boston man. A Boston man went to a little village once and spoke at a Sunday-school picnic. Some years afterward he went again and spoke to the same Sunday-school. And he said, "Oh, the last time I was here, there was such a dear little flaxen-haired boy sat over there. He was a fine little boy, so good, so studious; the finest little boy I ever saw. He always came to Sunday-school, he always knew his catechism; he never was naughty? Children, where do you suppose he is now?" "In heaven," the children all shouted. "Oh, no, children, better than that; he is a clerk in a store in Boston."

This is the spirit - and I want you to remember it who are educated in Hampton school - that all young men of Yale or Harvard or Princeton have an enormous pride in all the days of their lives. There is nothing which causes so quick a movement of the pulse, such a rising flood in the veins telling of joy and pride, like the mention of Yale to a Yale man, or of Harvard to a Harvard man, or Princeton to a Princeton man, even if he has passed the allotted age of man - threescore years and ten. Now, I tell you there is more to be proud of in Hampton Institute for a Hampton boy or girl than there is for a Yale or Harvard or Princeton student in Yale or Harvard or Princeton. Why? Because the young man of Yale or Harvard or Princeton is borne up by the whole influence of his family and society. His family pushes him along. The best schools educate him; so when he enters college he is fully prepared. Eight-tenths of the prizes at those colleges are taken by graduates of high schools are not by the graduates of magnificent academies. If his family is poor, some church sees his talent, and puts him through. So his whole atmosphere is an atmosphere of help and encouragement and applause. But for the colored boy or girl, or the Indian, there is naught of this. Their families have had no opportunities and have no understanding of education. No school or educated minister is behind them; no public contribution is taken up to pay their way. They must have something in themselves which is born for success; and when at last they have passed through the course of this school, passed their examinations, graduated from the school and from the manual trade shops; when at last they have their diploma - it is a diploma that has been won by themselves, struck out of nothing, as Morse caught the lightning from heaven. All such young men and young women, when they look at their diploma hanging on the wall of their home, should feel:- "I am commissioned by this school, and by all there is behind it, to make a good name myself and accomplish something in the world for my people. I must lead my people to higher lives. I must own my own home; I must own my own farm; I must become a good carpenter, or mechanic, or milliner, or housekeeper, or merchant, and be one of the useful citizens who go to make up the life of this nation. I must teach my people what education and religion and morality can do." And you must learn this, that the real power and position of men or women is the measure which the community puts upon them, according to how they live, and think, and act, and speak.

This glorious Republic has made you free citizens, and it is the best land in which any man or woman ever lived, the best land for which any man or woman can live or die.

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