Title: The Progress of a People
Date: June 6, 1924
Location: Washington, D.C.
Context: A speech given at Howard University commending African-Americans on their progress and emphasizing the importance of every citizen in the United States
It has come to be a legend, and I believe with more foundation of fact than most legends, that Howard University was the outgrowth of the inspiration of a prayer meeting. I hope it is true, and I shall choose to believe it, for it makes of this scene and this occasion a new testimony that prayers are answered. Here has been established a great university, a sort of educational laboratory for the production of intellectual and spiritual leadership among a people whose history, if you will examine it as it deserves, is one of the striking evidences of a soundness of our civilization.
The accomplishments of the colored people in the United States, in the brief historic period since they were brought here from the restrictions of their native continent, can not but make us realize that there is something essential in our civilization which gives it a special power. I think we shall be able to agree that this particular element is the Christian religion, whose influence always and everywhere has been a force for the illumination and advancement of the peoples who have come under its sway.
The progress of the colored people on this continent is one of the marvels of modern history. We are perhaps even yet too near to this phenomenon to be able fully to appreciate its significance. That can be impressed on us only as we study and contrast the rapid advancement of the colored people in America with the slow and painful upward movement of humanity as a whole throughout the long human story.
An occasion such as this which has brought us here can not but direct our consideration to these things. It has been a painful and difficult experience, this by which an other race has been recruited to the standard of civilization and enlightenment; for that is really what has been going on; and the episodes of Negro slavery in America, of civil war, and emancipation, and, following that, the rapid advancement of the American colored people both materially and spiritually, must be recognized as parts of a long evolution by which all mankind is gradually being led to higher levels, expanding its understanding of its mission here, approaching nearer and nearer to the realization of its full and perfected destiny.
In such a view of the history of the Negro race in America, we may find the evidences that the black man’s probation on this continent was a necessary part in a great plan by which the race was to be saved to the world for a service which we are now able to vision and, even if yet somewhat dimly, to appreciate. The destiny of the great African Continent, to be added at length, and in a future not now far beyond us, to the realms of the highest civilization, has become apparent within a very few decades. But for the strange and long inscrutable purpose which in the ordering of human affairs subjected a part of the black race to the ordeal of slavery, that race might have been assigned to the tragic fate which has befallen many aboriginal peoples when brought into conflict with more advanced communities.
Instead, we are able now to be confident that this race is to be preserved for a great and useful work. If some of its members have suffered, if some have been denied, if some have been sacrificed, we are able at last to realize that their sacrifices were borne in a great cause. They gave vicariously, that a vastly greater number might be preserved and benefited through them. The salvation of a race, the destiny of a continent, were bought at the price of these sacrifices.
Howard University is but one of the many institutions which have grown up in this country, dedicated to this purpose of preserving one of the races of men and fitting it for its largest usefulness. Here is a people adapted, as most people are not, to life in the tropics. They are capable of redeeming vast luxuriant areas of unexampled productivity, and of reclaiming them for the sustenance of mankind and the increasing security of the human community. It is a great destiny, to which we may now look forward with confidence that it will be fully realized.
Looking back only a few years, we appreciate how rapid has been the progress of the colored people on this continent. Emancipation brought them the opportunity of which they have availed themselves. It has been calculated that in the first year following the acceptance of their status as a free people, there were approximately 4,000,000 members of the race in this country, and that among these only 12,000 were the owners of their homes; only 20,000 among them conducted their own farms, and the aggregate wealth of these 4,000,000 people hardly exceeded $20,000,000. In a little over a half century since, the number of business enterprises operated by colored people had grown to near 50,000, while the wealth of the Negro community has grown to more than $1,100,000,000. And these figures convey a most inadequate suggestion of the material progress. The 2,000 business enterprises which were in the hands of colored people immediately following emancipation were almost without exception small and rudimentary. Among the 50,000 business operations now in the hands of colored people may be found every type of present day affairs. There are more than 70 banks conducted by thoroughly competent colored business men. More than 80 per cent of all American Negroes are now able to read and write. When they achieved their freedom not 10 per cent were literate. There are nearly 2,000,000 Negro pupils in the public schools; well nigh 40,000 Negro teachers are listed, more than 3,000 following their profession in normal schools and colleges. The list of educational institutions devoting themselves to the race includes 50 colleges, 13 colleges for women, 26 theological schools, a standard school of law, and 2 high-grade institutions of medicine. Through the work of these institutions the Negro race is equipping men and women from its own ranks to provide its leadership in business, the professions, in all relations of life.
This, of course, is the special field of usefulness for colored men and women who find the opportunity to get adequate education. Their own people need their help, guidance, leadership, and inspiration. Those of you who are fortunate enough to equip yourselves for these tasks have a special responsibility to make the best use of great opportunities. In a very special way it is incumbent upon those who are prepared to help their people to maintain the truest standards of character and unselfish purpose. The Negro community of America has already so far progressed that its members can be assured that their future is in their own hands. Racial hostility, ancient tradition, and social prejudice are not to be eliminated immediately or easily. But they will be lessened as the colored people by their own efforts and under their own leaders shall prove worthy of the fullest measure of opportunity.
The Nation has need of all that can be contributed to it through the best efforts of all its citizens. The colored people have repeatedly proved their devotion to the high ideals of our country. They gave their services in the war with the same patriotism and readiness that other citizens did. The records of the selective draft show that somewhat more than 2,250,000 colored men were registered. The records further prove that, far from seeking to avoid participation in the national defense, they showed that they wished to enlist before the selective service act was put into operation, and they did not attempt to evade that act afterwards. The propaganda of prejudice and hatred which sought to keep the colored men from supporting the national cause completely failed. The black man showed himself the same kind of citizen, moved by the same kind of patriotism, as the white man. They were tempted, but not one betrayed his country. Among well-nigh 400,000 colored men who were taken into the military service, about one half had overseas experience. They came home with many decorations and their conduct repeatedly won high commendation from both American and European commanders.
The armies in the field could not have done their part in the war if they had not been sustained and supported by the far greater civilian forces at home, which through unremitting toil made it possible to sustain our war effort. No part of the community responded more willingly, more generously, more unqualifiedly, to the demand for special extraordinary exertion, than did the members of the Negro race. Whether in the military service, or in the vast mobilization of industrial resources which the war required, the Negro did his part precisely as did the white man. He drew no color line when patriotism made its call upon him. He gave precisely as his white fellow citizens gave, to the limit of resources and abilities, to help the general cause. Thus the American Negro established his right to the gratitude and appreciation which the Nation has been glad to accord.
We are not all permitted the privilege of a university training. We can not all enter the professions. What is the great need of American citizenship? To my mind it is this, that each should take up the burden where he is. “Do the day’s work,” I have said, and it should be done, in the remembrance that all work is dignified. Your race is entitled to great praise for the contribution it makes in doing the work of the world.
There will be other crises in the national history which will make other demands for the fullest and most unselfish contribution to the national interest. No generation will be denied its opportunity, will be spared its duty, to put forth its best efforts. We devoutly hope that these contributions will not be demanded upon the field of battle. But they will be just as truly needed, just as urgently summoned, in the activities of peace, the efforts of industry, the performance of all the obligations of citizenship. We can not go out from this place and occasion without refreshment of faith and renewal of confidence that in every exigency our Negro fellow citizens will render the best and fullest measure of service whereof they are capable.