William Howard Taft

Commencement Address at Howard University

May 26, 1909

Mr. President, and Young Ladies and Gentlemen of the Graduating Class:

I have a good many engagements and I am tempted into them sometimes—before the engagements are to be met and the work is to be done—by such a mellifluous and forceful gentleman as your President; and then I am not reminded of the obligation thus assumed until I pick up the morning paper and find myself advanced as one of the chief attractions at some meeting where I don't feel myself at all as entitled to figure in that capacity.

When your President came to me and asked me to come to Howard University he said that he expected to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone of a new building here, given by Mr. Carnegie, and that incidentally there would be commencement exercises. I am a fairly good hand at a trowel and I thought possibly I might engage in the exercises of laying the cornerstone without being involved in a speech. But I find it to be otherwise. Nevertheless, I am glad to seize the opportunity of looking into your faces, you young men and women who are about to go out into the world and meet the obstacles which are before you and to overcome them successfully, as I sincerely hope you may. I am glad to be able to be here to testify to you my profound sympathy in your careers and my hope that they all may be successful.

This institution here is the partial repayment of a debt—only partial—to a race to which a government and the people of the United States are eternally indebted. They brought that race into this country against its will. They planted it here irretrievably. They first put it in bondage and then they kept it in the ignorance that that bondage seemed to make necessary, under the system then in vogue. Then they freed it and put upon it the responsibilities of citizenship. Now, some sort of obligation follows that chain of facts with reference to the people who are responsible for what that government did. The obligation would be clearer, or rather, the method of its discharge would be easier, were it not for our constitutional system which throws generally upon the States the burden of education and leaves to the general government only certain limited jurisdiction with respect to the people. However, in so far as the District of Columbia is concerned, and the establishment of institutions of learning in this District, we are free from any embarrassment with respect to the carrying out of the obligation, and it is fitting that the Government of the United States should assume the obligation of the establishment and maintenance of a first-class University for the education of colored men. I am far from saying—and I wish to put in this caveat in advance, in order not to be met by an argument which has weight but has not weight when improperly used—that the colored race to-day, all of them, would be better off if they all had university education. I think they would be in a very bad way if they had, because they would not know how to use it and they would not find means of using it. No race would be better off if they were all educated as university men. The great body of the colored race, as the great body of the white race, must depend for their livelihood upon their manual labor, skilled or unskilled, or upon some occupation which requires less education than that which is conferred by a university, and if it is too widely extended, the effect of it is to put a lot of men into life who do not find occupations which are suited to their tastes, and to make them unhappy and really not fit for the life which is before them. On the other hand, that admission is far from a concession that it is not necessary for the success of the colored race that there be among them leaders of that race fitted by university education for that leadership. There is not any likelihood, with deference to persons who occupy a different position, that either in the generosity of the general government or in the generosity of individuals who found colored colleges and universities, there is to be such an opportunity given as is likely to lead too many colored men to acquire university education as compared with the number of colored men that there are in the community and especially south of Mason and Dixon's line. The opportunity that there is for educated colored men to aid their race in the struggle before them for economic success and the maintenance of themselves as worthy and valuable members of the community—the opportunity that there is for university men among colored men to assist in that movement, I say is very great indeed.

Through the South one of the things that is essential is the cultivation of greater sanitation and greater attention to the laws of hygiene among the colored race. What they need in the South is a great many more physicians of their own color and race to tell them how to live and to enable them to recover when they are subject to the many sicknesses to which they are subject by reason of the kind of life they lead in the South. I have had occasion to look into it and I am glad to offer to the young doctors to whom I am addressing myself an opportunity for a successful livelihood as physicians in the growing Southern communities where there are so many colored people coming to the front and where physicians well educated are able to make a good livelihood on the one hand, and on the other to do a substantial good to their race.

The benefit that teachers educated here can do to their race goes without saying. Of course, the basis of the education of the colored people is in the primary schools and in the industrial schools—in schools framed after Hampton and Tuskegee and even those less ambitious, but still furnishing an industrial department. In those schools must be introduced teachers from such university institutions as this, and it is in furnishing the material for the faculties of those smaller—not smaller, but less ambitious schools—that such an institution as this shall have its chief function.

Then, too, among the colored race, the ministers have a great influence. Now, if they are to wield that influence they can not be too highly educated; they can not know too much in order that they may carry on their sacred function and discharge it to the highest benefit of the race.

I say these things with a good deal of emphasis because I know there are many who dispute the wisdom of large contributions to universities of the colored race like this, and at one time I was very much perplexed with the argument to know whether or not it was proper. But what is the fact? There are several universities in this country, besides Howard University, devoted to the colored race; those are Lincoln, Fisk, Atlanta, Talladega and Wilberforce, and they have not, taken together, an endowment that exceeds $250,000. Now, when you consider that there are ten millions of Negroes in this country, you see how utterly inadequate, even for the education of the leaders, those universities, together with this, are; and there is opportunity for the founding of more, or certainly for the enlargement of this, as Congress and the people of the United States shall understand the useful part that this institution and institutions like it play in the real uplifting and onward progress of the race.

I am delighted to think, because I have been in the South a good deal of late and have studied some of the conditions there, that they are getting better and better for the Negro race in certain respects that are not published to the world, but that really affect very much the conditions of these who live there. In all the growing communities of the South—I mean where there is a touch of the modern and a touch of progress and a touch of civilization—the white men of progress are beginning to appreciate the advantage of having a class like the colored men that they have there. They are anxious that they have an industrial education. They are anxious that they should make their way in the world and show their usefulness in the community. The truth is that the greatest hope that the Negro has, because he lives chiefly in the South, is the friendship and the sympathy of the white men with whom he lives in that neighborhood. I know it is not the habit to think so, but it is growing, and one of the things that misleads us most is the desperate, the extreme statements of white men from the South on the subject, but really they don't mean what they say. They are the last people that want to be taken literally. They have a theory that it may give them sometimes a little boost politically to talk in extremes and superlatives, but I have heard expressions from leading Negroes in various cities that confirm my judgment that the situation is growing better and better. I remember hearing the Reverend Dr. Walker, that Negro who went abroad and preached in Spurgeon's pulpit and was worthy to preach in that pulpit, express his friendship for the white people of Augusta where I spent five or six weeks, and express his view of the proposition that the Negro race should be moved to some other country than this. He said they were mighty well satisfied to live in Augusta until they went to glory, and that they did not want to go anywhere else until they did go to glory. That is the same sentiment I found in Charlotte and in Petersburg. I don't mean to say that there are not exceptions. I mean to say that those communities that are moving forward are moving forward with a keen eye to progress and that they realize the advantage they have in the presence of the Negro race who are almost their only laborers.

We have a gentleman at the head of the Jeanes trust fund who tells a good story. He said he was in one of the towns—I think it was in North Carolina—where they were bringing in some Italian immigrants and that an old colored man there inquired as to what they were doing. He said they were white men who had come into the country from abroad. "Why," he said, "we's got white men enough already to work for—we can't do no more." Now, the fact is that the progress of the race is outlining itself with great clearness, to me at least, in making itself a useful part of the community where it is, so that it shall not only awaken an altruistic spirit, or spirit of humanity, but, what is a good deal better to tie to, shall awaken the economic spirit of those with whom you live and who value your services as members of the community and know how much you add to its success by being there and being valuable members of that community in accumulation, in your providence and in making the homes that are made in a successful community of Negroes in the South.

It seems to me that the future is in the hands of the race itself. I do not mean to say that cruelties are not to exist in the future, and injustices, and a great many reasons why complaints should be made against the inhumanity of man, but I do mean to say that there never has been a time in the history of the Negro race when the future offered such a basis for belief in your success as a race and for the belief that you have it in your hands to make that success as it is to-day. Everything that I can do as the Executive in the way of helping along this University I expect to do. I expect to do it because I believe it is a debt of the people of the United States, it is an obligation of the Government of the United States, and it is money constitutionally applied to that which shall work out in the end the solution of one of the great problems that God has put upon the people of the United States.

William Howard Taft, Commencement Address at Howard University Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/365241

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