African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Lucian B. Watkins, "Autobiography" (From "Voices of Solitude" (1907)


"Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth; a stranger, and not thine own lips." We who are inclined to speak overmuch of ourselves seem to feel in these words an open rebuke by the wise Solomon. Yet it seems if one can. only resist the impulse to soar away upon the evil winds of egotism into the vain clouds of auto-laudation, he may be permitted to walk cautiously about the peaceful valley of truthful simplicity.

I have no reasons to offer in defense of present assumption as an autobiographer. I feel that my life has been insignificant and, upon my part, void of much good. But the vernal years of man's allotted "three score and ten" have just passed over my head, placing thereon — even in their swift flight — many of the silver threads of life's autumn. Should there be the blessed visual realization of life's summer in store for me, I hope to grow into a life of real usefulness.

My father's name is Henderson B. Watkins. The maiden name of my mother was Emeline Brooks. Humble, praying, Christian parents from the lowly log cabin of slavery. "Joined together" in those benighted days of servitude, and, subsequently, legally confirmed. Both of them secretly learned to read print, and were devoted readers of the Bible. Neither of them learned to write. My father became a successful miner. My mother was an acknowledged efficient cook and a competent nurse. Upon the summit of industry, perseverance, fortitude, goodness, kindness and womanliness my mother's life rises before me — an amatory personage.

According to the "birth record" of our family Bible, and the unquestionable statement of my parents, I was born May 25, 1878, in Chesterfield County, Virginia, at a small settlement called Otterdale, about twenty miles from Richmond. I am the youngest but two of the family of fifteen children. Soon after I became seven years of age my parents gave me a McGufifey's Primer, and one bright Monday morning I was sent with my older brothers and sisters to the first school that I ever attended. I shall never forget how proud and happy I felt that "first day in school." My older sister had taught me the alphabet. I could read and spell quite well.

This school was taught by one Mr. Gray, a man who was kind in disposition, noble, magnetic and impressive in his bearing, and a worthy teacher. My young heart was drawn toward him with the tender liking of true friendship. My studies became a pleasure; thus my launch upon an educational sea was replete with pleasures that I am always glad to recall. I do not think I gave my teacher much trouble with my studies, as I found myself at the end of my first session in school ready for the Third Reader, with other studies accordingly. For three suc- cessive sessions I attended the same school, with the same teacher. The next session I attended the same school, but had a lady teacher, one Miss Tucker, who had been an advanced pupil of Mr. Gray's school during my preceding school days. The following three sessions I attended another school, taught by my older sister, Leora, the one who taught me the alphabet, and to whom I dedicated "The Household Queen," of this volume. Sister Leora was also formerly a pupil of Mr. Gray's school, but afterward graduated from the Summer Normal Course of "The Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute," of Petersburg, Va.

In December, 1891, my mother died. I was then thirteen years of age. I think I was my mother's favorite. O! those thirteen years in the sunshine of mother's love ! I now look back through the dim mists of years and see the smiles! hear the voice! feel the caresses of MOTHER!

Soon after my mother's death I began to study crayon portraiture and automatic shading pen work. Having made fair progress with these studies, I made a portrait of my mother. From this portrait I received the impulse that led me to write "My Mother's Picture." This was my first attempt at verse-making, and was written when I was thirteen years of age.

About this time my older brother presented me with an organ and I began to study music.

My parents had early talked of sending me to college some day, and in September, 1892, I was sent to "The Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute," Petersburg, Va. My sister, Leora, bore the greater part of my expenses ; a portion I paid by doing janitor work at the school. My entrance examination at this school was creditable, and I found it comparatively easy to keep up with my class. This session at college having been in every way favorable, and my desire for an education being awakened, I endeavored during the intermission from the close of school in May to its re-opening in September, to earn enough money to return to college. In this I failed, but earned enough money to buy the books sufficient for the class in which I would have been had I returned.

I had heard a college professor tell how he at one time, while obtaining an education, found himself with insufficient means to return to college ; and that he bought books and pursued the studies of his class, personally reporting and successfully taking each examination, finally graduating with his class. This I endeavored to do. I succeeded in this to a great extent but, unlike my hero, I did not report to take the examinations; whether I would have graduated with my class or not is one of the untried things that must ever be unknown.

About this time I received my inspirations of Christianity, and joined the Baptist church. Soon after this I wrote mv second selection, "The Vale of Solitude." Then followed "The Beauties of Woman," "The Flower at My Window," "The Faded Leaves," "The Frozen Rain," "Uncle Ike's Opinion of Winterpock's College," "A Winter's Sunrise," "The Household Queen," "Retrospection," and others.

In my life there is one love. This is manifested in the selections: "A Divided Love," "The Treasured Curl," "To the Sighing Winds," "Love," "I Love You, Too," and " Ever Faithful to You."

In the summer of 1897 I passed successfully the examination for public school teacher. I taught school the following two sessions.

May 25, 1900 (my twenty-second birthday), I left home, in company with a cousin and two other young men, for the Chamberlin Hotel, Old Point Comfort, Va., where we had been promised engagements as waiters. Being the least experienced of the four of my company, I soon became discouraged in my attempts at waiting, despite the fact I was treated kindly and assured that I would become a successful waiter. But my despondency increased daily, until I, at length, left that hotel and went to Baltimore, Md., in which city one of my brothers lived. In this city I was engaged as waiter at the "Old Town Hotel." One month's work at this hotel gave me new ambitions for hotel work. I afterward served as waiter at the "Florence Hotel," Philadelphia, Pa.; lastly, at the "Queen City Hotel," Cumberland, Md.

Led by the love of adventure and travel, coaxed by the hope of experience and the ac- quisition of knowledge, driven by the pangs of a seemingly hopeless love, August i6, 1900, I enlisted in the service of the United States Army. I was assigned to the Tenth Cavalry. For my first soldierly training, I was sent to Fort Clark, Texas. A few months later I was assigned to Troop " F" of the Tenth Cavalry then stationed at Fort Mcintosh, Texas. The next day after joining my troop I was detailed as clerk at the post Adjutant's Office. Later I was detailed troop clerk.

April 15, 1901, I embarked with my troop, at San Francisco, Cal., for foreign service in the Philippine Islands. We arrived at Manila May 13, 190 1. I served in the campaign against the Philippine insurgents on the island of Samar, May, June and July, 1901. After about one year and four months service in the islands we were surprised by an order directing our troop to return to the United States. After returning to the States, we were stationed at Fort Wash- akie, Wyo. (a post then about one hundred and fifty miles from any railroad). This being an Indian reservation I learned many curious and interesting facts in regard to the customs of this race of people. During school session while serving at this post I was assistant teacher of the post school. While here I wrote the military record of the First Sergeant of my troop. It was published in the February number of "THE COLORED AMERICAN MAGAZINE," then published in Boston, under the title of "The Life Story of a Typical Fighter." By request, I also contributed articles and poems to "THE ARMY AND NAVY UNION JOURNAL" of New York. Among them — "A Recruit's Resolutions," "Fort Washakie," "The Man With the Gun," and "To One of the Brave." I remained at this station until the expiration of my term of enlistment (August 15, 1903), at which date I was given an honorable discharge, showing for me an "excellent character and absolutely temperate habits." During this service in the Army I completed a course of "Advanced Bookkeeping and Business," with the " National Correspondence School," Washington, D. C.

December 21, 1903, I re-enlisted for service in the Hospital Corps, Medical Department, United States Army, and was sent to the " Hospital School of Instruction," Washington Barracks, D. C. Meanwhile, I attended night school at the "ARMSTRONG MANUAL TRAINING SCHOOL," Washington, D. C, and pursued a course of stenography and typewriting. Having completed the prescribed course at the "Hospital School of Instruction," I was sent to Fort Assinniboine, Mont., for duty.

October, 1904 (nine months and a few days after having entered the Medical Department), I passed successfully the examination for Hospital Sergeant. November, 1904, I received the appointment.

January 25, 1906, by special request, I was again sent to the Philippine Islands. During this service I was engaged in much actual hospital work in the field. This was during the pulejanes insurrection on the island of Leyte, July, August, September and October, 1906. Deciding to leave the army service, I was returned to the United States and received my second discharge January 3, 1907.

"VOICES OF SOLITUDE" breathes all that is dear to me in life. Every good emotion of which my heart is capable is 'in each line, and is a part of me.

LUCIAN BOTTOW WATKINS. February 5, 1907,

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