My August 16, 2017 post (A New Look at TREEMONISHA) points out striking similarities between Booker T. Washington’s writing and Scott Joplin’s Preface to Treemonisha. Both men speak of superstition’s survival on remote plantations from which whites have moved away after the war, thus leaving ignorant blacks without anyone to guide them. Similarly, my November 14, 2017 post (“You Can’t Fool Treemonisha”: The Hampton-Tuskegee Ideology, Part 1) focuses on Joplin’s use of literacy as a remedy for superstition and on his character Remus’ mention of Treemonisha’s “level head,” again pointing out parallels between Joplin's thinking and Washington's, which had been molded by Samuel Chapman Armstrong's teachings. All of these points raise the possibility that Joplin intended Treemonisha as his second tribute to Booker T. Washington, following the loss of his first opera, A Guest of Honor. The similarities do not end there. A close look at Hampton and Tuskegee’s shared three-part mission reveals further connections with the opera and leads to a reinterpretation of Joplin’s Parson Alltalk.
The son of missionaries in Hawaii who espoused vocational education, Samuel Chapman Armstrong founded Hampton Institute with the mission of educating students “not only in book knowledge, but in practical industry, and in habits of Christian living”—of preparing them “not for an ideal future, but for the real life before them, and to put into their hearts and heads and hands the tools that [would] make them useful citizens” (Catalogue of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute for the Academic Year 1870-71, 18; The Southern Workman, XXIV: 9. Sept. 1895, 145). In a history commemorating the institute’s 50th anniversary, Francis Greenwood Peabody, Harvard theologian and Hampton trustee, emphasized the inseparability of the mission’s three parts: “The training of the hand is at the same time a clarifying of the mind and a purifying of the heart” (Education for Life: The Story of Hampton Institute, Doubleday, Page and Co., 1922, xv-xvi).
With the slave labor system at an end and freedmen lacking the reading and business skills to work in the public sector, Samuel Chapman Armstrong had established Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute with the aid of the Freedman’s Bureau, American Missionary Association, and two Northern white teachers. Armstrong worked hard to prepare the school’s students to go into rural communities where they could spread their head, hand, and heart training among the uneducated masses.
The post-war years had been passing quickly with little improvement in local public school education for African Americans. During the first few years, Reconstruction had brought white teachers into the South, filled with missionary zeal but largely helpless in face of almost universal illiteracy among the freedmen. Five years after the war and two years after Hampton had opened its doors, Armstrong described the critical need:
Not one-tenth of the four million freed people at the South have had good instruction; not one hundredth part have received a complete common school education. Ten thousand colored teachers are needed. . . . One teacher will in ten years instruct hundreds of pupils. (Catalogue of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute for the Academic Year 1870-71, 18)
With need such as this during the years of Joplin’s Southern childhood, most or those around him would have been illiterate, and his own early education may have been plagued with difficulty due to shortage of qualified teachers and the brevity of the typical academic year, often no more than two or three months a year, as Washington frequently described it. Any parent might well have hoped for educational opportunities for their child. As Ned and Monisha do for their longed-for child in Joplin's opera, they might even dream of their child teaching the “people around them to aspire to something better and higher than superstition and conjuring” (Preface to Treemonisha).
Needing to appease Southern whites who feared black education, Armstrong distinguished his program from strictly academic schools and convinced Northern philanthropists, his white neighbors, and Hampton students that the school's graduates would become happy workers contributing to the South’s rebuilding and future prosperity. After Armstrong's death, a former Williams College classmate compared Armstrong to a "cyclone out of the South Seas" and went on to describe the Hampton educator's dynamism and impact:
Armstrong himself was the institution and the education. It could not be otherwise. As he himself once said, the greatest institution is a man. . . . Hampton has sent out into the world hundreds of students, each one of whom, in whatever little dark community he might be, bears the stamp of Armstrong’s character and shares in the work of putting man thereabouts en rapport with what is best and most practical in human life. (John H. Denison, Atlantic Monthly, LXXIII: 435, January 1894, 90, 94)
Armstrong conveyed the same impression to others. In Washington’s first autobiography, he expressed his admiration for Armstrong: “I have sometimes thought that the best part of my education at Hampton was obtained by being permitted to look upon General Armstrong day by day” (The Story of My Life and Work, 38). In his better known autobiography, the head of Tuskegee elaborated:
As Armstrong put it, Hampton’s mission was to aid freemen “by sending out, not pedagogues, but those whose culture shall be upon the whole circle of living, and who with clear insight and strong purpose, will do a quiet work that shall make the land purer and better. (Catalogue of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute for the Academic Year 1870-71, 23).
Little is known of Joplin’s early life or time at Sedalia's George R. Smith College. Perhaps he had an inspirational teacher of this type. Perhaps he heard stories from his wife Freddie, who may have influenced the opera as Ed Berlin has suggested. Perhaps Joplin studied Washington’s early writings while at George R. Smith, maybe even Hampton Institute’s monthly, The Southern Workman, common reading material at black colleges. Although we’re unlikely to find answers, we can imagine a variety of possible scenarios that might have contributed to the similarity between Joplin’s thinking and the Hampton-Tuskegee ideology permeating vocational and teacher-training schools throughout the South.
Along with education of the head, Armstrong stressed education of the hand—the training in practical work skills. He drew upon his knowledge of vocational education in Hawaii in an effort to alleviate the South's problem of dealing with millions of uneducated freedmen. Francis Greenwood Peabody quotes Armstrong’s description of Civil War refugee slaves seeking protection at Hampton, Virginia’s Fort Monroe, the only Union fort in Confederate territory:
They travelled through the woods or by night; they endured hardships manifold, and overcame obstacles well-nigh insurmountable, with that dogged patience which is one of the prevailing characteristics of their race; and they pushed their way at last by hundreds and eventually by thousands into the Union lines and under the protection of ‘Linkum’s soldiers.’ Then they sat down helpless but hopeful, and waited for something to be done for them. There was a prevailing impression among them that if they were free they would at once come into the possession of all the necessaries and even luxuries of life without need to work anymore. (from The Southern Workman, December 1886; qtd. by Peabody, 33)
Upon opening Hampton in 1868, Armstrong and his teachers had their work cut out for them. Their students arrived with much the same attitude as the refugees at Fort Monroe. “Before going [to Hampton] I had a good deal of the then rather prevalent idea among our people that to secure an education meant to have a good, easy time, free from all necessity for manual labour,” Booker T. Washington confessed in Up from Slavery ( 73). Slaves had learned to regard the white man as the “highest type of civilization.” Consequently, following emancipation, many freedmen believed that the less manual labor they performed, the more they were like the white man (The Future of the American Negro, 90).
Under Armstrong and other Hampton teachers, however, Washington learned his lessons well. Describing the unanticipated shift in his thinking, he continued, “At Hampton I not only learned that it was not a disgrace to labour, but learned to love labour, not alone for its financial value, but for labour's own sake and for the independence and self-reliance which the ability to do something which the world wants done brings" (Up from Slavery, 73-74).
Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Exposition Address--the speech that first put him on newspaper front pages--brings out an idea persistently driven into his Tuskegee students’ minds, the inseparability of education of the hand and education of the mind:
Our greatest danger is that with the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the production of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life.
A few years later in The Future of the American Negro, Washington supplied a concrete example. He told the story of a white employer who quickly saw his new worker, recently trained in the Hampton-Tuskegee way, solve his agricultural problems because the employee “ had not only a knowledge of science, mathematics, and literature in his head, but in his hands as well” ( 59).
Again, Washington had learned this interconnection at Hampton where Armstrong taught that “training of the mind should be applied to training of the hand” and that Southern blacks’ “immediate need was not literary culture, but trained hands and intelligent workmanship” (Peabody, xiv-xv, 291). “The needle, the broom, and the wash-tub, the awl, the plane, and the plow, become the allies of the globe, the blackboard, and the text-book,” wrote Armstrong in his first report to Hampton’s Trustees (qtd. in Catalogue of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, 1871-72, 21)
In Treemonisha, Joplin offers no lecture on education’s interconnection with labor. Indeed, nearly all his plantation laborers are illiterate, in need of the most basic educational skills. Before applying the learning of the head to the work of the hand, they would need to begin to fill their heads.
Although Joplin does not mention the interconnection between education and labor, he introduces the importance of work. In fact, he emphasizes that importance by placing it in his heroine’s opening words in his opera’s opening quintet.
Calling out to Zodzetrick so that she can tell him of his “great wrong,” Treemonisha reprimands him for his laziness and the harm he has inflicted on his race:
You have lived without working for many years,
Joplin could have emphasized the injury without mentioning Zodzetrick’s lack of work. For instance, using the same number of syllables, the composer might have written “You have lived selling luck bags for many years,” or even “You have worked selling luck bags for many years.” Given the other parallels between Washington and the opera, Joplin appears to have chosen his words with the black educator in mind.
In contrast to the opera’s shiftless conjurors, Treemonisha’s neighbors work hard. They husk corn, pick cotton, and talk of returning home to chop wood after a long day in the fields. After obtaining basic literacy skills, their work habits would help make them good candidates for a Hampton-Tuskegee type vocational education.
While emphasizing practical education that could be applied to manual labor and everyday life, Hampton also taught a down-to-earth form of Christianity and regarded the molding of strong moral character as its highest goal:
Of all our work, that upon the heart is the most important; there can be no question as to the paramount necessity of teaching the vital precepts of the Christian faith, and of striving to awaken a genuine enthusiasm for the higher life, that shall be sustained and shall be the strong support of the young workers who may go out to be examples to their race. (Catalogue of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute for the Academic Year 1870-71, 23)
According to John H. Dennison, long-term friend, Armstrong “was not naturally religious.” Characterized by common sense and earthly interests, including science, and “mystified” by the contradictions between science and religion, the Hampton founder viewed Christianity as inextricably interwoven with academic learning and labor. Together, education of head, hand, and heart build strong character:
It [Christianity] was meant to take its place in a world of reciprocal organisms among which it is the supreme organism. Education, religion, industry are different departments of one great process, which he called the building of manhood. It is impossible that one should advance well in any one of these departments without its correlatives. We have learned how to make money, but not how to build men. (Denison, 96)
As such, Christianity for everyday life was the “heart” component of the Hampton-Tuskegee sacred trinity. Probably because of his mentor Armstrong, Washington decided to abandon the idea of entering Reconstruction politics in favor of accepting the life’s mission for which Hampton trained its students:
The temptations to enter political life were so alluring that I came very near yielding to them at one time, but I was kept from doing so by the feeling that I would be helping in a more substantial way by assisting in the laying of the foundation of the race through a generous education of the hand, head and heart. (Up from Slavery, 85)
Washington agreed with Armstrong about the precedence of heart training. Exhorting his students to ask daily whether their parents would approve of their behavior, he continued:
We can fill your heads with knowledge, and we can train your hands to work with skill, but unless all this training of head and hand is based upon high, upright character, upon a true heart, it will amount to nothing. You will be no better off than the most ignorant. (Character Building, Doubleday, Page & Company: 1903, 226)
Despite belief in the paramount importance of strong Christian character, Hampton and Tuskegee recognized problems within the clergy—the very body of men commonly regarded as leaders in teaching morality. Speaking at Hampton Institute’s annual conference, Richard Spiller, the well-respected minister of the city’s First Baptist Church, addressed critical issues in the larger Southern ministry:
Spiller pointed out that black ministers were expected to play a much greater leadership role in the daily lives of their congregations than were white ministers. While white ministers guided their parishioners' spiritual lives, black ministers needed to guide their parishioners spiritually, morally, mentally, socially, and materially. Not only were many black clergymen uneducated, and thus lacking the most rudimentary qualification for their work, Spiller felt they were failing to address the temporal needs of their congregations (53).
Washington praised the many black ministers, “besieged on every hand and at all hours of the day for help,” for the money they donated to Tuskegee. Each small gift, even of a few cents, helped “elevate the Negro” (Up from Slavery, 193). Despite such praise for his dedicated supporters, Washington explained how, during Reconstruction and even after, many semi-literate men entered the clergy untrained and unprepared:
The ministry was the profession that suffered most—and still suffers, though there has been great improvement—on account of not only ignorant but in many cases immoral men who claimed that they were 'called to preach.' In the earlier days of freedom almost every coloured man who learned to read would receive 'a call to preach' within a few days after he began reading. At my home in West Virginia the process of being called to the ministry was a very interesting one. Usually the 'call' came when the individual would fall upon the floor as if struck by a bullet, and would lie there for hours, speechless and motionless. Then the news would spread all through the neighborhood that this individual had received a 'call.' If he were inclined to resist the summons, he would fall or be made to fall a second or third time. In the end he always yielded to the call. While I wanted an education badly, I confess that in my youth I had a fear that when I had learned to read and write well I would receive one of these 'calls'; but, for some reason, my call never came. (Up from Slavery, 81-82)
Washington also related the story of an Alabama cottonfield hand on a hot July day. Declaring his call to the pulpit, the man announced, “O Lawd, de cotton am so grassy, de work am so hard, and the sun am so hot dat I b’lieve dis darky am called to preach!” (Up from Slavery, 128)
What could such men preach? Platitudes?
Such an answer is consistent with the name Joplin chose for his preacher--Parson Alltalk.
Pointing out that Joplin left behind no other statement about organized religion, Ed Berlin makes a logical argument for this interpretation. Alltalk delivers “general platitudes to be religious and good” during a call and response exchange with his congregants although the people need advice about dealing with the conjurors and the superstitions harming their community. In the end, the scene does nothing to advance the plot but illustrates the need for a leader, such as Treemonisha (King of Ragtime, Oxford, 2016, 261-262). Berlin's interpretation coincides with Hampton and Tuskegee’s view of practical Christianity—of offering the congregation what will help them lead better daily lives.
We need to look at the Parson from another angle, however . A more detailed comparison of Parson Alltalk’s “good advice” with Hampton and Tuskegee's moral education program uncovers further parallels between the opera and the schools’ shared ideology.
Before looking at specific textual examples, we must understand what well-meaning people thought of the freedmen’s moral character. Speaking of the planned formation of the Freedman’s Bureau, for example, George Peabody voiced concern about “delegating to a single administrator paternal control over four million of singularly helpless and thriftless wards” (Peabody, 44).
According to Hampton teachers, “The slaves, whose emancipation made such a school as Hampton possible, found, as the inevitable effect of their enslavement, their chief misfortune in deficiency of character" (M. F. Armstrong and Helen W. Ludlow, Hampton and Its Students by Two of Its Teachers, NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1874, 36). Washington illustrated this point in Up from Slavery when narrating his family’s post-emancipation move from a Virginia plantation to Malden, West Virginia. Describing the ignorant “motley mixture” of former slaves and poor whites with whom he worked at the salt mines and furnaces, he wrote, “Drinking, gambling, quarrels, fights, and shockingly immoral practices were frequent” ( 26). Such ignorant freedmen too often entered politics, Washington pointed out: “I saw coloured men who were members of the state legislatures and county officers, who, in some cases, could not read or write and whose morals were as weak as their education” (Up from Slavery, 85).
What we consider Christian platitudes today, Hampton and Tuskegee would have deemed indispensable lessons.
Parson Alltalk’s series of moral exhortations begins with the need to tell the truth and respect others’ property, essentially the ninth and eighth commandments, respectively:
Hampton and Tuskegee addressed both issues. When Washington spoke of Armstrong as the “best part” of his Hampton education, he specifically pointed out that Armstrong would not "tolerate want of truth in any one,” adding that the Hampton founder impressed this moral lesson on all his students (The Story of My Life and Work, 38). Washington reiterated this lesson time and again:
And then we want to make a reputation for the race for being honest,--honest at all times and under all circumstances. (BTW, The Future of the American Negro, 102)
Both schools understood that slavery had not been conducive to honesty. In one of his speeches, Armstrong told the story of a pious elderly “Auntie,” who would never let a stolen chicken “come between her and her blessed Lord” at communion. The anecdote served as an example of “how little a broken commandment disturbs the peace of the unenlightened.” The reason, in his opinion, was that that no connection existed between religion and morality. Having learned only the most rudimentary Christian beliefs from whites, slaves had seen Christianity from the perspective of their old religion. To explain, Armstrong pointed out that freedmen might blindly follow the Biblical pillar of cloud in the desert, believing they were following God, yet they would make no moral connections. He described them as “better fitted for a theocracy than for a republic,” in other words, as better suited to follow what they were told to do than to make practical moral decisions. Circumstances had denied a real Christian education ( A Paper Read at the Anniversary Meeting of the American Missionary Association held in Syracuse, N. Y., October 24, 1877, 2-3).
The slave, Washington explained, “was forcibly and unjustly deprived of the fruits of his labour” and, therefore, felt that whatever he could get belonging to the master “justifiably belonged to him” (The Future of the American Negro, 169-170). In his view, poverty and hunger led to such petty thefts. He told the story of his mother who, after emancipation, taught him “the highest rules of integrity,” but who, while a slave, sometimes woke up her hungry children for a late night meal of stolen chicken or eggs. “Some people blame the Negro for not being more honest as judged by the Anglo-Saxon’s standard of honesty,” Washington wrote, but he acknowledged that under the circum-stances he could never consider his mother a thief (The Story of My Life and Work, 14-15).
Parson Alltalk’s next exhortation also mirrors Hampton and Tuskegee teachings and may be closer to the Golden Rule than to any of the Ten Commandments. Alltalk continues:
Although Armstrong did not write regularly on this topic, he, as a white man, devoted his life to educating Southern blacks and to modeling such behavior. As he put it, teachers could best help “by Christian example and teaching” (A Paper Read at the Anniversary Meeting, 4) For example, contemporaries pointed out his open door policy, encouraging his students to approach him with any problem or grievance.
Reading Washington’s autobiographies, The Story of My Lire and Work and Up from Slavery, we can find frequent passages in which he mentions someone’s kindness to him--people at meetings where he was invited to speak, donors to the school, white people living near Tuskegee Institute, the captain, crew, and passengers on the ship he took to Europe. In Character Building, his collected Sunday talks to Tuskegee students, he repeatedly addresses the topics of friendship, brotherhood, or kindness head on:
The more you do to make somebody else happy, the more happiness will you receive in turn. If you want to be happy, if you want to live a contented life, if you want to live a life of genuine pleasure, do something for somebody else. When you feel unhappy, disagreeable and miserable, go to someone else who is miserable and do that person an act of kindness, and you will find that you will be made happy. (17)
Parson Alltalk’s final advice ties in with Hampton and Tuskegee’s industrial education, designed to lift freedmen and their immediate descendants out of the poverty and help them enter the economic mainstream. It also addresses a common socio-economic problem of the day. Alltalk urges:
Remember, each day,
Reading this advice today, we might think of bad habits such as gambling or frivolous spending that could thrust one into debt. The authors of Hampton and Its Students described Hampton students, who enter with the habits of their race, as “improvident” with no other explanation. (Armstrong and Ludlow, 37). Speaking at one of Hampton’s annual conferences, Rev. Matthew Anderson echoed this point but hinted that he would explain: “That the untutored American Negro is improvident goes without question, and the reason for his improvidence are equally plain” (“The Economic Aspect of the Negro Problem,” The Hampton Negro Conferences, Number 4, 1900, 27). Attributing the improvidence to slavery rather than to wrong-doing on the part of the debtor, Anderson continued:
One of the irreparable injuries done the Negro by the infamous system of American slavery was the almost entire extinction of the acquisitive faculty. It was the policy of that system not only to divest the Negro of all legal rights to the ownership of property, but to destroy the very desire to acquire and accumulate the same. . . . Hence it is not strange that he has such a poor conception of the value of money, that he is so extravagant, and that he has accumulated so little property. Under the circumstances the wonder is that he has accumulated so much. (29)
Anderson proposed teaching blacks to help themselves by showing them how to establish banks, mutual aid societies, loan associations, and various businesses related to the trades for which they are trained. In the process, he believed, they would develop “a healthy desire to save their earnings, with the view of improving their condition” (30).
Washington acknowledged that money for “clothes, gewgaws, superficialities, and other things, when he has not got the necessaries of life,” contribute to debt (The Future of the American Negro, 101). Similarly, gambling, drinking, and frequenting brothels could lead to lost jobs, and in turn, lead to debt (Character Building, 31). Having grown accustomed to putting off work once free of master or overseer, freedmen often put off paying debts (The Future, 90). However, he also elaborated on the cause Anderson identified. Freed with no money to live on, former slaves developed a habit of mortgaging their future crops to pay rent on their land and to feed themselves and their families until the crops came in. Typically living in one-room shacks and paying interest of 15-40%, freedmen often fell deeper into debt rather than getting out from under it (The Future, 116).
If Alltalk’s platitudes are sound and grounded in issues widely discussed by educators such as Armstrong and Washington and ministers such as Anderson from emancipation into the early 20th century, why might Joplin have named his parson Alltalk?
Joplin’s preface to Treemonisha may provide a hint when he points out, just as Washington had before him, that whites had abandoned many of the remote plantations, leaving blacks behind to farm the land, but without anyone to guide them in this strange new venture. Granted, they had performed the manual labor as slaves, but they lacked the needed literacy and business know-how to prosper. Whether Alltalk lived on the plantation before emancipation or arrived later, Joplin doesn’t tell us, but Alltalk personifies most of what Washington found wrong with black ministers.
First, Alltalk’s repeated subject-verb agreement error (“Does you”) and his non-standard use of ain’t (“Ain’t you glad”) resemble the language of Treemonisha’s uneducated neighbors and reveal that the parson is not a divinity school graduate—indeed, that he is probably semi-literate at best, possibly illiterate. In this way, Alltalk represents the uneducated, incompetent ministers Washington spoke of in remote areas throughout the South.
Second, Alltalk’s emotionally charged sermon looks to the afterlife rather than focusing on the here and now. Sometimes repeating himself, he asks a series of questions formulated to stir up his congregation and elicit positive responses:
Does you feel like you’ve been redeemed?
Note that his congregants “kneel in silent prayer” following his first exhortation. They are already emotionally invested. Telling them, point by point, what they should or should not do and calling on them for their responses, he tries to arouse a sense of salvation from their sins and, thus, a belief that they are heaven-bound.
Third, Parson Alltalk is, indeed, “all talk” and no meaningful action—in Armstrong and Washington’s term, no “practical Christianity”--no application to life. Joplin portrays him telling his listeners what to do but never shows him acting as a true leader by modeling how to live.
The second and third points also correspond with Hampton and Tuskegee’s teaching. Hampton social studies teacher Thomas Jesse Jones commented on such use of emotionalism: “Emotion has very much more of a part in religious exercises than it should” (Social Studies in the Hampton Curriculum, Hampton Institute Press, 1906). Hampton teachers M. F. Armstrong and Helen Ludlow labeled many students’ vivid beliefs and “religious fervor,” whether pertaining to God or Satan, salvation or punishment, as “often amounting to a form of superstition” (Hampton and Its Students, 37). An 1885 Hampton graduate identified only as Mr. Barker and a Yale Divinity School student, characterized himself as a “convert from emotionalism in religion.” After expressing his deep sympathy with emotionalism in religion because his “dearest ones of earth” still practiced it, Barker expressed his belief that emotionalism “works terrible havoc in the moral world” and “can never overcome the temptations of everyday life” (The Southern Workman, XXIII, Sept.1894).
Speaking to a white audience, Washington remarked, “You know as a race, we are rather emotional; we have a good deal of feeling about us, and we feel our religion in a way that you do not. I believe the average black man can feel more religion in ten minutes than a white man can in a day" ("The Influence of the Negroes' Citizenship." BTW Papers, IV: 194-195). Washington again offered an explanation rooted in slavery:
From the nature of things, all through slavery it was life in the future world that was emphasized in religious teaching rather than life in this world. In his religious meetings in ante-bellum days the Negro was prevented from discussing many points of practical religion which related to this world; and the white minister, who was his spiritual guide, found it more convenient to talk about heaven than earth, so very naturally that today in his religious meetings it is the Negro’s feelings which are worked upon mostly and it is description of the glories of heaven that occupy most of the sermon. (The Future of the American Negro, 170)
Rather than suffering through earthly life while awaiting a paradise after death, Hampton and Tuskegee shared the mission of training their students to build a paradise on earth. “While the thought of the Heaven beyond is not to be neglected,” Hampton’s The Southern Workman advised, “a great stress certainly needs to be laid upon bringing the new heaven and the new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness, down to this earth” (XXIV, Sept 1895 ). Armstrong believed that religion and morals had never been one for blacks. Recall the old Auntie who had no qualms about accepting the symbolic body and blood of Christ after stealing a chicken. Merely telling people like her not to steal would have had little or no effect.
The Hampton founder and teachers rejected Parson Alltalk’s method of ordering his parishioners to do this and not do that. Armstrong’s 1877 fund-raising speech to the American Missionary Association contributes much to our understanding of his thinking: “A teacher does more by virtue of what he is than by what he says. The most powerful, constructive influences are indirect; the inner life expands in the right atmosphere rather than through direct pressure.” When speaking of teachers, Armstrong includes Hampton teachers and Hampton graduates who become teachers. As they go out into the field, mostly into rural communities, they “shall be not only pedagogues, but guides and civilizers, whose power shall be that of character and example, not of sounding words” (A Paper Read at the Anniversary Meeting of the American Missionary Association, 4, 5).
Spending much of his ministerial career in Baptist churches in Newport News, Norfolk, and Hampton, Virginia, Reverend Richard Spiller embodied the traits Armstrong and Washington respected. After graduating from Richmond Theological Seminary, Stiller was ordained in 1875 and devoted his life to non-poliical means of helping his people better their lives. He organized the People’s Building and Loan Association, which helped people buy homes and start small businesses, and he founded Spiller Academy where he, his wife, and a small number of other teachers taught African American students, including the Spillers’ son and daughter, William N. and Lula Estelle.
When Sundays came around, Spiller had carefully planned his messages, fleshing them out with more personal comments and examples:
Well aware that emotionalism in religion was gradually diminishing, just as hoodoo superstitions were, Washington did not completely reject the black man’s emotionalism. “Under the constant influence of the Christian education which began thirty-five years ago” he wrote, “his religion is every year becoming less emotional and more rational and practical though I for one, hope that he will always retain in some large degree the emotional element in religion” (The Future of the American Negro, 173). If Washington appreciated emotionalism in religion, he did not see that emotionalism as an unqualified good. Like Armstrong, he believed in wholeheartedly applying that religion to improve daily life:
I have learned this, that the way to teach them to have the most of Jesus in a permanent form is to mix in with their religion some practical ideas which will bring about an improved material condition. ("The Influence of the Negroes' Citizenship," BTW Papers, IV: 194-195)
Even such practical religion was not the end product, but the means. “Last Words,” the final Sunday talk published in Character Building, offers one of Washington’s most hopeful statements:
No one ever loses anything by being a gentleman or a lady. No one ever lost anything by being broad. Remember that if we are kind and useful, if we are moral, if we go out and practice these traits, no matter what people say about us, they cannot pull us down. (291)
Langston Hughes' poem "The Ballad of Booker T." draws upon Washington's books and speeches to capture the essence of his beliefs. Click here if you would like to read the poem.
Other Possible Influences
Sedalia and George R. Smith College
As Ed Berlin explains, little is known about Scott Joplin’s early life, including his education. Zenobia Campbell of Texarkana recalled Joplin's attending that city’s Orr School in 1887, and William G. Flynn of Sedalia told Blesh and Janis that Joplin had attended Lincoln High School there. City directories reveal other Joplins in Sedalia who may have been relatives and people with whom a teenage Joplin might have stayed during the 1880s (King of Ragtime, 2nd ed., 2016, 5-6).
At least by the early 1870s, Lincoln School (not Lincoln High School) was educating African American students. Its first commencement exercise occurred in 1891 with a graduating class of three girls. Although this may have been a high school commencement, the first use I have found of the name Lincoln High School appeared in the Sedalia Democrat on May 20, 1894, to announce the upcoming commencement of six graduates. If Joplin attended Lincoln, as Blesh and Janis’ unpublished notes suggest, it was almost certainly not a high school at the time. Although school ages were not as standardized as they are today, Joplin would have been high school age (by today’s standards) during the early 1880s.
At the top of the second column of the catalog page, slightly above Joplin's name, we find the Jackson sisters, Minniola and Violetta, daughters of a business woman selling Mrs. Jackson's Magic Hair Elixir and of a local minister.
Minniola Jackson began teaching 5th grade at Lincoln School following her 1897 graduation from George R. Smith's college preparatory program. No college degree was required to become a teacher. As newspapers indicate, both Jackson sisters had early established music reputations, Minniola as pianist and Violetta as vocalist, performing at local church, school, and Wood's Opera House events.
While continuing to teach at Lincoln, Minniola enrolled in music classes at George R. Smith as evidenced by the 1900 catalog page. Although no records exist of the classes she or Scott Joplin attended that year, they may have been at least occasional classmates.
While teaching at Lincoln School, Sedalians must also have wanted Minniola to teach private or group music lessons:
True to that prediction, Maria Minniola and Violetta Willene Jackson opened their music school in their family home, Minniola Cottage:
Newspapers, city directories, and census records indicate that Minniola Jackson was a skilled enough musician to be hired as George R. Smith music teacher from 1908 to 1910, possibly longer. For whatever reason, she later resumed her position at Lincoln School. I have found no evidence to support her qualifications to teach advanced composition and theory courses, nor have I found information about her predecessors or successors at the college.
Although little is known about George R. Smith music faculty, more is known about the school in general. The 1895-1896 annual catalog included the college's mission statement:
The Hampton-Tuskegee "head, hand, and heart" ideology was alive and well at George R Smith. The college’s mission statement could have served equally well for Armstrong’s or Washington’s school.
A 1903 article about the college sounds equally familiar and may also reflect the local white population's thinking about black education:
When the authorities of the George R. Smith college told the colored Methodist conference of the need of an industrial training department they struck the key note. Without industrial training the mere book knowledge the negro student gains is robbed of the greatest portion of its practical value. (“Manual Training,” Sedalia Democrat, March 15, 1903)
We might easily conclude that Joplin drew some of his ideas for Treemonisha from the college. Certainly, the Hampton-Tuskegee "head, hand, and heart" philosophy was shared by George R. Smith College. Booker T. Washington's books were offered as inspirational reading to African American students at many schools, and with a shared ideology, George R. Smith may have done the same. Reviews of Washington’s books, excerpts from his speeches, and other articles espousing the Hampton-Tuskegee ideology appeared in the Sedalia Weekly Conservator, an African American newspaper published at the college. The first issue contained two such items: first, a letter written by Washington to black newspapers to encourage local businessmen to organize chapters of the Negro Business League and to attend the national meeting in Nashville and, second, an excerpt from Washington’s recent speech at the Brooklyn Institute (May 8, 1903). Over the next few years, other like-minded articles appeared, including these other early articles:
Interestingly, echoes of Washington's ideas can be heard in the full transcript of a speech delivered July 8, 1903, by Rev. J. Will Jackson, Minniola's father. Speaking of actions some of his people still needed to take to solve "the Negro problem," Rev. Jackson told his audience:
Because the Sedalia Weekly Conservator first appeared roughly three years after Joplin's verifiable enrollment at George R. Smith College and two years after his move to St. Louis, we cannot credit the newspaper with influencing his views in Treemonisha. However, based on the college’s mission statement and ideas expressed in the paper published on campus, including Rev. Jackson's speech, Joplin must have encountered similar thinking during his time living in Sedalia and attending George R. Smith. Indeed, he had once been a neighbor of the Jackson family on North Lamine Street in Sedalia. His overall experience may not only have contributed to Treemonisha, but also to his decision to write his first opera,. For evidence pointing to Joplin’s having composed A Guest of Honor to commemorate Washington’s 1901 dinner at the White House, see Berlin's King of Ragtime, 2nd edition, 165-166. Such inspiration seems contingent upon Joplin’s knowledge of the Southern black education leader’s work at Tuskegee wherever or however Joplin had attained that knowledge.
Friend William N. Spiller from Hampton, Virginia
Throughout King of Ragtime, we find assorted details pertaining to Joplin's friendship with musician William N. Spiller. Most important, at least for immediate purposes, are passages pertaining to William Spiller and Treemonisha. Following the opera's publication, we see Joplin, Spiller, and other friends celebrating at the home of Christie Hawkins where Joplin had previously hosted a lunch (KOR, 249, 248). Berlin later discusses William and wife Isabele Taliaferro Spiller's visit with Joplin sometime between 1913 and 1916. A musician herself, Isabele left an interesting written record of the occasion:
I accompanied Spiller to Scott Joplin's apartment in New York City and heard Joplin explain to Spiller exactly how the opera was to be played and sung and how Pineapple Rag and Maple Leaf Rag were to be played. It was fascinating to me because it was the first time I had ever heard a composer explain in detail what he wanted done. (KOR, 232)
All this is interesting as a demonstration of the two musicians' friendship, but seemingly unrelated to influences on Joplin's thinking as brought to life in Treemonisha. If we add a few facts, the adjective interesting changes to intriguing--both in regard to William Spiller's connections with the opera and the identification of Christie Hawkins, the mystery hostess of the Treemonisha post-publication party and of an earlier luncheon Joplin gave for friends, including William Spiller.
When I encountered the Reverend Richard Spiller during my research, I recalled the Musical Spillers from my reading of the first and second editions of King of Ragtime. Trying to complete this blog entry, I wrote off the shared surname as coincidental. Then after sharing a link in Facebook's Ragtimers Club (Feb. 4, 2018) to what I regarded as the finished blog entry, I read Ed Berlin's February 6th reply reply to my link: "I haven't taken the time to read this yet because I'm preparing for a lecture in a few days. But glancing through the article I noticed reference to the Reverend Spiller & wonder if this is the father of Joplin's friend William Spiller, leader of the Musical Spillers. If so, Wm. Spiller expressing his father's views to Joplin could be another influence." In a second reply the same day, Berlin added, "William Spiller's father was a minister, & he stongly opposed William's chosen career. That was until after many years, he attended one of the son's performances, which led to a reconciliation."
It was time to check public records.
The 1880 U. S. Federal Census revealed that Reverend Richard Spiller and musician William N. Spiller were, indeed, father and son.
Judging from the notes in King of Ragtime, Berlin's source appears to be Phyllis Anderson's April 4, 1991 Sonneck Society for American Music presentation, "William Newmeyer Spiller, A Vaudeville Musician: The Hampton Years, 1876-1899." Whether Anderson discussed Hampton Institute, I don't know, but Hampton in her title clearly refers to the city, not the school; as the census indicates; William Spiller was born in 1876.
My first inclination was to accept Berlin's logical suggestion that William Spiller might have shared his father's views with Joplin. Then something I noticed online changed my mind. After William Spiller had attended Spiller Academy, the school started by his father, he went on to Hampton Institute (http://archives.nypl.org/scm/20778). The musical Spiller was in a position to fill Joplin's head with the Hampton-Tuskegee way of thinking. Might Joplin's friend have been the inspiration behind the opera or at least the living, breathing library of information from which Joplin drew?
Although William Spiller's middle name appears as Newmeyer in recent sources I have seen, it appears as Nehemiah in the Social Security Application and Claims Index for July 1940. Since other public records give only the middle initial N, possibly someone misheard the name and wrote it as he or she heard it, causing others to replicate the error. What more logical name might a minister involved with rebuilding the South after the Civil War choose for his son than Nehemiah--the loyal protector of the king and the man who took on the daunting task of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem? The Spillers must have had high hopes for their son William. If he played a role in Treemonisha, we can only wonder if they knew, if they read the score or libretto, and if they felt he had lived up to the name.
Athough only tangentially related to Treemonisha, William Spiller's younger sister Lula Estelle, born in 1882, raises a question for future research.
A brief biography in the Centennial Encyclopedia of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1916) reveals that Lula had "a rich contralto voice," taught music during the summer of 1901 at Hampton Institute, and after more education became "a successful evangelist and Christian Endeavor worker," who brought "hundreds . . . to Christ through her instrumentality."
In 1905, she married Reverend James Henry Hawkins and appears to have settled into her role as a wife rather than evangelist. The 1930 census reveals that the couple had moved to Warrensburg, Missouri, where James Henry Hawkins served as pastor in an A.M.E. church, and the 1940 census places them in St. Louis where he continued pastoring. Both eventually died in St. Louis, he in 1954 and she in 1980. When her brother William turned to minstrelsy and vaudeville, thus causing a break between father and son, Lula Estelle probably brought joy to Reverend Spiller.
I am unaware of any connection between Lula Estelle and Joplin although they could possibly have met through her brother William. With no known acquaintance between the two, she is most interesting because of her married name. While discussing two parties at the home of the mysterious, unidentified Christie Hawkins in New York--both attended by Joplin, William Spiller, and others, Ed Berlin has hypothesized that she must have been Joplin's friend, perhaps a close friend. Although Hawkins is a more common surname than Spiller, we should now consider the possibility that Christie Hawkins was related to James Henry Hawkins. My brief search for Christie Hawkins yielded no useful results, and I have too many other research interests to spend time on her. It now remains for some other researcher to verify or rule out kinship with William Spiller’s minister brother-in-law.
How Joplin acquired the knowledge to incorporate so much of the Hampton-Tuskegee ideology into his opera we may never know. Did the ideas pervade the very air, such an integral part of his environment that they had become a part of him? Did he read Washingtonor Washington and Armstrong on his own or in school? Did George R. Smith faculty teach him more than music? Or perhaps hearing Joplin's story about his lost opera A Guest of Honor, might friend William Spiller have proclaimed, "Scott, do I have an idea for you!"
In an ideal world, Parson Alltalk should have been a leader, perhaps someone more like Reverend Spiller. Based on Treemonisha’s neighbors’ responses to Alltalk’s preaching, they may have regarded him as one, just as Reverend Spiller said his people were taught to do.
Joplin, however, did not live in an ideal world. Poverty, ignorance, superstition, and preachers like Parson Alltalk would have surrounded him as a child in the rural South. Conditions had improved somewhat between his childhood and his writing Treemonisha , yet Joplin set his opera in the past, creating a story and a setting that matched Washington’s description of surviving ignorance and superstition on plantations abandoned by whites, leaving former slaves to fend for themselves without anyone to guide them.
Uneducated and ill-prepared for the ministry, Alltalk fails at leadership. If we accept what ministers and educators wrote around the time of the opera's action and even shortly before Joplin's writing, Alltalk's platitudes offer needed lessons. But talk wasn't considered enough. Hindered by lack of education, Alltalk perhaps more importantly lacks practical Christianity—the application and modeling of skills and values that Booker T. Washington, Joplin’s hero, learned from Samuel Chapman Armstrong, Washington’s hero. Despite Parson Alltalk’s good advice, Treemonisha’s neighbors remain ignorant and superstitious. Joplin does not use his Parson to advance the plot; he uses the Parson’s shortcomings to underscore the people’s need for a true leader--one waiting in the wings and capable of leading them forward.
I am a retired community college professor and the great-granddaughter of composer, orchestrator, arranger, organist, and teacher William Christopher O'Hare.
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