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Up from Slavery: An Autobiography

A Harder Task Than Making Bricks Without Straw
From the very beginning, at Tuskegee, I was determined to have the students do not only
the agricultural and domestic work, but to have them erect their own buildings. My plan
was to have them, while performing this service, taught the latest and best methods of
labour, so that the school would not only get the benefit of their efforts, but the students
themselves would be taught to see not only utility in labour, but beauty and dignity;
would be taught, in fact, how to lift labour up from mere drudgery and toil, and would
learn to love work for its own sake. My plan was not to teach them to work in the old
way, but to show them how to make the forces of nature--air, water, steam, electricity,
horse-power--assist them in their labour.
At first many advised against the experiment of having the buildings erected by the
labour of the students, but I was determined to stick to it. I told those who doubted the
wisdom of the plan that I knew that our first buildings would not be so comfortable or so
complete in their finish as buildings erected by the experienced hands of outside
workmen, but that in the teaching of civilization, self-help, and self-reliance, the erection
of buildings by the students themselves would more than compensate for any lack of
comfort or fine finish.
I further told those who doubted the wisdom of this plan, that the majority of our students
came to us in poverty, from the cabins of the cotton, sugar, and rice plantations of the
South, and that while I knew it would please the students very much to place them at
once in finely constructed buildings, I felt that it would be following out a more natural
process of development to teach them how to construct their own buildings. Mistakes I
knew would be made, but these mistakes would teach us valuable lessons for the future.
During the now nineteen years' existence of the Tuskegee school, the plan of having the
buildings erected by student labour has been adhered to. In this time forty buildings,
counting small and large, have been built, and all except four are almost wholly the
product of student labour. As an additional result, hundreds of men are now scattered
throughout the South who received their knowledge of mechanics while being taught how
to erect these buildings. Skill and knowledge are now handed down from one set of
students to another in this way, until at the present time a building of any description or
size can be constructed wholly by our instructors and students, from the drawing of the
plans to the putting in of the electric fixtures, without going off the grounds for a single
Not a few times, when a new student has been led into the temptation of marring the
looks of some building by leadpencil marks or by the cuts of a jack-knife, I have heard an
old student remind him: "Don't do that. That is our building. I helped put it up."
In the early days of the school I think my most trying experience was in the matter of
brickmaking. As soon as we got the farm work reasonably well started, we directed our
next efforts toward the industry of making bricks. We needed these for use in connection