Read CHAPTER IV - The turning of A worm of Imperium in Imperio: A Study Of The Negro Race Problem, free online book, by Sutton E. Griggs, on

As to who Mr. Tiberius Gracchus Leonard was, or as to where he came from, nobody in Winchester, save himself, knew.

Immediately following the close of the Civil War, Rev. Samuel Christian, a poor but honorable retired minister of the M.E. Church, South, was the first teacher employed to instruct the colored children of the town.

He was one of those Southerners who had never believed in the morality of slavery, but regarded it as a deep rooted evil beyond human power to uproot. When the manacles fell from the hands of the Negroes he gladly accepted the task of removing the scales of ignorance from the blinded eyes of the race.

Tenderly he labored, valiantly he toiled in the midst of the mass of ignorance that came surging around him. But only one brief year was given to this saintly soul to endeavor to blast the mountains of stupidity which centuries of oppression had reared. He fell asleep.

The white men who were trustees of the colored school, were sorely puzzled as to what to do for a successor. A Negro, capable of teaching a school, was nowhere near. White young men of the South, generally, looked upon the work of teaching “niggers” with the utmost contempt; and any man who suggested the name of a white young lady of Southern birth as a teacher for the colored children was actually in danger of being shot by any member of the insulted family who could handle a pistol.

An advertisement was inserted in the Washington Post to the effect that a teacher was wanted. In answer to this advertisement Mr. Leonard came. He was a man above the medium height, and possessed a frame not large but compactly built. His forehead was low and narrow; while the back of his head looked exceedingly intellectual. Looking at him from the front you would involuntarily exclaim: “What an infamous scoundrel.” Looking at him from the rear you would say: “There certainly is brain power in that head.”

The glance of Mr. Leonard’s eye was furtive, and his face was sour looking indeed. At times when he felt that no one was watching him, his whole countenance and attitude betokened the rage of despair.

Most people who looked at him felt that he carried in his bosom a dark secret. As to scholarship, he was unquestionably proficient. No white man in all the neighboring section, ranked with him intellectually. Despite the lack of all knowledge of his moral character and previous life, he was pronounced as much too good a man to fritter away his time on “niggers.”

Such was the character of the man into whose hands was committed the destiny of the colored children of Winchester.

As his mother foresaw would be the case, Belton was singled out by the teacher as a special object on which he might expend his spleen. For a man to be as spiteful as he was, there must have been something gnawing at his heart. But toward Bernard none of this evil spirit was manifested. He seemed to have chosen Bernard for his pet, and Belton for his “pet aversion.” To the one he was all kindness; while to the other he was cruel in the extreme.

Often he would purchase flowers from the florist and give to Bernard to bear home to his mother. On these days he would seemingly take pains to give Belton fresh bruises to take home to his mother. When he had a particularly good dinner he would invite Bernard to dine with him, and would be sure to find some pretext for forbidding Belton to partake of his own common meal.

Belton was by no means insensible to all these acts of discrimination. Nor did Bernard fail to perceive that he, himself, was the teacher’s pet. He clambered on to the teacher’s knees, played with his mustache, and often took his watch and wore it. The teacher seemed to be truly fond of him.

The children all ascribed this partiality to the color of Bernard’s skin, and they all, except Belton, began to envy and despise Bernard. Of course they told their parents of the teacher’s partiality and their parents thus became embittered against the teacher. But however much they might object to him and desire his removal, their united protests would not have had the weight of a feather. So the teacher remained at Winchester for twelve years. During all these years he instructed our young friends Belton and Bernard.

Strangely enough, his ardent love for Bernard and his bitter hatred of Belton accomplished the very same result in respect to their acquirements. The teacher soon discovered that both boys were talented far beyond the ordinary, and that both were ambitious. He saw that the way to wound and humiliate Belton was to make Bernard excel him. Thus he bent all of his energies to improve Bernard’s mind. Whenever he heard Belton recite he brought all of his talents to bear to point out his failures, hoping thus to exalt Bernard, out of whose work he strove to keep all blemishes. Thus Belton became accustomed to the closest scrutiny, and prepared himself accordingly. The result was that Bernard did not gain an inch on him.

The teacher introduced the two boys into every needed field of knowledge, as they grew older, hoping always to find some branch in which Bernard might display unquestioned superiority. There were two studies in which the two rivals dug deep to see which could bring forth the richest treasures; and these gave coloring to the whole of their afterlives. One, was the History of the United States, and the other, Rhetoric.

In history, that portion that charmed them most was the story of the rebellion against the yoke of England. Far and wide they went in search of everything that would throw light on this epoch. They became immersed in the spirit of that heroic age.

As a part of their rhetorical training they were taught to declaim. Thanks to their absorption in the history of the Revolution, their minds ran to the sublime in literature; and they strove to secure pieces to declaim that recited the most heroic deeds of man, of whatever nationality.

Leonidas, Marco Bozarris, Arnold Winklereid, Louis Kossuth, Robert Emmett, Martin Luther, Patrick Henry and such characters furnished the pieces almost invariably declaimed. They threw their whole souls into these, and the only natural thing resulted. No human soul can breathe the atmosphere of heroes and read with bated breath their deeds of daring without craving for the opportunity to do the like. Thus the education of these two young men went on.

At the expiration of twelve years they had acquired an academic education that could not be surpassed anywhere in the land. Their reputation as brilliant students and eloquent speakers had spread over the whole surrounding country.

The teacher decided to graduate the young men; and he thought to utilize the occasion as a lasting humiliation of Belton and exaltation of his favorite, Bernard Belgrave. Belton felt this.

In the first part of this last school year of the boys, he had told them to prepare for a grand commencement exercise, and they acted accordingly. Each one chose his subject and began the preparation of his oration early in the session, each keeping his subject and treatment secret from the other.

The teacher had announced that numerous white citizens would be present; among them the congressman from the district and the mayor of the town. Belton determined upon two things, away down in his soul. He determined to win in the oratorical contest, and to get his revenge on his teacher on the day that the teacher had planned for his (Belton’s) humiliation. Bernard did not have the incentive that Belton did; but defeat was ever galling to him, and he, too, had determined to win.

The teacher often reviewed the progress made by Bernard on his oration, but did not notice Belton’s at all. He strove to make Bernard’s oration as nearly perfect as labor and skill could make it. But Belton was not asleep as to either of the resolutions he had formed. Some nights he could be seen stealing away from the congressman’s residence. On others he could be seen leaving the neighborhood of the school, with a spade in one hand and a few carpenter’s tools in the other.

He went to the congressman, who was a polished orator with a national reputation, in order that he might purge his oration from its impurities of speech. As the congressman read the oration and perceived the depth of thought, the logical arrangement, the beauty and rhythm of language, and the wide research displayed, he opened his eyes wide with astonishment. He was amazed that a young man of such uncommon talents could have grown up in his town and he not know it. Belton’s marvelous talents won his respect and admiration, and he gave him access to his library and criticized his oration whenever needed.

Secretly and silently preparations went on for the grand conflict. At last the day came. The colored men and women of the place laid aside all work to attend the exercises. The forward section of seats was reserved for the white people. The congressman, the mayor, the school trustees and various other men of standing came, accompanied by their wives and daughters.

Scholars of various grades had parts to perform on the programme, but the eyes of all sought the bottom of the page where were printed the names of the two oratorical gladiators:

“Belton Piedmont.
Bernard Belgrave.”

The teacher had given Bernard the last place, deeming that the more advantageous. He appointed the congressman, the mayor, and one of the school trustees to act as judges, to decide to whom he should award a beautiful gold medal for the more excellent oration. The congressman politely declined and named another trustee in his stead. Then the contest began. As Belton walked up on the platform the children greeted him with applause. He announced as his subject: “The Contribution of the Anglo-Saxon to the Cause of Human Liberty.” In his strong, earnest voice, he began to roll off his well turned periods. The whole audience seemed as if in a trance. His words made their hearts burn, and time and again he made them burst forth in applause.

The white people who sat and listened to his speech looked upon it as a very revelation to them, they themselves not having had as clear a conception of the glory of their race as this Negro now revealed. When he had finished, white men and women crowded to the front to congratulate him upon his effort, and it was many minutes before quiet was restored sufficiently to allow the programme to proceed.

Bernard took his position on the platform, announcing as his subject: “Robert Emmett.” His voice was sweet and well modulated and never failed to charm. Admiration was plainly depicted on every face as he proceeded. He brought to bear all the graces of a polished orator, and more than once tears came into the eyes of his listeners. Particularly affecting was his description of Emmett’s death. At the conclusion it was evident that his audience felt that it would have been difficult to have handled that subject better.

The judges now retired to deliberate as to whom to give the prize. While they are out, let us examine Belton’s plans for carrying out the second thing, upon the accomplishment of which he was determined; viz., revenge.

In the rear of the schoolhouse, there stood an old wood-shed. For some slight offence the teacher had, two or three years back, made Belton the fire-maker for the balance of his school life instead of passing the task around according to custom. Thus the care of the wood-house had fallen permanently to Belton’s lot.

During the last year Belton had dug a large hole running from the floor of the wood-shed to a point under the platform of the school room. The dirt from this underground channel he cast into a deep old unused well, not far distant. Once under the platform, he kept on digging, making the hole larger by far. Numerous rocks abounded in the neighborhood, and these he used to wall up his underground room, so that it would hold water. Just in the middle of the school-room platform he cut, from beneath, a square hole, taking in the spot where the teacher invariably stood when addressing the school. He cut the boards until they lacked but a very little, indeed, of being cut through. All looked well above, but a baby would not be safe standing thereon. Belton contrived a kind of prop with a weight attached. This prop would serve to keep the cut section from breaking through. The attached weight was at rest in a hole left in the wall of the cavity near its top. If you dislocated the weight, the momentum that it would gather in the fall would pull down the prop to which it was attached.

Finally, Belton fastened a strong rope to the weight, and ran the rope under the schoolhouse floor until it was immediately beneath his seat. With an auger he made a hole in the floor and brought the end through. He managed to keep this bit of rope concealed, while at the same time he had perfect command of his trap door.

For two or three nights previous to commencement day Belton had worked until nearly morning filling this cistern with water. Now when through delivering his oration, he had returned to his seat to await the proper moment for the payment of his teacher. The judges were out debating the question as to who had won. They seemed to be unable to decide who was victorious and beckoned for the teacher to step outside.

They said: “That black nigger has beat the yellow one all to pieces this time, but we don’t like to see nigger blood triumph over any Anglo-Saxon blood. Ain’t there any loop-hole where we can give it to Bernard, anyhow?”

“Well, yes,” said the teacher eagerly, “on the ground of good behavior.”

“There you hit it,” said the Mayor. “So we all decide.”

The judges filed in, and the Mayor arose to announce their decision. “We award,” said he to the breathless audience, “the prize to Bernard Belgrave.”

“No! no! no!” burst forth from persons all over the house. The congressman arose and went up to Belton and congratulated him upon his triumph over oratory, and lamented his defeat by prejudice. This action caused a perceptible stir in the entire audience.

The teacher went to his desk and produced a large gold medal. He took his accustomed place on the platform and began thus:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the proudest moment of my life.” He got no further. Belton had pulled the rope, the rope had caused the weight to fall, and the weight had pulled the prop and down had gone the teacher into a well of water.

“Murder! Murder! Murder!” he cried “Help! Help! Help! I am drowning. Take me out, it is cold.”

The audience rushed forward expecting to find the teacher in a dangerous situation; but they found him standing, apparently unharmed, in a cistern, the water being a little more than waist deep. Their fright gave way to humor and a merry shout went up from the throats of the scholars.

The colored men and women laughed to one side, while the white people smiled as though they had admired the feat as a fine specimen of falling from the sublime to the ridiculous. Bending down over the well, the larger students caught hold of the teacher’s arms and lifted him out.

He stood before the audience wet and shivering, his clothes sticking to him, and water dripping from his hair. The medal was gone. The teacher dismissed the audience, drew his last month’s pay and left that night for parts unknown.

Sometimes, even a worm will turn when trodden upon.