One day, while at work in the coal mine, I happened to overhear two miners talking about a great school for coloured people some where in Virginia. This was the first time that I had ever heard anything about any kind of school or college that was more pretentious than the little coloured school in our town. As they went on describing the school, it seemed to me that it must be the greatest place on earth. Not even Heaven presented more attractions for me at that time than did the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, about which these men were talking. I resolved at once togo to that school, although I had no idea where it was, or how many miles away, or how I was going to reach it. I was on fire constantly with one ambition, and that was to go to Hampton. This thought was with me day and night.
In the fall of 1872, I determined to make an effort to get there. My mother was troubled with a grave fear that I was starting out on a, "wild-goose-chase." At any rate , I got only a half-hearted consent from her that I might start. I had very little money with which to buy clothes and pay my travelling expenses. My brother John helped me all that he could; but, of course, that was not a great deal.
Finally, the great day came, and I started for Hampton. I had only a small cheap satchel that contained the few articles of clothing I could get. My mother at the time was rather weak and broken in health. I hardly expected to see her again, and thus our parting was all the more sad. She, however, was very brave through it all.
The distance from Malden to Hampton is about five hundred miles. By walking, begging rides both in wagons and in the cars, in some way, after a number of days, I reached the city of Richmond, Virginia, about eighty-two miles from Hampton. When I reached there, tired, hungry and dirty, it was late in the night.
I had never been in a large city, and this rather added to my misery. When I reached Richmond. I was completely out of money. I had not a single acquaintance in the place; and, being unused to city ways, I did not know where to go, I asked at several places for lodging but they all wanted money, and that was what I did not have. Knowing nothing else better to do, I walked the streets.
I must have walked the streets till after midnight. At last I became so exhausted that I could walk no longer. I was tired, I was hungry, I was everything but discouraged. Just about the time when I reached extreme physical exhaustion, I came upon a portion of a street where the board sidewalk was cosiderably elevated.sI waited for a few minutes till I was sure that no passer-by could see me, and then crept under the sidewalk and lay for the night on the ground, with my satchel of clothing for a pillow. Nearly all night I could hear the tramp of feet over my head.
The next morning I found myself somewhat refreshed. But I was extremely hungry. As soon as it became light enough for me to see my surroundings, I noticed that I was near a large ship. It seemed to be unloading a cargo of pig-iron. I went at once to the vessel and asked the captain to permit me to help unload the vessel in order to get money for food. The captain, a white man, who seemed to be kind hearted, consented. I worked long enough to earn money for my breakfast; and it seems to me as I remember it now, to have been about the best breakfast that I have ever eaten.
My work pleased the captain so well that he told me that I could continue working for a small amount per day. This I was very glad to do. I continued working on this vessel for a number of days. After buying food with my small wages there was not much left to pay my way to Hampton. In order to economize in every way possible, I continued to sleep under the sidewalk.
When I had saved enough money with which to reach Hampton, I thanked the captain of the vessel for his kindness, and started again. Without any unusual occurrence I reached Hampton, with a surplus of exactly fifty cents with which to begin my education. The first sight of the large, three-story brick school building seemed to have rewarded me for all that I had undergone in order to reach the place. The sight of it seemed to give me new life.
As soon as possible after reaching the grounds of the Hampton Institute, I presented myself before the head teacher for assignment to a class. Having been so long without proper food, a bath, and change of clothing, I did not, of course, make a very favourable impression upon her. I could see at once that there were doubts in her mind about the wisdom of admitting me as a student. For some time she did not refuse to admit me, neither did she decide in my favour. I continued to linger about her, and to impress her in all the ways I could with my worthiness. In the meantime I saw her admitting other students, and that added greatly to my discomfort. I felt deep down in my heart, that I could do as well as they, if I could only get a chance to show what was in me.
After some hours had passed, the head teacher said to me, "The adjoining recitation room needs sweeping. Take the broom and sweep it."
It occurred to me at once that here was my chance. Never did I receive an order with more delight.
I swept the recitation room three times, than I got a dusting cloth, and I dusted it four times. All the woodwork around the walls, every bench , table, and desk, I went over four times with my dusting cloth. Besides, every piece of furniture had been moved and every closet and corner in the room had been thoroughly cleaned. I had the feeling that in a large measure my future depended upon the impression I made upon the teacher in the cleaning of that room. When I was through I reported to the head teacher. She was a "Yankee" woman who knew just where to look for dirt. She went into the room and inspected the floor and closets; then she took her handkerchief and rubbed it on the woodwork about the walls and over the table and benches. When she was unable to find one bit of dirt on the floor or a particle of dust on any of the furniture, she quietly remarked, "I guess you will do to enter this institution."
I was one of the happiest souls on earth. The sweeping of that room was my college examination. I have passed several examinations since then, but I have always felt that this was the best one I ever passed…………..