Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/June 1899/The Negro Question

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By J. L. M. CURRY, LL. D.,


THE negro question is not of recent origin. The Iliad of our woes began in 1620, when negroes were first brought to the colony of Virginia and sold as slaves. Slavery antedates history. The traffic of Europeans in negroes existed a half century before the discovery of America. The very year in which Charles V sailed with a powerful expedition against Tunis to check the piracies of the Barbary states, and to emancipate enslaved Christians in Africa, he gave an open legal sanction to the African slave trade. When independence was declared in 1776 all the colonies held slaves. Slavery, said the late Senator Ingalls, disappeared from the Northern States "by the operation of social, economic, and natural laws," and "the North did not finally determine to destroy this system until convinced that its continuance threatened not only their industrial independence but their political importance." In course of years "the peculiar institution" assumed a sectional character. The war between the States precipitated a crisis. President Lincoln began then the work of emancipation. "As commander-in-chief of the army and navy in time of war, I suppose I have the right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy.… I view the measure [the Proclamation] as a practical war measure according to the advantages or disadvantages it will offer to the suppression of the rebellion." Senator Ingalls's testimony is as follows: "It may be admitted that the emancipation of the slaves was not contemplated by any considerable portion of the American people when the war for the Union began, and it was not brought to pass until the fortunes of war became desperate, and was then justified and defended upon the plea of military necessity." The Southern States ratified the amendments to the Constitution under penalty of otherwise remaining out of the Union and in political and military vassalage. The abolition of slavery has the assent of all sane men. Apart from ethical considerations, the subjection of the will, thought, or labor of a mature human being to the whim, caprice, or legal right of another is a gross political and economical blunder, unwise and indefensible. After emancipation came citizenship and enfranchisement of the freedmen, and the punitive measures of reconstruction, which were the outcome of hatred, revenge, desire for party ascendency, and which no good man can now approve. No conquering nation ever inflicted on a conquered people more cruel injustice than the disfranchisement of the most capable citizens and the enfranchisement of liberated slaves. Certain great civil rights are the necessary and proper consequences of freedom. Suffrage is not a natural right, nor a legal, political, or general result of freedom or citizenship. The large majority of citizens do not and can not vote.

The liberation of millions of slaves was the most gigantic and, in itself, one of the most beneficent acts of this century. Nothing is comparable to it as a triumph of the inalienable rights of man. Humanity and justice demanded emancipation. Re-enslavement no one proposes or desires. All would rejoice in the prosperity and progress of the Afro-American, but with freedom came citizenship and suffrage, and these revolutionized our Government. Elements undreamed of were introduced as constituents. When the Constitution and the resulting Union were formed, such a citizenship with franchise was not proposed, and if proposed would not have been listened to for a moment. The most infatuated negrophilist would not stultify himself by asserting that the Union of States would or could have been consummated with the present incongruous, heterogeneous citizenship.

From these and other facts has been evolved what has been called the negro problem. In the discussion, it is best to eliminate all extraneous considerations, all issues which, as the lawyers say, are "dehors the record." Government is a very practical business. The end is the securing and preserving the peace, safety, and well-being of the State. Civil government has no mission of general philanthropy. This problem, while of terrific importance in the South, where the black population is persistently congestive, is not, in its ramifications or direct effects, local or sectional. It affects every community and every section. It is of paramount national importance, complex, and involving social, moral, and political considerations. Its gravity can not be exaggerated. It compels the attention and demands all the resources of patriots, philanthropists, statesmen. It thrusts itself, uninvited and unwelcomed, into religious and social assemblies and legislative councils. It is pervasive, continuing, vital. It is better to look it full in the face and give it dispassionate thought.

It need scarcely be said that in this discussion no hostile reference is made to individuals. Some negroes are men of intelligence, integrity, patriotism, and stand on a plane with our best citizens in virtues and mental qualifications.[1] The gist of this contention is not based on special exceptions, but on the race in the aggregate.

We find in the South the presence of two distinct peoples, with irreconcilable racial characteristics and diverse historical antecedents. The Caucasian and the negro are not simply unlike, but they are contrasted, and are as far apart as any other two races of human beings. They are unassimilable and immiscible without rapid degeneracy. Ethnologically they are nearly polar opposites. With the Caucasian progress has been upward. Whatever is great in art, invention, literature, science, civilization, religion, has characterized him. In his native land the negro has made little or no advancement for nearly four thousand years. Surrounded by and in contact with a higher civilization, he has not invented a machine, nor painted a picture, nor written a book, nor organized a stable government, nor constructed a code of laws. He has not suppressed the slave trade, which, according to recent testimony, was never more flourishing. He has no monuments nor recorded history. For thousands of years there lies behind the race one dreary, unrelieved, monotonous chapter of ignorance, nakedness, superstition, savagery. All efforts to reclaim, civilize, Christianize, have been disastrous failures, except what has been accomplished in this direction in the United States.

It need not be disguised, for it is the ever-present, indisputable fact, that while there are alleviations of the unpleasantness, the relations between the negroes and their co-citizens of the Caucasian race are strained and unsatisfactory. The friction, the prejudice, the cleavage, is not between Teutonic and Latin on the one side and Semitic on the other, nor between Saxon and Celt; it lies deeper, yields less readily to palliatives and remedies, and seems a matter of adjustment for the remotest future. It may help to understand the situation if we analyze its causes.

The great revolution suddenly transformed the customs, traditions, and conditions of the two races. Ownership gave way to freedom; compulsory and wage-unrewarded labor to absolute control of person; inequality, inferiority, subjection, to equality in the eye of the law; restrained locomotion to license of movement; kindness, interest in life, wealth, and physical welfare, to suspicion, distress, alienation. With property in man, regulated and enforced by laws in the interest of the master, labor was organized, directed by intelligent control to the development of agricultural resources and to the building up of a society which for refinement of manners, hospitality, and administrative capacity, has elicited praise from disinterested travelers and investigators. The negro, whatever he may have attained from the discipline of slavery, was not cultivated in intelligence, in manual skill, in forethought, power of initiative, in thrift, and the comforts and graces of home life. When freed, many were deluded by deceptive promises. They construed freedom to mean a division of property. Release from bondage led to intemperance and extravagance. Accustomed to control, unaccustomed to self-reliance, having others to think, plan, buy, and sell for them, to supply wants, to watch over them from the cradle to the coffin, many, when left to themselves, reverted to primitive habits, and became idle and worthless. Slavery had cursed the South with ignorant, unskilled, uninventive labor. Freedom did not change its character. The war, liberation of slaves, the sudden extinguishment of millions of property, bankrupted the South. Subsistence, recovery of means of living, rehabilitation, reorganization of those agencies, which are, with intelligent work, the chief means of the wealth of civilized peoples, became the first duty after hostilities ceased. This demanded steady, persistent industry, the change of former methods of agriculture, subdivision of farms, diversification of pursuits, opening of academies and colleges, and establishment of public schools for free and universal education. The contrast between the wealth and prosperity of the North and South presents an appalling picture. Naturally, the Southern people were in despair, and too often they vented their dissatisfaction, their rage, upon the irresponsible and unoffending negro.

Slavery per se is not conducive to self-restraint of the enslaved, to high ethical standards, and the best types of human life. When the interest and authority of owners were removed and former religious instruction was crippled or withdrawn, the negroes fell rapidly from what had been attained in slavery to a state of immorality, and, in some cases, to original fetichism. Some remained immovable in their former faith, but many, especially of the younger generation, of both sexes, gave proof of what degeneracy can accomplish in a quarter of a century. It is very common for them to divorce religion and piety. Artificial excitement, passionate emotion, was substituted for a faith which should be the product of a knowledge of and deep reverence for the Word of God. The danger of doing harm, or injustice, restrains my pen from disclosing a mass of disgusting material which could only shock sensibilities and stagger credulity. It is, besides, very easy to magnify our own virtues and others' vices. It is a prevalent mode of religiousness to repent of other people's sins, and to get superfluous merit by showing how others fall short of our attainments. Lowell said, "Everybody has a mission (with a capital M) to attend to everybody else's business," and "to make his own whim the law, and his own range the horizon of the universe." We have all read of the philanthropic Mrs, Jellaby neglecting home and children to sweeten the lot of the unregenerate natives of Borrioboola Gha. Still, testimony, to satisfy the most skeptical, could be adduced ad nauseam, from men and women doing educational and missionary work among the colored people, to show the deplorable depths into which multitudes have sunk.

Under the Reconstruction Acts there was a deliberate, predetermined attempt and purpose to put the freedmen in control of the Southern States. The late slaves were enfranchised; the best class of white men were disfranchised. The law presumes that a man or a State intends the logical consequence of acts done. In South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana a majority of the voters, under the coerced policy, were negroes. In other States they were so numerous that a combination with a small fraction of white voters would give the ascendency. In Virginia, a coalition between non-taxpaying white people and negroes, under skilled and bold leadership, accomplished partial repudiation of the State debt. Superadd to this undisguised Federal intent the hungry adventurers who, as governors, judges, marshals, district attorneys, etc., flocked like vultures around the carcass, the horde of persons whose object was to pilfer and plunder, who played upon the ignorance, the superstitions, and gratitude of the negro and made the credulous victims believe that their former masters were not to be trusted in elections, and you have a picture which imagination fails to realize. The negroes, neither by apprenticeship, nor political education, not intellectual culture, were prepared for the boon, and their unscrupulous friends organized them into secret societies and inflamed hopes and expectations of wealth and dominancy. Casper Hauser transferred from a dungeon to a throne would be a fit illustration of this defiance of all the teachings of the past. Suffrage was a wrong to the nation, to the States, to the white and black races, and especially to the negro. Negro suffrage is a farce, a burlesque on elections, and only evil. The negroes generally vote as puppets, as machines, and have not the remotest conception of the character or effect of the act they are ignorantly performing, or of the issues involved in the contest, or of the functions or duties of the officers voted for. Huxley says, "Voting power as a means of giving effect to opinion is more likely to prove a curse than a blessing to the voter, unless that opinion is the result of a sound judgment operating upon sound knowledge." This premature investiture of the negro with suffrage reciprocally provoked alienation, bitterness, strife, and a resolute purpose on the part of the white people not to submit to the misrule and tyranny of ignorance and pauperism, but to resort to all necessary methods to defeat such a result.

It is needless to recapitulate the facts of many thousand years in order to raise the inference of racial difference between the Caucasian and the negro. The immigration to our country is the proof of antagonism of races. The foreigner stays away from the South; so in a large degree does the Northern man. Not withstanding the unsurpassed climate, the rivers and gulf and mountains, the fertile soil, the varied products, the hospitable welcome, the territory occupied by the negro is persistently avoided. By the census of 1880 the proportion of foreign-born in all the former slave States was 3.5 per cent; in the Northern States about twenty per cent; in eight Southern States, where the negroes abound, there was in 1880 only one and a third per cent who were of foreign birth. Mr. Lincoln, in 1858, in accounting for the repulsion, said: "There is a physical difference between the two races which will probably forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality.… I am not, or ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarrying with white people." Absorption, assimilation, is not to be dreamed of. The negro is no nearer common fellowship, equality of association, than he was in 1865. Reconstruction measures, constitutional amendments, sword and bayonet, ecclesiastical anathemas, fulminations of press and pulpit, all power of church and state and public opinion, have not altered, can not alter, what seems ineradicable. Race antagonism reaches deeper than political affiliation. If every negro at the South were to vote the Democratic ticket in every subsequent election, the race division would remain the same.

Can these differences be effaced, alienations be healed, and overshadowing perils be averted? What concerns the patriot is to find a solution for this gigantic and appalling problem. The statesman has not yet arisen, disposed to grapple with the problem, or capable of suggesting a feasible and efficacious remedy. "With the least hardship to the negro, proper recognition of his rights as a man, due regard to the just ends of our Government, and the purposes of its founders, some scheme, if possible, wise, adequate, and comprehensive, should be devised. Whatever hitherto has been suggested has been met with opposition and is justly liable to criticism. The most obvious remedy, and which has been tried with some success, is to uplift the race by means of public schools and proper religious instruction. All honor to the schools that train the youth into self-respecting manhood and womanhood! All honor for the efforts that are making to correct the debasement of slavery, to unite faith and practice, to infuse religious life with an ethical Christianity, and to form a moral basis for life and character! The crimes of both races in the South, pushed within the last few years to most brutal atrocities, show that there can be no safety for free institutions, no guarding against savage degradation, if either race be kept in crass ignorance. Both must suffer. It would be some relief from ballot-box evils and perils if the examples of New England and of Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina were followed by all the States. As "universal suffrage has no anchorage except in the people's intelligence," Massachusetts requires of voters a prepayment of taxes, and voting and office-holding are limited to those who can read the Constitution in the English language and write their names. What has been done by States, denominations, and individuals through schools is not discouraging to larger and better efforts, but is a stimulus to and an assurance of excellent results. The plantation system of the South, when land was in the hands of a few territorial magnates, was of very doubtful utility. A bold peasantry is a country's pride, and a small farmer should take the place of the large landed proprietor. If the negroes should acquire and hold more real estate, they would be of more value as citizens, and would have increased interest in the stability of laws, enforcing of contracts, and the preservation of State honor. An enlargement of the number of those who have a solid stake in the well-being of the country would be adding to the ranks of natural supporters of law and honor, and strengthening the true foundations on which the stability of a republican government must rest.

The congestion of the negroes aggravates the difficulties and dangers of the problem. The area of the States holding slaves in 1860 was 901,740 square miles, and of the Northern States, excluding Alaska, 2,123,860 square miles. By the census of 1890, the total population of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia, was 37.3 per cent of negroes and 62.7 per cent of whites; or, including Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, 30.7 per cent of negroes and 69.3 per cent of whites. The African citizens are localized within a narrow area. A French statesman said, "Cross the Pyrenees and Africa begins." Cross Mason and Dixon's line, or the Ohio and Potomac Rivers, and in a truer sense Africa begins, for south of that line the negroes are massed. It has been nearly forty years since slavery existed, for no one born since 1860 was ever practically a slave, and yet freedom has not diffused the seven million and a half of Africans. Despite all the traditions of bondage, all the misrepresentations of modern literature, all the exaggerated accounts of intimidation and cruelty, the South remains the home of the negro. When he is told that equality, friendship, political sympathy, and good wages may be secured by passing an invisible geographical line, he persistently refuses to be seduced across. Senator Windom, of Minnesota, advocated a plan for distributing by assisted emigration, but nothing came of it. Senator Edmunds, in discussing the Chinese question, said: "The people of Massachusetts would not be hungry for an eruption of a million of the inhabitants of Africa, … because they believe, either by instinct or education, that it is not good for the two races to be brought into that kind of contact in that place.… The fundamental idea of a prosperous republic must be a homogeneity of its people."

Colonization as a remedy has had many strong advocates. As early as 1800 the Assembly of Virginia, in secret session, instructed the Governor to correspond with the President with the object of procuring a colony to which the negroes could be sent. Jefferson began the correspondence. The Legislature resumed the question, and expressed its preference for "Africa or any of the Spanish or Portuguese settlements in South America" as the place "to which free negroes or mulattoes, and such negroes or mulattoes as may be emancipated," might be sent or choose to remove. In 1805 the members of Congress were instructed to endeavor to procure suitable territory in Louisiana. In 1811, being asked his opinion as to a settlement on the coast of Africa, Jefferson replied that "nothing is more to be wished than that the United States would themselves undertake to make such an establishment on the coast of Africa." In 1813 the Legislature openly and almost unanimously adopted, for the third time, resolutions similar to those of 1800. The same year the Colonization Society was formed, out of which grew the Republic of Liberia. President Lincoln, in his first annual message, December, 1861, referring to the two classes of liberated persons that might be thrown upon Congress for their disposal, recommended "that in any event steps be taken for colonizing both classes at some place or places in a climate congenial to them. It might be well to consider, too, whether the free colored people already in the United States could not be included in such colonization." Congress responded by voting one hundred thousand dollars for the voluntary emigration of freedmen from the District of Columbia to Haiti or Liberia, and later, in July, 1862, gave five hundred thousand dollars for the colonization of negroes in some tropical country beyond the limits of the United States. Mr. Lincoln continued to favor the policy of removal to another country, and five days after signing the above act he read to his Cabinet a proposed order for "the colonization of negroes in some tropical country." Burdened with this great question, amid the exigencies of the mighty war, he continued to push the matter, and had Secretary Seward send a circular letter to England, France, the Netherlands, and Denmark, with regard to colonizing the negroes in some of their tropical possessions. Offers came from the Danish West Indies, Dutch Surinam, British Guiana, Honduras, Haiti, New Granada, and Ecuador. Mr. Lincoln considered the offers from New Granada and an island off Haiti, and even sent a colony to the latter. Again, in his annual message in 1862, he argued for colonization, and asked for an appropriation, but, under the passions of the terrible conflict then raging, the Congress, instead of heeding the request, repealed the former act appropriating five hundred thousand dollars.

The Indians, against their will, were transported, by coercive measures, to allotted lands beyond the Mississippi, but that was before the modern discovery that the United States should grant "fraternity and assistance to all people" under other than republican governments, and that universal suffrage was the infallible expedient for civilizing semibarbarous peoples. President Harrison, in his letter of acceptance, writing on another subject, says, "We are already under a duty to defend our civilization by excluding alien races whose ultimate assimilation with our people is neither possible nor desirable."

Remedies, strong and adequate and feasible, may not be found readily, but there are gentler and quieter agencies which may be used by both races to mutual advantage. The white people, in accepting the legitimate consequences of defeat, in vigorous efforts to restore antebellum prosperity, in establishing schools, in reconstructing shattered society, have done nobly, but they are not without sin. Laws, general and wise and impartial, on the statute-book need for their enforcement a sustaining public opinion, but this has not always been forthcoming. Lawless and violent proceedings, always unnecessary and demoralizing, sometimes as brutal as the crimes which excited horror; harsh and unjust contracts; interferences in elections; false registration and counting of votes, and other acts which the plea of self-preservation did not justify, have evinced the harshness and injustice of dominant power, and have not tended to soften prejudices or make the situation more tolerable. Each race is fortunately improving in intercourse and in dealings with the other, and time and sober judgment are, in a sensible degree, removing causes of alienation which are not inherent and incurable.

"What a blessing," said President Sir John Lubbock, at the late meeting of the International Congress of Zoölogists, "it would be for mankind if we could stop the enormous expenditure on engines for the destruction of life and property, and spend the tenth, the hundredth, even the thousandth part on scientific progress! Few people seem to realize how much science has done for man, and still fewer how much more it would still do if permitted. More students would doubtless have devoted themselves to science if it were not so systematically neglected in our schools; if men and boys were not given the impression that the field of discovery is well-nigh exhausted. We, gentlemen, know how far that is from being the case. Much of the land surface of the globe is still unexplored; the ocean is almost unknown; our collections contain thousands of species waiting to be described; the life-histories of many of our commonest species remain to be investigated, or have only recently been discovered."

  1. Such an extraordinary man as Booker T. Washington is an honor to any country and worthy of unlimited confidence and regard.