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[168]

Chapter 16: coloured people at school.

At the time of my first visit to Virginia, the Negro had been free about a year, and in the freshness of his freedom showed a spring and go that hinted, not at physical vitality only, but at a power of moral progress. Sam, the waiter, sat up half his night over book and slate. Harry, the labourer, squatted on a waste, and wrung his maize and onion from a blasted heath. Sam walked with me one evening to a score of Negro cabins, where, in dens and garrets, we saw woolly pates bending over desks and dirty fingers pointing at A B C. No city in Virginia had then a public school for either White or Black; but the enfranchised Negro seemed resolved to have such schools as he could make. His schools were small and rude; but the beginnings of many great things have been small and rude. What seemed of consequence was the impulse. [169] White people were then opposed to State schools. The principle was bad. State schools were Yankee notions; only fit for regions like New England, with no ancient gentry and no servile population. First Families were above that sort of thing. A State school meant equality, and if the war had put an end to servitude, equality was still a long way off. The Negro seemed ready to seize an opportunity neglected by the Whites.

That impulse was not sustained long enough for fruit. It was a spark — a flash-and it is gone.

The Whites, grown wiser by events, have founded public schools in every district of the country; schools for White children as well as schools for Black. These schools are free, well built, ably conducted. A father can have his child taught to read and write for nothing; but in a state of freedom, he may either set his child to learn or not. Hardly any White parents neglect to send their child to school, for the necessity of education has been forced on their attention by loss of fortune, fame and power. It is otherwise among the coloured folk. Two Negro parents out of three neglect to send their little folks to school. They will not take [170] the pains. School hours are fixed, school habits orderly; and Negroes find it hard to keep fixed hours and to maintain order in their cabins. If their imps go to school, they must be called betimes, and must be washed and combed. Clothes need making and mending. Meals must be cooked, and the youngsters must be sent out early. Children bring home slates and books, and want a quiet corner for their evening tasks. But where, in the filthy cabins of Jackson's Ward, are they to find quiet nooks? And then, though schools are free, books and slates cost money; and the dollars spent on books and slates are so much taken from the margin left for drams and quids. Improvident fathers find the cost of school a burthen; indolent mothers find the worry of school a great addition to their cares. Such parents sicken at the efforts to be made; a strain from dawn to dusk; a self-denial from year to year; and, in their indolent selfishness, they let their children loiter in the lanes, and wallow in the styes.

The schools are separate: White children in one set, coloured children in another set. They never mix the two classes. Teachers assure you they could not mix the classes if they tried. [171]

Most of the pupils in coloured schools are of Mixed blood; some of them almost White. No sight can well be sadder than to see these little ones sitting on the Negro benches, and to hear their never failing “No,” in answer to the query whether they have a father? Hapless waifs! In five or six coloured schools which we have visited to-day we notice boys and girls as white as any children in New York. You see at once the facts-White father, Quadroon or Octoroon mother-lawless love, abandoned mistress, nameless child.

“Why not allow these children to attend White schools? ”

“We cannot,” answers the inspector. “Colour counts for little, family for much. In the case of every child the facts are known; and if White people were silent, the Negroes would make a row. Negroes who have no dislike to Whites, as such, detest Hybrids and Quadroons; for Hybrids and Quadroons not only despise the Negroes but remind them how many of their young women run after White men rather than Black.”

“ One remembers, in Hayti, that the full-blooded [172] Negroes, fresh from Africa, made their fiercest slaughter among the Mixed breeds.”

“ It is always so,” replies the experienced officer. “In Negro rows, a difference in the shade makes all the difference in the fight. Nearer in blood, sharper in feud.”

In one of the Negro schools we find a girl of nine or ten, with one of the most striking faces I have ever seen. White skin, brown rippling hair, and rosy cheeks are lighted with a pair of blue and wondering eyes. The fair young lady sitting at the teacher's desk is not so fair as this “ coloured” child.

“What a sweet face! Is this girl a Negress, and excluded from an ordinary school?”

“ Yes; her face is apt to take one in. Yet this fair child is the daughter of a Quadroon of bad character, who lives among her people in Jackson Ward. Everybody knows the child's mother; no one knows her father. Yes, her case is sad, but what are we to do? The Negroes claim her. How are we to separate a mother from her child?”

“But surely these white-looking lads will not remain among the coloured folk when they grow up?” [173]

“ Not all. The bolder lads will run away. It will be hard for them to hide the stain of blood; but some are fair enough to pass, if they can only get away to distant parts. In London or in Sydney they might never be unmasked. In America they are sure to fail. Our people are suspicious, and the Negroes keep an eye on fellows who try to dodge. You cannot get beyond their reach. In every town of Canada and the United States, the Mulattoes are a separate class, with signs and tokens of their own. If any one of their community tries to get among the Whites they hunt him down with merciless glee.”

“And girls?”

“ Girls have a harder time than boys, for they have fewer trades to work at, and they cannot earn as much money as men. A man who saves money may be off; but women seldom save enough to pay their fares. And, then, the jealousy is fiercer where a woman is concerned. Negresses watch Quadroons with an unsleeping ire.”

Gifted with such beauty as hers, will this poor little Octoroon, now opening her blue eyes at the fair teacher, stay in the purlieus of Richmond, where [174] her mother lives? If so, will she be too proud of her White face to marry a Black mate; and yet too low in her connections to win a White one? Will she remain deaf to honest love, yet open to irregular proposals? Who, considering how likely all these things are to happen, will not hope that she may fly? Yet, if she flies, what then? Suppose she prove to be as quick in brain as she is fair in face. She may become an artist, singer, actress, authoress. She may conceal her birth of shame, her youth of misery, her taint of blood. She may assume a false name, assert a false nationality. She may be Mademoiselle This, Seiora That; yet fear will dog her steps. At every whisper she will faint, at every exclamation start. Imagine her a queen of song, a popular novelist; with crowds of worshippers at her feet, one favoured more than others; when some school-mate from Virginia comes across her path. “Dat 'oman buffal! Hi, hi, hee! Dat 'oman ole gal-dat 'oman nigger wench!”

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