Ida B Wells deserves her place in the canon of journalism and social change. In the science fiction, not so much. I found her “A Story of 1900”, written in 1886, while digging for other things. It may not be a classic, but not only was it written two years before Edward Bellamy’s epochal Looking Backward, but the story lives and breathes Octavia Butler’s thoughts on the use of science fiction for black people.
“A STORY OF 1900”
Fisk Herald, April 1886
Twenty years ago a young girl went from one of the many colleges of our Southland to teach among her people. While she taught for a livelihood she performed her duty conscientiously with a desire to carry the light of education to those who dwelt in darkness, by faithfully instructing her charge[s] in their textbooks and grounding them firmly in the rudiments. She was born, reared and educated in the South, consequently the sentiments regarding, and the treatment of, the Negro were not unknown to her. Justice compelled her to acknowledge sadly that his moral and temporal status had not kept pace with the intellectual, and while reluctantly admitting this fact that was so often so exultantly and contemptuously cited against him she wondered if there were no remedy for a state of things that she knew was not irremediable. Since it had been amply proven that education alone would not be the salvation of the race, that his religion generally, was wholly emotional and had no bearing on his everyday life she thought that if the many ministers of the gospel, public and professional men of the race would exert their influence specifically—by precept and example—that they might do much to erase the stigma from the name. She never thought of the opportunities she possessed to mould high moral characters by—as the Episcopalians do their religion—instilling elevated thoughts, race pride and ambition with their daily lessons. One day a gentleman visited the school and mentioned a promising youth, 18 years old, who had attended that school, as being sentenced to the penitentiary the day before for three years for stealing a suit of clothes; he concluded his recital by sorrowfully saying: “That’s all our boys go to school for, they get enough education to send them to the penitentiary and the girls do worse.” It flashed on her while he was talking that the real want was proper home and moral training combined with mental, that would avert a too frequent repetition of this sad case and that the duty of Negro teachers was to supplement this lack, as none had greater opportunities. There came over her, such a desire to make the case in point an impressive lesson that schoolwork was suspended while she related the story and for half an hour earnestly exhorted them to cultivate honest, moral habits, to lay a foundation for a noble character that would convince the world that worth and not color made the man. From that time forth, whenever a case in point came up, she would tell them to illustrate that the way of the transgressor is hard; also that every such case only helped to confirm the discreditable opinion already entertained for the Negro. These casual earnest talks made a deep impression, her pupils became thoughtful and earnest, a deeper meaning was given to study; schoollife began to be viewed in a new light: as a means to an end; they learned, through her, that there was a work out in the world waiting for them to come and take hold, and these lessons sunk deep in their minds.
Their quiet deportment and manly independence as they grew older was noticeable. This teacher who had just awakened to a true sense of her mission did not stop here; she visited the homes, those where squalor and moral uncleannes [sic] walked hand in hand with poverty, as well as the better ones and talked earnestly with the parents on these themes, of laboring to be selfrespecting so they might be respected; of a practical Christianity; of setting a pure example in cleanliness and morals before their children. Before, she viewed their sins with loathing and disgust; now she was animated by a lofty purpose and earnest aim and the Son of Righteousness sustained her. She spent her life in the schoolroom and one visiting the communities today in which she labored will say when observing the intelligent happy homes and families, the advanced state of moral and temporal elevation of her one time pupils—that she has not lived in vain, that the world is infinitely better for her having in one corner of the earth endeavored to make it bloom with wheat, useful grain or beautiful flowers instead of allowing cruel thorns, or rank and poisonous thistles to flourish unmolested.
Some may ask, why we have been thus premature in recording a history of twenty years hence. The answer is short and simple that the many teachers of the race may not be content simply to earn a salary, but may also use their opportunity and influence. Finally gentle reader that you and I “may go and do likewise.”
MEMPHIS TENN. FEB. 29th 1886