Read Chapter XIII of Trial and Triumph, free online book, by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, on

“What a fool he is to refuse my offer,” thought the saloon-keeper. “What a pity it is,” said Mr. Thomas to himself, “that a man of his education and ability should be engaged in such accursed business.”

After refusing the saloonkeeper’s offer Mr. Thomas found a job of work. It was not a job congenial to his feelings, but his motto was, “If I do not see an opening I will make one.” After he had turned from Mr. Englishman’s workshop, burning with a sense of wrong which he felt powerless to overcome, he went on the levee and looked around to see if any work might be picked up by him as a day laborer. He saw a number of men singing, joking and plying their tasks with nimble feet and apparently no other care upon their minds than meeting the demands of the present hour, and for a moment he almost envied their lightheartedness, and he thought within himself, where all men are born blind, no man misses the light. These men are contented with privileges, and I who have fitted myself for a different sphere in life, am chaffing because I am denied rights. The right to sell my labor in any workshop in this city same as the men of other nationalities, and to receive with them a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work. But he was strong and healthy and he was too high spirited to sit moping at home depending upon his mother to divide with him her scanty means till something should turn up. The first thing that presented itself to him was the job of helping unload a boat which had landed at the wharf, and a hand was needed to assist in unloading her. Mr. Thomas accepted the position and went to work and labored manfully at the unaccustomed task. That being finished the merchant for whom he had done the work, hired him to labor in his warehouse. He showed himself very handy in making slight repairs when needed and being ready to turn his hand to any service out of his routine of work, hammering a nail, adjusting a disordered lock and showing a general concern in his employer’s interests. One day his employer had engaged a carpenter to make him a counter, but the man instead of attending to his work had been off on a drunken spree, and neglected to do the job. The merchant, vexed at the unnecessary delay, said to Mr. Thomas in a bantering manner, “I believe you can do almost anything, couldn’t you make this counter?”

Mr. Thomas answered quite modestly, “I believe I could if I had my tools.”

“Tools! What do you mean by tools?”

Mr. Thomas told him how he learned to be a carpenter in the South and how he had tried so unsuccessfully in the North to get an opportunity to work at his trade until discouraged with the attempt, he had made up his mind to take whatever work came to hand till he could see farther.

The merchant immediately procured the materials and set Mr. Thomas to work, who in a short time finished the counter, and showed by his workmanship that he was an excellent carpenter. The merchant pleased with his work and satisfied with his ability, entrusted him with the erection of a warehouse and, strange as it may appear, some of those men who were too proud or foolish to work with him as a fellow laborer, were humble enough to work under him as journeymen. When he was down they were ready to kick him down. When he was up they were ready to receive his helping hand. Mr. Thomas soon reached that “tide in his affairs which taken at the flood leads on to fortune.” Against the odds which were against him his pluck and perseverance prevailed, and he was enabled not only to build up a good business for himself, but also to help others, and to teach them by his own experience not to be too easily discouraged, but to trust to pluck more than luck, and learn in whatever capacity they were employed to do their work heartily as unto the Lord and not unto men.

Anxious to do what she could to benefit the community in which she lived, Mrs. Lasette threw open her parlors for the gathering together of the best thinkers and workers of the race, who choose to avail themselves of the privilege of meeting to discuss any question of vital importance to the welfare of the colored people of the nation. Knowing the entail of ignorance which slavery had left them, she could not be content by shutting up herself to mere social enjoyments within the shadow of her home. And often the words would seem to ring within her soul, “my people is destroyed for lack of knowledge,” and with those words would come the question, am I doing what I can to dispel the darkness which has hung for centuries around our path? I have been blessed with privileges which were denied others; I sat ’mid the light of knowledge when some of my ill-fated sisters did not know what it was to see daylight in their cabins from one week’s end to the other. Sometimes when she met with coldness and indifference where she least expected it, she would grow sad but would not yield to discouragement. Her heart was in the right place. “Freely she had received and freely she would give.” It was at one of Mrs. Lasette’s gatherings that Mr. Thomas met Rev. Mr. Lomax on whose church he had been refused a place, and Mr. Thurman, a tradesman who also had been ousted from his position through pride of caste and who had gone into another avocation, and also Charley Cooper, of whom we have lost sight for a number of years. He is now a steady and prosperous young man, a constant visitor at Mrs. Lasette’s. Rumor says that Mrs. Lasette’s bright-eyed and lovely daughter is the magnet which attracts him to their pleasant home. Rev. Lomax has also been absent for several years on other charges, but when he meets Mr. Thomas, the past flows back and the incidents of their latest interviews naturally take their place in the conversation. “It has been some time since we met,” said Mr. Thomas, heartily shaking the minister’s hand.

“How has life used you since last we met?” said Rev. Lomax to Mr. Thomas. “Are you well?”

“Perfectly well, I have had a varied experience since I met you, but I have no reason to complain, and I think my experience has been invaluable to me, and with this larger experience and closer observation, I feel that I am more able to help others, and that, I feel, has been one of my most valued acquirements. I sometimes think of members of our people in some directions as sheep without a shepherd, and I do wish from the bottom of my heart that I knew the best way to help them.”

“You do not,” said the minister, somewhat anxiously, “ignore the power of the pulpit.”

“No, I do not; I only wish it had tenfold force. I wish we had ten thousand ministers like Oberlin who was not ashamed to take the lead in opening a road from Bande Roche to Strasburgh, a distance of several miles to bring his parishioners in contact with the trade and business of a neighboring village. I hope the time will come when every minister in building a church which he consecrates to the worship of God will build alongside of it or under the same roof, parish buildings or rooms to be dedicated to the special wants of our people in their peculiar condition.”

“I do wish, Brother Lomax, those costly buildings which you erect will cover more needs and wants of our people than some of them do now.”

“What would you have in them?”

“I would have a parish building to every church, and I would have in them an evening home for boys. I would have some persons come in and teach them different handicrafts, so as at least to give them an opportunity to be more expert in learning how to use their hands. I would have that building a well warmed and well lighted room in winter, where all should be welcome to come and get a sandwich and a warm cup of tea or coffee and a hot bowl of soup, and if the grogshops were selling liquor for five cents, I would sell the soup for three or four cents, with a roll. I would have a room reserved for such ladies as Mrs. Lasette, who are so willing to help, for the purpose of holding mother’s meetings. I would try to have the church the great centre of moral, spiritual and intellectual life for the young, and try to present counter attractions to the debasing influence of the low grogshops, gambling dens and houses of ill fame.”

“Part of our city (ought I confine myself to saying part of the city) has not the whole city been cursed by rum? But I now refer to a special part. I have seen church after church move out of that part of the city where the nuisance and curse were so rife, but I never, to my knowledge, heard of one of those churches offering to build a reading room and evening home for boys, or to send out paid and sustained by their efforts, a single woman to go into rum-cursed homes and teach their inmates a more excellent way. I would have in that parish building the most earnest men and women to come together and consult and counsel with each other on the best means to open for ourselves, doors which are still closed against us.”

“I am sure,” said the minister, “I am willing to do what I can for the temporal and spiritual welfare of our people, and in this I have the example of the great Physician who did not consider it beneath him to attend to physical maladies as well as spiritual needs, and who did not consider the synagogue too holy, nor the Sabbath day too sacred to administer to the destitute and suffering.”

“I was very sorry when I found out, Brother Thomas, that I could not have you employed on my church, but I do not see what else I could have done except submit.”

“That was all you could have done in that stage of the work when I applied, and I do not wish to bestow the slightest censure on you or the trustees of your church, but I think, if when you were about to build had you advertised for competent master-builders in the South, that you could have gotten enough to have built the church without having employed Mr. Hoog the master-builder. Had you been able to have gone to him and said, ’we are about to build a church and it is more convenient for us to have it done by our citizens than to send abroad for laborers. We are in communication with a colored master builder in Kentucky, who is known as an efficient workman and who would be glad to get the job, and if your men refuse to work with a colored man our only alternative will be to send for colored carpenters and put the building in their hands.’ Do you think he would have refused a thirty thousand dollar job just because some of his men refused to work with colored men? I think the greater portion of his workmen would have held their prejudices in abeyance rather than let a thirty thousand dollar job slip out of their hands. Now here is another thing in which I think united effort could have effected something. Now, here is my friend Mr. Thurman; he was a saddler versed in both branches of harness making. For awhile he got steady work in a saddler’s shop, but the prejudice against him was so great that his employer was forced to dismiss him. He took work home, but that did not heal the dissatisfaction, and at last he gave it up and went to well-digging. Now, there were colored men in that place who could have, as I think, invested some money in buying material and helped him, not as a charity, but as a mere business operation to set up a place for himself; he had the skill; they had the money, and had they united both perhaps to-day there would be a flourishing business carried on by the man who is now digging wells for a living. I do hope that some time there will be some better modes of communication between us than we now possess; that a labor bureau will be established not as a charity among us, but as a business with capable and efficient men who will try to find out the different industries that will employ men irrespective of color and advertise and find steady and reliable colored men to fill them. Colored men in the South are largely employed in raising cotton and other produce; why should there not be more openings in the South for colored men to handle the merchandize and profit by it?”

“What hinders?” said Rev. Lomax.

“I will not say what hinders, but I will say what I think you can try to do to help. Teach our young to dedicate their young lives to the noble service of devoting them to the service of our common cause; to throw away their cigars, dash down the foaming beer and sparkling wine and strive to be more like those of whom it was said, ’I write unto you, young men, because you are strong.’”