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Up from Slavery: An Autobiography

The Reconstruction Period
The years from 1867 to 1878 I think may be called the period of Reconstruction. This
included the time that I spent as a student at Hampton and as a teacher in West Virginia.
During the whole of the Reconstruction period two ideas were constantly agitating in the
minds of the coloured people, or, at least, in the minds of a large part of the race. One of
these was the craze for Greek and Latin learning, and the other was a desire to hold
office.
It could not have been expected that a people who had spent generations in slavery, and
before that generations in the darkest heathenism, could at first form any proper
conception of what an education meant. In every part of the South, during the
Reconstruction period, schools, both day and night, were filled to overflowing with
people of all ages and conditions, some being as far along in age as sixty and seventy
years. The ambition to secure an education was most praiseworthy and encouraging. The
idea, however, was too prevalent that, as soon as one secured a little education, in some
unexplainable way he would be free from most of the hardships of the world, and, at any
rate, could live without manual labour. There was a further feeling that a knowledge,
however little, of the Greek and Latin languages would make one a very superior human
being, something bordering almost on the supernatural. I remember that the first coloured
man whom I saw who knew something about foreign languages impressed me at the time
as being a man of all others to be envied.
Naturally, most of our people who received some little education became teachers or
preachers. While among those two classes there were many capable, earnest, godly men
and women, still a large proportion took up teaching or preaching as an easy way to make
a living. Many became teachers who could do little more than write their names. I
remember there came into our neighbourhood one of this class, who was in search of a
school to teach, and the question arose while he was there as to the shape of the earth and
how he could teach the children concerning the subject. He explained his position in the
matter by saying that he was prepared to teach that the earth was either flat or round,
according to the preference of a majority of his patrons.
The ministry was the profession that suffered most--and still suffers, though there has
been great improvement--on account of not only ignorant but in many cases immoral men
who claimed that they were "called to preach." In the earlier days of freedom almost
every coloured man who learned to read would receive "a call to preach" within a few
days after he began reading. At my home in West Virginia the process of being called to
the ministry was a very interesting one. Usually the "call" came when the individual was
sitting in church. Without warning the one called would fall upon the floor as if struck by
a bullet, and would lie there for hours, speechless and motionless. Then the news would
spread all through the neighborhood that this individual had received a "call." If he were
inclined to resist the summons, he would fall or be made to fall a second or third time. In
the end he always yielded to the call. While I wanted an education badly, I confess that in
 
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