On the 20th of August, 1910, I sailed from New York City for Liverpool, England. I had been given a leave of absence of two months from my work at Tuskegee, on condition that I would spend that time in some way that would give me recreation and rest.
Now I have found that about the only comfortable and satisfactory way for me to rest is to find some new kind of work or occupation. I determined therefore to carry out a plan I had long had in mind of making myself acquainted with the condition of the poorer and working classes in Europe, particularly in those regions from which an ever-increasing number of immigrants are coming to our country each year.
There have been a number of efforts made in recent years to divert a portion of this immigration to the Southern States, and these efforts have been the source of wide differences of opinion in the South. Some people have contended that in these immigrants the Southern people would eventually find a substitute for the Negro labourer and that in this direction a solution for the race problem would be found. In some parts of the South, in fact, the experiment of using immigrants from Europe to take the place of the Negro on the sugar plantations and in the cotton fields has been tried. Naturally I have been interested in these experiments and as a consequence in the peoples with whom the experiments have been tried.
The best way to get acquainted with an individual, or with a people, according to my experience, is to visit them at their work and in their homes, and in this way find out what is back of them.
So it was that I determined to make use of my stay in Europe to visit the people in their homes, to talk with them at their work, and to find out everything I could, not only in regard to their present situation, but also in regard to their future prospects, opportunities, hopes, and ambitions.
I was curious, for one thing, to learn why it was that so many of these European people were leaving the countries in which they were born and reared, in order to seek their fortunes in a new country and among strangers in a distant part of the world, and to this question I think I may say that I have found, in a general way, an answer. One general fact, at any rate, in regard to this matter of emigration, I may, perhaps, without attempting to go into details, mention here at the outset. It is this:
The majority of the people who reach this country as immigrants from Europe are, as one might expect, from the farming regions. They are farm labourers or tenant farmers. Now there exists, as I discovered, a very definite relation between the condition of agriculture and the agricultural peoples in Europe and the extent of emigration to this country. In other words, wherever in any part of Europe I found the condition of agriculture and the situation of the farm labourers at their worst, there I almost invariably found emigration at the highest. On the other hand, wherever I visited a part of the country where emigration had, in recent years, decreased, there I quite as invariably found that the situation of the man on the soil had improved.
What interested me still more was the fact that this improvement had been, to a very large extent, brought about through the influence of schools. Agricultural education has stimulated an intensive culture of the soil; this in turn has helped to multiply the number of small land owners and stimulate the organization of agriculture; the resulting prosperity has made itself felt not only in the country but in the cities. For example, I found that where the people were prosperous and contented in the country, there were fewer idle, discontented, starving and criminal people in the cities. It is just as true of the poorer and labouring classes in Europe as it is of the Negro in the South: that most of the problems that arise in the cities have their roots in the country.
Another matter in regard to which I hoped to get some first-hand information during my stay abroad was what I may call the European, as distinguished from the American, race problem. I knew that in the south of Europe a number of races of widely different origin and characteristics had been thrown together in close contact and in large numbers, and I suspected that in this whirlpool of contending races and classes I should find problems — race problems and educational problems — different, to be sure, but quite as complicated, difficult and interesting as in our own country.
While every race and every nation must solve its own problems in its own way, and for that reason it is not possible to make any very extended comparison between the race problems of Europe and of America, there is, at least, a certain advantage in knowing that other nations and other peoples have problems within their national life which are quite as difficult and perplexing as our own.
We sometimes think and speak of the conditions existing in our own country as if they were wholly exceptional and without parallel in other parts of the world. My stay in Europe has convinced me that we are not worse off in America in this respect than other peoples. Even if they had the choice, I do not believe, for instance, that the Southern people, black or white, would be willing to exchange their own troubles, such as they are, for those of any other nation or group of people in Europe or elsewhere.
There was another thing that made the trip I had outlined peculiarly attractive to me: I believed that I would find in some parts of Europe peoples who in respect to education, opportunity, and civilization generally were much nearer the level of the masses of the Negro people in the South than I was likely to find anywhere in America. I believed, also, that if I went far enough and deep enough I should find even in Europe great numbers of people who, in their homes, in their labour, and in their manner of living, were little, if any, in advance of the Negroes in the Southern States, and I wanted to study at first hand, as far as I was able, the methods which European nations were using to uplift the masses of the people who were at the bottom in the scale of civilization.
In view of the rather elaborate plan I have sketched, I am certain that some of my readers will wonder how I expected to be able, in the eight weeks to which my vacation was limited, to cover all the ground or get any definite or satisfactory notions in regard to the special matters which interested me in the places I proposed to visit. It seems to me, therefore, that I ought to say something, by way of explanation and introduction, as to just how this journey was made and in regard to the manner in which the impressions and facts which make up the remainder of this book were obtained.