“Get out and be something.”

William Henry Johnson biography.jpgThe wide-ranging autobiography of William Henry Johnson is filled with reminders of how much and how little has changed since its publication in 1900. In the “Finale,” John T. Chapman, manager of the Leonard Publishing Company’s publications, relates the story of two young men of color who stepped into Johnson’s well-respected Maiden Lane barber shop and,

were met with the terse salutation given in dead earnest, “Well, what are you two loafing around here for?” After they had caught their breath, one said, “I expect to go to work shortly” — “I,” said the other, “am promised a place at the Kenmore” (the then leading hotel of Albany.) “Shame on you both, you are two fools,” came the blows, straight from the shoulder, “all respectable work is honorable, it is true, but both of you are capable of doing better work for yourselves and incidentally for your race. Get out and be something. Why, if either of you were competent, I could put you in a place worth more than you ever earned in your life and that too within a stone’s throw of my shop, for the man I refer to wants a good bookkeeper. If the brains and ability and willingness to work are there, the color of his skin won’t count. Go — get a move on yourselves. I tell you, and when you have something to sell that somebody wants, bring it to market.” Both young men were considerable wrought up by his language and left the place with hurt and angry feelings. They swallowed the drastic dose, however, and walking home together agreed to be something out of the rut into which most of our young people seem to have fallen. One of the young men, now connected with one of the largest music establishments in the city, promptly put himself to and thoroughly learned the tailor’s trade laying a foundation for a knowledge of business methods, which largely contributed to placing him where he is now. The other, several months after the conversation took place, walked into Mr. Johnson’s shop, and said, “I am ready for that job of bookkeeping, now, where is it?” Again, like a pistol report, came the answer quick and clear, “Do you suppose that man is waiting yet for you? If so, then you know less than I gave you credit for, and are hardly less foolish than when you were loafing around here last fall. He could have had fifty men while you were getting ready, but never mind,” he added, “the man and the opportunity usually find each other so do not let the fact of his not wanting your valuable services just now discourage you.” Sure enough, within two weeks, an opening did come and was immediately taken advantage of. This occurred nearly twenty years ago. Both the young men are well situated to-day and agree they began their life work at the time Mr. Johnson prodded them up to be something. For whatever measure of success which may have come to me (as one of the young men referred to), I certainly date its inception from that strong talk, to put it mildly, which Mr. Johnson, in his constant thought of race progress and elevation, gave us at that time….

A few more “Johnsons,” and our young men and women would be made to feel that life was given them for a purpose higher than the level which a great many are content with; and the world personified in the race with which they are identified, and, as in the case of Mr. Johnson, would be the better for their having lived in it.

More on William Henry Johnson here and here.

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