The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America/Chapter 6

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How the black woman from her low estate not only united two great human races but helped lift herself and all women to economic independence and self-expression.

The emancipation of woman is, of course, but one phase of the growth of democracy. It deserves perhaps separate treatment because it is an interesting example of the way in which the Negro has helped American democracy.

In the United States in 1920 there were 5,253,695 women of Negro descent; over twelve hundred thousand of these were children, another twelve hundred thousand were girls and young women under twenty, and two and a half million were adults. As a mass these women have but the beginnings of education,—twelve percent of those from sixteen to twenty years of age were unable to write, and twenty-eight percent of those twenty-one years of age and over. These women are passing through, not only a moral, but an economic revolution. Their grandmothers married at twelve and fifteen, but in 1910 twenty-seven percent of these women who had passed fifteen were still single.

Yet these black women toil and toil hard. There were in 1910 two and a half million Negro homes in the United States. Out of these homes walked daily to work two million women and girls over ten years of age,—one half of the colored female population as against a fifth in the case of white women. These, then, are a group of workers, fighting for their daily bread like men; independent and approaching economic freedom! They furnished a million farm laborers, 80,000 farmers, 22,000 teachers, 600,000 servants and washerwomen, and 50,000 in trades and merchandizing. In 1920, 38.9% of colored women were at work as contrasted with 17.2% of native white women. Of the colored women 39% were farming and 50% in service.

The family group, however, which is the ideal of the culture into which these folk have been born, is not based on the idea of an economically independent working mother. Rather its ideal harks back to the sheltered harem with the mother emerging at first as nurse and homemaker, while the man remains the sole breadwinner. Thus the Negro woman more than the women of any other group in America is the protagonist in the fight for an economically independent womanhood in modern countries. Her fight has not been willing or for the most part conscious but it has, nevertheless, been curiously effective in its influence on the working world.

This matter of economic independence is, of course, the central fact in the struggle of women for equality. In the earlier days the slave woman was found to be economically as efficient as the man. Moreover, because of her production of children she became in many ways more valuable; but because she was a field hand the slave family differed from the free family. The children were brought up very largely in common on the plantation, there was comparatively small parental control or real family life and the chief function of the woman was working and not making a home. We can see here pre-figured a type of social development toward which the world is working again for similar and larger reasons. In our modern industrial organization the work of women is being found as valuable as that of men. They are consequently being taken from the home and put into industry and the rapidity by which this process is going on is only kept back by the problem of the child; and more and more the community is taking charge of the education of children for this reason.

In America the work of Negro women has not only pre-figured this development but it has had a direct influence upon it. The Negro woman as laborer, as seamstress, as servant and cook, has come into competition with the white male laborer and with the white woman worker. The fact that she could and did replace the white man as laborer, artisan and servant, showed the possibility of the white woman doing the same thing, and led to it. Moreover, the usual sentimental arguments against women at work were not brought forward in the case of Negro "womanhood. Nothing illustrates this so well as the speech of Sojourner Truth before the second National Woman Suffrage Convention, in 1852.

Sojourner Truth came from the lowest of the low, a slave whose children had been sold away from her, a hard, ignorant worker without even a name, who came to this meeting of white women and crouched in a corner against the wall. “Don’t let her speak,” was repeatedly said to the presiding officer. “Don’t get our cause mixed up with abolition and ‘niggers’.” The discussion became warm, resolutions were presented and argued. Much was said of the superiority of man’s intellect, the general helplessness of women and their need for courtesy, the sin of Eve, etc. Most of the white women, being “perfect ladies,” according to the ideals of the time, were not used to speaking in public and finally to their dismay the black woman arose from the corner. The audience became silent.

Sojourner Truth was an Amazon nearly six feet high, black, erect and with piercing eyes, and her speech in reply was to the point:

“Dat man ober dar say dat women needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to have the best places every whar. Nobody eber help me into carriages, or ober mud puddles, or gives me any best place” (and raising herself to her full height and her voice to a pitch like rolling thunder, she asked), “and ai’n’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm!” (And she bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power.) “I have plowed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me—and ai’n’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it), and bear de lash as well—and ai’n’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern and seen ’em mos’ all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard—and ai’n’t I a woman? Den dey talks ’bout dis ting in de head—what dis dey call it?” (“Intellect,” whispered some one near.) “Dat’s it honey. What’s dat got to do with women’s rights or niggers’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint and yourn holds a quart, wouldn’t ye be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?” . . . She ended by asserting that “If de fust woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down, all ’lone, dese togedder” (and she glanced her eye over us,) “ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again, and now dey is asking to do it, de men better let ’em. . . .”

“Amid roars of applause, she turned to her corner, leaving more than one of us with streaming eyes and hearts beating with gratitude. She had taken us up in her strong arms and carried us safely over the slough of difficulty, turning the whole tide in our favor. I have never in my life seen anything like the magical influence that subdued the mobbish spirit of the day and turned the jibes and sneers of an excited crowd into notes of respect and admiration. Hundreds rushed up to shake hands, and congratulate the glorious old mother and bid her God speed on her mission of ‘testifying again concerning the wickedness of this ’ere people’.”[1]

Again and in more concrete ways the Negro woman has influenced America and that is by her personal contact with the family—its men, women and children. As housekeeper, maid and nurse—as confidante, adviser and friend, she was often an integral part of the white family life of the South, and transmitted her dialect, her mannerisms, her quaint philosophy and her boundless sympathy.

Beyond this she became the concubine. It is a subject scarcely to be mentioned today with our conventional morals and with the bitter racial memories swirling about this institution of slavery. Yet the fact remains stark, ugly, painful, beautiful.

Let us regard it dispassionately, remembering that the concubine is as old as the world and that birth is a biological fact. It is usual to speak of the Negro as being the great example of the unassimiliated group in American life. This, of course, is flatly untrue; probably of the strains of blood longest present in America since the discovery by Columbus, the Negro has been less liable to absorption than other groups; but this does not mean that he has not been absorbed and that his blood has not been spread throughout the length and breadth of the land.

“We southern ladies are complimented with the names of wives; but we are only the mistresses of seraglios,” said a sister of President Madison; and a Connecticut minister who lived 14 years in Carolina said: “As it relates to amalgamation, I can say, that I have been in respectable families (so-called), where I could distinguish the family resemblance in the slaves who waited upon the table. I once hired a slave who belonged to his own uncle. It is so common for the female slaves to have white children, that little is ever said about it. Very few inquiries are made as to who the father is.”[2]

One has only to remember the early histories of cities like Charleston and New Orleans to see what the Negro concubine meant and how she transfigured America. Paul Alliot said in his reflections of Louisiana in 1803: “The population of that city counting the people of all colors is only twelve thousand souls. Mulattoes and Negroes are openly protected by the Government. He who strikes one of those persons, even though he had run away from him, would be severely punished. Also twenty whites could be counted in the prisons of New Orleans against one man of color. The wives and daughters of the latter are much sought after by the white men, and white women at times esteem well-built men of color.”[3] The same writer tells us that few white men marry, preferring to live with their slaves or with women of color.

A generation later the situation was much the same in spite of reaction. In 1818, a traveler says of New Orleans: “Here may be seen in the same crowds, Quadroons, Mulattoes, Samboes, Mustizos, Indians and Negroes; and there are other commixtures which are not yet classified.”[4]

“The minor distinctions of complexion and race so fiercely adhered to by the Creoles of the old regime were at their height at this time. The glory and shame of the city were her quadroons and octoroons, apparently constituting two aristocratic circles of society, the one as elegant as the other, the complexions the same, the men the same, the women different in race, but not in color, nor in dress nor in jewels. Writers on fire with the romance of this continental city love to speak of the splendors of the French Opera House, the first place in the country where grand opera was heard, and tell of the tiers of beautiful women with their jewels and airs and graces. Above the orchestra circle were four tiers; the first filled with the beautiful dames of the city; the second filled with a second array of beautiful women, attired like those of the first, with no apparent difference; yet these were the octoroons and quadroons, whose beauty and wealth were all the passports needed. The third was for the hoi polloi of the white race, and the fourth for the people of color whose color was more evident. It was a veritable sandwich of races.”[5]

Whatever judgment we may pass upon all this and however we may like or dislike it, the fact remains that the colored slave women became the medium through which two great races were united in America. Moreover it is the fashion to assume that all this was merely infiltration of white blood into the black; but we must remember it was just as surely infiltration of black blood into white America and not even an extraordinary drawing of the color line against all visible Negro blood has ever been able to trace its true limits.

There is scarcely an American, certainly none of the South and no Negro American, who does not know in his personal experience of Americans of Negro descent who either do not know or do not acknowledge their African ancestry. This is their right, if they do know, and a matter of but passing importance if they do not. But without doubt the spiritual legacy of Africa has been spread through this mingling of blood. First, of course, we may think of those more celebrated cases where the mixed blood is fairly well known but nevertheless the man has worked and passed as a white man. One of the earliest examples was that of Alexander Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton was a case in point of the much disputed “Creole” blood. Theoretically the Creole was a person of European descent on both sides born in the West Indies or America; but as there were naturally few such persons in earlier times because of the small number of European women who came to America, those descendants of European fathers and mulatto mothers were in practice called “Creole” and consequently it soon began to be prima facie evidence, in the West Indies, that an illegitimate child of a white father was of Negro descent. Alexander Hamilton was such an illegitimate child. He had colored relatives whose descendants still live in America and he was currently reported to be colored in the island of Nevis. Further than this, of course, proof is impossible. But to those who have given careful attention to the subject, little further proof is needed.

To this can be added a long list of American notables,—bishops, generals and members of Con grass. Many writers and artists have found hidden inspiration in their Negro blood and from the first importation in the fifteenth century down to today there has been a continual mingling of white and Negro blood in the United States both within and without the bonds of wedlock that neither law nor slavery nor cruel insult and contempt has been able to stop.

Besides these influences in economics and the home there has come the work of Negro women in revolt which cannot be forgotten. We mention two cases.

Harriet Tubman was a woman absolutely illiterate, who, from 1849 down to the Civil War, spent her time journeying backward and forward between the free and slave states and leading hundreds of black fugitives into freedom. Thousands of dollars were put upon her head as rewards for her capture; and she was continually sought by northern abolitionists and was a confidant of John Brown. During the War, she acted as a spy, guide and nurse and in all these days, worked without pay or reward. William H. Seward said: “A nobler, higher spirit or truer, seldom dwells in the human form,” and Wendell Phillips added: “In my opinion there are few captains, perhaps few colonels who have done more for the loyal cause since the War began and few men who did before that time more for the colored race than our fearless and most sagacious friend, Harriet.” Abraham Lincoln gave her ready audience.[6]

Quite a different kind of woman and yet strangely effective and influential was Mammy Pleasants of California. Here was a colored woman who became one of the shrewdest business minds of the State. She anticipated the development in oil; she was the trusted confidant of many of the California pioneers like Ralston, Mills and Booth and for years was a power in San Francisco affairs. Yet, she held her memories, her hatreds, her deep designs and throughout a life that was perhaps more than unconventional, she treasured a bitter hatred for slavery and a certain contempt for white people.

As a field hand in Georgia she had attracted the attention of a planter by her intelligence and was bought and sent to Boston for training. Here she was made a household drudge and eventually married Alexander Smith who was associated with Garrison and the abolitionists. With $50,000 from his estate, she came to California and made a fortune. The epitaph which she wanted on her tombstone was, “She was a friend of John Brown.” When she first heard of the projects of Brown she determined to help him and April 5, 1858, when John Brown was captured at Harper’s Ferry, they found upon him a letter reading: “The ax is laid at the foot of the tree; when the first blow is struck there will be more money to help.” This was signed by three initials which the authorities thought were “W. E. P.”—in fact they were “M. E. P.” and stood for Mammy Pleasants. She had come East the spring before with a $30,000 United States draft which she changed into coin and meeting John Brown in Chatham or Windsor, Canada, had turned this money over to him. It was agreed, however, that he was not to strike his blow until she had helped to arouse the slaves. Disguised as a jockey, she went South and while there heard of Brown’s raid and capture at Harper’s ferry. She fled to New York and finally reached California on a ship that came around Cape Horn, sailing in the steerage under an assumed name.

Mammy Pleasants “always wore a poke bonnet and a plaid shawl,” and she was “very black with thin lips” and “she handled more money during pioneers days in California than any other colored person.”[7]

Here then, we have the types of colored women who rose out of the black mass of slaves not only to guide their own folk but to influence the nation.

We have noted then the Negro woman in America as a worker tending to emancipate all women workers; as a mother nursing the white race and uniting the black and white race; as a conspirator urging forward emancipation in various sorts of ways; and we have finally only to remember that to-day the women of America who are doing humble but on the whole the most effective work in the social uplift of the lowly, not so much by money as by personal contact, are the colored women. Little is said or known about it but in thousands of churches and social clubs, in missionary societies and fraternal organizations, in unions like the National Association of Colored Women, these workers are founding and sustaining orphanages and old folk homes; distributing personal charity and relief; visiting prisoners; helping hospitals; teaching children; and ministering to all sorts of needs. Their work, as it comes now and then in special cases to the attention of individuals of the white world, forms a splendid bond of encouragement and sympathy, and helps more than most realize in minimizing racial difficulties and encouraging human sympathy.[8]

  1. Testimony of the presiding officer, Mrs. Frances D. Gage, in “Narrative of Sojourner Truth,” 1884, pp. 134-5.
  2. Goodell, Slave Code, p. 111.
  3. Robertson, Louisiana under the Rule of Spain, Vol. I, pp. 67, 103, 111; Dunbar-Nelson, in Journal of Negro History, Vol. 2, p. 56.
  4. Dunbar-Nelson, loc. cit.
  5. Dunbar-Nelson, op. cit., p. 62; Martineau, Society in America, p. 326ff.
  6. Brownie’s Book, March, 1921.
  7. Beasley, Negro Trail Blazers, pp. 95-7.
  8. Cf. Annual Reports National Association of Colored Women; Atlanta University Publications, No. 14.