The Man Farthest Down
Category: History
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Booker T. Washington was born into slavery. He became an American author, speaker, teacher, and adviser to presidents. The Man Farthest Down, published in 1912, is an account of Washington's time in Europe. When Washington sets off for a vacation, he realizes he can only rest by finding work to do. He sets out to meet and learn about the life of the lower classes in Europe.

The Man Farthest Down

A Record of Observation and Study in Europe

Booker T. Washington

with the collaboration of
Robert E. Park

The Man Farthest Down

Chapter I
Hunting the Man Farthest Down

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.

In the first place, it should be remembered that I was looking in all the different countries I visited for one class of facts and seeking to make myself familiar with merely one phase of life. During the whole course of this journey, therefore, I kept myself religiously from the temptation that was constantly offered to look at anything, however important and interesting, that did not concern itself with the purpose of my journey.

In the second place, I found that, while there were great differences to be observed in the condition of the different peoples whom I visited, there were, also, many broad similarities. I found, for example, that what I learned in London was very useful and valuable to me, by way of comparison, in studying and observing what I wanted to see in Copenhagen and in Denmark. I found that the things I observed among the peasants of Italy were a great help to me when I reached Austria and was able to compare the conditions of the farming population in these two different countries. The result was that the farther I went and the more familiar I became with the general situation of the labouring classes, the more I gained in insight and understanding of all that I saw.

In fact I am convinced that if there is anything of special value in the studies and observations that I have set down in this book it will be found, not so much in the facts themselves, as in the attempt to bring them together into a single point of view.

One of the first things I learned in Europe was the difficulty of meeting the ordinary man and seeing and getting acquainted with the matters of everyday life. I soon discovered that the most difficult things to see are not the sights that every one goes to look at, but the commonplace things that no one sees. In order to carry out the plan I had in mind it was necessary for me to leave the ordinary beaten track of European travel and to plunge into regions which have not been charted and mapped, and where ordinary guides and guide-books are of little or no avail.

As a matter of fact, I found less difficulty in this respect in London than I did on the Continent, where it seemed to me that railways, guides, guide-books, and the friends I met on the way were in a conspiracy to compel me to see the things I did not want to see, and to prevent me from seeing all the things that I did want to see.

For example, I had registered a firm resolution, before I sailed from America, that if I could prevent it I would not enter a single palace, museum, gallery, or cathedral. I succeeded partly in living up to this resolution. When I reached Cracow in Poland, however, my fate overtook me. I had heard a great deal of the ancient salt mines of Wieliczka. I knew that in many places women were employed side by side with the men in loading and carrying out the products of the mines, and for this reason, and because I had myself at one time been a miner in America, I was very anxious to see how the work was carried on in Europe.

The salt mines are about ten miles from Cracow, and in order to reach them I found it necessary to take a carriage. At the entrance to the mines I was surprised to find a large number of sightseers waiting to go down in the shaft, and a dark suspicion crossed my mind that I had made a mistake. My worst suspicions were confirmed when, after descending some two or three hundred feet below the surface, I found myself suddenly ushered into an ancient underground chapel. The place was beautifully lighted and decorated with glistening figures which had been hewn from solid blocks of salt by the pious miners who had worked in these mines some three or four hundred years before.

From this chapel we again descended, through a dark, damp passageway, into still another and then another large, elaborately decorated and brilliantly lighted chapel. In one of these we ran upon a great crowd of several hundred people carrying lighted torches and accompanied by a brass band. They were peasants who were making an annual pilgrimage to the mine for the purpose of visiting the underground chapels, which have acquired a wide fame in the surrounding country.

For two or three hours we wandered on from one large chamber to another, going deeper and deeper into the mine, but never coming, as near as I could see, any nearer to the miners. Finally it began to dawn upon me that, so far from being in an actual salt mine, I was really in a sort of underground museum. There were chapels and monuments and crowds of people in holiday attire; there were lights and music and paper lanterns, but there was nothing that would in any way remind you of the actual daily life of the miners that I had come there to see; in fact, the only miners with whom I came in contact were those who acted as guides or played in the band. It was all very strange and very interesting, and there was, I learned, no possible means of escape.

From what I have already said I fear that some of my readers will feel, as a great many people whom I met abroad did, that in my journey across Europe I must have gained a very unfortunate and one-sided view of the countries and the peoples I visited. It will seem to them, perhaps, that I was looking for everything that was commonplace or bad in the countries I visited, and avoiding everything that was extraordinary or in any way worth looking at. My only excuse is that I was, in fact, not looking for the best, but for the worst; I was hunting for the man farthest down.

Most people who travel in Europe seem to me to be chiefly interested in two sorts of things: They want to see what is old, and they want to see what is dead. The regular routes of travel run through palaces, museums, art galleries, ancient ruins, monuments, churches, and graveyards.

I have never been greatly interested in the past, for the past is something that you cannot change. I like the new, the unfinished and the problematic. My experience is that the man who is interested in living things must seek them in the grime and dirt of everyday life. To be sure, the things one sees there are not always pleasant, but the people one meets are interesting, and if they are sometimes among the worst they are also frequently among the best people in the world. At any rate, wherever there is struggle and effort there is life.

I have referred to the way in which I tried and, to a reasonable extent, succeeded in confining my observations to a certain definite point of view. Aside from this I had certain other advantages upon this expedition in finding what I wanted to see and avoiding the things I did not want to see, without which I certainly could neither have covered the ground I did, nor have found my way to so many things that had for me special and peculiar interest. Some years ago I made the acquaintance, in Boston, of Dr. Robert E. Park, who has for some time past assisted me in my work at Tuskegee. At the time I first met him Doctor Park was interested in the movement to bring about a reform of the conditions then existing in the Congo Free State in Africa; in fact, he was at that time secretary of the Congo Reform Association, and it was through his efforts to interest me in that movement that I came to know him. He had a notion, as he explained to me, that the conditions of the natives in the Congo, as well as in other parts of Africa, could not be permanently improved only through a system of education, somewhat similar to that at Hampton and Tuskegee. The Congo Reform Association, as he explained, was engaged in a work of destruction, but what interested him chiefly was what should be done in the way of construction or reconstruction after the work of destruction was completed. We had frequent conversations upon the subject, and it was in this way that he finally became interested in the work that was being done for the Negro in the Southern States. Since that time he has spent the larger part of every year in the South, assisting me in my work at Tuskegee and using the opportunity thus offered to study what is called the Negro problem. The reason I make this statement here is because Doctor Park was not only my companion in all of my trip through Europe, but he also went to Europe some months in advance of me and thus had an opportunity to study the situation and make it possible for me to see more in a short space of time than I could otherwise have been able to do. In this and in other ways he has been largely responsible for what appears in this book.

For instance, it was Doctor Park who studied out the general plans and details of our trip. He acted, also, not merely as a companion but as a guide and interpreter. He assisted me also in getting hold of the documents and literature in the different countries we visited which enabled me to correct the impressions I had formed on the spot and to supplement them with the facts and statistics in regard to the conditions we had observed.

In several directions Doctor Park was peculiarly fitted for giving me this sort of assistance. In the first place, during the years he had been at Tuskegee he had become thoroughly acquainted with conditions in the Southern States and, in the course of the journey of observation and study on which he had accompanied me, we had become thoroughly acquainted with each other, so that he understood not only what I desired, but what it was important for me to see in Europe.

In the second place, shortly before I met him, Doctor Park had just returned from four years of study in Europe. He was familiar with much of the ground we intended to cover and at the same time spoke the language which was of greatest use in most of the countries we visited — namely, German.

Two people travelling together can, under any circumstances, see and learn a great deal more than one. When it comes to travelling in a new and unfamiliar country this is emphatically true. For this reason a large part of what I saw and learned about Europe is due directly to the assistance of Doctor Park. Our method of procedure was about as follows: When we reached a city or other part of the country which we wished to study we would usually start out together. I had a notebook in which I jotted down on the spot what I saw that interested me, and Doctor Park, who had had experience as a newspaper reporter, used his eyes and ears. Then in the course of our long stretches of railway travel we compared notes and comments and sifted, as thoroughly as we were able, the facts and observations we had been able to gather. Then as soon as we reached a large city I got hold of a stenographer and dictated, as fully as I was able, the story of what we had seen and learned. In doing this I used Doctor Park’s observations, I suppose, quite as much as I did my own. In fact, I do not believe I am able to say now how much of what I have written is based upon my own personal observations and what is based upon those of Doctor Park. Thus, it should be remembered that although this book is written throughout in the first person it contains the observations of two different individuals.

In another direction Doctor Park has contributed to make this book what it is. While I was dictating my own account of our adventures he would usually spend the time hunting through the book stores and libraries for any books or information which would throw any light on the matter in which we were interested. The result was that we returned with nearly a trunk-ful of books, papers, and letters which we had obtained in different places and from different people we met. With these documents Doctor Park then set to work to straighten out and complete the matter that I had dictated, filling in and adding to what I had written. The chapters which follow are the result.

I set out from America, as I have said, to find the man farthest down. In a period of about six weeks I visited parts of England, Scotland, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Sicily, Poland, and Denmark. I spent some time among the poorer classes of London and in several cities in Austria and Italy. I investigated, to a certain extent, the condition of the agricultural populations in Sicily, in Bohemia, Poland, and Denmark. I saw much that was sad and depressing, but I saw much, also, that was hopeful and inspiring. Bad as conditions are in some places, I do not think I visited any place where things are not better now than they were some years ago.

I found also that the connection between Europe and America is much closer and more intimate than I had imagined. I am sure that very few persons in this country realize the extent to which America has touched and influenced the masses of the people in Europe. I think it is safe to say that no single influence which is to-day tending to change and raise the condition of the working people in the agricultural regions of southern Europe is greater than the constant stream of emigration which is pouring out of Europe into America and back again into Europe. It should be remembered that not only do large numbers of these people emigrate to America, but many of these emigrants return and bring with them not only money to buy lands, but new ideas, higher ambitions, and a wider outlook on the world.

Everywhere that I went, even in the most distant parts of the country, where as yet the people have been almost untouched by the influences of modern civilization, I met men who spoke in broken English, but with genuine enthusiasm, of America. Once, when I had made a half-day’s journey by rail and wagon into a distant village in Poland, in order to see something of life in a primitive farming village, I was enthusiastically welcomed at the country tavern by the proprietor and two or three other persons, all of whom had lived for some time in America and were able to speak a little English.

At another time, when I visited the sulphur mines in the mountains of central Sicily, I was surprised and delighted to encounter, deep down in one of these mines, several hundred feet below the surface, a man with whom I was able to speak familiarly about the coal mines of West Virginia, where each of us, at different times, had been employed in mine labour.

There seemed to be no part of Europe so distant or so remote that the legend of America had not penetrated to it; and the influence of America, of American ideas, is certainly making itself felt in a very definite way in the lowest strata of European civilization.

The thing that impressed me most, however, was the condition of the labouring women of Europe. I do not know the statistics, but if I am permitted to judge by what I saw I should say that three fourths of the work on the farms, and a considerable part of the heavy work in the cities of Europe, is performed by women. Not only that, but in the low life of great cities, like London, it seems to me that the women suffer more from the evil influences of slum life than the men. In short, if I may put it that way, the man farthest down in Europe is woman. Women have the narrowest outlook, do the hardest work, stand in greatest need of education, and are farthest removed from influences which are everywhere raising the level of life among the masses of the European people.

Chapter II
The Man at the Bottom in London

The Carmania, the ship in which I had sailed, disembarked its passengers late Saturday at Fishguard, off the coast of Wales. The special train which sped us on to London reached the city early Sunday morning, August 28.

As I drove from the railway station in the gray of the early morning my attention was attracted by a strange, shapeless and disreputable figure which slunk out of the shadow of a building and moved slowly and dejectedly down the silent and empty street. In that quarter of the city, and in comparison with the solid respectability and comfort represented by the houses around him, the figure of this man seemed grotesquely wretched. In fact, he struck me as the most lonely object I had ever laid my eyes on. I watched him down the street as far as I could see. He turned neither to the left nor to the right, but moved slowly on, his head bent toward the ground, apparently looking for something he did not hope to find. In the course of my journey across Europe I saw much poverty, but I do not think I saw anything quite so hopeless and wretched.

I had not been long in London before I learned that this man was a type. It is said that there are ten thousand of these homeless and houseless men and women in East London alone. They are, however, not confined to any part of the city. They may be found in the fashionable West End, lounging on the benches of St. James’s Park, as well as in the East End, where the masses of the labouring people live. The Salvation Army has erected shelters for them in many of the poorer parts of the city, where, for anything from two to eight cents, they may get a room for the night, and sometimes a piece of bread and a bowl of soup. Thousands of them are not able to compass the small sum necessary to obtain even this minimum of food and comfort. These are the outcasts and the rejected, the human waste of a great city. They represent the man at the bottom in London.

Later, in the course of my wanderings about the city, I met many of these hopeless and broken men. I saw them sitting, on sunshiny days, not only men but women also, crumpled up on benches or stretched out on the grass of the parks. I discovered them on rainy nights crouching in doorways or huddled away in dark corners where an arch or a wall protected them from the cold. I met them in the early morning hours, before the city was awake, creeping along the Strand and digging with their hands in the garbage-boxes; and again, late at night, on the Thames Embankment, where hundreds of them sleep — when the night watchman permits — on the benches or stretched out on the stone pavements. After a time I learned to distinguish the same type under the disguise of those street venders who stand on street corners and sell collar-buttons, matches, and other trifles, stretching out their hands in a pitiful sort of supplication to passers-by to buy their wares.

Whenever I found an opportunity to do so, I talked with some of these outcasts. Gradually, partly from themselves and partly from others, I learned something of their histories. I found that it was usually drink that had been the immediate cause of their downfall. But there were always other and deeper causes. Most of them, it seemed to me, had simply been borne down by the temptations and the fierce competition of life in a great city. There comes a time when trade is dull; men who had been accustomed to spend much money begin to spend less, and there is no work to be had. At these times it is “the less efficient, the less energetic, the less strong, the less young, the less regular, the less temperate, or the less docile” who are crowded out. In this way these men have lost their hold and sunk to the bottom.

I remember meeting one of these men late at night wandering along the Thames Embankment. In the course of my conversation with him I asked him, among other things, if he voted, and, if so, to what political party he belonged.

He looked at me in amazement, and then he said he had never voted in his life. It was his expression rather than his words that impressed me. This expression told me how out of touch he was with the world about him. He had, in fact, as I learned, no family, no home, friends, trade; he belonged to no society; he had, so far as I could learn, no views on life. In the very midst of this great city he was as solitary as a hermit.

A few weeks later, in a little village in Galicia, I asked the same question of a Polish peasant. “Oh, yes,” he eagerly replied; “every one votes here now.”

Sixty years ago most of the peasants in this village to which I have referred were serfs, and it was not until two years ago that the Government gave them all the right to vote. Nevertheless, at the present time the people in this village are represented by one of their own number in the Imperial Parliament at Vienna. I stopped on my way through the village at the little store kept by this man. I found two young girls tending the store, his daughters, but the representative himself was not at home.

I do not know why I should mention this circumstance here, except that I was impressed by the contrast in the reply of these two men, the one coming from a peasant in Poland and the other from an Englishman in London.

It is generally said that the Negro represents in America the man farthest down. In going to Europe I had in mind to compare the masses of the Negro people of the Southern States with the masses in Europe in something like the same stage of civilization. It would not be difficult to compare the Negro in the South with the Polish peasant, for example, because the masses of the Poles are, like the masses of the Negroes, an agricultural people.

I know no class among the Negroes in America, however, with whom I could compare the man at the bottom in England. Whatever one may say of the Negro in America, he is not, as a rule, a beggar. It is very rarely that any one sees a black hand stretched out for alms. One does see, to be sure, too many idle and loafing Negroes standing on the street corners and around the railway stations in the South, but the Negro is not, as a rule, a degenerate. If he is at the bottom in America, it is not because he has gone backward and sunk down, but because he has never risen.

Another thing in regard to the Negro: although he is frequently poor, he is never without hope and a certain joy in living. No hardship he has yet encountered, either in slavery or in freedom, has robbed the Negro of the desire to live. The race constantly grew and increased in slavery, and it has considerably more than doubled in freedom. There are some people among the members of my race who complain about the hardships which the Negro suffers, but none of them yet, so far as I know, has ever recommended “race suicide” as a solution of the race problem.

I mention this because I found just the contrary to be the case in England. I do not think that anything I saw or heard while I was in England gave me a more poignant impression of the hardships of the labouring man in England than the discovery that one of the most widely read weekly papers in England, under the caption of “The White Slaves of Morality,” was making a public campaign in favour of reducing the size of the families among the working classes.

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