Grandma and I hear the great man speak

Carefully laid the books down on a grassy spot next to the tree, which I climbed to see how many eggs were in the robin's nest. Five. Yesterday there were four. Now Mrs. Robin would sit until they hatched in three weeks. We must mark that date on the big calendar in the kitchen.

The books were from the library for Grandma to read. "She is sure to like this one," said the librarian as she handed me "Up From Slavery," by Booker T. Washington.

Grandma couldn't walk, but I hardly noticed as we always had such a good time together. She got around in a wheelchair, and I did what she couldn't.

When dusk came, she lit her Aladdin lamp. She took a match from a little china shoe that she kept by the lamp. The lamp gave a bright light for reading.

After supper and the dishes washed, we sat by the lamp to read. Sometimes we played Rook or Flinch, but reading was my favorite. We took turns reading aloud. Grandma had been a teacher and helped me with the big words. This time we chose "Up From Slavery." I could hardly believe what the author had endured, but Grandma assured me it was true. Then she told how President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in 1863. (Your grandfather, Grandma told me, had fought for the Union during the Civil War.) As a free man, Mr. Washington obtained an education and started a school.

Every summer our small town in Iowa held a Chautauqua "season" in a big tent in the park. The programs were talks by interesting people, or music. Most of the town attended. There were afternoon and evening sessions. It was always held in hot July or August. A furniture store furnished fans with its name on them for advertising.

One day in 1915 on a trip downtown to do errands for Grandma, I saw an announcement in a store window. Booker T. Washington was coming to Chautauqua. Excitedly, I ran all the way home. "We can hear him! We can hear him!" I shouted. "Booker T. Washington is coming!"

"You can go," Grandma said, "but I can't walk."

"I can push your wheelchair," I said.

"All the way to the park? It's too far, at least a mile."

"I can. I can. Really, it won't seem far."

"Oh, she's strong," said a neighbor who had dropped in and heard our discussion. "I've seen her climb fences and go up trees to look in bird nests. I am sure she could."

Finally, she agreed that I could try. We could take a lunch, go to the afternoon session, and stay for the evening. An afternoon of music and then a talk: Wouldn't that be great!

The big day finally arrived.

The neighbor helped get the wheelchair down the steps. Block after block I pushed. Someone always came along to help us down the curb and across the street and up the curb again. We arrived at the tent just as many others did. Friends greeted Grandma in surprise.

"Why, Jane Eliza! How did you get here?"

Grandma proudly pointed to me, "She's only 10 years old."

The large tent was filled with townspeople. Grandma and I listened to every word that Mr. Washington said. I could hardly believe I was hearing the author of a book we had read. I know that he received applause and praise, but I don't recall exactly what he said. I'm sure much of it was from his book.

A few months later, we read in the newspaper that Booker T. Washington had died. "He gave lectures to earn money for Tuskegee Institute, which he founded," the newspaper reported.

Grandma and I had heard the great man speak.

*February is Black History Month in the United States.

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