The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois
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Title: The Souls of Black Folk
Author: W. E. B. Du Bois
Release Date: January, 1996 [eBook #408]
[Most recently updated: August 11, 2021]
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*** START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK ***
by W. E. B. Du Bois
Herein is Written
|I.||Of Our Spiritual Strivings|
|II.||Of the Dawn of Freedom|
|III.||Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others|
|IV.||Of the Meaning of Progress|
|V.||Of the Wings of Atalanta|
|VI.||Of the Training of Black Men|
|VII.||Of the Black Belt|
|VIII.||Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece|
|IX.||Of the Sons of Master and Man|
|X.||Of the Faith of the Fathers|
|XI.||Of the Passing of the First-Born|
|XII.||Of Alexander Crummell|
|XIII.||Of the Coming of John|
|XIV.||Of the Sorrow Songs|
Burghardt and Yolande
The Lost and the Found
Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strangemeaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century. Thismeaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of theTwentieth Century is the problem of the color line.
I pray you, then, receive my little book in all charity, studying my words withme, forgiving mistake and foible for sake of the faith and passion that is inme, and seeking the grain of truth hidden there.
I have sought here to sketch, in vague, uncertain outline, the spiritual worldin which ten thousand thousand Americans live and strive. First, in twochapters I have tried to show what Emancipation meant to them, and what was itsaftermath. In a third chapter I have pointed out the slow rise of personalleadership, and criticized candidly the leader who bears the chief burden ofhis race to-day. Then, in two other chapters I have sketched in swift outlinethe two worlds within and without the Veil, and thus have come to the centralproblem of training men for life. Venturing now into deeper detail, I have intwo chapters studied the struggles of the massed millions of the blackpeasantry, and in another have sought to make clear the present relations ofthe sons of master and man. Leaving, then, the white world, I have steppedwithin the Veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeperrecesses,—the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow,and the struggle of its greater souls. All this I have ended with a tale twicetold but seldom written, and a chapter of song.
Some of these thoughts of mine have seen the light before in other guise. Forkindly consenting to their republication here, in altered and extended form, Imust thank the publishers of the Atlantic Monthly, The World’s Work, theDial, The New World, and the Annals of the American Academy of Political andSocial Science. Before each chapter, as now printed, stands a bar of the SorrowSongs,—some echo of haunting melody from the only American music whichwelled up from black souls in the dark past. And, finally, need I add that Iwho speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that livewithin the Veil?
W.E.B. Du B.
Atlanta, Ga., Feb. 1, 1903.
Of Our Spiritual Strivings
O water, voice of my heart, crying in the sand,
All night long crying with a mournful cry,
As I lie and listen, and cannot understand
The voice of my heart in my side or the voice of the sea,
O water, crying for rest, is it I, is it I?
All night long the water is crying to me.
Unresting water, there shall never be rest
Till the last moon droop and the last tide fail,
And the fire of the end begin to burn in the west;
And the heart shall be weary and wonder and cry like the sea,
All life long crying without avail,
As the water all night long is crying to me.
Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked bysome through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightlyframing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in ahalf-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then,instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I knowan excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do notthese Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or aminterested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. Tothe real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.
And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,—peculiar even for onewho has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe. It isin the early days of rollicking boyhood that the revelation first bursts uponone, all in a day, as it were. I remember well when the shadow swept across me.I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the darkHousatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic to the sea. In a wee woodenschoolhouse, something put it into the boys’ and girls’ heads tobuy gorgeous visiting-cards—ten cents a package—and exchange. Theexchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused mycard,—refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me witha certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, inheart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I hadthereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held allbeyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky andgreat wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates atexamination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringyheads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the wordsI longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine. Butthey should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from them.Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by healing thesick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head,—some way. Withother black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youth shrunk intotasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them andmocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, Why didGod make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house? The shades of theprison-house closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to thewhitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night whomust plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone,or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above.
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian,the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted withsecond-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no trueself-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of theother world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this senseof always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuringone’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt andpity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, twothoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body,whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—thislonging to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into abetter and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves tobe lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach theworld and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of whiteAmericanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. Hesimply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American,without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors ofOpportunity closed roughly in his face.
This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom ofculture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powersand his latent genius. These powers of body and mind have in the past beenstrangely wasted, dispersed, or forgotten. The shadow of a mighty Negro pastflits through the tale of Ethiopia the Shadowy and of Egypt the Sphinx. Throughhistory, the powers of single black men flash here and there like fallingstars, and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged their brightness.Here in America, in the few days since Emancipation, the black man’sturning hither and thither in hesitant and doubtful striving has often made hisvery strength to lose effectiveness, to seem like absence of power, likeweakness. And yet it is not weakness,—it is the contradiction of doubleaims. The double-aimed struggle of the black artisan—on the one hand toescape white contempt for a nation of mere hewers of wood and drawers of water,and on the other hand to plough and nail and dig for a poverty-strickenhorde—could only result in making him a poor craftsman, for he had buthalf a heart in either cause. By the poverty and ignorance of his people, theNegro minister or doctor was tempted toward quackery and demagogy; and by thecriticism of the other world, toward ideals that made him ashamed of his lowlytasks. The would-be black savant was confronted by the paradox that theknowledge his people needed was a twice-told tale to his white neighbors, whilethe knowledge which would teach the white world was Greek to his own flesh andblood. The innate love of harmony and beauty that set the ruder souls of hispeople a-dancing and a-singing raised but confusion and doubt in the soul ofthe black artist; for the beauty revealed to him was the soul-beauty of a racewhich his larger audience despised, and he could not articulate the message ofanother people. This waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy twounreconciled ideals, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deedsof ten thousand thousand people,—has sent them often wooing false godsand invoking false means of salvation, and at times has even seemed about tomake them ashamed of themselves.
Away back in the days of bondage they thought to see in one divine event theend of all doubt and disappointment; few men ever worshipped Freedom with halfsuch unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries. To him,so far as he thought and dreamed, slavery was indeed the sum of all villainies,the cause of all sorrow, the root of all prejudice; Emancipation was the key toa promised land of sweeter beauty than ever stretched before the eyes ofwearied Israelites. In song and exhortation swelled one refrain—Liberty;in his tears and curses the God he implored had Freedom in his right hand. Atlast it came,—suddenly, fearfully, like a dream. With one wild carnivalof blood and passion came the message in his own plaintive cadences:—
“Shout, O children!
Shout, you’re free!
For God has bought your liberty!”
Years have passed away since then,—ten, twenty, forty; forty years ofnational life, forty years of renewal and development, and yet the swarthyspectre sits in its accustomed seat at the Nation’s feast. In vain do wecry to this our vastest social problem:—
“Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble!”
The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yetfound in freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in theseyears of change, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negropeople,—a disappointment all the more bitter because the unattained idealwas unbounded save by the simple ignorance of a lowly people.
The first decade was merely a prolongation of the vain search for freedom, theboon that seemed ever barely to elude their grasp,—like a tantalizingwill-o’-the-wisp, maddening and misleading the headless host. Theholocaust of war, the terrors of the Ku-Klux Klan, the lies of carpet-baggers,the disorganization of industry, and the contradictory advice of friends andfoes, left the bewildered serf with no new watchword beyond the old cry forfreedom. As the time flew, however, he began to grasp a new idea. The ideal ofliberty demanded for its attainment powerful means, and these the FifteenthAmendment gave him. The ballot, which before he had looked upon as a visiblesign of freedom, he now regarded as the chief means of gaining and perfectingthe liberty with which war had partially endowed him. And why not? Had notvotes made war and emancipated millions? Had not votes enfranchised thefreedmen? Was anything impossible to a power that had done all this? A millionblack men started with renewed zeal to vote themselves into the kingdom. So thedecade flew away, the revolution of 1876 came, and left the half-free serfweary, wondering, but still inspired. Slowly but steadily, in the followingyears, a new vision began gradually to replace the dream of politicalpower,—a powerful movement, the rise of another ideal to guide theunguided, another pillar of fire by night after a clouded day. It was the idealof “book-learning”; the curiosity, born of compulsory ignorance, toknow and test the power of the cabalistic letters of the white man, the longingto know. Here at last seemed to have been discovered the mountain path toCanaan; longer than the highway of Emancipation and law, steep and rugged, butstraight, leading to heights high enough to overlook life.
Up the new path the advance guard toiled, slowly, heavily, doggedly; only thosewho have watched and guided the faltering feet, the misty minds, the dullunderstandings, of the dark pupils of these schools know how faithfully, howpiteously, this people strove to learn. It was weary work. The coldstatistician wrote down the inches of progress here and there, noted also wherehere and there a foot had slipped or some one had fallen. To the tiredclimbers, the horizon was ever dark, the mists were often cold, the Canaan wasalways dim and far away. If, however, the vistas disclosed as yet no goal, noresting-place, little but flattery and criticism, the journey at least gaveleisure for reflection and self-examination; it changed the child ofEmancipation to the youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization,self-respect. In those sombre forests of his striving his own soul rose beforehim, and he saw himself,—darkly as through a veil; and yet he saw inhimself some faint revelation of his power, of his mission. He began to have adim feeling that, to attain his place in the world, he must be himself, and notanother. For the first time he sought to analyze the burden he bore upon hisback, that dead-weight of social degradation partially masked behind ahalf-named Negro problem. He felt his poverty; without a cent, without a home,without land, tools, or savings, he had entered into competition with rich,landed, skilled neighbors. To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in aland of dollars is the very bottom of hardships. He felt the weight of hisignorance,—not simply of letters, but of life, of business, of thehumanities; the accumulated sloth and shirking and awkwardness of decades andcenturies shackled his hands and feet. Nor was his burden all poverty andignorance. The red stain of bastardy, which two centuries of systematic legaldefilement of Negro women had stamped upon his race, meant not only the loss ofancient African chastity, but also the hereditary weight of a mass ofcorruption from white adulterers, threatening almost the obliteration of theNegro home.
A people thus handicapped ought not to be asked to race with the world, butrather allowed to give all its time and thought to its own social problems. Butalas! while sociologists gleefully count his bastards and his prostitutes, thevery soul of the toiling, sweating black man is darkened by the shadow of avast despair. Men call the shadow prejudice, and learnedly explain it as thenatural defence of culture against barbarism, learning against ignorance,purity against crime, the “higher” against the “lower”races. To which the Negro cries Amen! and swears that to so much of thisstrange prejudice as is founded on just homage to civilization, culture,righteousness, and progress, he humbly bows and meekly does obeisance. Butbefore that nameless prejudice that leaps beyond all this he stands helpless,dismayed, and well-nigh speechless; before that personal disrespect andmockery, the ridicule and systematic humiliation, the distortion of fact andwanton license of fancy, the cynical ignoring of the better and the boisterouswelcoming of the worse, the all-pervading desire to inculcate disdain foreverything black, from Toussaint to the devil,—before this there rises asickening despair that would disarm and discourage any nation save that blackhost to whom “discouragement” is an unwritten word.
But the facing of so vast a prejudice could not but bring the inevitableself-questioning, self-disparagement, and lowering of ideals which everaccompany repression and breed in an atmosphere of contempt and hate.Whisperings and portents came home upon the four winds: Lo! we are diseased anddying, cried the dark hosts; we cannot write, our voting is vain; what need ofeducation, since we must always cook and serve? And the Nation echoed andenforced this self-criticism, saying: Be content to be servants, and nothingmore; what need of higher culture for half-men? Away with the black man’sballot, by force or fraud,—and behold the suicide of a race!Nevertheless, out of the evil came something of good,—the more carefuladjustment of education to real life, the clearer perception of theNegroes’ social responsibilities, and the sobering realization of themeaning of progress.
So dawned the time of Sturm und Drang: storm and stress to-day rocks ourlittle boat on the mad waters of the world-sea; there is within and without thesound of conflict, the burning of body and rending of soul; inspiration striveswith doubt, and faith with vain questionings. The bright ideals of thepast,—physical freedom, political power, the training of brains and thetraining of hands,—all these in turn have waxed and waned, until even thelast grows dim and overcast. Are they all wrong,—all false? No, not that,but each alone was over-simple and incomplete,—the dreams of a credulousrace-childhood, or the fond imaginings of the other world which does not knowand does not want to know our power. To be really true, all these ideals mustbe melted and welded into one. The training of the schools we need to-day morethan ever,—the training of deft hands, quick eyes and ears, and above allthe broader, deeper, higher culture of gifted minds and pure hearts. The powerof the ballot we need in sheer self-defence,—else what shall save us froma second slavery? Freedom, too, the long-sought, we still seek,—thefreedom of life and limb, the freedom to work and think, the freedom to loveand aspire. Work, culture, liberty,—all these we need, not singly buttogether, not successively but together, each growing and aiding each, and allstriving toward that vaster ideal that swims before the Negro people, the idealof human brotherhood, gained through the unifying ideal of Race; the ideal offostering and developing the traits and talents of the Negro, not in oppositionto or contempt for other races, but rather in large conformity to the greaterideals of the American Republic, in order that some day on American soil twoworld-races may give each to each those characteristics both so sadly lack. Wethe darker ones come even now not altogether empty-handed: there are to-day notruer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independencethan the American Negroes; there is no true American music but the wild sweetmelodies of the Negro slave; the American fairy tales and folklore are Indianand African; and, all in all, we black men seem the sole oasis of simple faithand reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness. Will America bepoorer if she replace her brutal dyspeptic blundering with light-hearted butdetermined Negro humility? or her coarse and cruel wit with loving jovialgood-humor? or her vulgar music with the soul of the Sorrow Songs?
Merely a concrete test of the underlying principles of the great republic isthe Negro Problem, and the spiritual striving of the freedmen’s sons isthe travail of souls whose burden is almost beyond the measure of theirstrength, but who bear it in the name of an historic race, in the name of thisthe land of their fathers’ fathers, and in the name of human opportunity.
And now what I have briefly sketched in large outline let me on coming pagestell again in many ways, with loving emphasis and deeper detail, that men maylisten to the striving in the souls of black folk.
Of the Dawn of Freedom
Careless seems the great Avenger;
History’s lessons but record
One death-grapple in the darkness
’Twixt old systems and the Word;
Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne;
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above His own.
The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of thecolor-line,—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men inAsia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. It was a phase of thisproblem that caused the Civil War; and however much they who marched South andNorth in 1861 may have fixed on the technical points, of union and localautonomy as a shibboleth, all nevertheless knew, as we know, that the questionof Negro slavery was the real cause of the conflict. Curious it was, too, howthis deeper question ever forced itself to the surface despite effort anddisclaimer. No sooner had Northern armies touched Southern soil than this oldquestion, newly guised, sprang from the earth,—What shall be done withNegroes? Peremptory military commands this way and that, could not answer thequery; the Emancipation Proclamation seemed but to broaden and intensify thedifficulties; and the War Amendments made the Negro problems of to-day.
It is the aim of this essay to study the period of history from 1861 to 1872 sofar as it relates to the American Negro. In effect, this tale of the dawn ofFreedom is an account of that government of men called the Freedmen’sBureau,—one of the most singular and interesting of the attempts made bya great nation to grapple with vast problems of race and social condition.
The war has naught to do with slaves, cried Congress, the President, and theNation; and yet no sooner had the armies, East and West, penetrated Virginiaand Tennessee than fugitive slaves appeared within their lines. They came atnight, when the flickering camp-fires shone like vast unsteady stars along theblack horizon: old men and thin, with gray and tufted hair; women withfrightened eyes, dragging whimpering hungry children; men and girls, stalwartand gaunt,—a horde of starving vagabonds, homeless, helpless, andpitiable, in their dark distress. Two methods of treating these newcomersseemed equally logical to opposite sorts of minds. Ben Butler, in Virginia,quickly declared slave property contraband of war, and put the fugitives towork; while Fremont, in Missouri, declared the slaves free under martial law.Butler’s action was approved, but Fremont’s was hastilycountermanded, and his successor, Halleck, saw things differently.“Hereafter,” he commanded, “no slaves should be allowed tocome into your lines at all; if any come without your knowledge, when ownerscall for them deliver them.” Such a policy was difficult to enforce; someof the black refugees declared themselves freemen, others showed that theirmasters had deserted them, and still others were captured with forts andplantations. Evidently, too, slaves were a source of strength to theConfederacy, and were being used as laborers and producers. “Theyconstitute a military resource,” wrote Secretary Cameron, late in 1861;“and being such, that they should not be turned over to the enemy is tooplain to discuss.” So gradually the tone of the army chiefs changed;Congress forbade the rendition of fugitives, and Butler’s“contrabands” were welcomed as military laborers. This complicatedrather than solved the problem, for now the scattering fugitives became asteady stream, which flowed faster as the armies marched.
Then the long-headed man with care-chiselled face who sat in the White Housesaw the inevitable, and emancipated the slaves of rebels on New Year’s,1863. A month later Congress called earnestly for the Negro soldiers whom theact of July, 1862, had half grudgingly allowed to enlist. Thus the barrierswere levelled and the deed was done. The stream of fugitives swelled to aflood, and anxious army officers kept inquiring: “What must be done withslaves, arriving almost daily? Are we to find food and shelter for women andchildren?”
It was a Pierce of Boston who pointed out the way, and thus became in a sensethe founder of the Freedmen’s Bureau. He was a firm friend of SecretaryChase; and when, in 1861, the care of slaves and abandoned lands devolved uponthe Treasury officials, Pierce was specially detailed from the ranks to studythe conditions. First, he cared for the refugees at Fortress Monroe; and then,after Sherman had captured Hilton Head, Pierce was sent there to found his PortRoyal experiment of making free workingmen out of slaves. Before his experimentwas barely started, however, the problem of the fugitives had assumed suchproportions that it was taken from the hands of the over-burdened TreasuryDepartment and given to the army officials. Already centres of massed freedmenwere forming at Fortress Monroe, Washington, New Orleans, Vicksburg andCorinth, Columbus, Ky., and Cairo, Ill., as well as at Port Royal. Armychaplains found here new and fruitful fields; “superintendents ofcontrabands” multiplied, and some attempt at systematic work was made byenlisting the able-bodied men and giving work to the others.
Then came the Freedmen’s Aid societies, born of the touching appeals fromPierce and from these other centres of distress. There was the AmericanMissionary Association, sprung from the Amistad, and now full-grown for work;the various church organizations, the National Freedmen’s ReliefAssociation, the American Freedmen’s Union, the Western Freedmen’sAid Commission,—in all fifty or more active organizations, which sentclothes, money, school-books, and teachers southward. All they did was needed,for the destitution of the freedmen was often reported as “too appallingfor belief,” and the situation was daily growing worse rather thanbetter.
And daily, too, it seemed more plain that this was no ordinary matter oftemporary relief, but a national crisis; for here loomed a labor problem ofvast dimensions. Masses of Negroes stood idle, or, if they workedspasmodically, were never sure of pay; and if perchance they received pay,squandered the new thing thoughtlessly. In these and other ways were camp-lifeand the new liberty demoralizing the freedmen. The broader economicorganization thus clearly demanded sprang up here and there as accident andlocal conditions determined. Here it was that Pierce’s Port Royal plan ofleased plantations and guided workmen pointed out the rough way. In Washingtonthe military governor, at the urgent appeal of the superintendent, openedconfiscated estates to the cultivation of the fugitives, and there in theshadow of the dome gathered black farm villages. General Dix gave over estatesto the freedmen of Fortress Monroe, and so on, South and West. The governmentand benevolent societies furnished the means of cultivation, and the Negroturned again slowly to work. The systems of control, thus started, rapidlygrew, here and there, into strange little governments, like that of GeneralBanks in Louisiana, with its ninety thousand black subjects, its fifty thousandguided laborers, and its annual budget of one hundred thousand dollars andmore. It made out four thousand pay-rolls a year, registered all freedmen,inquired into grievances and redressed them, laid and collected taxes, andestablished a system of public schools. So, too, Colonel Eaton, thesuperintendent of Tennessee and Arkansas, ruled over one hundred thousandfreedmen, leased and cultivated seven thousand acres of cotton land, and fedten thousand paupers a year. In South Carolina was General Saxton, with hisdeep interest in black folk. He succeeded Pierce and the Treasury officials,and sold forfeited estates, leased abandoned plantations, encouraged schools,and received from Sherman, after that terribly picturesque march to the sea,thousands of the wretched camp followers.
Three characteristic things one might have seen in Sherman’s raid throughGeorgia, which threw the new situation in shadowy relief: the Conqueror, theConquered, and the Negro. Some see all significance in the grim front of thedestroyer, and some in the bitter sufferers of the Lost Cause. But to meneither soldier nor fugitive speaks with so deep a meaning as that dark humancloud that clung like remorse on the rear of those swift columns, swelling attimes to half their size, almost engulfing and choking them. In vain were theyordered back, in vain were bridges hewn from beneath their feet; on theytrudged and writhed and surged, until they rolled into Savannah, a starved andnaked horde of tens of thousands. There too came the characteristic militaryremedy: “The islands from Charleston south, the abandoned rice-fieldsalong the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country borderingthe St. John’s River, Florida, are reserved and set apart for thesettlement of Negroes now made free by act of war.” So read thecelebrated “Field-order Number Fifteen.”
All these experiments, orders, and systems were bound to attract and perplexthe government and the nation. Directly after the Emancipation Proclamation,Representative Eliot had introduced a bill creating a Bureau of Emancipation;but it was never reported. The following June a committee of inquiry, appointedby the Secretary of War, reported in favor of a temporary bureau for the“improvement, protection, and employment of refugee freedmen,” onmuch the same lines as were afterwards followed. Petitions came in to PresidentLincoln from distinguished citizens and organizations, strongly urging acomprehensive and unified plan of dealing with the freedmen, under a bureauwhich should be “charged with the study of plans and execution ofmeasures for easily guiding, and in every way judiciously and humanely aiding,the passage of our emancipated and yet to be emancipated blacks from the oldcondition of forced labor to their new state of voluntary industry.”
Some half-hearted steps were taken to accomplish this, in part, by putting thewhole matter again in charge of the special Treasury agents. Laws of 1863 and1864 directed them to take charge of and lease abandoned lands for periods notexceeding twelve months, and to “provide in such leases, or otherwise,for the employment and general welfare” of the freedmen. Most of the armyofficers greeted this as a welcome relief from perplexing “Negroaffairs,” and Secretary Fessenden, July 29, 1864, issued an excellentsystem of regulations, which were afterward closely followed by General Howard.Under Treasury agents, large quantities of land were leased in the MississippiValley, and many Negroes were employed; but in August, 1864, the newregulations were suspended for reasons of “public policy,” and thearmy was again in control.
Meanwhile Congress had turned its attention to the subject; and in March theHouse passed a bill by a majority of two establishing a Bureau for Freedmen inthe War Department. Charles Sumner, who had charge of the bill in the Senate,argued that freedmen and abandoned lands ought to be under the same department,and reported a substitute for the House bill attaching the Bureau to theTreasury Department. This bill passed, but too late for action by the House.The debates wandered over the whole policy of the administration and thegeneral question of slavery, without touching very closely the specific meritsof the measure in hand. Then the national election took place; and theadministration, with a vote of renewed confidence from the country, addresseditself to the matter more seriously. A conference between the two branches ofCongress agreed upon a carefully drawn measure which contained the chiefprovisions of Sumner’s bill, but made the proposed organization adepartment independent of both the War and the Treasury officials. The bill wasconservative, giving the new department “general superintendence of allfreedmen.” Its purpose was to “establish regulations” forthem, protect them, lease them lands, adjust their wages, and appear in civiland military courts as their “next friend.” There were manylimitations attached to the powers thus granted, and the organization was madepermanent. Nevertheless, the Senate defeated the bill, and a new conferencecommittee was appointed. This committee reported a new bill, February 28, whichwas whirled through just as the session closed, and became the act of 1865establishing in the War Department a “Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, andAbandoned Lands.”
This last compromise was a hasty bit of legislation, vague and uncertain inoutline. A Bureau was created, “to continue during the present War ofRebellion, and for one year thereafter,” to which was given “thesupervision and management of all abandoned lands and the control of allsubjects relating to refugees and freedmen,” under “such rules andregulations as may be presented by the head of the Bureau and approved by thePresident.” A Commissioner, appointed by the President and Senate, was tocontrol the Bureau, with an office force not exceeding ten clerks. ThePresident might also appoint assistant commissioners in the seceded States, andto all these offices military officials might be detailed at regular pay. TheSecretary of War could issue rations, clothing, and fuel to the destitute, andall abandoned property was placed in the hands of the Bureau for eventual leaseand sale to ex-slaves in forty-acre parcels.
Thus did the United States government definitely assume charge of theemancipated Negro as the ward of the nation. It was a tremendous undertaking.Here at a stroke of the pen was erected a government of millions ofmen,—and not ordinary men either, but black men emasculated by apeculiarly complete system of slavery, centuries old; and now, suddenly,violently, they come into a new birthright, at a time of war and passion, inthe midst of the stricken and embittered population of their former masters.Any man might well have hesitated to assume charge of such a work, with vastresponsibilities, indefinite powers, and limited resources. Probably no one buta soldier would have answered such a call promptly; and, indeed, no one but asoldier could be called, for Congress had appropriated no money for salariesand expenses.
Less than a month after the weary Emancipator passed to his rest, his successorassigned Major-Gen. Oliver O. Howard to duty as Commissioner of the new Bureau.He was a Maine man, then only thirty-five years of age. He had marched withSherman to the sea, had fought well at Gettysburg, and but the year before hadbeen assigned to the command of the Department of Tennessee. An honest man,with too much faith in human nature, little aptitude for business and intricatedetail, he had had large opportunity of becoming acquainted at first hand withmuch of the work before him. And of that work it has been truly said that“no approximately correct history of civilization can ever be writtenwhich does not throw out in bold relief, as one of the great landmarks ofpolitical and social progress, the organization and administration of theFreedmen’s Bureau.”
On May 12, 1865, Howard was appointed; and he assumed the duties of his officepromptly on the 15th, and began examining the field of work. A curious mess helooked upon: little despotisms, communistic experiments, slavery, peonage,business speculations, organized charity, unorganized almsgiving,—allreeling on under the guise of helping the freedmen, and all enshrined in thesmoke and blood of the war and the cursing and silence of angry men. On May 19the new government—for a government it really was—issued itsconstitution; commissioners were to be appointed in each of the seceded states,who were to take charge of “all subjects relating to refugees andfreedmen,” and all relief and rations were to be given by their consentalone. The Bureau invited continued cooperation with benevolent societies, anddeclared: “It will be the object of all commissioners to introducepracticable systems of compensated labor,” and to establish schools.Forthwith nine assistant commissioners were appointed. They were to hasten totheir fields of work; seek gradually to close relief establishments, and makethe destitute self-supporting; act as courts of law where there were no courts,or where Negroes were not recognized in them as free; establish the institutionof marriage among ex-slaves, and keep records; see that freedmen were free tochoose their employers, and help in making fair contracts for them; andfinally, the circular said: “Simple good faith, for which we hope on allhands for those concerned in the passing away of slavery, will especiallyrelieve the assistant commissioners in the discharge of their duties toward thefreedmen, as well as promote the general welfare.”
No sooner was the work thus started, and the general system and localorganization in some measure begun, than two grave difficulties appeared whichchanged largely the theory and outcome of Bureau work. First, there were theabandoned lands of the South. It had long been the more or less definitelyexpressed theory of the North that all the chief problems of Emancipation mightbe settled by establishing the slaves on the forfeited lands of theirmasters,—a sort of poetic justice, said some. But this poetry done intosolemn prose meant either wholesale confiscation of private property in theSouth, or vast appropriations. Now Congress had not appropriated a cent, and nosooner did the proclamations of general amnesty appear than the eight hundredthousand acres of abandoned lands in the hands of the Freedmen’s Bureaumelted quickly away. The second difficulty lay in perfecting the localorganization of the Bureau throughout the wide field of work. Making a newmachine and sending out officials of duly ascertained fitness for a great workof social reform is no child’s task; but this task was even harder, for anew central organization had to be fitted on a heterogeneous and confused butalready existing system of relief and control of ex-slaves; and the agentsavailable for this work must be sought for in an army still busy with waroperations,—men in the very nature of the case ill fitted for delicatesocial work,—or among the questionable camp followers of an invadinghost. Thus, after a year’s work, vigorously as it was pushed, the problemlooked even more difficult to grasp and solve than at the beginning.Nevertheless, three things that year’s work did, well worth the doing: itrelieved a vast amount of physical suffering; it transported seven thousandfugitives from congested centres back to the farm; and, best of all, itinaugurated the crusade of the New England schoolma’am.
The annals of this Ninth Crusade are yet to be written,—the tale of amission that seemed to our age far more quixotic than the quest of St. Louisseemed to his. Behind the mists of ruin and rapine waved the calico dresses ofwomen who dared, and after the hoarse mouthings of the field guns rang therhythm of the alphabet. Rich and poor they were, serious and curious. Bereavednow of a father, now of a brother, now of more than these, they came seeking alife work in planting New England schoolhouses among the white and black of theSouth. They did their work well. In that first year they taught one hundredthousand souls, and more.
Evidently, Congress must soon legislate again on the hastily organized Bureau,which had so quickly grown into wide significance and vast possibilities. Aninstitution such as that was well-nigh as difficult to end as to begin. Earlyin 1866 Congress took up the matter, when Senator Trumbull, of Illinois,introduced a bill to extend the Bureau and enlarge its powers. This measurereceived, at the hands of Congress, far more thorough discussion and attentionthan its predecessor. The war cloud had thinned enough to allow a clearerconception of the work of Emancipation. The champions of the bill argued thatthe strengthening of the Freedmen’s Bureau was still a militarynecessity; that it was needed for the proper carrying out of the ThirteenthAmendment, and was a work of sheer justice to the ex-slave, at a trifling costto the government. The opponents of the measure declared that the war was over,and the necessity for war measures past; that the Bureau, by reason of itsextraordinary powers, was clearly unconstitutional in time of peace, and wasdestined to irritate the South and pauperize the freedmen, at a final cost ofpossibly hundreds of millions. These two arguments were unanswered, and indeedunanswerable: the one that the extraordinary powers of the Bureau threatenedthe civil rights of all citizens; and the other that the government must havepower to do what manifestly must be done, and that present abandonment of thefreedmen meant their practical reenslavement. The bill which finally passedenlarged and made permanent the Freedmen’s Bureau. It was promptly vetoedby President Johnson as “unconstitutional,”“unnecessary,” and “extrajudicial,” and failed ofpassage over the veto. Meantime, however, the breach between Congress and thePresident began to broaden, and a modified form of the lost bill was finallypassed over the President’s second veto, July 16.
The act of 1866 gave the Freedmen’s Bureau its final form,—the formby which it will be known to posterity and judged of men. It extended theexistence of the Bureau to July, 1868; it authorized additional assistantcommissioners, the retention of army officers mustered out of regular service,the sale of certain forfeited lands to freedmen on nominal terms, the sale ofConfederate public property for Negro schools, and a wider field of judicialinterpretation and cognizance. The government of the unreconstructed South wasthus put very largely in the hands of the Freedmen’s Bureau, especiallyas in many cases the departmental military commander was now made alsoassistant commissioner. It was thus that the Freedmen’s Bureau became afull-fledged government of men. It made laws, executed them and interpretedthem; it laid and collected taxes, defined and punished crime, maintained andused military force, and dictated such measures as it thought necessary andproper for the accomplishment of its varied ends. Naturally, all these powerswere not exercised continuously nor to their fullest extent; and yet, asGeneral Howard has said, “scarcely any subject that has to be legislatedupon in civil society failed, at one time or another, to demand the action ofthis singular Bureau.”
To understand and criticise intelligently so vast a work, one must not forgetan instant the drift of things in the later sixties. Lee had surrendered,Lincoln was dead, and Johnson and Congress were at loggerheads; the ThirteenthAmendment was adopted, the Fourteenth pending, and the Fifteenth declared inforce in 1870. Guerrilla raiding, the ever-present flickering after-flame ofwar, was spending its forces against the Negroes, and all the Southern land wasawakening as from some wild dream to poverty and social revolution. In a timeof perfect calm, amid willing neighbors and streaming wealth, the socialuplifting of four million slaves to an assured and self-sustaining place in thebody politic and economic would have been a herculean task; but when to theinherent difficulties of so delicate and nice a social operation were added thespite and hate of conflict, the hell of war; when suspicion and cruelty wererife, and gaunt Hunger wept beside Bereavement,—in such a case, the workof any instrument of social regeneration was in large part foredoomed tofailure. The very name of the Bureau stood for a thing in the South which fortwo centuries and better men had refused even to argue,—that life amidfree Negroes was simply unthinkable, the maddest of experiments.
The agents that the Bureau could command varied all the way from unselfishphilanthropists to narrow-minded busybodies and thieves; and even though it betrue that the average was far better than the worst, it was the occasional flythat helped spoil the ointment.
Then amid all crouched the freed slave, bewildered between friend and foe. Hehad emerged from slavery,—not the worst slavery in the world, not aslavery that made all life unbearable, rather a slavery that had here and theresomething of kindliness, fidelity, and happiness,—but withal slavery,which, so far as human aspiration and desert were concerned, classed the blackman and the ox together. And the Negro knew full well that, whatever theirdeeper convictions may have been, Southern men had fought with desperate energyto perpetuate this slavery under which the black masses, with half-articulatethought, had writhed and shivered. They welcomed freedom with a cry. Theyshrank from the master who still strove for their chains; they fled to thefriends that had freed them, even though those friends stood ready to use themas a club for driving the recalcitrant South back into loyalty. So the cleftbetween the white and black South grew. Idle to say it never should have been;it was as inevitable as its results were pitiable. Curiously incongruouselements were left arrayed against each other,—the North, the government,the carpet-bagger, and the slave, here; and there, all the South that waswhite, whether gentleman or vagabond, honest man or rascal, lawless murderer ormartyr to duty.
Thus it is doubly difficult to write of this period calmly, so intense was thefeeling, so mighty the human passions that swayed and blinded men. Amid it all,two figures ever stand to typify that day to coming ages,—the one, agray-haired gentleman, whose fathers had quit themselves like men, whose sonslay in nameless graves; who bowed to the evil of slavery because its abolitionthreatened untold ill to all; who stood at last, in the evening of life, ablighted, ruined form, with hate in his eyes;—and the other, a formhovering dark and mother-like, her awful face black with the mists ofcenturies, had aforetime quailed at that white master’s command, had bentin love over the cradles of his sons and daughters, and closed in death thesunken eyes of his wife,—aye, too, at his behest had laid herself low tohis lust, and borne a tawny man-child to the world, only to see her darkboy’s limbs scattered to the winds by midnight marauders riding after“damned Niggers.” These were the saddest sights of that woful day;and no man clasped the hands of these two passing figures of the present-past;but, hating, they went to their long home, and, hating, their children’schildren live today.
Here, then, was the field of work for the Freedmen’s Bureau; and since,with some hesitation, it was continued by the act of 1868 until 1869, let uslook upon four years of its work as a whole. There were, in 1868, nine hundredBureau officials scattered from Washington to Texas, ruling, directly andindirectly, many millions of men. The deeds of these rulers fall mainly underseven heads: the relief of physical suffering, the overseeing of the beginningsof free labor, the buying and selling of land, the establishment of schools,the paying of bounties, the administration of justice, and the financiering ofall these activities.
Up to June, 1869, over half a million patients had been treated by Bureauphysicians and surgeons, and sixty hospitals and asylums had been in operation.In fifty months twenty-one million free rations were distributed at a cost ofover four million dollars. Next came the difficult question of labor. First,thirty thousand black men were transported from the refuges and relief stationsback to the farms, back to the critical trial of a new way of working. Plaininstructions went out from Washington: the laborers must be free to choosetheir employers, no fixed rate of wages was prescribed, and there was to be nopeonage or forced labor. So far, so good; but where local agents differedtoto cælo in capacity and character, where the personnel wascontinually changing, the outcome was necessarily varied. The largest elementof success lay in the fact that the majority of the freedmen were willing, eveneager, to work. So labor contracts were written,—fifty thousand in asingle State,—laborers advised, wages guaranteed, and employers supplied.In truth, the organization became a vast labor bureau,—not perfect,indeed, notably defective here and there, but on the whole successful beyondthe dreams of thoughtful men. The two great obstacles which confronted theofficials were the tyrant and the idler,—the slaveholder who wasdetermined to perpetuate slavery under another name; and, the freedman whoregarded freedom as perpetual rest,—the Devil and the Deep Sea.
In the work of establishing the Negroes as peasant proprietors, the Bureau wasfrom the first handicapped and at last absolutely checked. Something was done,and larger things were planned; abandoned lands were leased so long as theyremained in the hands of the Bureau, and a total revenue of nearly half amillion dollars derived from black tenants. Some other lands to which thenation had gained title were sold on easy terms, and public lands were openedfor settlement to the very few freedmen who had tools and capital. But thevision of “forty acres and a mule”—the righteous andreasonable ambition to become a landholder, which the nation had all butcategorically promised the freedmen—was destined in most cases to bitterdisappointment. And those men of marvellous hindsight who are today seeking topreach the Negro back to the present peonage of the soil know well, or ought toknow, that the opportunity of binding the Negro peasant willingly to the soilwas lost on that day when the Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau hadto go to South Carolina and tell the weeping freedmen, after their years oftoil, that their land was not theirs, that there was a mistake—somewhere.If by 1874 the Georgia Negro alone owned three hundred and fifty thousand acresof land, it was by grace of his thrift rather than by bounty of the government.
The greatest success of the Freedmen’s Bureau lay in the planting of thefree school among Negroes, and the idea of free elementary education among allclasses in the South. It not only called the school-mistresses through thebenevolent agencies and built them schoolhouses, but it helped discover andsupport such apostles of human culture as Edmund Ware, Samuel Armstrong, andErastus Cravath. The opposition to Negro education in the South was at firstbitter, and showed itself in ashes, insult, and blood; for the South believedan educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro. And the South was not wholly wrong;for education among all kinds of men always has had, and always will have, anelement of danger and revolution, of dissatisfaction and discontent.Nevertheless, men strive to know. Perhaps some inkling of this paradox, even inthe unquiet days of the Bureau, helped the bayonets allay an opposition tohuman training which still to-day lies smouldering in the South, but notflaming. Fisk, Atlanta, Howard, and Hampton were founded in these days, and sixmillion dollars were expended for educational work, seven hundred and fiftythousand dollars of which the freedmen themselves gave of their poverty.
Such contributions, together with the buying of land and various otherenterprises, showed that the ex-slave was handling some free capital already.The chief initial source of this was labor in the army, and his pay and bountyas a soldier. Payments to Negro soldiers were at first complicated by theignorance of the recipients, and the fact that the quotas of colored regimentsfrom Northern States were largely filled by recruits from the South, unknown totheir fellow soldiers. Consequently, payments were accompanied by such fraudsthat Congress, by joint resolution in 1867, put the whole matter in the handsof the Freedmen’s Bureau. In two years six million dollars was thusdistributed to five thousand claimants, and in the end the sum exceeded eightmillion dollars. Even in this system fraud was frequent; but still the work putneeded capital in the hands of practical paupers, and some, at least, was wellspent.
The most perplexing and least successful part of the Bureau’s work lay inthe exercise of its judicial functions. The regular Bureau court consisted ofone representative of the employer, one of the Negro, and one of the Bureau. Ifthe Bureau could have maintained a perfectly judicial attitude, thisarrangement would have been ideal, and must in time have gained confidence; butthe nature of its other activities and the character of its personnelprejudiced the Bureau in favor of the black litigants, and led without doubt tomuch injustice and annoyance. On the other hand, to leave the Negro in thehands of Southern courts was impossible. In a distracted land where slavery hadhardly fallen, to keep the strong from wanton abuse of the weak, and the weakfrom gloating insolently over the half-shorn strength of the strong, was athankless, hopeless task. The former masters of the land were peremptorilyordered about, seized, and imprisoned, and punished over and again, with scantcourtesy from army officers. The former slaves were intimidated, beaten, raped,and butchered by angry and revengeful men. Bureau courts tended to becomecentres simply for punishing whites, while the regular civil courts tended tobecome solely institutions for perpetuating the slavery of blacks. Almost everylaw and method ingenuity could devise was employed by the legislatures toreduce the Negroes to serfdom,—to make them the slaves of the State, ifnot of individual owners; while the Bureau officials too often were foundstriving to put the “bottom rail on top,” and gave the freedmen apower and independence which they could not yet use. It is all well enough forus of another generation to wax wise with advice to those who bore the burdenin the heat of the day. It is full easy now to see that the man who lost home,fortune, and family at a stroke, and saw his land ruled by “mules andniggers,” was really benefited by the passing of slavery. It is notdifficult now to say to the young freedman, cheated and cuffed about who hasseen his father’s head beaten to a jelly and his own mother namelesslyassaulted, that the meek shall inherit the earth. Above all, nothing is moreconvenient than to heap on the Freedmen’s Bureau all the evils of thatevil day, and damn it utterly for every mistake and blunder that was made.
All this is easy, but it is neither sensible nor just. Someone had blundered,but that was long before Oliver Howard was born; there was criminal aggressionand heedless neglect, but without some system of control there would have beenfar more than there was. Had that control been from within, the Negro wouldhave been re-enslaved, to all intents and purposes. Coming as the control didfrom without, perfect men and methods would have bettered all things; and evenwith imperfect agents and questionable methods, the work accomplished was notundeserving of commendation.
Such was the dawn of Freedom; such was the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau,which, summed up in brief, may be epitomized thus: for some fifteen milliondollars, beside the sums spent before 1865, and the dole of benevolentsocieties, this Bureau set going a system of free labor, established abeginning of peasant proprietorship, secured the recognition of black freedmenbefore courts of law, and founded the free common school in the South. On theother hand, it failed to begin the establishment of good-will betweenex-masters and freedmen, to guard its work wholly from paternalistic methodswhich discouraged self-reliance, and to carry out to any considerable extentits implied promises to furnish the freedmen with land. Its successes were theresult of hard work, supplemented by the aid of philanthropists and the eagerstriving of black men. Its failures were the result of bad local agents, theinherent difficulties of the work, and national neglect.
Such an institution, from its wide powers, great responsibilities, largecontrol of moneys, and generally conspicuous position, was naturally open torepeated and bitter attack. It sustained a searching Congressionalinvestigation at the instance of Fernando Wood in 1870. Its archives and fewremaining functions were with blunt discourtesy transferred from Howard’scontrol, in his absence, to the supervision of Secretary of War Belknap in1872, on the Secretary’s recommendation. Finally, in consequence of graveintimations of wrong-doing made by the Secretary and his subordinates, GeneralHoward was court-martialed in 1874. In both of these trials the Commissioner ofthe Freedmen’s Bureau was officially exonerated from any wilful misdoing,and his work commended. Nevertheless, many unpleasant things were brought tolight,—the methods of transacting the business of the Bureau were faulty;several cases of defalcation were proved, and other frauds strongly suspected;there were some business transactions which savored of dangerous speculation,if not dishonesty; and around it all lay the smirch of the Freedmen’sBank.
Morally and practically, the Freedmen’s Bank was part of theFreedmen’s Bureau, although it had no legal connection with it. With theprestige of the government back of it, and a directing board of unusualrespectability and national reputation, this banking institution had made aremarkable start in the development of that thrift among black folk whichslavery had kept them from knowing. Then in one sad day came thecrash,—all the hard-earned dollars of the freedmen disappeared; but thatwas the least of the loss,—all the faith in saving went too, and much ofthe faith in men; and that was a loss that a Nation which to-day sneers atNegro shiftlessness has never yet made good. Not even ten additional years ofslavery could have done so much to throttle the thrift of the freedmen as themismanagement and bankruptcy of the series of savings banks chartered by theNation for their especial aid. Where all the blame should rest, it is hard tosay; whether the Bureau and the Bank died chiefly by reason of the blows of itsselfish friends or the dark machinations of its foes, perhaps even time willnever reveal, for here lies unwritten history.
Of the foes without the Bureau, the bitterest were those who attacked not somuch its conduct or policy under the law as the necessity for any suchinstitution at all. Such attacks came primarily from the Border States and theSouth; and they were summed up by Senator Davis, of Kentucky, when he moved toentitle the act of 1866 a bill “to promote strife and conflict betweenthe white and black races… by a grant of unconstitutional power.”The argument gathered tremendous strength South and North; but its verystrength was its weakness. For, argued the plain common-sense of the nation, ifit is unconstitutional, unpractical, and futile for the nation to standguardian over its helpless wards, then there is left but onealternative,—to make those wards their own guardians by arming them withthe ballot. Moreover, the path of the practical politician pointed the sameway; for, argued this opportunist, if we cannot peacefully reconstruct theSouth with white votes, we certainly can with black votes. So justice and forcejoined hands.
The alternative thus offered the nation was not between full and restrictedNegro suffrage; else every sensible man, black and white, would easily havechosen the latter. It was rather a choice between suffrage and slavery, afterendless blood and gold had flowed to sweep human bondage away. Not a singleSouthern legislature stood ready to admit a Negro, under any conditions, to thepolls; not a single Southern legislature believed free Negro labor was possiblewithout a system of restrictions that took all its freedom away; there wasscarcely a white man in the South who did not honestly regard Emancipation as acrime, and its practical nullification as a duty. In such a situation, thegranting of the ballot to the black man was a necessity, the very least aguilty nation could grant a wronged race, and the only method of compelling theSouth to accept the results of the war. Thus Negro suffrage ended a civil warby beginning a race feud. And some felt gratitude toward the race thussacrificed in its swaddling clothes on the altar of national integrity; andsome felt and feel only indifference and contempt.
Had political exigencies been less pressing, the opposition to governmentguardianship of Negroes less bitter, and the attachment to the slave systemless strong, the social seer can well imagine a far better policy,—apermanent Freedmen’s Bureau, with a national system of Negro schools; acarefully supervised employment and labor office; a system of impartialprotection before the regular courts; and such institutions for socialbetterment as savings-banks, land and building associations, and socialsettlements. All this vast expenditure of money and brains might have formed agreat school of prospective citizenship, and solved in a way we have not yetsolved the most perplexing and persistent of the Negro problems.
That such an institution was unthinkable in 1870 was due in part to certainacts of the Freedmen’s Bureau itself. It came to regard its work asmerely temporary, and Negro suffrage as a final answer to all presentperplexities. The political ambition of many of its agents and protégésled it far afield into questionable activities, until the South, nursing itsown deep prejudices, came easily to ignore all the good deeds of the Bureau andhate its very name with perfect hatred. So the Freedmen’s Bureau died,and its child was the Fifteenth Amendment.
The passing of a great human institution before its work is done, like theuntimely passing of a single soul, but leaves a legacy of striving for othermen. The legacy of the Freedmen’s Bureau is the heavy heritage of thisgeneration. To-day, when new and vaster problems are destined to strain everyfibre of the national mind and soul, would it not be well to count this legacyhonestly and carefully? For this much all men know: despite compromise, war,and struggle, the Negro is not free. In the backwoods of the Gulf States, formiles and miles, he may not leave the plantation of his birth; in well-nigh thewhole rural South the black farmers are peons, bound by law and custom to aneconomic slavery, from which the only escape is death or the penitentiary. Inthe most cultured sections and cities of the South the Negroes are a segregatedservile caste, with restricted rights and privileges. Before the courts, bothin law and custom, they stand on a different and peculiar basis. Taxationwithout representation is the rule of their political life. And the result ofall this is, and in nature must have been, lawlessness and crime. That is thelarge legacy of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the work it did not do because itcould not.
I have seen a land right merry with the sun, where children sing, and rollinghills lie like passioned women wanton with harvest. And there in theKing’s Highways sat and sits a figure veiled and bowed, by which thetraveller’s footsteps hasten as they go. On the tainted air broods fear.Three centuries’ thought has been the raising and unveiling of that bowedhuman heart, and now behold a century new for the duty and the deed. Theproblem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.
Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others
From birth till death enslaved; in word, in deed, unmanned!
Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?
Easily the most striking thing in the history of the American Negro since 1876is the ascendancy of Mr. Booker T. Washington. It began at the time when warmemories and ideals were rapidly passing; a day of astonishing commercialdevelopment was dawning; a sense of doubt and hesitation overtook thefreedmen’s sons,—then it was that his leading began. Mr. Washingtoncame, with a simple definite programme, at the psychological moment when thenation was a little ashamed of having bestowed so much sentiment on Negroes,and was concentrating its energies on Dollars. His programme of industrialeducation, conciliation of the South, and submission and silence as to civiland political rights, was not wholly original; the Free Negroes from 1830 up towar-time had striven to build industrial schools, and the American MissionaryAssociation had from the first taught various trades; and Price and others hadsought a way of honorable alliance with the best of the Southerners. But Mr.Washington first indissolubly linked these things; he put enthusiasm, unlimitedenergy, and perfect faith into his programme, and changed it from a by-pathinto a veritable Way of Life. And the tale of the methods by which he did thisis a fascinating study of human life.
It startled the nation to hear a Negro advocating such a programme after manydecades of bitter complaint; it startled and won the applause of the South, itinterested and won the admiration of the North; and after a confused murmur ofprotest, it silenced if it did not convert the Negroes themselves.
To gain the sympathy and cooperation of the various elements comprising thewhite South was Mr. Washington’s first task; and this, at the timeTuskegee was founded, seemed, for a black man, well-nigh impossible. And yetten years later it was done in the word spoken at Atlanta: “In all thingspurely social we can be as separate as the five fingers, and yet one as thehand in all things essential to mutual progress.” This “AtlantaCompromise” is by all odds the most notable thing in Mr.Washington’s career. The South interpreted it in different ways: theradicals received it as a complete surrender of the demand for civil andpolitical equality; the conservatives, as a generously conceived working basisfor mutual understanding. So both approved it, and to-day its author iscertainly the most distinguished Southerner since Jefferson Davis, and the onewith the largest personal following.
Next to this achievement comes Mr. Washington’s work in gaining place andconsideration in the North. Others less shrewd and tactful had formerly essayedto sit on these two stools and had fallen between them; but as Mr. Washingtonknew the heart of the South from birth and training, so by singular insight heintuitively grasped the spirit of the age which was dominating the North. Andso thoroughly did he learn the speech and thought of triumphant commercialism,and the ideals of material prosperity, that the picture of a lone black boyporing over a French grammar amid the weeds and dirt of a neglected home soonseemed to him the acme of absurdities. One wonders what Socrates and St.Francis of Assisi would say to this.
And yet this very singleness of vision and thorough oneness with his age is amark of the successful man. It is as though Nature must needs make men narrowin order to give them force. So Mr. Washington’s cult has gainedunquestioning followers, his work has wonderfully prospered, his friends arelegion, and his enemies are confounded. To-day he stands as the one recognizedspokesman of his ten million fellows, and one of the most notable figures in anation of seventy millions. One hesitates, therefore, to criticise a lifewhich, beginning with so little, has done so much. And yet the time is comewhen one may speak in all sincerity and utter courtesy of the mistakes andshortcomings of Mr. Washington’s career, as well as of his triumphs,without being thought captious or envious, and without forgetting that it iseasier to do ill than well in the world.
The criticism that has hitherto met Mr. Washington has not always been of thisbroad character. In the South especially has he had to walk warily to avoid theharshest judgments,—and naturally so, for he is dealing with the onesubject of deepest sensitiveness to that section. Twice—once when at theChicago celebration of the Spanish-American War he alluded to thecolor-prejudice that is “eating away the vitals of the South,” andonce when he dined with President Roosevelt—has the resulting Southerncriticism been violent enough to threaten seriously his popularity. In theNorth the feeling has several times forced itself into words, that Mr.Washington’s counsels of submission overlooked certain elements of truemanhood, and that his educational programme was unnecessarily narrow. Usually,however, such criticism has not found open expression, although, too, thespiritual sons of the Abolitionists have not been prepared to acknowledge thatthe schools founded before Tuskegee, by men of broad ideals andself-sacrificing spirit, were wholly failures or worthy of ridicule. While,then, criticism has not failed to follow Mr. Washington, yet the prevailingpublic opinion of the land has been but too willing to deliver the solution ofa wearisome problem into his hands, and say, “If that is all you and yourrace ask, take it.”
Among his own people, however, Mr. Washington has encountered the strongest andmost lasting opposition, amounting at times to bitterness, and even todaycontinuing strong and insistent even though largely silenced in outwardexpression by the public opinion of the nation. Some of this opposition is, ofcourse, mere envy; the disappointment of displaced demagogues and the spite ofnarrow minds. But aside from this, there is among educated and thoughtfulcolored men in all parts of the land a feeling of deep regret, sorrow, andapprehension at the wide currency and ascendancy which some of Mr.Washington’s theories have gained. These same men admire his sincerity ofpurpose, and are willing to forgive much to honest endeavor which is doingsomething worth the doing. They cooperate with Mr. Washington as far as theyconscientiously can; and, indeed, it is no ordinary tribute to this man’stact and power that, steering as he must between so many diverse interests andopinions, he so largely retains the respect of all.
But the hushing of the criticism of honest opponents is a dangerous thing. Itleads some of the best of the critics to unfortunate silence and paralysis ofeffort, and others to burst into speech so passionately and intemperately as tolose listeners. Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests aremost nearly touched,—criticism of writers by readers,—this is thesoul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society. If the best of theAmerican Negroes receive by outer pressure a leader whom they had notrecognized before, manifestly there is here a certain palpable gain. Yet thereis also irreparable loss,—a loss of that peculiarly valuable educationwhich a group receives when by search and criticism it finds and commissionsits own leaders. The way in which this is done is at once the most elementaryand the nicest problem of social growth. History is but the record of suchgroup-leadership; and yet how infinitely changeful is its type and character!And of all types and kinds, what can be more instructive than the leadership ofa group within a group?—that curious double movement where real progressmay be negative and actual advance be relative retrogression. All this is thesocial student’s inspiration and despair.
Now in the past the American Negro has had instructive experience in thechoosing of group leaders, founding thus a peculiar dynasty which in the lightof present conditions is worth while studying. When sticks and stones andbeasts form the sole environment of a people, their attitude is largely one ofdetermined opposition to and conquest of natural forces. But when to earth andbrute is added an environment of men and ideas, then the attitude of theimprisoned group may take three main forms,—a feeling of revolt andrevenge; an attempt to adjust all thought and action to the will of the greatergroup; or, finally, a determined effort at self-realization andself-development despite environing opinion. The influence of all of theseattitudes at various times can be traced in the history of the American Negro,and in the evolution of his successive leaders.
Before 1750, while the fire of African freedom still burned in the veins of theslaves, there was in all leadership or attempted leadership but the one motiveof revolt and revenge,—typified in the terrible Maroons, the Danishblacks, and Cato of Stono, and veiling all the Americas in fear ofinsurrection. The liberalizing tendencies of the latter half of the eighteenthcentury brought, along with kindlier relations between black and white,thoughts of ultimate adjustment and assimilation. Such aspiration wasespecially voiced in the earnest songs of Phyllis, in the martyrdom of Attucks,the fighting of Salem and Poor, the intellectual accomplishments of Bannekerand Derham, and the political demands of the Cuffes.
Stern financial and social stress after the war cooled much of the previoushumanitarian ardor. The disappointment and impatience of the Negroes at thepersistence of slavery and serfdom voiced itself in two movements. The slavesin the South, aroused undoubtedly by vague rumors of the Haytian revolt, madethree fierce attempts at insurrection,—in 1800 under Gabriel in Virginia,in 1822 under Vesey in Carolina, and in 1831 again in Virginia under theterrible Nat Turner. In the Free States, on the other hand, a new and curiousattempt at self-development was made. In Philadelphia and New Yorkcolor-prescription led to a withdrawal of Negro communicants from whitechurches and the formation of a peculiar socio-religious institution among theNegroes known as the African Church,—an organization still living andcontrolling in its various branches over a million of men.
Walker’s wild appeal against the trend of the times showed how the worldwas changing after the coming of the cotton-gin. By 1830 slavery seemedhopelessly fastened on the South, and the slaves thoroughly cowed intosubmission. The free Negroes of the North, inspired by the mulatto immigrantsfrom the West Indies, began to change the basis of their demands; theyrecognized the slavery of slaves, but insisted that they themselves werefreemen, and sought assimilation and amalgamation with the nation on the sameterms with other men. Thus, Forten and Purvis of Philadelphia, Shad ofWilmington, Du Bois of New Haven, Barbadoes of Boston, and others, strovesingly and together as men, they said, not as slaves; as “people ofcolor,” not as “Negroes.” The trend of the times, however,refused them recognition save in individual and exceptional cases, consideredthem as one with all the despised blacks, and they soon found themselvesstriving to keep even the rights they formerly had of voting and working andmoving as freemen. Schemes of migration and colonization arose among them; butthese they refused to entertain, and they eventually turned to the Abolitionmovement as a final refuge.
Here, led by Remond, Nell, Wells-Brown, and Douglass, a new period ofself-assertion and self-development dawned. To be sure, ultimate freedom andassimilation was the ideal before the leaders, but the assertion of the manhoodrights of the Negro by himself was the main reliance, and John Brown’sraid was the extreme of its logic. After the war and emancipation, the greatform of Frederick Douglass, the greatest of American Negro leaders, still ledthe host. Self-assertion, especially in political lines, was the mainprogramme, and behind Douglass came Elliot, Bruce, and Langston, and theReconstruction politicians, and, less conspicuous but of greater socialsignificance, Alexander Crummell and Bishop Daniel Payne.
Then came the Revolution of 1876, the suppression of the Negro votes, thechanging and shifting of ideals, and the seeking of new lights in the greatnight. Douglass, in his old age, still bravely stood for the ideals of hisearly manhood,—ultimate assimilation through self-assertion, andon no other terms. For a time Price arose as a new leader, destined, it seemed,not to give up, but to re-state the old ideals in a form less repugnant to thewhite South. But he passed away in his prime. Then came the new leader. Nearlyall the former ones had become leaders by the silent suffrage of their fellows,had sought to lead their own people alone, and were usually, save Douglass,little known outside their race. But Booker T. Washington arose as essentiallythe leader not of one race but of two,—a compromiser between the South,the North, and the Negro. Naturally the Negroes resented, at first bitterly,signs of compromise which surrendered their civil and political rights, eventhough this was to be exchanged for larger chances of economic development. Therich and dominating North, however, was not only weary of the race problem, butwas investing largely in Southern enterprises, and welcomed any method ofpeaceful cooperation. Thus, by national opinion, the Negroes began to recognizeMr. Washington’s leadership; and the voice of criticism was hushed.
Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment andsubmission; but adjustment at such a peculiar time as to make his programmeunique. This is an age of unusual economic development, and Mr.Washington’s programme naturally takes an economic cast, becoming agospel of Work and Money to such an extent as apparently almost completely toovershadow the higher aims of life. Moreover, this is an age when the moreadvanced races are coming in closer contact with the less developed races, andthe race-feeling is therefore intensified; and Mr. Washington’s programmepractically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races. Again, in ourown land, the reaction from the sentiment of war time has given impetus torace-prejudice against Negroes, and Mr. Washington withdraws many of the highdemands of Negroes as men and American citizens. In other periods ofintensified prejudice all the Negro’s tendency to self-assertion has beencalled forth; at this period a policy of submission is advocated. In thehistory of nearly all other races and peoples the doctrine preached at suchcrises has been that manly self-respect is worth more than lands and houses,and that a people who voluntarily surrender such respect, or cease striving forit, are not worth civilizing.
In answer to this, it has been claimed that the Negro can survive only throughsubmission. Mr. Washington distinctly asks that black people give up, at leastfor the present, three things,—
First, political power,
Second, insistence on civil rights,
Third, higher education of Negro youth,—and concentrate all theirenergies on industrial education, and accumulation of wealth, and theconciliation of the South. This policy has been courageously and insistentlyadvocated for over fifteen years, and has been triumphant for perhaps tenyears. As a result of this tender of the palm-branch, what has been the return?In these years there have occurred:
1. The disfranchisement of the Negro.
2. The legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro.
3. The steady withdrawal of aid from institutions for the higher training ofthe Negro.
These movements are not, to be sure, direct results of Mr. Washington’steachings; but his propaganda has, without a shadow of doubt, helped theirspeedier accomplishment. The question then comes: Is it possible, and probable,that nine millions of men can make effective progress in economic lines if theyare deprived of political rights, made a servile caste, and allowed only themost meagre chance for developing their exceptional men? If history and reasongive any distinct answer to these questions, it is an emphatic No. AndMr. Washington thus faces the triple paradox of his career:
1. He is striving nobly to make Negro artisans business men andproperty-owners; but it is utterly impossible, under modern competitivemethods, for workingmen and property-owners to defend their rights and existwithout the right of suffrage.
2. He insists on thrift and self-respect, but at the same time counsels asilent submission to civic inferiority such as is bound to sap the manhood ofany race in the long run.
3. He advocates common-school and industrial training, and depreciatesinstitutions of higher learning; but neither the Negro common-schools, norTuskegee itself, could remain open a day were it not for teachers trained inNegro colleges, or trained by their graduates.
This triple paradox in Mr. Washington’s position is the object ofcriticism by two classes of colored Americans. One class is spirituallydescended from Toussaint the Savior, through Gabriel, Vesey, and Turner, andthey represent the attitude of revolt and revenge; they hate the white Southblindly and distrust the white race generally, and so far as they agree ondefinite action, think that the Negro’s only hope lies in emigrationbeyond the borders of the United States. And yet, by the irony of fate, nothinghas more effectually made this programme seem hopeless than the recent courseof the United States toward weaker and darker peoples in the West Indies,Hawaii, and the Philippines,—for where in the world may we go and be safefrom lying and brute force?
The other class of Negroes who cannot agree with Mr. Washington has hithertosaid little aloud. They deprecate the sight of scattered counsels, of internaldisagreement; and especially they dislike making their just criticism of auseful and earnest man an excuse for a general discharge of venom fromsmall-minded opponents. Nevertheless, the questions involved are so fundamentaland serious that it is difficult to see how men like the Grimkes, Kelly Miller,J. W. E. Bowen, and other representatives of this group, can much longer besilent. Such men feel in conscience bound to ask of this nation three things:
1. The right to vote.
2. Civic equality.
3. The education of youth according to ability. They acknowledge Mr.Washington’s invaluable service in counselling patience and courtesy insuch demands; they do not ask that ignorant black men vote when ignorant whitesare debarred, or that any reasonable restrictions in the suffrage should not beapplied; they know that the low social level of the mass of the race isresponsible for much discrimination against it, but they also know, and thenation knows, that relentless color-prejudice is more often a cause than aresult of the Negro’s degradation; they seek the abatement of this relicof barbarism, and not its systematic encouragement and pampering by allagencies of social power from the Associated Press to the Church of Christ.They advocate, with Mr. Washington, a broad system of Negro common schoolssupplemented by thorough industrial training; but they are surprised that a manof Mr. Washington’s insight cannot see that no such educational systemever has rested or can rest on any other basis than that of the well-equippedcollege and university, and they insist that there is a demand for a few suchinstitutions throughout the South to train the best of the Negro youth asteachers, professional men, and leaders.
This group of men honor Mr. Washington for his attitude of conciliation towardthe white South; they accept the “Atlanta Compromise” in itsbroadest interpretation; they recognize, with him, many signs of promise, manymen of high purpose and fair judgment, in this section; they know that no easytask has been laid upon a region already tottering under heavy burdens. But,nevertheless, they insist that the way to truth and right lies instraightforward honesty, not in indiscriminate flattery; in praising those ofthe South who do well and criticising uncompromisingly those who do ill; intaking advantage of the opportunities at hand and urging their fellows to dothe same, but at the same time in remembering that only a firm adherence totheir higher ideals and aspirations will ever keep those ideals within therealm of possibility. They do not expect that the free right to vote, to enjoycivic rights, and to be educated, will come in a moment; they do not expect tosee the bias and prejudices of years disappear at the blast of a trumpet; butthey are absolutely certain that the way for a people to gain their reasonablerights is not by voluntarily throwing them away and insisting that they do notwant them; that the way for a people to gain respect is not by continuallybelittling and ridiculing themselves; that, on the contrary, Negroes mustinsist continually, in season and out of season, that voting is necessary tomodern manhood, that color discrimination is barbarism, and that black boysneed education as well as white boys.
In failing thus to state plainly and unequivocally the legitimate demands oftheir people, even at the cost of opposing an honored leader, the thinkingclasses of American Negroes would shirk a heavy responsibility,—aresponsibility to themselves, a responsibility to the struggling masses, aresponsibility to the darker races of men whose future depends so largely onthis American experiment, but especially a responsibility to thisnation,—this common Fatherland. It is wrong to encourage a man or apeople in evil-doing; it is wrong to aid and abet a national crime simplybecause it is unpopular not to do so. The growing spirit of kindliness andreconciliation between the North and South after the frightful difference of ageneration ago ought to be a source of deep congratulation to all, andespecially to those whose mistreatment caused the war; but if thatreconciliation is to be marked by the industrial slavery and civic death ofthose same black men, with permanent legislation into a position ofinferiority, then those black men, if they are really men, are called upon byevery consideration of patriotism and loyalty to oppose such a course by allcivilized methods, even though such opposition involves disagreement with Mr.Booker T. Washington. We have no right to sit silently by while the inevitableseeds are sown for a harvest of disaster to our children, black and white.
First, it is the duty of black men to judge the South discriminatingly. Thepresent generation of Southerners are not responsible for the past, and theyshould not be blindly hated or blamed for it. Furthermore, to no class is theindiscriminate endorsement of the recent course of the South toward Negroesmore nauseating than to the best thought of the South. The South is not“solid”; it is a land in the ferment of social change, whereinforces of all kinds are fighting for supremacy; and to praise the ill the Southis today perpetrating is just as wrong as to condemn the good. Discriminatingand broad-minded criticism is what the South needs,—needs it for the sakeof her own white sons and daughters, and for the insurance of robust, healthymental and moral development.
Today even the attitude of the Southern whites toward the blacks is not, as somany assume, in all cases the same; the ignorant Southerner hates the Negro,the workingmen fear his competition, the money-makers wish to use him as alaborer, some of the educated see a menace in his upward development, whileothers—usually the sons of the masters—wish to help him to rise.National opinion has enabled this last class to maintain the Negro commonschools, and to protect the Negro partially in property, life, and limb.Through the pressure of the money-makers, the Negro is in danger of beingreduced to semi-slavery, especially in the country districts; the workingmen,and those of the educated who fear the Negro, have united to disfranchise him,and some have urged his deportation; while the passions of the ignorant areeasily aroused to lynch and abuse any black man. To praise this intricate whirlof thought and prejudice is nonsense; to inveigh indiscriminately against“the South” is unjust; but to use the same breath in praisingGovernor Aycock, exposing Senator Morgan, arguing with Mr. Thomas Nelson Page,and denouncing Senator Ben Tillman, is not only sane, but the imperative dutyof thinking black men.
It would be unjust to Mr. Washington not to acknowledge that in severalinstances he has opposed movements in the South which were unjust to the Negro;he sent memorials to the Louisiana and Alabama constitutional conventions, hehas spoken against lynching, and in other ways has openly or silently set hisinfluence against sinister schemes and unfortunate happenings. Notwithstandingthis, it is equally true to assert that on the whole the distinct impressionleft by Mr. Washington’s propaganda is, first, that the South isjustified in its present attitude toward the Negro because of the Negro’sdegradation; secondly, that the prime cause of the Negro’s failure torise more quickly is his wrong education in the past; and, thirdly, that hisfuture rise depends primarily on his own efforts. Each of these propositions isa dangerous half-truth. The supplementary truths must never be lost sight of:first, slavery and race-prejudice are potent if not sufficient causes of theNegro’s position; second, industrial and common-school training werenecessarily slow in planting because they had to await the black teacherstrained by higher institutions,—it being extremely doubtful if anyessentially different development was possible, and certainly a Tuskegee wasunthinkable before 1880; and, third, while it is a great truth to say that theNegro must strive and strive mightily to help himself, it is equally true thatunless his striving be not simply seconded, but rather aroused and encouraged,by the initiative of the richer and wiser environing group, he cannot hope forgreat success.
In his failure to realize and impress this last point, Mr. Washington isespecially to be criticised. His doctrine has tended to make the whites, Northand South, shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro’s shouldersand stand aside as critical and rather pessimistic spectators; when in fact theburden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bendnot our energies to righting these great wrongs.
The South ought to be led, by candid and honest criticism, to assert her betterself and do her full duty to the race she has cruelly wronged and is stillwronging. The North—her co-partner in guilt—cannot salve herconscience by plastering it with gold. We cannot settle this problem bydiplomacy and suaveness, by “policy” alone. If worse come to worst,can the moral fibre of this country survive the slow throttling and murder ofnine millions of men?
The black men of America have a duty to perform, a duty stern anddelicate,—a forward movement to oppose a part of the work of theirgreatest leader. So far as Mr. Washington preaches Thrift, Patience, andIndustrial Training for the masses, we must hold up his hands and strive withhim, rejoicing in his honors and glorying in the strength of this Joshua calledof God and of man to lead the headless host. But so far as Mr. Washingtonapologizes for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilegeand duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions,and opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds,—sofar as he, the South, or the Nation, does this,—we must unceasingly andfirmly oppose them. By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive forthe rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly to those greatwords which the sons of the Fathers would fain forget: “We hold thesetruths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they areendowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these arelife, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Of the Meaning of Progress
Willst Du Deine Macht verkünden,
Wähle sie die frei von Sünden,
Steh’n in Deinem ew’gen Haus!
Deine Geister sende aus!
Die Unsterblichen, die Reinen,
Die nicht fühlen, die nicht weinen!
Nicht die zarte Jungfrau wähle,
Nicht der Hirtin weiche Seele!
Once upon a time I taught school in the hills of Tennessee, where the broaddark vale of the Mississippi begins to roll and crumple to greet theAlleghanies. I was a Fisk student then, and all Fisk men thought thatTennessee—beyond the Veil—was theirs alone, and in vacation timethey sallied forth in lusty bands to meet the county school-commissioners.Young and happy, I too went, and I shall not soon forget that summer, seventeenyears ago.
First, there was a Teachers’ Institute at the county-seat; and theredistinguished guests of the superintendent taught the teachers fractions andspelling and other mysteries,—white teachers in the morning, Negroes atnight. A picnic now and then, and a supper, and the rough world was softened bylaughter and song. I remember how— But I wander.
There came a day when all the teachers left the Institute and began the huntfor schools. I learn from hearsay (for my mother was mortally afraid offirearms) that the hunting of ducks and bears and men is wonderfullyinteresting, but I am sure that the man who has never hunted a country schoolhas something to learn of the pleasures of the chase. I see now the white, hotroads lazily rise and fall and wind before me under the burning July sun; Ifeel the deep weariness of heart and limb as ten, eight, six miles stretchrelentlessly ahead; I feel my heart sink heavily as I hear again and again,“Got a teacher? Yes.” So I walked on and on—horses were tooexpensive—until I had wandered beyond railways, beyond stage lines, to aland of “varmints” and rattlesnakes, where the coming of a strangerwas an event, and men lived and died in the shadow of one blue hill.
Sprinkled over hill and dale lay cabins and farmhouses, shut out from the worldby the forests and the rolling hills toward the east. There I found at last alittle school. Josie told me of it; she was a thin, homely girl of twenty, witha dark-brown face and thick, hard hair. I had crossed the stream at Watertown,and rested under the great willows; then I had gone to the little cabin in thelot where Josie was resting on her way to town. The gaunt farmer made mewelcome, and Josie, hearing my errand, told me anxiously that they wanted aschool over the hill; that but once since the war had a teacher been there;that she herself longed to learn,—and thus she ran on, talking fast andloud, with much earnestness and energy.
Next morning I crossed the tall round hill, lingered to look at the blue andyellow mountains stretching toward the Carolinas, then plunged into the wood,and came out at Josie’s home. It was a dull frame cottage with fourrooms, perched just below the brow of the hill, amid peach-trees. The fatherwas a quiet, simple soul, calmly ignorant, with no touch of vulgarity. Themother was different,—strong, bustling, and energetic, with a quick,restless tongue, and an ambition to live “like folks.” There was acrowd of children. Two boys had gone away. There remained two growing girls; ashy midget of eight; John, tall, awkward, and eighteen; Jim, younger, quicker,and better looking; and two babies of indefinite age. Then there was Josieherself. She seemed to be the centre of the family: always busy at service, orat home, or berry-picking; a little nervous and inclined to scold, like hermother, yet faithful, too, like her father. She had about her a certainfineness, the shadow of an unconscious moral heroism that would willingly giveall of life to make life broader, deeper, and fuller for her and hers. I sawmuch of this family afterwards, and grew to love them for their honest effortsto be decent and comfortable, and for their knowledge of their own ignorance.There was with them no affectation. The mother would scold the father for beingso “easy”; Josie would roundly berate the boys for carelessness;and all knew that it was a hard thing to dig a living out of a rocky side-hill.
I secured the school. I remember the day I rode horseback out to thecommissioner’s house with a pleasant young white fellow who wanted thewhite school. The road ran down the bed of a stream; the sun laughed and thewater jingled, and we rode on. “Come in,” said thecommissioner,—“come in. Have a seat. Yes, that certificate will do.Stay to dinner. What do you want a month?” “Oh,” thought I,“this is lucky”; but even then fell the awful shadow of the Veil,for they ate first, then I—alone.
The schoolhouse was a log hut, where Colonel Wheeler used to shelter his corn.It sat in a lot behind a rail fence and thorn bushes, near the sweetest ofsprings. There was an entrance where a door once was, and within, a massiverickety fireplace; great chinks between the logs served as windows. Furniturewas scarce. A pale blackboard crouched in the corner. My desk was made of threeboards, reinforced at critical points, and my chair, borrowed from thelandlady, had to be returned every night. Seats for the children—thesepuzzled me much. I was haunted by a New England vision of neat little desks andchairs, but, alas! the reality was rough plank benches without backs, and attimes without legs. They had the one virtue of making napsdangerous,—possibly fatal, for the floor was not to be trusted.
It was a hot morning late in July when the school opened. I trembled when Iheard the patter of little feet down the dusty road, and saw the growing row ofdark solemn faces and bright eager eyes facing me. First came Josie and herbrothers and sisters. The longing to know, to be a student in the great schoolat Nashville, hovered like a star above this child-woman amid her work andworry, and she studied doggedly. There were the Dowells from their farm overtoward Alexandria,—Fanny, with her smooth black face and wondering eyes;Martha, brown and dull; the pretty girl-wife of a brother, and the youngerbrood.
There were the Burkes,—two brown and yellow lads, and a tiny haughty-eyedgirl. Fat Reuben’s little chubby girl came, with golden face and old-goldhair, faithful and solemn. ’Thenie was on hand early,—a jolly,ugly, good-hearted girl, who slyly dipped snuff and looked after her littlebow-legged brother. When her mother could spare her, ’Tildy came,—amidnight beauty, with starry eyes and tapering limbs; and her brother,correspondingly homely. And then the big boys,—the hulking Lawrences; thelazy Neills, unfathered sons of mother and daughter; Hickman, with a stoop inhis shoulders; and the rest.
There they sat, nearly thirty of them, on the rough benches, their facesshading from a pale cream to a deep brown, the little feet bare and swinging,the eyes full of expectation, with here and there a twinkle of mischief, andthe hands grasping Webster’s blue-black spelling-book. I loved my school,and the fine faith the children had in the wisdom of their teacher was trulymarvellous. We read and spelled together, wrote a little, picked flowers, sang,and listened to stories of the world beyond the hill. At times the school woulddwindle away, and I would start out. I would visit Mun Eddings, who lived intwo very dirty rooms, and ask why little Lugene, whose flaming face seemed everablaze with the dark-red hair uncombed, was absent all last week, or why Imissed so often the inimitable rags of Mack and Ed. Then the father, who workedColonel Wheeler’s farm on shares, would tell me how the crops needed theboys; and the thin, slovenly mother, whose face was pretty when washed, assuredme that Lugene must mind the baby. “But we’ll start them again nextweek.” When the Lawrences stopped, I knew that the doubts of the oldfolks about book-learning had conquered again, and so, toiling up the hill, andgetting as far into the cabin as possible, I put Cicero “pro ArchiaPoeta” into the simplest English with local applications, and usuallyconvinced them—for a week or so.
On Friday nights I often went home with some of the children,—sometimesto Doc Burke’s farm. He was a great, loud, thin Black, ever working, andtrying to buy the seventy-five acres of hill and dale where he lived; butpeople said that he would surely fail, and the “white folks would get itall.” His wife was a magnificent Amazon, with saffron face and shininghair, uncorseted and barefooted, and the children were strong and beautiful.They lived in a one-and-a-half-room cabin in the hollow of the farm, near thespring. The front room was full of great fat white beds, scrupulously neat; andthere were bad chromos on the walls, and a tired centre-table. In the tiny backkitchen I was often invited to “take out and help” myself to friedchicken and wheat biscuit, “meat” and corn pone, string-beans andberries. At first I used to be a little alarmed at the approach of bedtime inthe one lone bedroom, but embarrassment was very deftly avoided. First, all thechildren nodded and slept, and were stowed away in one great pile of goosefeathers; next, the mother and the father discreetly slipped away to thekitchen while I went to bed; then, blowing out the dim light, they retired inthe dark. In the morning all were up and away before I thought of awaking.Across the road, where fat Reuben lived, they all went outdoors while theteacher retired, because they did not boast the luxury of a kitchen.
I liked to stay with the Dowells, for they had four rooms and plenty of goodcountry fare. Uncle Bird had a small, rough farm, all woods and hills, milesfrom the big road; but he was full of tales,—he preached now andthen,—and with his children, berries, horses, and wheat he was happy andprosperous. Often, to keep the peace, I must go where life was less lovely; forinstance, ’Tildy’s mother was incorrigibly dirty, Reuben’slarder was limited seriously, and herds of untamed insects wandered over theEddingses’ beds. Best of all I loved to go to Josie’s, and sit onthe porch, eating peaches, while the mother bustled and talked: how Josie hadbought the sewing-machine; how Josie worked at service in winter, but that fourdollars a month was “mighty little” wages; how Josie longed to goaway to school, but that it “looked like” they never could get farenough ahead to let her; how the crops failed and the well was yet unfinished;and, finally, how “mean” some of the white folks were.
For two summers I lived in this little world; it was dull and humdrum. Thegirls looked at the hill in wistful longing, and the boys fretted and hauntedAlexandria. Alexandria was “town,”—a straggling, lazy villageof houses, churches, and shops, and an aristocracy of Toms, Dicks, andCaptains. Cuddled on the hill to the north was the village of the coloredfolks, who lived in three- or four-room unpainted cottages, some neat andhomelike, and some dirty. The dwellings were scattered rather aimlessly, butthey centred about the twin temples of the hamlet, the Methodist, and theHard-Shell Baptist churches. These, in turn, leaned gingerly on a sad-coloredschoolhouse. Hither my little world wended its crooked way on Sunday to meetother worlds, and gossip, and wonder, and make the weekly sacrifice withfrenzied priest at the altar of the “old-time religion.” Then thesoft melody and mighty cadences of Negro song fluttered and thundered.
I have called my tiny community a world, and so its isolation made it; and yetthere was among us but a half-awakened common consciousness, sprung from commonjoy and grief, at burial, birth, or wedding; from a common hardship in poverty,poor land, and low wages; and, above all, from the sight of the Veil that hungbetween us and Opportunity. All this caused us to think some thoughts together;but these, when ripe for speech, were spoken in various languages. Those whoseeyes twenty-five and more years before had seen “the glory of the comingof the Lord,” saw in every present hindrance or help a dark fatalismbound to bring all things right in His own good time. The mass of those to whomslavery was a dim recollection of childhood found the world a puzzling thing:it asked little of them, and they answered with little, and yet it ridiculedtheir offering. Such a paradox they could not understand, and therefore sankinto listless indifference, or shiftlessness, or reckless bravado. There were,however, some—such as Josie, Jim, and Ben—to whom War, Hell, andSlavery were but childhood tales, whose young appetites had been whetted to anedge by school and story and half-awakened thought. Ill could they be content,born without and beyond the World. And their weak wings beat against theirbarriers,—barriers of caste, of youth, of life; at last, in dangerousmoments, against everything that opposed even a whim.
The ten years that follow youth, the years when first the realization comesthat life is leading somewhere,—these were the years that passed after Ileft my little school. When they were past, I came by chance once more to thewalls of Fisk University, to the halls of the chapel of melody. As I lingeredthere in the joy and pain of meeting old school-friends, there swept over me asudden longing to pass again beyond the blue hill, and to see the homes and theschool of other days, and to learn how life had gone with my school-children;and I went.
Josie was dead, and the gray-haired mother said simply, “We’ve hada heap of trouble since you’ve been away.” I had feared for Jim.With a cultured parentage and a social caste to uphold him, he might have madea venturesome merchant or a West Point cadet. But here he was, angry with lifeand reckless; and when Fanner Durham charged him with stealing wheat, the oldman had to ride fast to escape the stones which the furious fool hurled afterhim. They told Jim to run away; but he would not run, and the constable camethat afternoon. It grieved Josie, and great awkward John walked nine milesevery day to see his little brother through the bars of Lebanon jail. At lastthe two came back together in the dark night. The mother cooked supper, andJosie emptied her purse, and the boys stole away. Josie grew thin and silent,yet worked the more. The hill became steep for the quiet old father, and withthe boys away there was little to do in the valley. Josie helped them to sellthe old farm, and they moved nearer town. Brother Dennis, the carpenter, builta new house with six rooms; Josie toiled a year in Nashville, and brought backninety dollars to furnish the house and change it to a home.
When the spring came, and the birds twittered, and the stream ran proud andfull, little sister Lizzie, bold and thoughtless, flushed with the passion ofyouth, bestowed herself on the tempter, and brought home a nameless child.Josie shivered and worked on, with the vision of schooldays all fled, with aface wan and tired,—worked until, on a summer’s day, some onemarried another; then Josie crept to her mother like a hurt child, andslept—and sleeps.
I paused to scent the breeze as I entered the valley. The Lawrences havegone,—father and son forever,—and the other son lazily digs in theearth to live. A new young widow rents out their cabin to fat Reuben. Reuben isa Baptist preacher now, but I fear as lazy as ever, though his cabin has threerooms; and little Ella has grown into a bouncing woman, and is ploughing cornon the hot hillside. There are babies a-plenty, and one half-witted girl.Across the valley is a house I did not know before, and there I found, rockingone baby and expecting another, one of my schoolgirls, a daughter of Uncle BirdDowell. She looked somewhat worried with her new duties, but soon bristled intopride over her neat cabin and the tale of her thrifty husband, and the horseand cow, and the farm they were planning to buy.
My log schoolhouse was gone. In its place stood Progress; and Progress, Iunderstand, is necessarily ugly. The crazy foundation stones still marked theformer site of my poor little cabin, and not far away, on six weary boulders,perched a jaunty board house, perhaps twenty by thirty feet, with three windowsand a door that locked. Some of the window-glass was broken, and part of an oldiron stove lay mournfully under the house. I peeped through the window halfreverently, and found things that were more familiar. The blackboard had grownby about two feet, and the seats were still without backs. The county owns thelot now, I hear, and every year there is a session of school. As I sat by thespring and looked on the Old and the New I felt glad, very glad, and yet—
After two long drinks I started on. There was the great double log-house on thecorner. I remembered the broken, blighted family that used to live there. Thestrong, hard face of the mother, with its wilderness of hair, rose before me.She had driven her husband away, and while I taught school a strange man livedthere, big and jovial, and people talked. I felt sure that Ben and ’Tildywould come to naught from such a home. But this is an odd world; for Ben is abusy farmer in Smith County, “doing well, too,” they say, and hehad cared for little ’Tildy until last spring, when a lover married her.A hard life the lad had led, toiling for meat, and laughed at because he washomely and crooked. There was Sam Carlon, an impudent old skinflint, who haddefinite notions about “niggers,” and hired Ben a summer and wouldnot pay him. Then the hungry boy gathered his sacks together, and in broaddaylight went into Carlon’s corn; and when the hard-fisted farmer setupon him, the angry boy flew at him like a beast. Doc Burke saved a murder anda lynching that day.
The story reminded me again of the Burkes, and an impatience seized me to knowwho won in the battle, Doc or the seventy-five acres. For it is a hard thing tomake a farm out of nothing, even in fifteen years. So I hurried on, thinking ofthe Burkes. They used to have a certain magnificent barbarism about them that Iliked. They were never vulgar, never immoral, but rather rough and primitive,with an unconventionality that spent itself in loud guffaws, slaps on the back,and naps in the corner. I hurried by the cottage of the misborn Neill boys. Itwas empty, and they were grown into fat, lazy farm-hands. I saw the home of theHickmans, but Albert, with his stooping shoulders, had passed from the world.Then I came to the Burkes’ gate and peered through; the enclosure lookedrough and untrimmed, and yet there were the same fences around the old farmsave to the left, where lay twenty-five other acres. And lo! the cabin in thehollow had climbed the hill and swollen to a half-finished six-room cottage.
The Burkes held a hundred acres, but they were still in debt. Indeed, the gauntfather who toiled night and day would scarcely be happy out of debt, being soused to it. Some day he must stop, for his massive frame is showing decline.The mother wore shoes, but the lion-like physique of other days was broken. Thechildren had grown up. Rob, the image of his father, was loud and rough withlaughter. Birdie, my school baby of six, had grown to a picture of maidenbeauty, tall and tawny. “Edgar is gone,” said the mother, with headhalf bowed,—“gone to work in Nashville; he and his fathercouldn’t agree.”
Little Doc, the boy born since the time of my school, took me horseback downthe creek next morning toward Farmer Dowell’s. The road and the streamwere battling for mastery, and the stream had the better of it. We splashed andwaded, and the merry boy, perched behind me, chattered and laughed. He showedme where Simon Thompson had bought a bit of ground and a home; but his daughterLana, a plump, brown, slow girl, was not there. She had married a man and afarm twenty miles away. We wound on down the stream till we came to a gate thatI did not recognize, but the boy insisted that it was “UncleBird’s.” The farm was fat with the growing crop. In that littlevalley was a strange stillness as I rode up; for death and marriage had stolenyouth and left age and childhood there. We sat and talked that night after thechores were done. Uncle Bird was grayer, and his eyes did not see so well, buthe was still jovial. We talked of the acres bought,—one hundred andtwenty-five,—of the new guest-chamber added, of Martha’s marrying.Then we talked of death: Fanny and Fred were gone; a shadow hung over the otherdaughter, and when it lifted she was to go to Nashville to school. At last wespoke of the neighbors, and as night fell, Uncle Bird told me how, on a nightlike that, ’Thenie came wandering back to her home over yonder, to escapethe blows of her husband. And next morning she died in the home that her littlebow-legged brother, working and saving, had bought for their widowed mother.
My journey was done, and behind me lay hill and dale, and Life and Death. Howshall man measure Progress there where the dark-faced Josie lies? How manyheartfuls of sorrow shall balance a bushel of wheat? How hard a thing is lifeto the lowly, and yet how human and real! And all this life and love and strifeand failure,—is it the twilight of nightfall or the flush of somefaint-dawning day?
Thus sadly musing, I rode to Nashville in the Jim Crow car.
Of the Wings of Atalanta
O black boy of Atlanta!
But half was spoken;
The slave’s chains and the master’s
Alike are broken;
The one curse of the races
Held both in tether;
They are rising—all are rising—
The black and white together.
South of the North, yet north of the South, lies the City of a Hundred Hills,peering out from the shadows of the past into the promise of the future. I haveseen her in the morning, when the first flush of day had half-roused her; shelay gray and still on the crimson soil of Georgia; then the blue smoke began tocurl from her chimneys, the tinkle of bell and scream of whistle broke thesilence, the rattle and roar of busy life slowly gathered and swelled, untilthe seething whirl of the city seemed a strange thing in a sleepy land.
Once, they say, even Atlanta slept dull and drowsy at the foot-hills of theAlleghanies, until the iron baptism of war awakened her with its sullen waters,aroused and maddened her, and left her listening to the sea. And the sea criedto the hills and the hills answered the sea, till the city rose like a widowand cast away her weeds, and toiled for her daily bread; toiled steadily,toiled cunningly,—perhaps with some bitterness, with a touch, ofréclame,—and yet with real earnestness, and real sweat.
It is a hard thing to live haunted by the ghost of an untrue dream; to see thewide vision of empire fade into real ashes and dirt; to feel the pang of theconquered, and yet know that with all the Bad that fell on one black day,something was vanquished that deserved to live, something killed that injustice had not dared to die; to know that with the Right that triumphed,triumphed something of Wrong, something sordid and mean, something less thanthe broadest and best. All this is bitter hard; and many a man and city andpeople have found in it excuse for sulking, and brooding, and listless waiting.
Such are not men of the sturdier make; they of Atlanta turned resolutely towardthe future; and that future held aloft vistas of purple andgold:—Atlanta, Queen of the cotton kingdom; Atlanta, Gateway to the Landof the Sun; Atlanta, the new Lachesis, spinner of web and woof for the world.So the city crowned her hundred hills with factories, and stored her shops withcunning handiwork, and stretched long iron ways to greet the busy Mercury inhis coming. And the Nation talked of her striving.
Perhaps Atlanta was not christened for the winged maiden of dull Boeotia; youknow the tale,—how swarthy Atalanta, tall and wild, would marry only himwho out-raced her; and how the wily Hippomenes laid three apples of gold in theway. She fled like a shadow, paused, startled over the first apple, but even ashe stretched his hand, fled again; hovered over the second, then, slipping fromhis hot grasp, flew over river, vale, and hill; but as she lingered over thethird, his arms fell round her, and looking on each other, the blazing passionof their love profaned the sanctuary of Love, and they were cursed. If Atlantabe not named for Atalanta, she ought to have been.
Atalanta is not the first or the last maiden whom greed of gold has led todefile the temple of Love; and not maids alone, but men in the race of life,sink from the high and generous ideals of youth to the gambler’s code ofthe Bourse; and in all our Nation’s striving is not the Gospel of Workbefouled by the Gospel of Pay? So common is this that one-half think it normal;so unquestioned, that we almost fear to question if the end of racing is notgold, if the aim of man is not rightly to be rich. And if this is the fault ofAmerica, how dire a danger lies before a new land and a new city, lest Atlanta,stooping for mere gold, shall find that gold accursed!
It was no maiden’s idle whim that started this hard racing; a fearfulwilderness lay about the feet of that city after the War,—feudalism,poverty, the rise of the Third Estate, serfdom, the re-birth of Law and Order,and above and between all, the Veil of Race. How heavy a journey for wearyfeet! what wings must Atalanta have to flit over all this hollow and hill,through sour wood and sullen water, and by the red waste of sun-baked clay! Howfleet must Atalanta be if she will not be tempted by gold to profane theSanctuary!
The Sanctuary of our fathers has, to be sure, few Gods,—some sneer,“all too few.” There is the thrifty Mercury of New England, Plutoof the North, and Ceres of the West; and there, too, is the half-forgottenApollo of the South, under whose aegis the maiden ran,—and as she ran sheforgot him, even as there in Boeotia Venus was forgot. She forgot the old idealof the Southern gentleman,—that new-world heir of the grace andcourtliness of patrician, knight, and noble; forgot his honor with his foibles,his kindliness with his carelessness, and stooped to apples of gold,—tomen busier and sharper, thriftier and more unscrupulous. Golden apples arebeautiful—I remember the lawless days of boyhood, when orchards incrimson and gold tempted me over fence and field—and, too, the merchantwho has dethroned the planter is no despicable parvenu. Work and wealth are themighty levers to lift this old new land; thrift and toil and saving are thehighways to new hopes and new possibilities; and yet the warning is needed lestthe wily Hippomenes tempt Atalanta to thinking that golden apples are the goalof racing, and not mere incidents by the way.
Atlanta must not lead the South to dream of material prosperity as thetouchstone of all success; already the fatal might of this idea is beginning tospread; it is replacing the finer type of Southerner with vulgar money-getters;it is burying the sweeter beauties of Southern life beneath pretence andostentation. For every social ill the panacea of Wealth has beenurged,—wealth to overthrow the remains of the slave feudalism; wealth toraise the “cracker” Third Estate; wealth to employ the black serfs,and the prospect of wealth to keep them working; wealth as the end and aim ofpolitics, and as the legal tender for law and order; and, finally, instead ofTruth, Beauty, and Goodness, wealth as the ideal of the Public School.
Not only is this true in the world which Atlanta typifies, but it isthreatening to be true of a world beneath and beyond that world,—theBlack World beyond the Veil. Today it makes little difference to Atlanta, tothe South, what the Negro thinks or dreams or wills. In the soul-life of theland he is to-day, and naturally will long remain, unthought of, halfforgotten; and yet when he does come to think and will and do forhimself,—and let no man dream that day will never come,—then thepart he plays will not be one of sudden learning, but words and thoughts he hasbeen taught to lisp in his race-childhood. To-day the ferment of his strivingtoward self-realization is to the strife of the white world like a wheel withina wheel: beyond the Veil are smaller but like problems of ideals, of leadersand the led, of serfdom, of poverty, of order and subordination, and, throughall, the Veil of Race. Few know of these problems, few who know notice them;and yet there they are, awaiting student, artist, and seer,—a field forsomebody sometime to discover. Hither has the temptation of Hippomenespenetrated; already in this smaller world, which now indirectly and anondirectly must influence the larger for good or ill, the habit is forming ofinterpreting the world in dollars. The old leaders of Negro opinion, in thelittle groups where there is a Negro social consciousness, are being replacedby new; neither the black preacher nor the black teacher leads as he did twodecades ago. Into their places are pushing the farmers and gardeners, thewell-paid porters and artisans, the business-men,—all those with propertyand money. And with all this change, so curiously parallel to that of theOther-world, goes too the same inevitable change in ideals. The South lamentsto-day the slow, steady disappearance of a certain type of Negro,—thefaithful, courteous slave of other days, with his incorruptible honesty anddignified humility. He is passing away just as surely as the old type ofSouthern gentleman is passing, and from not dissimilar causes,—the suddentransformation of a fair far-off ideal of Freedom into the hard reality ofbread-winning and the consequent deification of Bread.
In the Black World, the Preacher and Teacher embodied once the ideals of thispeople—the strife for another and a juster world, the vague dream ofrighteousness, the mystery of knowing; but to-day the danger is that theseideals, with their simple beauty and weird inspiration, will suddenly sink to aquestion of cash and a lust for gold. Here stands this black young Atalanta,girding herself for the race that must be run; and if her eyes be still towardthe hills and sky as in the days of old, then we may look for noble running;but what if some ruthless or wily or even thoughtless Hippomenes lay goldenapples before her? What if the Negro people be wooed from a strife forrighteousness, from a love of knowing, to regard dollars as the be-all andend-all of life? What if to the Mammonism of America be added the risingMammonism of the re-born South, and the Mammonism of this South be reinforcedby the budding Mammonism of its half-wakened black millions? Whither, then, isthe new-world quest of Goodness and Beauty and Truth gone glimmering? Mustthis, and that fair flower of Freedom which, despite the jeers of latter-daystriplings, sprung from our fathers’ blood, must that too degenerate intoa dusty quest of gold,—into lawless lust with Hippomenes?
The hundred hills of Atlanta are not all crowned with factories. On one, towardthe west, the setting sun throws three buildings in bold relief against thesky. The beauty of the group lies in its simple unity:—a broad lawn ofgreen rising from the red street and mingled roses and peaches; north andsouth, two plain and stately halls; and in the midst, half hidden in ivy, alarger building, boldly graceful, sparingly decorated, and with one low spire.It is a restful group, —one never looks for more; it is all here, allintelligible. There I live, and there I hear from day to day the low hum ofrestful life. In winter’s twilight, when the red sun glows, I can see thedark figures pass between the halls to the music of the night-bell. In themorning, when the sun is golden, the clang of the day-bell brings the hurry andlaughter of three hundred young hearts from hall and street, and from the busycity below,—children all dark and heavy-haired,—to join their clearyoung voices in the music of the morning sacrifice. In a half-dozen class-roomsthey gather then,—here to follow the love-song of Dido, here to listen tothe tale of Troy divine; there to wander among the stars, there to wander amongmen and nations,—and elsewhere other well-worn ways of knowing this queerworld. Nothing new, no time-saving devices,—simply old time-glorifiedmethods of delving for Truth, and searching out the hidden beauties of life,and learning the good of living. The riddle of existence is the collegecurriculum that was laid before the Pharaohs, that was taught in the groves byPlato, that formed the trivium and quadrivium, and is to-day laidbefore the freedmen’s sons by Atlanta University. And this course ofstudy will not change; its methods will grow more deft and effectual, itscontent richer by toil of scholar and sight of seer; but the true college willever have one goal,—not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of thatlife which meat nourishes.
The vision of life that rises before these dark eyes has in it nothing mean orselfish. Not at Oxford or at Leipsic, not at Yale or Columbia, is there an airof higher resolve or more unfettered striving; the determination to realize formen, both black and white, the broadest possibilities of life, to seek thebetter and the best, to spread with their own hands the Gospel ofSacrifice,—all this is the burden of their talk and dream. Here, amid awide desert of caste and proscription, amid the heart-hurting slights and jarsand vagaries of a deep race-dislike, lies this green oasis, where hot angercools, and the bitterness of disappointment is sweetened by the springs andbreezes of Parnassus; and here men may lie and listen, and learn of a futurefuller than the past, and hear the voice of Time:
“Entbehren sollst du, sollst entbehren.”
They made their mistakes, those who planted Fisk and Howard and Atlanta beforethe smoke of battle had lifted; they made their mistakes, but those mistakeswere not the things at which we lately laughed somewhat uproariously. They wereright when they sought to found a new educational system upon the University:where, forsooth, shall we ground knowledge save on the broadest and deepestknowledge? The roots of the tree, rather than the leaves, are the sources ofits life; and from the dawn of history, from Academus to Cambridge, the cultureof the University has been the broad foundation-stone on which is built thekindergarten’s A B C.
But these builders did make a mistake in minimizing the gravity of the problembefore them; in thinking it a matter of years and decades; in thereforebuilding quickly and laying their foundation carelessly, and lowering thestandard of knowing, until they had scattered haphazard through the South somedozen poorly equipped high schools and miscalled them universities. Theyforgot, too, just as their successors are forgetting, the rule ofinequality:—that of the million black youth, some were fitted to know andsome to dig; that some had the talent and capacity of university men, and somethe talent and capacity of blacksmiths; and that true training meant neitherthat all should be college men nor all artisans, but that the one should bemade a missionary of culture to an untaught people, and the other a freeworkman among serfs. And to seek to make the blacksmith a scholar is almost assilly as the more modern scheme of making the scholar a blacksmith; almost, butnot quite.
The function of the university is not simply to teach bread-winning, or tofurnish teachers for the public schools or to be a centre of polite society; itis, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life andthe growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret ofcivilization. Such an institution the South of to-day sorely needs. She hasreligion, earnest, bigoted:—religion that on both sides the Veil oftenomits the sixth, seventh, and eighth commandments, but substitutes a dozensupplementary ones. She has, as Atlanta shows, growing thrift and love of toil;but she lacks that broad knowledge of what the world knows and knew of humanliving and doing, which she may apply to the thousand problems of real lifeto-day confronting her. The need of the South is knowledge andculture,—not in dainty limited quantity, as before the war, but in broadbusy abundance in the world of work; and until she has this, not all the Applesof Hesperides, be they golden and bejewelled, can save her from the curse ofthe Boeotian lovers.
The Wings of Atalanta are the coming universities of the South. They alone canbear the maiden past the temptation of golden fruit. They will not guide herflying feet away from the cotton and gold; for—ah, thoughtfulHippomenes!—do not the apples lie in the very Way of Life? But they willguide her over and beyond them, and leave her kneeling in the Sanctuary ofTruth and Freedom and broad Humanity, virgin and undefiled. Sadly did the OldSouth err in human education, despising the education of the masses, andniggardly in the support of colleges. Her ancient university foundationsdwindled and withered under the foul breath of slavery; and even since the warthey have fought a failing fight for life in the tainted air of social unrestand commercial selfishness, stunted by the death of criticism, and starving forlack of broadly cultured men. And if this is the white South’s need anddanger, how much heavier the danger and need of the freedmen’s sons! howpressing here the need of broad ideals and true culture, the conservation ofsoul from sordid aims and petty passions! Let us build the Southernuniversity—William and Mary, Trinity, Georgia, Texas, Tulane, Vanderbilt,and the others—fit to live; let us build, too, the Negrouniversities:—Fisk, whose foundation was ever broad; Howard, at the heartof the Nation; Atlanta at Atlanta, whose ideal of scholarship has been heldabove the temptation of numbers. Why not here, and perhaps elsewhere, plantdeeply and for all time centres of learning and living, colleges that yearlywould send into the life of the South a few white men and a few black men ofbroad culture, catholic tolerance, and trained ability, joining their hands toother hands, and giving to this squabble of the Races a decent and dignifiedpeace?
Patience, Humility, Manners, and Taste, common schools and kindergartens,industrial and technical schools, literature and tolerance,—all thesespring from knowledge and culture, the children of the university. So must menand nations build, not otherwise, not upside down.
Teach workers to work,—a wise saying; wise when applied to German boysand American girls; wiser when said of Negro boys, for they have less knowledgeof working and none to teach them. Teach thinkers to think,—a neededknowledge in a day of loose and careless logic; and they whose lot is gravestmust have the carefulest training to think aright. If these things are so, howfoolish to ask what is the best education for one or seven or sixty millionsouls! shall we teach them trades, or train them in liberal arts? Neither andboth: teach the workers to work and the thinkers to think; make carpenters ofcarpenters, and philosophers of philosophers, and fops of fools. Nor can wepause here. We are training not isolated men but a living group ofmen,—nay, a group within a group. And the final product of our trainingmust be neither a psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man. And to make men, wemust have ideals, broad, pure, and inspiring ends of living,—not sordidmoney-getting, not apples of gold. The worker must work for the glory of hishandiwork, not simply for pay; the thinker must think for truth, not for fame.And all this is gained only by human strife and longing; by ceaseless trainingand education; by founding Right on righteousness and Truth on the unhamperedsearch for Truth; by founding the common school on the university, and theindustrial school on the common school; and weaving thus a system, not adistortion, and bringing a birth, not an abortion.
When night falls on the City of a Hundred Hills, a wind gathers itself from theseas and comes murmuring westward. And at its bidding, the smoke of the drowsyfactories sweeps down upon the mighty city and covers it like a pall, whileyonder at the University the stars twinkle above Stone Hall. And they say thatyon gray mist is the tunic of Atalanta pausing over her golden apples. Fly, mymaiden, fly, for yonder comes Hippomenes!
Of the Training of Black Men
Why, if the Soul can fling the Dust aside,
And naked on the Air of Heaven ride,
Were’t not a Shame—were’t not a Shame for him
In this clay carcase crippled to abide?
OMAR KHAYYÁM (FITZGERALD).
From the shimmering swirl of waters where many, many thoughts ago theslave-ship first saw the square tower of Jamestown, have flowed down to our daythree streams of thinking: one swollen from the larger world here and overseas,saying, the multiplying of human wants in culture-lands calls for theworld-wide cooperation of men in satisfying them. Hence arises a new humanunity, pulling the ends of earth nearer, and all men, black, yellow, and white.The larger humanity strives to feel in this contact of living Nations andsleeping hordes a thrill of new life in the world, crying, “If thecontact of Life and Sleep be Death, shame on such Life.” To be sure,behind this thought lurks the afterthought of force and dominion,—themaking of brown men to delve when the temptation of beads and red calico cloys.
The second thought streaming from the death-ship and the curving river is thethought of the older South,—the sincere and passionate belief thatsomewhere between men and cattle, God created a tertium quid, and calledit a Negro,—a clownish, simple creature, at times even lovable within itslimitations, but straitly foreordained to walk within the Veil. To be sure,behind the thought lurks the afterthought,—some of them with favoringchance might become men, but in sheer self-defence we dare not let them, and webuild about them walls so high, and hang between them and the light a veil sothick, that they shall not even think of breaking through.
And last of all there trickles down that third and darker thought,—thethought of the things themselves, the confused, half-conscious mutter of menwho are black and whitened, crying “Liberty, Freedom,Opportunity—vouchsafe to us, O boastful World, the chance of livingmen!” To be sure, behind the thought lurks theafterthought,—suppose, after all, the World is right and we are less thanmen? Suppose this mad impulse within is all wrong, some mock mirage from theuntrue?
So here we stand among thoughts of human unity, even through conquest andslavery; the inferiority of black men, even if forced by fraud; a shriek in thenight for the freedom of men who themselves are not yet sure of their right todemand it. This is the tangle of thought and afterthought wherein we are calledto solve the problem of training men for life.
Behind all its curiousness, so attractive alike to sage and dilettante,lie its dim dangers, throwing across us shadows at once grotesque and awful.Plain it is to us that what the world seeks through desert and wild we havewithin our threshold,—a stalwart laboring force, suited to thesemi-tropics; if, deaf to the voice of the Zeitgeist, we refuse to use anddevelop these men, we risk poverty and loss. If, on the other hand, seized bythe brutal afterthought, we debauch the race thus caught in our talons,selfishly sucking their blood and brains in the future as in the past, whatshall save us from national decadence? Only that saner selfishness, whichEducation teaches, can find the rights of all in the whirl of work.
Again, we may decry the color-prejudice of the South, yet it remains a heavyfact. Such curious kinks of the human mind exist and must be reckoned withsoberly. They cannot be laughed away, nor always successfully stormed at, noreasily abolished by act of legislature. And yet they must not be encouraged bybeing let alone. They must be recognized as facts, but unpleasant facts; thingsthat stand in the way of civilization and religion and common decency. They canbe met in but one way,—by the breadth and broadening of human reason, bycatholicity of taste and culture. And so, too, the native ambition andaspiration of men, even though they be black, backward, and ungraceful, mustnot lightly be dealt with. To stimulate wildly weak and untrained minds is toplay with mighty fires; to flout their striving idly is to welcome a harvest ofbrutish crime and shameless lethargy in our very laps. The guiding of thoughtand the deft coordination of deed is at once the path of honor and humanity.
And so, in this great question of reconciling three vast and partiallycontradictory streams of thought, the one panacea of Education leaps to thelips of all:—such human training as will best use the labor of all menwithout enslaving or brutalizing; such training as will give us poise toencourage the prejudices that bulwark society, and to stamp out those that insheer barbarity deafen us to the wail of prisoned souls within the Veil, andthe mounting fury of shackled men.
But when we have vaguely said that Education will set this tangle straight,what have we uttered but a truism? Training for life teaches living; but whattraining for the profitable living together of black men and white? A hundredand fifty years ago our task would have seemed easier. Then Dr. Johnson blandlyassured us that education was needful solely for the embellishments of life,and was useless for ordinary vermin. To-day we have climbed to heights where wewould open at least the outer courts of knowledge to all, display its treasuresto many, and select the few to whom its mystery of Truth is revealed, notwholly by birth or the accidents of the stock market, but at least in partaccording to deftness and aim, talent and character. This programme, however,we are sorely puzzled in carrying out through that part of the land where theblight of slavery fell hardest, and where we are dealing with two backwardpeoples. To make here in human education that ever necessary combination of thepermanent and the contingent—of the ideal and the practical in workableequilibrium—has been there, as it ever must be in every age and place, amatter of infinite experiment and frequent mistakes.
In rough approximation we may point out four varying decades of work inSouthern education since the Civil War. From the close of the war until 1876,was the period of uncertain groping and temporary relief. There were armyschools, mission schools, and schools of the Freedmen’s Bureau in chaoticdisarrangement seeking system and co-operation. Then followed ten years ofconstructive definite effort toward the building of complete school systems inthe South. Normal schools and colleges were founded for the freedmen, andteachers trained there to man the public schools. There was the inevitabletendency of war to underestimate the prejudices of the master and the ignoranceof the slave, and all seemed clear sailing out of the wreckage of the storm.Meantime, starting in this decade yet especially developing from 1885 to 1895,began the industrial revolution of the South. The land saw glimpses of a newdestiny and the stirring of new ideals. The educational system striving tocomplete itself saw new obstacles and a field of work ever broader and deeper.The Negro colleges, hurriedly founded, were inadequately equipped, illogicallydistributed, and of varying efficiency and grade; the normal and high schoolswere doing little more than common-school work, and the common schools weretraining but a third of the children who ought to be in them, and trainingthese too often poorly. At the same time the white South, by reason of itssudden conversion from the slavery ideal, by so much the more became set andstrengthened in its racial prejudice, and crystallized it into harsh law andharsher custom; while the marvellous pushing forward of the poor white dailythreatened to take even bread and butter from the mouths of the heavilyhandicapped sons of the freedmen. In the midst, then, of the larger problem ofNegro education sprang up the more practical question of work, the inevitableeconomic quandary that faces a people in the transition from slavery tofreedom, and especially those who make that change amid hate and prejudice,lawlessness and ruthless competition.
The industrial school springing to notice in this decade, but coming to fullrecognition in the decade beginning with 1895, was the proffered answer to thiscombined educational and economic crisis, and an answer of singular wisdom andtimeliness. From the very first in nearly all the schools some attention hadbeen given to training in handiwork, but now was this training first raised toa dignity that brought it in direct touch with the South’s magnificentindustrial development, and given an emphasis which reminded black folk thatbefore the Temple of Knowledge swing the Gates of Toil.
Yet after all they are but gates, and when turning our eyes from the temporaryand the contingent in the Negro problem to the broader question of thepermanent uplifting and civilization of black men in America, we have a rightto inquire, as this enthusiasm for material advancement mounts to its height,if after all the industrial school is the final and sufficient answer in thetraining of the Negro race; and to ask gently, but in all sincerity, theever-recurring query of the ages, Is not life more than meat, and the body morethan raiment? And men ask this to-day all the more eagerly because of sinistersigns in recent educational movements. The tendency is here, born of slaveryand quickened to renewed life by the crazy imperialism of the day, to regardhuman beings as among the material resources of a land to be trained with aneye single to future dividends. Race-prejudices, which keep brown and black menin their “places,” we are coming to regard as useful allies withsuch a theory, no matter how much they may dull the ambition and sicken thehearts of struggling human beings. And above all, we daily hear that aneducation that encourages aspiration, that sets the loftiest of ideals andseeks as an end culture and character rather than bread-winning, is theprivilege of white men and the danger and delusion of black.
Especially has criticism been directed against the former educational effortsto aid the Negro. In the four periods I have mentioned, we find first,boundless, planless enthusiasm and sacrifice; then the preparation of teachersfor a vast public-school system; then the launching and expansion of thatschool system amid increasing difficulties; and finally the training of workmenfor the new and growing industries. This development has been sharply ridiculedas a logical anomaly and flat reversal of nature. Soothly we have been toldthat first industrial and manual training should have taught the Negro to work,then simple schools should have taught him to read and write, and finally,after years, high and normal schools could have completed the system, asintelligence and wealth demanded.
That a system logically so complete was historically impossible, it needs but alittle thought to prove. Progress in human affairs is more often a pull than apush, a surging forward of the exceptional man, and the lifting of his dullerbrethren slowly and painfully to his vantage-ground. Thus it was no accidentthat gave birth to universities centuries before the common schools, that madefair Harvard the first flower of our wilderness. So in the South: the mass ofthe freedmen at the end of the war lacked the intelligence so necessary tomodern workingmen. They must first have the common school to teach them toread, write, and cipher; and they must have higher schools to teach teachersfor the common schools. The white teachers who flocked South went to establishsuch a common-school system. Few held the idea of founding colleges; most ofthem at first would have laughed at the idea. But they faced, as all men sincethem have faced, that central paradox of the South,—the social separationof the races. At that time it was the sudden volcanic rupture of nearly allrelations between black and white, in work and government and family life.Since then a new adjustment of relations in economic and political affairs hasgrown up,—an adjustment subtle and difficult to grasp, yet singularlyingenious, which leaves still that frightful chasm at the color-line acrosswhich men pass at their peril. Thus, then and now, there stand in the South twoseparate worlds; and separate not simply in the higher realms of socialintercourse, but also in church and school, on railway and street-car, inhotels and theatres, in streets and city sections, in books and newspapers, inasylums and jails, in hospitals and graveyards. There is still enough ofcontact for large economic and group cooperation, but the separation is sothorough and deep that it absolutely precludes for the present between theraces anything like that sympathetic and effective group-training andleadership of the one by the other, such as the American Negro and all backwardpeoples must have for effectual progress.
This the missionaries of ’68 soon saw; and if effective industrial andtrade schools were impracticable before the establishment of a common-schoolsystem, just as certainly no adequate common schools could be founded untilthere were teachers to teach them. Southern whites would not teach them;Northern whites in sufficient numbers could not be had. If the Negro was tolearn, he must teach himself, and the most effective help that could be givenhim was the establishment of schools to train Negro teachers. This conclusionwas slowly but surely reached by every student of the situation untilsimultaneously, in widely separated regions, without consultation or systematicplan, there arose a series of institutions designed to furnish teachers for theuntaught. Above the sneers of critics at the obvious defects of this proceduremust ever stand its one crushing rejoinder: in a single generation they putthirty thousand black teachers in the South; they wiped out the illiteracy ofthe majority of the black people of the land, and they made Tuskegee possible.
Such higher training-schools tended naturally to deepen broader development: atfirst they were common and grammar schools, then some became high schools. Andfinally, by 1900, some thirty-four had one year or more of studies of collegegrade. This development was reached with different degrees of speed indifferent institutions: Hampton is still a high school, while Fisk Universitystarted her college in 1871, and Spelman Seminary about 1896. In all cases theaim was identical,—to maintain the standards of the lower training bygiving teachers and leaders the best practicable training; and above all, tofurnish the black world with adequate standards of human culture and loftyideals of life. It was not enough that the teachers of teachers should betrained in technical normal methods; they must also, so far as possible, bebroad-minded, cultured men and women, to scatter civilization among a peoplewhose ignorance was not simply of letters, but of life itself.
It can thus be seen that the work of education in the South began with higherinstitutions of training, which threw off as their foliage common schools, andlater industrial schools, and at the same time strove to shoot their roots everdeeper toward college and university training. That this was an inevitable andnecessary development, sooner or later, goes without saying; but there hasbeen, and still is, a question in many minds if the natural growth was notforced, and if the higher training was not either overdone or done with cheapand unsound methods. Among white Southerners this feeling is widespread andpositive. A prominent Southern journal voiced this in a recent editorial.
“The experiment that has been made to give the colored students classicaltraining has not been satisfactory. Even though many were able to pursue thecourse, most of them did so in a parrot-like way, learning what was taught, butnot seeming to appropriate the truth and import of their instruction, andgraduating without sensible aim or valuable occupation for their future. Thewhole scheme has proved a waste of time, efforts, and the money of thestate.”
While most fair-minded men would recognize this as extreme and overdrawn, stillwithout doubt many are asking, Are there a sufficient number of Negroes readyfor college training to warrant the undertaking? Are not too many studentsprematurely forced into this work? Does it not have the effect of dissatisfyingthe young Negro with his environment? And do these graduates succeed in reallife? Such natural questions cannot be evaded, nor on the other hand must aNation naturally skeptical as to Negro ability assume an unfavorable answerwithout careful inquiry and patient openness to conviction. We must not forgetthat most Americans answer all queries regarding the Negro a priori, and thatthe least that human courtesy can do is to listen to evidence.
The advocates of the higher education of the Negro would be the last to denythe incompleteness and glaring defects of the present system: too manyinstitutions have attempted to do college work, the work in some cases has notbeen thoroughly done, and quantity rather than quality has sometimes beensought. But all this can be said of higher education throughout the land; it isthe almost inevitable incident of educational growth, and leaves the deeperquestion of the legitimate demand for the higher training of Negroes untouched.And this latter question can be settled in but one way,—by a first-handstudy of the facts. If we leave out of view all institutions which have notactually graduated students from a course higher than that of a New Englandhigh school, even though they be called colleges; if then we take thethirty-four remaining institutions, we may clear up many misapprehensions byasking searchingly, What kind of institutions are they? what do they teach? andwhat sort of men do they graduate?
And first we may say that this type of college, including Atlanta, Fisk, andHoward, Wilberforce and Claflin, Shaw, and the rest, is peculiar, almostunique. Through the shining trees that whisper before me as I write, I catchglimpses of a boulder of New England granite, covering a grave, which graduatesof Atlanta University have placed there,—
“IN GRATEFUL MEMORY OF THEIR FORMER TEACHER AND FRIEND AND OF THEUNSELFISH LIFE HE LIVED, AND THE NOBLE WORK HE WROUGHT; THAT THEY, THEIRCHILDREN, AND THEIR CHILDREN’S CHILDREN MIGHT BE BLESSED.”
This was the gift of New England to the freed Negro: not alms, but a friend;not cash, but character. It was not and is not money these seething millionswant, but love and sympathy, the pulse of hearts beating with redblood;—a gift which to-day only their own kindred and race can bring tothe masses, but which once saintly souls brought to their favored children inthe crusade of the sixties, that finest thing in American history, and one ofthe few things untainted by sordid greed and cheap vainglory. The teachers inthese institutions came not to keep the Negroes in their place, but to raisethem out of the defilement of the places where slavery had wallowed them. Thecolleges they founded were social settlements; homes where the best of the sonsof the freedmen came in close and sympathetic touch with the best traditions ofNew England. They lived and ate together, studied and worked, hoped andharkened in the dawning light. In actual formal content their curriculum wasdoubtless old-fashioned, but in educational power it was supreme, for it wasthe contact of living souls.
From such schools about two thousand Negroes have gone forth with thebachelor’s degree. The number in itself is enough to put at rest theargument that too large a proportion of Negroes are receiving higher training.If the ratio to population of all Negro students throughout the land, in bothcollege and secondary training, be counted, Commissioner Harris assures us“it must be increased to five times its present average” to equalthe average of the land.
Fifty years ago the ability of Negro students in any appreciable numbers tomaster a modern college course would have been difficult to prove. To-day it isproved by the fact that four hundred Negroes, many of whom have been reportedas brilliant students, have received the bachelor’s degree from Harvard,Yale, Oberlin, and seventy other leading colleges. Here we have, then, nearlytwenty-five hundred Negro graduates, of whom the crucial query must be made,How far did their training fit them for life? It is of course extremelydifficult to collect satisfactory data on such a point,—difficult toreach the men, to get trustworthy testimony, and to gauge that testimony by anygenerally acceptable criterion of success. In 1900, the Conference at AtlantaUniversity undertook to study these graduates, and published the results. Firstthey sought to know what these graduates were doing, and succeeded in gettinganswers from nearly two-thirds of the living. The direct testimony was inalmost all cases corroborated by the reports of the colleges where theygraduated, so that in the main the reports were worthy of credence. Fifty-threeper cent of these graduates were teachers,—presidents of institutions,heads of normal schools, principals of city school-systems, and the like.Seventeen per cent were clergymen; another seventeen per cent were in theprofessions, chiefly as physicians. Over six per cent were merchants, farmers,and artisans, and four per cent were in the government civil-service. Grantingeven that a considerable proportion of the third unheard from are unsuccessful,this is a record of usefulness. Personally I know many hundreds of thesegraduates, and have corresponded with more than a thousand; through others Ihave followed carefully the life-work of scores; I have taught some of them andsome of the pupils whom they have taught, lived in homes which they havebuilded, and looked at life through their eyes. Comparing them as a class withmy fellow students in New England and in Europe, I cannot hesitate in sayingthat nowhere have I met men and women with a broader spirit of helpfulness,with deeper devotion to their life-work, or with more consecrated determinationto succeed in the face of bitter difficulties than among Negro college-bredmen. They have, to be sure, their proportion of ne’er-do-wells, theirpedants and lettered fools, but they have a surprisingly small proportion ofthem; they have not that culture of manner which we instinctively associatewith university men, forgetting that in reality it is the heritage fromcultured homes, and that no people a generation removed from slavery can escapea certain unpleasant rawness and gaucherie, despite the best of training.
With all their larger vision and deeper sensibility, these men have usuallybeen conservative, careful leaders. They have seldom been agitators, havewithstood the temptation to head the mob, and have worked steadily andfaithfully in a thousand communities in the South. As teachers, they have giventhe South a commendable system of city schools and large numbers of privatenormal-schools and academies. Colored college-bred men have worked side by sidewith white college graduates at Hampton; almost from the beginning the backboneof Tuskegee’s teaching force has been formed of graduates from Fisk andAtlanta. And to-day the institute is filled with college graduates, from theenergetic wife of the principal down to the teacher of agriculture, includingnearly half of the executive council and a majority of the heads ofdepartments. In the professions, college men are slowly but surely leaveningthe Negro church, are healing and preventing the devastations of disease, andbeginning to furnish legal protection for the liberty and property of thetoiling masses. All this is needful work. Who would do it if Negroes did not?How could Negroes do it if they were not trained carefully for it? If whitepeople need colleges to furnish teachers, ministers, lawyers, and doctors, doblack people need nothing of the sort?
If it is true that there are an appreciable number of Negro youth in the landcapable by character and talent to receive that higher training, the end ofwhich is culture, and if the two and a half thousand who have had something ofthis training in the past have in the main proved themselves useful to theirrace and generation, the question then comes, What place in the futuredevelopment of the South ought the Negro college and college-bred man tooccupy? That the present social separation and acute race-sensitiveness musteventually yield to the influences of culture, as the South grows civilized, isclear. But such transformation calls for singular wisdom and patience. If,while the healing of this vast sore is progressing, the races are to live formany years side by side, united in economic effort, obeying a commongovernment, sensitive to mutual thought and feeling, yet subtly and silentlyseparate in many matters of deeper human intimacy,—if this unusual anddangerous development is to progress amid peace and order, mutual respect andgrowing intelligence, it will call for social surgery at once the delicatestand nicest in modern history. It will demand broad-minded, upright men, bothwhite and black, and in its final accomplishment American civilization willtriumph. So far as white men are concerned, this fact is to-day beingrecognized in the South, and a happy renaissance of university education seemsimminent. But the very voices that cry hail to this good work are, strange torelate, largely silent or antagonistic to the higher education of the Negro.
Strange to relate! for this is certain, no secure civilization can be built inthe South with the Negro as an ignorant, turbulent proletariat. Suppose we seekto remedy this by making them laborers and nothing more: they are not fools,they have tasted of the Tree of Life, and they will not cease to think, willnot cease attempting to read the riddle of the world. By taking away their bestequipped teachers and leaders, by slamming the door of opportunity in the facesof their bolder and brighter minds, will you make them satisfied with theirlot? or will you not rather transfer their leading from the hands of men taughtto think to the hands of untrained demagogues? We ought not to forget thatdespite the pressure of poverty, and despite the active discouragement and evenridicule of friends, the demand for higher training steadily increases amongNegro youth: there were, in the years from 1875 to 1880, 22 Negro graduatesfrom Northern colleges; from 1885 to 1890 there were 43, and from 1895 to 1900,nearly 100 graduates. From Southern Negro colleges there were, in the samethree periods, 143, 413, and over 500 graduates. Here, then, is the plainthirst for training; by refusing to give this Talented Tenth the key toknowledge, can any sane man imagine that they will lightly lay aside theiryearning and contentedly become hewers of wood and drawers of water?
No. The dangerously clear logic of the Negro’s position will more andmore loudly assert itself in that day when increasing wealth and more intricatesocial organization preclude the South from being, as it so largely is, simplyan armed camp for intimidating black folk. Such waste of energy cannot bespared if the South is to catch up with civilization. And as the black third ofthe land grows in thrift and skill, unless skilfully guided in its largerphilosophy, it must more and more brood over the red past and the creeping,crooked present, until it grasps a gospel of revolt and revenge and throws itsnew-found energies athwart the current of advance. Even to-day the masses ofthe Negroes see all too clearly the anomalies of their position and the moralcrookedness of yours. You may marshal strong indictments against them, buttheir counter-cries, lacking though they be in formal logic, have burningtruths within them which you may not wholly ignore, O Southern Gentlemen! Ifyou deplore their presence here, they ask, Who brought us? When you cry,Deliver us from the vision of intermarriage, they answer that legal marriage isinfinitely better than systematic concubinage and prostitution. And if in justfury you accuse their vagabonds of violating women, they also in fury quite asjust may reply: The rape which your gentlemen have done against helpless blackwomen in defiance of your own laws is written on the foreheads of two millionsof mulattoes, and written in ineffaceable blood. And finally, when you fastencrime upon this race as its peculiar trait, they answer that slavery was thearch-crime, and lynching and lawlessness its twin abortions; that color andrace are not crimes, and yet it is they which in this land receive mostunceasing condemnation, North, East, South, and West.
I will not say such arguments are wholly justified,—I will not insistthat there is no other side to the shield; but I do say that of the ninemillions of Negroes in this nation, there is scarcely one out of the cradle towhom these arguments do not daily present themselves in the guise of terribletruth. I insist that the question of the future is how best to keep thesemillions from brooding over the wrongs of the past and the difficulties of thepresent, so that all their energies may be bent toward a cheerful striving andcooperation with their white neighbors toward a larger, juster, and fullerfuture. That one wise method of doing this lies in the closer knitting of theNegro to the great industrial possibilities of the South is a great truth. Andthis the common schools and the manual training and trade schools are workingto accomplish. But these alone are not enough. The foundations of knowledge inthis race, as in others, must be sunk deep in the college and university if wewould build a solid, permanent structure. Internal problems of social advancemust inevitably come, —problems of work and wages, of families and homes,of morals and the true valuing of the things of life; and all these and otherinevitable problems of civilization the Negro must meet and solve largely forhimself, by reason of his isolation; and can there be any possible solutionother than by study and thought and an appeal to the rich experience of thepast? Is there not, with such a group and in such a crisis, infinitely moredanger to be apprehended from half-trained minds and shallow thinking than fromover-education and over-refinement? Surely we have wit enough to found a Negrocollege so manned and equipped as to steer successfully between thedilettante and the fool. We shall hardly induce black men to believethat if their stomachs be full, it matters little about their brains. Theyalready dimly perceive that the paths of peace winding between honest toil anddignified manhood call for the guidance of skilled thinkers, the loving,reverent comradeship between the black lowly and the black men emancipated bytraining and culture.
The function of the Negro college, then, is clear: it must maintain thestandards of popular education, it must seek the social regeneration of theNegro, and it must help in the solution of problems of race contact andcooperation. And finally, beyond all this, it must develop men. Above ourmodern socialism, and out of the worship of the mass, must persist and evolvethat higher individualism which the centres of culture protect; there must comea loftier respect for the sovereign human soul that seeks to know itself andthe world about it; that seeks a freedom for expansion and self-development;that will love and hate and labor in its own way, untrammeled alike by old andnew. Such souls aforetime have inspired and guided worlds, and if we be notwholly bewitched by our Rhinegold, they shall again. Herein the longing ofblack men must have respect: the rich and bitter depth of their experience, theunknown treasures of their inner life, the strange rendings of nature they haveseen, may give the world new points of view and make their loving, living, anddoing precious to all human hearts. And to themselves in these the days thattry their souls, the chance to soar in the dim blue air above the smoke is totheir finer spirits boon and guerdon for what they lose on earth by beingblack.
I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm inarm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide ingilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between thestrong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle andAurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn norcondescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life yougrudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into thedull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this highPisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?
Of the Black Belt
I am black but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem,
As the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.
Look not upon me, because I am black,
Because the sun hath looked upon me:
My mother’s children were angry with me;
They made me the keeper of the vineyards;
But mine own vineyard have I not kept.
THE SONG OF SOLOMON.
Out of the North the train thundered, and we woke to see the crimson soil ofGeorgia stretching away bare and monotonous right and left. Here and there laystraggling, unlovely villages, and lean men loafed leisurely at the depots;then again came the stretch of pines and clay. Yet we did not nod, nor weary ofthe scene; for this is historic ground. Right across our track, three hundredand sixty years ago, wandered the cavalcade of Hernando de Soto, looking forgold and the Great Sea; and he and his foot-sore captives disappeared yonder inthe grim forests to the west. Here sits Atlanta, the city of a hundred hills,with something Western, something Southern, and something quite its own, in itsbusy life. Just this side Atlanta is the land of the Cherokees and to thesouthwest, not far from where Sam Hose was crucified, you may stand on a spotwhich is to-day the centre of the Negro problem,—the centre of those ninemillion men who are America’s dark heritage from slavery and theslave-trade.
Not only is Georgia thus the geographical focus of our Negro population, but inmany other respects, both now and yesterday, the Negro problems have seemed tobe centered in this State. No other State in the Union can count a millionNegroes among its citizens,—a population as large as the slave populationof the whole Union in 1800; no other State fought so long and strenuously togather this host of Africans. Oglethorpe thought slavery against law andgospel; but the circumstances which gave Georgia its first inhabitants were notcalculated to furnish citizens over-nice in their ideas about rum and slaves.Despite the prohibitions of the trustees, these Georgians, like some of theirdescendants, proceeded to take the law into their own hands; and so pliant werethe judges, and so flagrant the smuggling, and so earnest were the prayers ofWhitefield, that by the middle of the eighteenth century all restrictions wereswept away, and the slave-trade went merrily on for fifty years and more.
Down in Darien, where the Delegal riots took place some summers ago, there usedto come a strong protest against slavery from the Scotch Highlanders; and theMoravians of Ebenezer did not like the system. But not till the Haytian Terrorof Toussaint was the trade in men even checked; while the national statute of1808 did not suffice to stop it. How the Africans poured in!—fiftythousand between 1790 and 1810, and then, from Virginia and from smugglers, twothousand a year for many years more. So the thirty thousand Negroes of Georgiain 1790 doubled in a decade,—were over a hundred thousand in 1810, hadreached two hundred thousand in 1820, and half a million at the time of thewar. Thus like a snake the black population writhed upward.
But we must hasten on our journey. This that we pass as we near Atlanta is theancient land of the Cherokees,—that brave Indian nation which strove solong for its fatherland, until Fate and the United States Government drove thembeyond the Mississippi. If you wish to ride with me you must come into the“Jim Crow Car.” There will be no objection,—already fourother white men, and a little white girl with her nurse, are in there. Usuallythe races are mixed in there; but the white coach is all white. Of course thiscar is not so good as the other, but it is fairly clean and comfortable. Thediscomfort lies chiefly in the hearts of those four black men yonder—andin mine.
We rumble south in quite a business-like way. The bare red clay and pines ofNorthern Georgia begin to disappear, and in their place appears a rich rollingland, luxuriant, and here and there well tilled. This is the land of the CreekIndians; and a hard time the Georgians had to seize it. The towns grow morefrequent and more interesting, and brand-new cotton mills rise on every side.Below Macon the world grows darker; for now we approach the BlackBelt,—that strange land of shadows, at which even slaves paled in thepast, and whence come now only faint and half-intelligible murmurs to the worldbeyond. The “Jim Crow Car” grows larger and a shade better; threerough field-hands and two or three white loafers accompany us, and the newsboystill spreads his wares at one end. The sun is setting, but we can see thegreat cotton country as we enter it,—the soil now dark and fertile, nowthin and gray, with fruit-trees and dilapidated buildings,—all the way toAlbany.
At Albany, in the heart of the Black Belt, we stop. Two hundred miles south ofAtlanta, two hundred miles west of the Atlantic, and one hundred miles north ofthe Great Gulf lies Dougherty County, with ten thousand Negroes and twothousand whites. The Flint River winds down from Andersonville, and, turningsuddenly at Albany, the county-seat, hurries on to join the Chattahoochee andthe sea. Andrew Jackson knew the Flint well, and marched across it once toavenge the Indian Massacre at Fort Mims. That was in 1814, not long before thebattle of New Orleans; and by the Creek treaty that followed this campaign, allDougherty County, and much other rich land, was ceded to Georgia. Still,settlers fought shy of this land, for the Indians were all about, and they wereunpleasant neighbors in those days. The panic of 1837, which Jackson bequeathedto Van Buren, turned the planters from the impoverished lands of Virginia, theCarolinas, and east Georgia, toward the West. The Indians were removed toIndian Territory, and settlers poured into these coveted lands to retrievetheir broken fortunes. For a radius of a hundred miles about Albany, stretcheda great fertile land, luxuriant with forests of pine, oak, ash, hickory, andpoplar; hot with the sun and damp with the rich black swamp-land; and here thecorner-stone of the Cotton Kingdom was laid.
Albany is to-day a wide-streeted, placid, Southern town, with a broad sweep ofstores and saloons, and flanking rows of homes,—whites usually to thenorth, and blacks to the south. Six days in the week the town looks decidedlytoo small for itself, and takes frequent and prolonged naps. But on Saturdaysuddenly the whole county disgorges itself upon the place, and a perfect floodof black peasantry pours through the streets, fills the stores, blocks thesidewalks, chokes the thoroughfares, and takes full possession of the town.They are black, sturdy, uncouth country folk, good-natured and simple,talkative to a degree, and yet far more silent and brooding than the crowds ofthe Rhine-pfalz, or Naples, or Cracow. They drink considerable quantities ofwhiskey, but do not get very drunk; they talk and laugh loudly at times, butseldom quarrel or fight. They walk up and down the streets, meet and gossipwith friends, stare at the shop windows, buy coffee, cheap candy, and clothes,and at dusk drive home—happy? well no, not exactly happy, but muchhappier than as though they had not come.
Thus Albany is a real capital,—a typical Southern county town, the centreof the life of ten thousand souls; their point of contact with the outer world,their centre of news and gossip, their market for buying and selling, borrowingand lending, their fountain of justice and law. Once upon a time we knewcountry life so well and city life so little, that we illustrated city life asthat of a closely crowded country district. Now the world has well-nighforgotten what the country is, and we must imagine a little city of blackpeople scattered far and wide over three hundred lonesome square miles of land,without train or trolley, in the midst of cotton and corn, and wide patches ofsand and gloomy soil.
It gets pretty hot in Southern Georgia in July,—a sort of dull,determined heat that seems quite independent of the sun; so it took us somedays to muster courage enough to leave the porch and venture out on the longcountry roads, that we might see this unknown world. Finally we started. It wasabout ten in the morning, bright with a faint breeze, and we jogged leisurelysouthward in the valley of the Flint. We passed the scattered box-like cabinsof the brickyard hands, and the long tenement-row facetiously called “TheArk,” and were soon in the open country, and on the confines of the greatplantations of other days. There is the “Joe Fields place”; a roughold fellow was he, and had killed many a “nigger” in his day.Twelve miles his plantation used to run,—a regular barony. It is nearlyall gone now; only straggling bits belong to the family, and the rest haspassed to Jews and Negroes. Even the bits which are left are heavily mortgaged,and, like the rest of the land, tilled by tenants. Here is one of themnow,—a tall brown man, a hard worker and a hard drinker, illiterate, butversed in farmlore, as his nodding crops declare. This distressingly new boardhouse is his, and he has just moved out of yonder moss-grown cabin with its onesquare room.
From the curtains in Benton’s house, down the road, a dark comely face isstaring at the strangers; for passing carriages are not every-day occurrenceshere. Benton is an intelligent yellow man with a good-sized family, and managesa plantation blasted by the war and now the broken staff of the widow. He mightbe well-to-do, they say; but he carouses too much in Albany. And thehalf-desolate spirit of neglect born of the very soil seems to have settled onthese acres. In times past there were cotton-gins and machinery here; but theyhave rotted away.
The whole land seems forlorn and forsaken. Here are the remnants of the vastplantations of the Sheldons, the Pellots, and the Rensons; but the souls ofthem are passed. The houses lie in half ruin, or have wholly disappeared; thefences have flown, and the families are wandering in the world. Strangevicissitudes have met these whilom masters. Yonder stretch the wide acres ofBildad Reasor; he died in war-time, but the upstart overseer hastened to wedthe widow. Then he went, and his neighbors too, and now only the black tenantremains; but the shadow-hand of the master’s grand-nephew or cousin orcreditor stretches out of the gray distance to collect the rack-rentremorselessly, and so the land is uncared-for and poor. Only black tenants canstand such a system, and they only because they must. Ten miles we have riddento-day and have seen no white face.
A resistless feeling of depression falls slowly upon us, despite the gaudysunshine and the green cottonfields. This, then, is the CottonKingdom,—the shadow of a marvellous dream. And where is the King? Perhapsthis is he,—the sweating ploughman, tilling his eighty acres with twolean mules, and fighting a hard battle with debt. So we sit musing, until, aswe turn a corner on the sandy road, there comes a fairer scene suddenly inview,—a neat cottage snugly ensconced by the road, and near it a littlestore. A tall bronzed man rises from the porch as we hail him, and comes out toour carriage. He is six feet in height, with a sober face that smiles gravely.He walks too straight to be a tenant,—yes, he owns two hundred and fortyacres. “The land is run down since the boom-days of eighteen hundred andfifty,” he explains, and cotton is low. Three black tenants live on hisplace, and in his little store he keeps a small stock of tobacco, snuff, soap,and soda, for the neighborhood. Here is his gin-house with new machinery justinstalled. Three hundred bales of cotton went through it last year. Twochildren he has sent away to school. Yes, he says sadly, he is getting on, butcotton is down to four cents; I know how Debt sits staring at him.
Wherever the King may be, the parks and palaces of the Cotton Kingdom have notwholly disappeared. We plunge even now into great groves of oak and toweringpine, with an undergrowth of myrtle and shrubbery. This was the“home-house” of the Thompsons,—slave-barons who drove theircoach and four in the merry past. All is silence now, and ashes, and tangledweeds. The owner put his whole fortune into the rising cotton industry of thefifties, and with the falling prices of the eighties he packed up and stoleaway. Yonder is another grove, with unkempt lawn, great magnolias, andgrass-grown paths. The Big House stands in half-ruin, its great front doorstaring blankly at the street, and the back part grotesquely restored for itsblack tenant. A shabby, well-built Negro he is, unlucky and irresolute. He digshard to pay rent to the white girl who owns the remnant of the place. Shemarried a policeman, and lives in Savannah.
Now and again we come to churches. Here is one now,—Shepherd’s,they call it,—a great whitewashed barn of a thing, perched on stilts ofstone, and looking for all the world as though it were just resting here amoment and might be expected to waddle off down the road at almost any time.And yet it is the centre of a hundred cabin homes; and sometimes, of a Sunday,five hundred persons from far and near gather here and talk and eat and sing.There is a schoolhouse near,—a very airy, empty shed; but even this is animprovement, for usually the school is held in the church. The churches varyfrom log-huts to those like Shepherd’s, and the schools from nothing tothis little house that sits demurely on the county line. It is a tinyplank-house, perhaps ten by twenty, and has within a double row of roughunplaned benches, resting mostly on legs, sometimes on boxes. Opposite the dooris a square home-made desk. In one corner are the ruins of a stove, and in theother a dim blackboard. It is the cheerfulest schoolhouse I have seen inDougherty, save in town. Back of the schoolhouse is a lodgehouse two storieshigh and not quite finished. Societies meet there,—societies “tocare for the sick and bury the dead”; and these societies grow andflourish.
We had come to the boundaries of Dougherty, and were about to turn west alongthe county-line, when all these sights were pointed out to us by a kindly oldman, black, white-haired, and seventy. Forty-five years he had lived here, andnow supports himself and his old wife by the help of the steer tethered yonderand the charity of his black neighbors. He shows us the farm of the Hills justacross the county line in Baker,—a widow and two strapping sons, whoraised ten bales (one need not add “cotton” down here) last year.There are fences and pigs and cows, and the soft-voiced, velvet-skinned youngMemnon, who sauntered half-bashfully over to greet the strangers, is proud ofhis home. We turn now to the west along the county line. Great dismantledtrunks of pines tower above the green cottonfields, cracking their nakedgnarled fingers toward the border of living forest beyond. There is littlebeauty in this region, only a sort of crude abandon that suggestspower,—a naked grandeur, as it were. The houses are bare and straight;there are no hammocks or easy-chairs, and few flowers. So when, as here atRawdon’s, one sees a vine clinging to a little porch, and home-likewindows peeping over the fences, one takes a long breath. I think I neverbefore quite realized the place of the Fence in civilization. This is the Landof the Unfenced, where crouch on either hand scores of ugly one-room cabins,cheerless and dirty. Here lies the Negro problem in its naked dirt and penury.And here are no fences. But now and then the crisscross rails or straightpalings break into view, and then we know a touch of culture is near. Of courseHarrison Gohagen,—a quiet yellow man, young, smooth-faced, anddiligent,—of course he is lord of some hundred acres, and we expect tosee a vision of well-kept rooms and fat beds and laughing children. For has henot fine fences? And those over yonder, why should they build fences on therack-rented land? It will only increase their rent.
On we wind, through sand and pines and glimpses of old plantations, till therecreeps into sight a cluster of buildings,—wood and brick, mills andhouses, and scattered cabins. It seemed quite a village. As it came nearer andnearer, however, the aspect changed: the buildings were rotten, the bricks werefalling out, the mills were silent, and the store was closed. Only in thecabins appeared now and then a bit of lazy life. I could imagine the placeunder some weird spell, and was half-minded to search out the princess. An oldragged black man, honest, simple, and improvident, told us the tale. The Wizardof the North—the Capitalist—had rushed down in the seventies to woothis coy dark soil. He bought a square mile or more, and for a time thefield-hands sang, the gins groaned, and the mills buzzed. Then came a change.The agent’s son embezzled the funds and ran off with them. Then the agenthimself disappeared. Finally the new agent stole even the books, and thecompany in wrath closed its business and its houses, refused to sell, and lethouses and furniture and machinery rust and rot. So the Waters-Loringplantation was stilled by the spell of dishonesty, and stands like some gauntrebuke to a scarred land.
Somehow that plantation ended our day’s journey; for I could not shakeoff the influence of that silent scene. Back toward town we glided, past thestraight and thread-like pines, past a dark tree-dotted pond where the air washeavy with a dead sweet perfume. White slender-legged curlews flitted by us,and the garnet blooms of the cotton looked gay against the green and purplestalks. A peasant girl was hoeing in the field, white-turbaned andblack-limbed. All this we saw, but the spell still lay upon us.
How curious a land is this,—how full of untold story, of tragedy andlaughter, and the rich legacy of human life; shadowed with a tragic past, andbig with future promise! This is the Black Belt of Georgia. Dougherty County isthe west end of the Black Belt, and men once called it the Egypt of theConfederacy. It is full of historic interest. First there is the Swamp, to thewest, where the Chickasawhatchee flows sullenly southward. The shadow of an oldplantation lies at its edge, forlorn and dark. Then comes the pool; pendentgray moss and brackish waters appear, and forests filled with wildfowl. In oneplace the wood is on fire, smouldering in dull red anger; but nobody minds.Then the swamp grows beautiful; a raised road, built by chained Negro convicts,dips down into it, and forms a way walled and almost covered in living green.Spreading trees spring from a prodigal luxuriance of undergrowth; great darkgreen shadows fade into the black background, until all is one mass of tangledsemi-tropical foliage, marvellous in its weird savage splendor. Once we crosseda black silent stream, where the sad trees and writhing creepers, all glintingfiery yellow and green, seemed like some vast cathedral,—some green Milanbuilded of wildwood. And as I crossed, I seemed to see again that fiercetragedy of seventy years ago. Osceola, the Indian-Negro chieftain, had risen inthe swamps of Florida, vowing vengeance. His war-cry reached the red Creeks ofDougherty, and their war-cry rang from the Chattahoochee to the sea. Men andwomen and children fled and fell before them as they swept into Dougherty. Inyonder shadows a dark and hideously painted warrior glided stealthilyon,—another and another, until three hundred had crept into thetreacherous swamp. Then the false slime closing about them called the white menfrom the east. Waist-deep, they fought beneath the tall trees, until thewar-cry was hushed and the Indians glided back into the west. Small wonder thewood is red.
Then came the black slaves. Day after day the clank of chained feet marchingfrom Virginia and Carolina to Georgia was heard in these rich swamp lands. Dayafter day the songs of the callous, the wail of the motherless, and themuttered curses of the wretched echoed from the Flint to the Chickasawhatchee,until by 1860 there had risen in West Dougherty perhaps the richest slavekingdom the modern world ever knew. A hundred and fifty barons commanded thelabor of nearly six thousand Negroes, held sway over farms with ninety thousandacres tilled land, valued even in times of cheap soil at three millions ofdollars. Twenty thousand bales of ginned cotton went yearly to England, New andOld; and men that came there bankrupt made money and grew rich. In a singledecade the cotton output increased four-fold and the value of lands wastripled. It was the heyday of the nouveau riche, and a life of carelessextravagance among the masters. Four and six bobtailed thoroughbreds rolledtheir coaches to town; open hospitality and gay entertainment were the rule.Parks and groves were laid out, rich with flower and vine, and in the midststood the low wide-halled “big house,” with its porch and columnsand great fireplaces.
And yet with all this there was something sordid, something forced,—acertain feverish unrest and recklessness; for was not all this show and tinselbuilt upon a groan? “This land was a little Hell,” said a ragged,brown, and grave-faced man to me. We were seated near a roadside blacksmithshop, and behind was the bare ruin of some master’s home.“I’ve seen niggers drop dead in the furrow, but they were kickedaside, and the plough never stopped. Down in the guard-house, there’swhere the blood ran.”
With such foundations a kingdom must in time sway and fall. The masters movedto Macon and Augusta, and left only the irresponsible overseers on the land.And the result is such ruin as this, the Lloyd“home-place”:—great waving oaks, a spread of lawn, myrtlesand chestnuts, all ragged and wild; a solitary gate-post standing where oncewas a castle entrance; an old rusty anvil lying amid rotting bellows and woodin the ruins of a blacksmith shop; a wide rambling old mansion, brown anddingy, filled now with the grandchildren of the slaves who once waited on itstables; while the family of the master has dwindled to two lone women, who livein Macon and feed hungrily off the remnants of an earldom. So we ride on, pastphantom gates and falling homes,—past the once flourishing farms of theSmiths, the Gandys, and the Lagores,—and find all dilapidated and halfruined, even there where a solitary white woman, a relic of other days, sitsalone in state among miles of Negroes and rides to town in her ancient coacheach day.
This was indeed the Egypt of the Confederacy,—the rich granary whencepotatoes and corn and cotton poured out to the famished and ragged Confederatetroops as they battled for a cause lost long before 1861. Sheltered and secure,it became the place of refuge for families, wealth, and slaves. Yet even thenthe hard ruthless rape of the land began to tell. The red-clay sub-soil alreadyhad begun to peer above the loam. The harder the slaves were driven the morecareless and fatal was their farming. Then came the revolution of war andEmancipation, the bewilderment of Reconstruction,—and now, what is theEgypt of the Confederacy, and what meaning has it for the nation’s wealor woe?
It is a land of rapid contrasts and of curiously mingled hope and pain. Heresits a pretty blue-eyed quadroon hiding her bare feet; she was married onlylast week, and yonder in the field is her dark young husband, hoeing to supporther, at thirty cents a day without board. Across the way is Gatesby, brown andtall, lord of two thousand acres shrewdly won and held. There is a storeconducted by his black son, a blacksmith shop, and a ginnery. Five miles belowhere is a town owned and controlled by one white New Englander. He owns almosta Rhode Island county, with thousands of acres and hundreds of black laborers.Their cabins look better than most, and the farm, with machinery andfertilizers, is much more business-like than any in the county, although themanager drives hard bargains in wages. When now we turn and look five milesabove, there on the edge of town are five houses of prostitutes,—two ofblacks and three of whites; and in one of the houses of the whites a worthlessblack boy was harbored too openly two years ago; so he was hanged for rape. Andhere, too, is the high whitewashed fence of the “stockade,” as thecounty prison is called; the white folks say it is ever full of blackcriminals,—the black folks say that only colored boys are sent to jail,and they not because they are guilty, but because the State needs criminals toeke out its income by their forced labor.
The Jew is the heir of the slave baron in Dougherty; and as we ride westward,by wide stretching cornfields and stubby orchards of peach and pear, we see onall sides within the circle of dark forest a Land of Canaan. Here and there aretales of projects for money-getting, born in the swift days ofReconstruction,—“improvement” companies, wine companies,mills and factories; most failed, and the Jew fell heir. It is a beautifulland, this Dougherty, west of the Flint. The forests are wonderful, the solemnpines have disappeared, and this is the “Oakey Woods,” with itswealth of hickories, beeches, oaks and palmettos. But a pall of debt hangs overthe beautiful land; the merchants are in debt to the wholesalers, the plantersare in debt to the merchants, the tenants owe the planters, and laborers bowand bend beneath the burden of it all. Here and there a man has raised his headabove these murky waters. We passed one fenced stock-farm with grass andgrazing cattle, that looked very home-like after endless corn and cotton. Hereand there are black free-holders: there is the gaunt dull-black Jackson, withhis hundred acres. “I says, ‘Look up! If you don’t look upyou can’t get up,’” remarks Jackson, philosophically. Andhe’s gotten up. Dark Carter’s neat barns would do credit to NewEngland. His master helped him to get a start, but when the black man died lastfall the master’s sons immediately laid claim to the estate. “Andthem white folks will get it, too,” said my yellow gossip.
I turn from these well-tended acres with a comfortable feeling that the Negrois rising. Even then, however, the fields, as we proceed, begin to redden andthe trees disappear. Rows of old cabins appear filled with renters andlaborers,—cheerless, bare, and dirty, for the most part, although hereand there the very age and decay makes the scene picturesque. A young blackfellow greets us. He is twenty-two, and just married. Until last year he hadgood luck renting; then cotton fell, and the sheriff seized and sold all hehad. So he moved here, where the rent is higher, the land poorer, and the ownerinflexible; he rents a forty-dollar mule for twenty dollars a year. Poorlad!—a slave at twenty-two. This plantation, owned now by a foreigner,was a part of the famous Bolton estate. After the war it was for many yearsworked by gangs of Negro convicts,—and black convicts then were even moreplentiful than now; it was a way of making Negroes work, and the question ofguilt was a minor one. Hard tales of cruelty and mistreatment of the chainedfreemen are told, but the county authorities were deaf until the free-labormarket was nearly ruined by wholesale migration. Then they took the convictsfrom the plantations, but not until one of the fairest regions of the“Oakey Woods” had been ruined and ravished into a red waste, out ofwhich only a Yankee or an immigrant could squeeze more blood from debt-cursedtenants.
No wonder that Luke Black, slow, dull, and discouraged, shuffles to ourcarriage and talks hopelessly. Why should he strive? Every year finds himdeeper in debt. How strange that Georgia, the world-heralded refuge of poordebtors, should bind her own to sloth and misfortune as ruthlessly as everEngland did! The poor land groans with its birth-pains, and brings forthscarcely a hundred pounds of cotton to the acre, where fifty years ago ityielded eight times as much. Of his meagre yield the tenant pays from a quarterto a third in rent, and most of the rest in interest on food and suppliesbought on credit. Twenty years yonder sunken-cheeked, old black man has laboredunder that system, and now, turned day-laborer, is supporting his wife andboarding himself on his wages of a dollar and a half a week, received only partof the year.
The Bolton convict farm formerly included the neighboring plantation. Here itwas that the convicts were lodged in the great log prison still standing. Adismal place it still remains, with rows of ugly huts filled with surlyignorant tenants. “What rent do you pay here?” I inquired. “Idon’t know,—what is it, Sam?” “All we make,”answered Sam. It is a depressing place,—bare, unshaded, with no charm ofpast association, only a memory of forced human toil,—now, then, andbefore the war. They are not happy, these black men whom we meet throughoutthis region. There is little of the joyous abandon and playfulness which we arewont to associate with the plantation Negro. At best, the natural good-natureis edged with complaint or has changed into sullenness and gloom. And now andthen it blazes forth in veiled but hot anger. I remember one big red-eyed blackwhom we met by the roadside. Forty-five years he had labored on this farm,beginning with nothing, and still having nothing. To be sure, he had given fourchildren a common-school training, and perhaps if the new fence-law had notallowed unfenced crops in West Dougherty he might have raised a little stockand kept ahead. As it is, he is hopelessly in debt, disappointed, andembittered. He stopped us to inquire after the black boy in Albany, whom it wassaid a policeman had shot and killed for loud talking on the sidewalk. And thenhe said slowly: “Let a white man touch me, and he dies; I don’tboast this,—I don’t say it around loud, or before thechildren,—but I mean it. I’ve seen them whip my father and my oldmother in them cotton-rows till the blood ran; by—” and we passedon.
Now Sears, whom we met next lolling under the chubby oak-trees, was of quitedifferent fibre. Happy?—Well, yes; he laughed and flipped pebbles, andthought the world was as it was. He had worked here twelve years and hasnothing but a mortgaged mule. Children? Yes, seven; but they hadn’t beento school this year,—couldn’t afford books and clothes, andcouldn’t spare their work. There go part of them to the fieldsnow,—three big boys astride mules, and a strapping girl with bare brownlegs. Careless ignorance and laziness here, fierce hate and vindictivenessthere;—these are the extremes of the Negro problem which we met that day,and we scarce knew which we preferred.
Here and there we meet distinct characters quite out of the ordinary. One cameout of a piece of newly cleared ground, making a wide detour to avoid thesnakes. He was an old, hollow-cheeked man, with a drawn and characterful brownface. He had a sort of self-contained quaintness and rough humor impossible todescribe; a certain cynical earnestness that puzzled one. “The niggerswere jealous of me over on the other place,” he said, “and so meand the old woman begged this piece of woods, and I cleared it up myself. Madenothing for two years, but I reckon I’ve got a crop now.” Thecotton looked tall and rich, and we praised it. He curtsied low, and then bowedalmost to the ground, with an imperturbable gravity that seemed almostsuspicious. Then he continued, “My mule died last week,”—acalamity in this land equal to a devastating fire in town,—“but awhite man loaned me another.” Then he added, eyeing us, “Oh, I getsalong with white folks.” We turned the conversation. “Bears?deer?” he answered, “well, I should say there were,” and helet fly a string of brave oaths, as he told hunting-tales of the swamp. We lefthim standing still in the middle of the road looking after us, and yetapparently not noticing us.
The Whistle place, which includes his bit of land, was bought soon after thewar by an English syndicate, the “Dixie Cotton and Corn Company.” Amarvellous deal of style their factor put on, with his servants andcoach-and-six; so much so that the concern soon landed in inextricablebankruptcy. Nobody lives in the old house now, but a man comes each winter outof the North and collects his high rents. I know not which are the moretouching,—such old empty houses, or the homes of the masters’ sons.Sad and bitter tales lie hidden back of those white doors,—tales ofpoverty, of struggle, of disappointment. A revolution such as that of ’63is a terrible thing; they that rose rich in the morning often slept inpaupers’ beds. Beggars and vulgar speculators rose to rule over them, andtheir children went astray. See yonder sad-colored house, with its cabins andfences and glad crops! It is not glad within; last month the prodigal son ofthe struggling father wrote home from the city for money. Money! Where was itto come from? And so the son rose in the night and killed his baby, and killedhis wife, and shot himself dead. And the world passed on.
I remember wheeling around a bend in the road beside a graceful bit of forestand a singing brook. A long low house faced us, with porch and flying pillars,great oaken door, and a broad lawn shining in the evening sun. But thewindow-panes were gone, the pillars were worm-eaten, and the moss-grown roofwas falling in. Half curiously I peered through the unhinged door, and sawwhere, on the wall across the hall, was written in once gay letters a faded“Welcome.”
Quite a contrast to the southwestern part of Dougherty County is the northwest.Soberly timbered in oak and pine, it has none of that half-tropical luxurianceof the southwest. Then, too, there are fewer signs of a romantic past, and moreof systematic modern land-grabbing and money-getting. White people are more inevidence here, and farmer and hired labor replace to some extent the absenteelandlord and rack-rented tenant. The crops have neither the luxuriance of thericher land nor the signs of neglect so often seen, and there were fences andmeadows here and there. Most of this land was poor, and beneath the notice ofthe slave-baron, before the war. Since then his poor relations and foreignimmigrants have seized it. The returns of the farmer are too small to allowmuch for wages, and yet he will not sell off small farms. There is the NegroSanford; he has worked fourteen years as overseer on the Ladson place, and“paid out enough for fertilizers to have bought a farm,” but theowner will not sell off a few acres.
Two children—a boy and a girl—are hoeing sturdily in the fields onthe farm where Corliss works. He is smooth-faced and brown, and is fencing uphis pigs. He used to run a successful cotton-gin, but the Cotton Seed Oil Trusthas forced the price of ginning so low that he says it hardly pays him. Hepoints out a stately old house over the way as the home of “PaWillis.” We eagerly ride over, for “Pa Willis” was the talland powerful black Moses who led the Negroes for a generation, and led themwell. He was a Baptist preacher, and when he died, two thousand black peoplefollowed him to the grave; and now they preach his funeral sermon each year.His widow lives here,—a weazened, sharp-featured little woman, whocurtsied quaintly as we greeted her. Further on lives Jack Delson, the mostprosperous Negro farmer in the county. It is a joy to meet him,—a greatbroad-shouldered, handsome black man, intelligent and jovial. Six hundred andfifty acres he owns, and has eleven black tenants. A neat and tidy home nestledin a flower-garden, and a little store stands beside it.
We pass the Munson place, where a plucky white widow is renting and struggling;and the eleven hundred acres of the Sennet plantation, with its Negro overseer.Then the character of the farms begins to change. Nearly all the lands belongto Russian Jews; the overseers are white, and the cabins are bare board-housesscattered here and there. The rents are high, and day-laborers and“contract” hands abound. It is a keen, hard struggle for livinghere, and few have time to talk. Tired with the long ride, we gladly drive intoGillonsville. It is a silent cluster of farmhouses standing on the crossroads,with one of its stores closed and the other kept by a Negro preacher. They tellgreat tales of busy times at Gillonsville before all the railroads came toAlbany; now it is chiefly a memory. Riding down the street, we stop at thepreacher’s and seat ourselves before the door. It was one of those scenesone cannot soon forget:—a wide, low, little house, whose motherly roofreached over and sheltered a snug little porch. There we sat, after the longhot drive, drinking cool water,—the talkative little storekeeper who ismy daily companion; the silent old black woman patching pantaloons and sayingnever a word; the ragged picture of helpless misfortune who called in just tosee the preacher; and finally the neat matronly preacher’s wife, plump,yellow, and intelligent. “Own land?” said the wife; “well,only this house.” Then she added quietly. “We did buy seven hundredacres across up yonder, and paid for it; but they cheated us out of it. Sellswas the owner.” “Sells!” echoed the ragged misfortune, whowas leaning against the balustrade and listening, “he’s a regularcheat. I worked for him thirty-seven days this spring, and he paid me incardboard checks which were to be cashed at the end of the month. But he nevercashed them,—kept putting me off. Then the sheriff came and took my muleand corn and furniture—” “Furniture? But furniture is exemptfrom seizure by law.” “Well, he took it just the same,” saidthe hard-faced man.
Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece
But the Brute said in his breast, “Till the mills I grind have ceased,
The riches shall be dust of dust, dry ashes be the feast!
“On the strong and cunning few
Cynic favors I will strew;
I will stuff their maw with overplus until their spirit dies;
From the patient and the low
I will take the joys they know;
They shall hunger after vanities and still an-hungered go.
Madness shall be on the people, ghastly jealousies arise;
Brother’s blood shall cry on brother up the dead and empty skies.”
WILLIAM VAUGHN MOODY.
Have you ever seen a cotton-field white with harvest,—its golden fleecehovering above the black earth like a silvery cloud edged with dark green, itsbold white signals waving like the foam of billows from Carolina to Texasacross that Black and human Sea? I have sometimes half suspected that here thewinged ram Chrysomallus left that Fleece after which Jason and his Argonautswent vaguely wandering into the shadowy East three thousand years ago; andcertainly one might frame a pretty and not far-fetched analogy of witchery anddragons’ teeth, and blood and armed men, between the ancient and themodern quest of the Golden Fleece in the Black Sea.
And now the golden fleece is found; not only found, but, in its birthplace,woven. For the hum of the cotton-mills is the newest and most significant thingin the New South to-day. All through the Carolinas and Georgia, away down toMexico, rise these gaunt red buildings, bare and homely, and yet so busy andnoisy withal that they scarce seem to belong to the slow and sleepy land.Perhaps they sprang from dragons’ teeth. So the Cotton Kingdom stilllives; the world still bows beneath her sceptre. Even the markets that oncedefied the parvenu have crept one by one across the seas, and then slowly andreluctantly, but surely, have started toward the Black Belt.
To be sure, there are those who wag their heads knowingly and tell us that thecapital of the Cotton Kingdom has moved from the Black to the WhiteBelt,—that the Negro of to-day raises not more than half of the cottoncrop. Such men forget that the cotton crop has doubled, and more than doubled,since the era of slavery, and that, even granting their contention, the Negrois still supreme in a Cotton Kingdom larger than that on which the Confederacybuilded its hopes. So the Negro forms to-day one of the chief figures in agreat world-industry; and this, for its own sake, and in the light of historicinterest, makes the field-hands of the cotton country worth studying.
We seldom study the condition of the Negro to-day honestly and carefully. It isso much easier to assume that we know it all. Or perhaps, having alreadyreached conclusions in our own minds, we are loth to have them disturbed byfacts. And yet how little we really know of these millions,—of theirdaily lives and longings, of their homely joys and sorrows, of their realshortcomings and the meaning of their crimes! All this we can only learn byintimate contact with the masses, and not by wholesale arguments coveringmillions separate in time and space, and differing widely in training andculture. To-day, then, my reader, let us turn our faces to the Black Belt ofGeorgia and seek simply to know the condition of the black farm-laborers of onecounty there.
Here in 1890 lived ten thousand Negroes and two thousand whites. The country isrich, yet the people are poor. The keynote of the Black Belt is debt; notcommercial credit, but debt in the sense of continued inability on the part ofthe mass of the population to make income cover expense. This is the directheritage of the South from the wasteful economies of the slave régime;but it was emphasized and brought to a crisis by the Emancipation of theslaves. In 1860, Dougherty County had six thousand slaves, worth at least twoand a half millions of dollars; its farms were estimated at threemillions,—making five and a half millions of property, the value of whichdepended largely on the slave system, and on the speculative demand for landonce marvellously rich but already partially devitalized by careless andexhaustive culture. The war then meant a financial crash; in place of the fiveand a half millions of 1860, there remained in 1870 only farms valued at lessthan two millions. With this came increased competition in cotton culture fromthe rich lands of Texas; a steady fall in the normal price of cotton followed,from about fourteen cents a pound in 1860 until it reached four cents in 1898.Such a financial revolution was it that involved the owners of the cotton-beltin debt. And if things went ill with the master, how fared it with the man?
The plantations of Dougherty County in slavery days were not as imposing andaristocratic as those of Virginia. The Big House was smaller and usuallyone-storied, and sat very near the slave cabins. Sometimes these cabinsstretched off on either side like wings; sometimes only on one side, forming adouble row, or edging the road that turned into the plantation from the mainthoroughfare. The form and disposition of the laborers’ cabins throughoutthe Black Belt is to-day the same as in slavery days. Some live in theself-same cabins, others in cabins rebuilt on the sites of the old. All aresprinkled in little groups over the face of the land, centering about somedilapidated Big House where the head-tenant or agent lives. The generalcharacter and arrangement of these dwellings remains on the whole unaltered.There were in the county, outside the corporate town of Albany, about fifteenhundred Negro families in 1898. Out of all these, only a single family occupieda house with seven rooms; only fourteen have five rooms or more. The mass livein one- and two-room homes.
The size and arrangements of a people’s homes are no unfair index oftheir condition. If, then, we inquire more carefully into these Negro homes, wefind much that is unsatisfactory. All over the face of the land is the one-roomcabin,—now standing in the shadow of the Big House, now staring at thedusty road, now rising dark and sombre amid the green of the cotton-fields. Itis nearly always old and bare, built of rough boards, and neither plastered norceiled. Light and ventilation are supplied by the single door and by the squarehole in the wall with its wooden shutter. There is no glass, porch, orornamentation without. Within is a fireplace, black and smoky, and usuallyunsteady with age. A bed or two, a table, a wooden chest, and a few chairscompose the furniture; while a stray show-bill or a newspaper makes up thedecorations for the walls. Now and then one may find such a cabin keptscrupulously neat, with merry steaming fireplaces and hospitable door; but themajority are dirty and dilapidated, smelling of eating and sleeping, poorlyventilated, and anything but homes.
Above all, the cabins are crowded. We have come to associate crowding withhomes in cities almost exclusively. This is primarily because we have so littleaccurate knowledge of country life. Here in Dougherty County one may findfamilies of eight and ten occupying one or two rooms, and for every ten roomsof house accommodation for the Negroes there are twenty-five persons. The worsttenement abominations of New York do not have above twenty-two persons forevery ten rooms. Of course, one small, close room in a city, without a yard, isin many respects worse than the larger single country room. In other respectsit is better; it has glass windows, a decent chimney, and a trustworthy floor.The single great advantage of the Negro peasant is that he may spend most ofhis life outside his hovel, in the open fields.
There are four chief causes of these wretched homes: First, long custom born ofslavery has assigned such homes to Negroes; white laborers would be offeredbetter accommodations, and might, for that and similar reasons, give betterwork. Secondly, the Negroes, used to such accommodations, do not as a ruledemand better; they do not know what better houses mean. Thirdly, the landlordsas a class have not yet come to realize that it is a good business investmentto raise the standard of living among labor by slow and judicious methods; thata Negro laborer who demands three rooms and fifty cents a day would give moreefficient work and leave a larger profit than a discouraged toiler herding hisfamily in one room and working for thirty cents. Lastly, among such conditionsof life there are few incentives to make the laborer become a better farmer. Ifhe is ambitious, he moves to town or tries other labor; as a tenant-farmer hisoutlook is almost hopeless, and following it as a makeshift, he takes the housethat is given him without protest.
In such homes, then, these Negro peasants live. The families are both small andlarge; there are many single tenants,—widows and bachelors, and remnantsof broken groups. The system of labor and the size of the houses both tend tothe breaking up of family groups: the grown children go away as contract handsor migrate to town, the sister goes into service; and so one finds manyfamilies with hosts of babies, and many newly married couples, butcomparatively few families with half-grown and grown sons and daughters. Theaverage size of Negro families has undoubtedly decreased since the war,primarily from economic stress. In Russia over a third of the bridegrooms andover half the brides are under twenty; the same was true of the antebellumNegroes. Today, however, very few of the boys and less than a fifth of theNegro girls under twenty are married. The young men marry between the ages oftwenty-five and thirty-five; the young women between twenty and thirty. Suchpostponement is due to the difficulty of earning sufficient to rear and supporta family; and it undoubtedly leads, in the country districts, to sexualimmorality. The form of this immorality, however, is very seldom that ofprostitution, and less frequently that of illegitimacy than one would imagine.Rather, it takes the form of separation and desertion after a family group hasbeen formed. The number of separated persons is thirty-five to thethousand,—a very large number. It would of course be unfair to comparethis number with divorce statistics, for many of these separated women are inreality widowed, were the truth known, and in other cases the separation is notpermanent. Nevertheless, here lies the seat of greatest moral danger. There islittle or no prostitution among these Negroes, and over three-fourths of thefamilies, as found by house-to-house investigation, deserve to be classed asdecent people with considerable regard for female chastity. To be sure, theideas of the mass would not suit New England, and there are many loose habitsand notions. Yet the rate of illegitimacy is undoubtedly lower than in Austriaor Italy, and the women as a class are modest. The plague-spot in sexualrelations is easy marriage and easy separation. This is no sudden development,nor the fruit of Emancipation. It is the plain heritage from slavery. In thosedays Sam, with his master’s consent, “took up” with Mary. Noceremony was necessary, and in the busy life of the great plantations of theBlack Belt it was usually dispensed with. If now the master needed Sam’swork in another plantation or in another part of the same plantation, or if hetook a notion to sell the slave, Sam’s married life with Mary was usuallyunceremoniously broken, and then it was clearly to the master’s interestto have both of them take new mates. This widespread custom of two centurieshas not been eradicated in thirty years. To-day Sam’s grandson“takes up” with a woman without license or ceremony; they livetogether decently and honestly, and are, to all intents and purposes, man andwife. Sometimes these unions are never broken until death; but in too manycases family quarrels, a roving spirit, a rival suitor, or perhaps morefrequently the hopeless battle to support a family, lead to separation, and abroken household is the result. The Negro church has done much to stop thispractice, and now most marriage ceremonies are performed by the pastors.Nevertheless, the evil is still deep seated, and only a general raising of thestandard of living will finally cure it.
Looking now at the county black population as a whole, it is fair tocharacterize it as poor and ignorant. Perhaps ten per cent compose thewell-to-do and the best of the laborers, while at least nine per cent arethoroughly lewd and vicious. The rest, over eighty per cent, are poor andignorant, fairly honest and well meaning, plodding, and to a degree shiftless,with some but not great sexual looseness. Such class lines are by no meansfixed; they vary, one might almost say, with the price of cotton. The degree ofignorance cannot easily be expressed. We may say, for instance, that nearlytwo-thirds of them cannot read or write. This but partially expresses the fact.They are ignorant of the world about them, of modern economic organization, ofthe function of government, of individual worth and possibilities,—ofnearly all those things which slavery in self-defence had to keep them fromlearning. Much that the white boy imbibes from his earliest social atmosphereforms the puzzling problems of the black boy’s mature years. America isnot another word for Opportunity to all her sons.
It is easy for us to lose ourselves in details in endeavoring to grasp andcomprehend the real condition of a mass of human beings. We often forget thateach unit in the mass is a throbbing human soul. Ignorant it may be, andpoverty stricken, black and curious in limb and ways and thought; and yet itloves and hates, it toils and tires, it laughs and weeps its bitter tears, andlooks in vague and awful longing at the grim horizon of its life,—allthis, even as you and I. These black thousands are not in reality lazy; theyare improvident and careless; they insist on breaking the monotony of toil witha glimpse at the great town-world on Saturday; they have their loafers andtheir rascals; but the great mass of them work continuously and faithfully fora return, and under circumstances that would call forth equal voluntary effortfrom few if any other modern laboring class. Over eighty-eight per cent ofthem—men, women, and children—are farmers. Indeed, this is almostthe only industry. Most of the children get their schooling after the“crops are laid by,” and very few there are that stay in schoolafter the spring work has begun. Child-labor is to be found here in some of itsworst phases, as fostering ignorance and stunting physical development. Withthe grown men of the county there is little variety in work: thirteen hundredare farmers, and two hundred are laborers, teamsters, etc., includingtwenty-four artisans, ten merchants, twenty-one preachers, and four teachers.This narrowness of life reaches its maximum among the women: thirteen hundredand fifty of these are farm laborers, one hundred are servants and washerwomen,leaving sixty-five housewives, eight teachers, and six seamstresses.
Among this people there is no leisure class. We often forget that in the UnitedStates over half the youth and adults are not in the world earning incomes, butare making homes, learning of the world, or resting after the heat of thestrife. But here ninety-six per cent are toiling; no one with leisure to turnthe bare and cheerless cabin into a home, no old folks to sit beside the fireand hand down traditions of the past; little of careless happy childhood anddreaming youth. The dull monotony of daily toil is broken only by the gayety ofthe thoughtless and the Saturday trip to town. The toil, like all farm toil, ismonotonous, and here there are little machinery and few tools to relieve itsburdensome drudgery. But with all this, it is work in the pure open air, andthis is something in a day when fresh air is scarce.
The land on the whole is still fertile, despite long abuse. For nine or tenmonths in succession the crops will come if asked: garden vegetables in April,grain in May, melons in June and July, hay in August, sweet potatoes inSeptember, and cotton from then to Christmas. And yet on two-thirds of the landthere is but one crop, and that leaves the toilers in debt. Why is this?
Away down the Baysan road, where the broad flat fields are flanked by great oakforests, is a plantation; many thousands of acres it used to run, here andthere, and beyond the great wood. Thirteen hundred human beings here obeyed thecall of one,—were his in body, and largely in soul. One of them livesthere yet,—a short, stocky man, his dull-brown face seamed and drawn, andhis tightly curled hair gray-white. The crops? Just tolerable, he said; justtolerable. Getting on? No—he wasn’t getting on at all. Smith ofAlbany “furnishes” him, and his rent is eight hundred pounds ofcotton. Can’t make anything at that. Why didn’t he buy land!Humph! Takes money to buy land. And he turns away. Free! The mostpiteous thing amid all the black ruin of war-time, amid the broken fortunes ofthe masters, the blighted hopes of mothers and maidens, and the fall of anempire,—the most piteous thing amid all this was the black freedman whothrew down his hoe because the world called him free. What did such a mockeryof freedom mean? Not a cent of money, not an inch of land, not a mouthful ofvictuals,—not even ownership of the rags on his back. Free! On Saturday,once or twice a month, the old master, before the war, used to dole out baconand meal to his Negroes. And after the first flush of freedom wore off, and histrue helplessness dawned on the freedman, he came back and picked up his hoe,and old master still doled out his bacon and meal. The legal form of servicewas theoretically far different; in practice, task-work or“cropping” was substituted for daily toil in gangs; and the slavegradually became a metayer, or tenant on shares, in name, but a laborer withindeterminate wages in fact.
Still the price of cotton fell, and gradually the landlords deserted theirplantations, and the reign of the merchant began. The merchant of the BlackBelt is a curious institution,—part banker, part landlord, part banker,and part despot. His store, which used most frequently to stand at thecross-roads and become the centre of a weekly village, has now moved to town;and thither the Negro tenant follows him. The merchant keepseverything,—clothes and shoes, coffee and sugar, pork and meal, cannedand dried goods, wagons and ploughs, seed and fertilizer,—and what he hasnot in stock he can give you an order for at the store across the way. Here,then, comes the tenant, Sam Scott, after he has contracted with some absentlandlord’s agent for hiring forty acres of land; he fingers his hatnervously until the merchant finishes his morning chat with Colonel Saunders,and calls out, “Well, Sam, what do you want?” Sam wants him to“furnish” him,—i.e., to advance him food and clothingfor the year, and perhaps seed and tools, until his crop is raised and sold. IfSam seems a favorable subject, he and the merchant go to a lawyer, and Samexecutes a chattel mortgage on his mule and wagon in return for seed and aweek’s rations. As soon as the green cotton-leaves appear above theground, another mortgage is given on the “crop.” Every Saturday, orat longer intervals, Sam calls upon the merchant for his “rations”;a family of five usually gets about thirty pounds of fat side-pork and a coupleof bushels of cornmeal a month. Besides this, clothing and shoes must befurnished; if Sam or his family is sick, there are orders on the druggist anddoctor; if the mule wants shoeing, an order on the blacksmith, etc. If Sam is ahard worker and crops promise well, he is often encouraged to buymore,—sugar, extra clothes, perhaps a buggy. But he is seldom encouragedto save. When cotton rose to ten cents last fall, the shrewd merchants ofDougherty County sold a thousand buggies in one season, mostly to black men.
The security offered for such transactions—a crop and chattelmortgage—may at first seem slight. And, indeed, the merchants tell many atrue tale of shiftlessness and cheating; of cotton picked at night, mulesdisappearing, and tenants absconding. But on the whole the merchant of theBlack Belt is the most prosperous man in the section. So skilfully and soclosely has he drawn the bonds of the law about the tenant, that the black manhas often simply to choose between pauperism and crime; he “waives”all homestead exemptions in his contract; he cannot touch his own mortgagedcrop, which the laws put almost in the full control of the land-owner and ofthe merchant. When the crop is growing the merchant watches it like a hawk; assoon as it is ready for market he takes possession of it, sells it, pays thelandowner his rent, subtracts his bill for supplies, and if, as sometimeshappens, there is anything left, he hands it over to the black serf for hisChristmas celebration.
The direct result of this system is an all-cotton scheme of agriculture and thecontinued bankruptcy of the tenant. The currency of the Black Belt is cotton.It is a crop always salable for ready money, not usually subject to greatyearly fluctuations in price, and one which the Negroes know how to raise. Thelandlord therefore demands his rent in cotton, and the merchant will acceptmortgages on no other crop. There is no use asking the black tenant, then, todiversify his crops,—he cannot under this system. Moreover, the system isbound to bankrupt the tenant. I remember once meeting a little one-mule wagonon the River road. A young black fellow sat in it driving listlessly, hiselbows on his knees. His dark-faced wife sat beside him, stolid, silent.
“Hello!” cried my driver,—he has a most imprudent way ofaddressing these people, though they seem used to it,—“what haveyou got there?”
“Meat and meal,” answered the man, stopping. The meat lay uncoveredin the bottom of the wagon,—a great thin side of fat pork covered withsalt; the meal was in a white bushel bag.
“What did you pay for that meat?”
“Ten cents a pound.” It could have been bought for six or sevencents cash.
“And the meal?”
“Two dollars.” One dollar and ten cents is the cash price in town.Here was a man paying five dollars for goods which he could have bought forthree dollars cash, and raised for one dollar or one dollar and a half.
Yet it is not wholly his fault. The Negro farmer started behind,—startedin debt. This was not his choosing, but the crime of this happy-go-lucky nationwhich goes blundering along with its Reconstruction tragedies, its Spanish warinterludes and Philippine matinees, just as though God really were dead. Oncein debt, it is no easy matter for a whole race to emerge.
In the year of low-priced cotton, 1898, out of three hundred tenant familiesone hundred and seventy-five ended their year’s work in debt to theextent of fourteen thousand dollars; fifty cleared nothing, and the remainingseventy-five made a total profit of sixteen hundred dollars. The netindebtedness of the black tenant families of the whole county must have been atleast sixty thousand dollars. In a more prosperous year the situation is farbetter; but on the average the majority of tenants end the year even, or indebt, which means that they work for board and clothes. Such an economicorganization is radically wrong. Whose is the blame?
The underlying causes of this situation are complicated but discernible. Andone of the chief, outside the carelessness of the nation in letting the slavestart with nothing, is the widespread opinion among the merchants and employersof the Black Belt that only by the slavery of debt can the Negro be kept atwork. Without doubt, some pressure was necessary at the beginning of thefree-labor system to keep the listless and lazy at work; and even to-day themass of the Negro laborers need stricter guardianship than most Northernlaborers. Behind this honest and widespread opinion dishonesty and cheating ofthe ignorant laborers have a good chance to take refuge. And to all this mustbe added the obvious fact that a slave ancestry and a system of unrequited toilhas not improved the efficiency or temper of the mass of black laborers. Nor isthis peculiar to Sambo; it has in history been just as true of John and Hans,of Jacques and Pat, of all ground-down peasantries. Such is the situation ofthe mass of the Negroes in the Black Belt to-day; and they are thinking aboutit. Crime, and a cheap and dangerous socialism, are the inevitable results ofthis pondering. I see now that ragged black man sitting on a log, aimlesslywhittling a stick. He muttered to me with the murmur of many ages, when hesaid: “White man sit down whole year; Nigger work day and night and makecrop; Nigger hardly gits bread and meat; white man sittin’ down gits all.It’s wrong.” And what do the better classes of Negroes do toimprove their situation? One of two things: if any way possible, they buy land;if not, they migrate to town. Just as centuries ago it was no easy thing forthe serf to escape into the freedom of town-life, even so to-day there arehindrances laid in the way of county laborers. In considerable parts of all theGulf States, and especially in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, theNegroes on the plantations in the back-country districts are still held atforced labor practically without wages. Especially is this true in districtswhere the farmers are composed of the more ignorant class of poor whites, andthe Negroes are beyond the reach of schools and intercourse with theiradvancing fellows. If such a peon should run away, the sheriff, elected bywhite suffrage, can usually be depended on to catch the fugitive, return him,and ask no questions. If he escape to another county, a charge of pettythieving, easily true, can be depended upon to secure his return. Even if someunduly officious person insist upon a trial, neighborly comity will probablymake his conviction sure, and then the labor due the county can easily bebought by the master. Such a system is impossible in the more civilized partsof the South, or near the large towns and cities; but in those vast stretchesof land beyond the telegraph and the newspaper the spirit of the ThirteenthAmendment is sadly broken. This represents the lowest economic depths of theblack American peasant; and in a study of the rise and condition of the Negrofreeholder we must trace his economic progress from the modern serfdom.
Even in the better-ordered country districts of the South the free movement ofagricultural laborers is hindered by the migration-agent laws. The“Associated Press” recently informed the world of the arrest of ayoung white man in Southern Georgia who represented the “Atlantic NavalSupplies Company,” and who “was caught in the act of enticing handsfrom the turpentine farm of Mr. John Greer.” The crime for which thisyoung man was arrested is taxed five hundred dollars for each county in whichthe employment agent proposes to gather laborers for work outside the State.Thus the Negroes’ ignorance of the labor-market outside his own vicinityis increased rather than diminished by the laws of nearly every Southern State.
Similar to such measures is the unwritten law of the back districts and smalltowns of the South, that the character of all Negroes unknown to the mass ofthe community must be vouched for by some white man. This is really a revivalof the old Roman idea of the patron under whose protection the new-madefreedman was put. In many instances this system has been of great good to theNegro, and very often under the protection and guidance of the formermaster’s family, or other white friends, the freedman progressed inwealth and morality. But the same system has in other cases resulted in therefusal of whole communities to recognize the right of a Negro to change hishabitation and to be master of his own fortunes. A black stranger in BakerCounty, Georgia, for instance, is liable to be stopped anywhere on the publichighway and made to state his business to the satisfaction of any whiteinterrogator. If he fails to give a suitable answer, or seems too independentor “sassy,” he may be arrested or summarily driven away.
Thus it is that in the country districts of the South, by written or unwrittenlaw, peonage, hindrances to the migration of labor, and a system of whitepatronage exists over large areas. Besides this, the chance for lawlessoppression and illegal exactions is vastly greater in the country than in thecity, and nearly all the more serious race disturbances of the last decade havearisen from disputes in the county between master and man,—as, forinstance, the Sam Hose affair. As a result of such a situation, there arose,first, the Black Belt; and, second, the Migration to Town. The Black Belt wasnot, as many assumed, a movement toward fields of labor under more genialclimatic conditions; it was primarily a huddling for self-protection,—amassing of the black population for mutual defence in order to secure the peaceand tranquillity necessary to economic advance. This movement took placebetween Emancipation and 1880, and only partially accomplished the desiredresults. The rush to town since 1880 is the counter-movement of mendisappointed in the economic opportunities of the Black Belt.
In Dougherty County, Georgia, one can see easily the results of this experimentin huddling for protection. Only ten per cent of the adult population was bornin the county, and yet the blacks outnumber the whites four or five to one.There is undoubtedly a security to the blacks in their very numbers,—apersonal freedom from arbitrary treatment, which makes hundreds of laborerscling to Dougherty in spite of low wages and economic distress. But a change iscoming, and slowly but surely even here the agricultural laborers are driftingto town and leaving the broad acres behind. Why is this? Why do not the Negroesbecome land-owners, and build up the black landed peasantry, which has for ageneration and more been the dream of philanthropist and statesman?
To the car-window sociologist, to the man who seeks to understand and know theSouth by devoting the few leisure hours of a holiday trip to unravelling thesnarl of centuries,—to such men very often the whole trouble with theblack field-hand may be summed up by Aunt Ophelia’s word,“Shiftless!” They have noted repeatedly scenes like one I saw lastsummer. We were riding along the highroad to town at the close of a long hotday. A couple of young black fellows passed us in a muleteam, with severalbushels of loose corn in the ear. One was driving, listlessly bent forward, hiselbows on his knees,—a happy-go-lucky, careless picture ofirresponsibility. The other was fast asleep in the bottom of the wagon. As wepassed we noticed an ear of corn fall from the wagon. They never sawit,—not they. A rod farther on we noted another ear on the ground; andbetween that creeping mule and town we counted twenty-six ears of corn.Shiftless? Yes, the personification of shiftlessness. And yet follow thoseboys: they are not lazy; to-morrow morning they’ll be up with the sun;they work hard when they do work, and they work willingly. They have no sordid,selfish, money-getting ways, but rather a fine disdain for mere cash.They’ll loaf before your face and work behind your back with good-naturedhonesty. They’ll steal a watermelon, and hand you back your lost purseintact. Their great defect as laborers lies in their lack of incentive beyondthe mere pleasure of physical exertion. They are careless because they have notfound that it pays to be careful; they are improvident because the improvidentones of their acquaintance get on about as well as the provident. Above all,they cannot see why they should take unusual pains to make the whiteman’s land better, or to fatten his mule, or save his corn. On the otherhand, the white land-owner argues that any attempt to improve these laborers byincreased responsibility, or higher wages, or better homes, or land of theirown, would be sure to result in failure. He shows his Northern visitor thescarred and wretched land; the ruined mansions, the worn-out soil and mortgagedacres, and says, This is Negro freedom!
Now it happens that both master and man have just enough argument on theirrespective sides to make it difficult for them to understand each other. TheNegro dimly personifies in the white man all his ills and misfortunes; if he ispoor, it is because the white man seizes the fruit of his toil; if he isignorant, it is because the white man gives him neither time nor facilities tolearn; and, indeed, if any misfortune happens to him, it is because of somehidden machinations of “white folks.” On the other hand, themasters and the masters’ sons have never been able to see why the Negro,instead of settling down to be day-laborers for bread and clothes, are infectedwith a silly desire to rise in the world, and why they are sulky, dissatisfied,and careless, where their fathers were happy and dumb and faithful. “Why,you niggers have an easier time than I do,” said a puzzled Albanymerchant to his black customer. “Yes,” he replied, “and sodoes yo’ hogs.”
Taking, then, the dissatisfied and shiftless field-hand as a starting-point,let us inquire how the black thousands of Dougherty have struggled from him uptoward their ideal, and what that ideal is. All social struggle is evidenced bythe rise, first of economic, then of social classes, among a homogeneouspopulation. To-day the following economic classes are plainly differentiatedamong these Negroes.
A “submerged tenth” of croppers, with a few paupers; forty per centwho are metayers and thirty-nine per cent of semi-metayers and wage-laborers.There are left five per cent of money-renters and six per cent offreeholders,—the “Upper Ten” of the land. The croppers areentirely without capital, even in the limited sense of food or money to keepthem from seed-time to harvest. All they furnish is their labor; the land-ownerfurnishes land, stock, tools, seed, and house; and at the end of the year thelaborer gets from a third to a half of the crop. Out of his share, however,comes pay and interest for food and clothing advanced him during the year. Thuswe have a laborer without capital and without wages, and an employer whosecapital is largely his employees’ wages. It is an unsatisfactoryarrangement, both for hirer and hired, and is usually in vogue on poor landwith hard-pressed owners.
Above the croppers come the great mass of the black population who work theland on their own responsibility, paying rent in cotton and supported by thecrop-mortgage system. After the war this system was attractive to the freedmenon account of its larger freedom and its possibility for making a surplus. Butwith the carrying out of the crop-lien system, the deterioration of the land,and the slavery of debt, the position of the metayers has sunk to a dead levelof practically unrewarded toil. Formerly all tenants had some capital, andoften considerable; but absentee landlordism, rising rack-rent, and failingcotton have stripped them well-nigh of all, and probably not over half of themto-day own their mules. The change from cropper to tenant was accomplished byfixing the rent. If, now, the rent fixed was reasonable, this was an incentiveto the tenant to strive. On the other hand, if the rent was too high, or if theland deteriorated, the result was to discourage and check the efforts of theblack peasantry. There is no doubt that the latter case is true; that inDougherty County every economic advantage of the price of cotton in market andof the strivings of the tenant has been taken advantage of by the landlords andmerchants, and swallowed up in rent and interest. If cotton rose in price, therent rose even higher; if cotton fell, the rent remained or followedreluctantly. If the tenant worked hard and raised a large crop, his rent wasraised the next year; if that year the crop failed, his corn was confiscatedand his mule sold for debt. There were, of course, exceptions tothis,—cases of personal kindness and forbearance; but in the vastmajority of cases the rule was to extract the uttermost farthing from the massof the black farm laborers.
The average metayer pays from twenty to thirty per cent of his crop in rent.The result of such rack-rent can only be evil,—abuse and neglect of thesoil, deterioration in the character of the laborers, and a widespread sense ofinjustice. “Wherever the country is poor,” cried Arthur Young,“it is in the hands of metayers,” and “their condition ismore wretched than that of day-laborers.” He was talking of Italy acentury ago; but he might have been talking of Dougherty County to-day. Andespecially is that true to-day which he declares was true in France before theRevolution: “The metayers are considered as little better than menialservants, removable at pleasure, and obliged to conform in all things to thewill of the landlords.” On this low plane half the black population ofDougherty County—perhaps more than half the black millions of thisland—are to-day struggling.
A degree above these we may place those laborers who receive money wages fortheir work. Some receive a house with perhaps a garden-spot; then supplies offood and clothing are advanced, and certain fixed wages are given at the end ofthe year, varying from thirty to sixty dollars, out of which the supplies mustbe paid for, with interest. About eighteen per cent of the population belong tothis class of semi-metayers, while twenty-two per cent are laborers paid by themonth or year, and are either “furnished” by their own savings orperhaps more usually by some merchant who takes his chances of payment. Suchlaborers receive from thirty-five to fifty cents a day during the workingseason. They are usually young unmarried persons, some being women; and whenthey marry they sink to the class of metayers, or, more seldom, become renters.
The renters for fixed money rentals are the first of the emerging classes, andform five per cent of the families. The sole advantage of this small class istheir freedom to choose their crops, and the increased responsibility whichcomes through having money transactions. While some of the renters differlittle in condition from the metayers, yet on the whole they are moreintelligent and responsible persons, and are the ones who eventually becomeland-owners. Their better character and greater shrewdness enable them to gain,perhaps to demand, better terms in rents; rented farms, varying from forty to ahundred acres, bear an average rental of about fifty-four dollars a year. Themen who conduct such farms do not long remain renters; either they sink tometayers, or with a successful series of harvests rise to be land-owners.
In 1870 the tax-books of Dougherty report no Negroes as landholders. If therewere any such at that time,—and there may have been a few,—theirland was probably held in the name of some white patron,—a method notuncommon during slavery. In 1875 ownership of land had begun with seven hundredand fifty acres; ten years later this had increased to over sixty-five hundredacres, to nine thousand acres in 1890 and ten thousand in 1900. The totalassessed property has in this same period risen from eighty thousand dollars in1875 to two hundred and forty thousand dollars in 1900.
Two circumstances complicate this development and make it in some respectsdifficult to be sure of the real tendencies; they are the panic of 1893, andthe low price of cotton in 1898. Besides this, the system of assessing propertyin the country districts of Georgia is somewhat antiquated and of uncertainstatistical value; there are no assessors, and each man makes a sworn return toa tax-receiver. Thus public opinion plays a large part, and the returns varystrangely from year to year. Certainly these figures show the small amount ofaccumulated capital among the Negroes, and the consequent large dependence oftheir property on temporary prosperity. They have little to tide over a fewyears of economic depression, and are at the mercy of the cotton-market farmore than the whites. And thus the land-owners, despite their marvellousefforts, are really a transient class, continually being depleted by those whofall back into the class of renters or metayers, and augmented by newcomersfrom the masses. Of one hundred land-owners in 1898, half had bought their landsince 1893, a fourth between 1890 and 1893, a fifth between 1884 and 1890, andthe rest between 1870 and 1884. In all, one hundred and eighty-five Negroeshave owned land in this county since 1875.
If all the black land-owners who had ever held land here had kept it or left itin the hands of black men, the Negroes would have owned nearer thirty thousandacres than the fifteen thousand they now hold. And yet these fifteen thousandacres are a creditable showing,—a proof of no little weight of the worthand ability of the Negro people. If they had been given an economic start atEmancipation, if they had been in an enlightened and rich community whichreally desired their best good, then we might perhaps call such a result smallor even insignificant. But for a few thousand poor ignorant field-hands, in theface of poverty, a falling market, and social stress, to save and capitalizetwo hundred thousand dollars in a generation has meant a tremendous effort. Therise of a nation, the pressing forward of a social class, means a bitterstruggle, a hard and soul-sickening battle with the world such as few of themore favored classes know or appreciate.
Out of the hard economic conditions of this portion of the Black Belt, only sixper cent of the population have succeeded in emerging into peasantproprietorship; and these are not all firmly fixed, but grow and shrink innumber with the wavering of the cotton-market. Fully ninety-four per cent havestruggled for land and failed, and half of them sit in hopeless serfdom. Forthese there is one other avenue of escape toward which they have turned inincreasing numbers, namely, migration to town. A glance at the distribution ofland among the black owners curiously reveals this fact. In 1898 the holdingswere as follows: Under forty acres, forty-nine families; forty to two hundredand fifty acres, seventeen families; two hundred and fifty to one thousandacres, thirteen families; one thousand or more acres, two families. Now in 1890there were forty-four holdings, but only nine of these were under forty acres.The great increase of holdings, then, has come in the buying of smallhomesteads near town, where their owners really share in the town life; this isa part of the rush to town. And for every land-owner who has thus hurried awayfrom the narrow and hard conditions of country life, how many field-hands, howmany tenants, how many ruined renters, have joined that long procession? Is itnot strange compensation? The sin of the country districts is visited on thetown, and the social sores of city life to-day may, here in Dougherty County,and perhaps in many places near and far, look for their final healing withoutthe city walls.
Of the Sons of Master and Man
Life treads on life, and heart on heart;
We press too close in church and mart
To keep a dream or grave apart.
The world-old phenomenon of the contact of diverse races of men is to have newexemplification during the new century. Indeed, the characteristic of our ageis the contact of European civilization with the world’s undevelopedpeoples. Whatever we may say of the results of such contact in the past, itcertainly forms a chapter in human action not pleasant to look back upon. War,murder, slavery, extermination, and debauchery,—this has again and againbeen the result of carrying civilization and the blessed gospel to the isles ofthe sea and the heathen without the law. Nor does it altogether satisfy theconscience of the modern world to be told complacently that all this has beenright and proper, the fated triumph of strength over weakness, of righteousnessover evil, of superiors over inferiors. It would certainly be soothing if onecould readily believe all this; and yet there are too many ugly facts foreverything to be thus easily explained away. We feel and know that there aremany delicate differences in race psychology, numberless changes that our crudesocial measurements are not yet able to follow minutely, which explain much ofhistory and social development. At the same time, too, we know that theseconsiderations have never adequately explained or excused the triumph of bruteforce and cunning over weakness and innocence.
It is, then, the strife of all honorable men of the twentieth century to seethat in the future competition of races the survival of the fittest shall meanthe triumph of the good, the beautiful, and the true; that we may be able topreserve for future civilization all that is really fine and noble and strong,and not continue to put a premium on greed and impudence and cruelty. To bringthis hope to fruition, we are compelled daily to turn more and more to aconscientious study of the phenomena of race-contact,—to a study frankand fair, and not falsified and colored by our wishes or our fears. And we havein the South as fine a field for such a study as the world affords,—afield, to be sure, which the average American scientist deems somewhat beneathhis dignity, and which the average man who is not a scientist knows all about,but nevertheless a line of study which by reason of the enormous racecomplications with which God seems about to punish this nation mustincreasingly claim our sober attention, study, and thought, we must ask, whatare the actual relations of whites and blacks in the South? and we must beanswered, not by apology or fault-finding, but by a plain, unvarnished tale.
In the civilized life of to-day the contact of men and their relations to eachother fall in a few main lines of action and communication: there is, first,the physical proximity of home and dwelling-places, the way in whichneighborhoods group themselves, and the contiguity of neighborhoods. Secondly,and in our age chiefest, there are the economic relations,—the methods bywhich individuals cooperate for earning a living, for the mutual satisfactionof wants, for the production of wealth. Next, there are the politicalrelations, the cooperation in social control, in group government, in layingand paying the burden of taxation. In the fourth place there are the lesstangible but highly important forms of intellectual contact and commerce, theinterchange of ideas through conversation and conference, through periodicalsand libraries; and, above all, the gradual formation for each community of thatcurious tertium quid which we call public opinion. Closely allied withthis come the various forms of social contact in everyday life, in travel, intheatres, in house gatherings, in marrying and giving in marriage. Finally,there are the varying forms of religious enterprise, of moral teaching andbenevolent endeavor. These are the principal ways in which men living in thesame communities are brought into contact with each other. It is my presenttask, therefore, to indicate, from my point of view, how the black race in theSouth meet and mingle with the whites in these matters of everyday life.
First, as to physical dwelling. It is usually possible to draw in nearly everySouthern community a physical color-line on the map, on the one side of whichwhites dwell and on the other Negroes. The winding and intricacy of thegeographical color-line varies, of course, in different communities. I knowsome towns where a straight line drawn through the middle of the main streetseparates nine-tenths of the whites from nine-tenths of the blacks. In othertowns the older settlement of whites has been encircled by a broad band ofblacks; in still other cases little settlements or nuclei of blacks have sprungup amid surrounding whites. Usually in cities each street has its distinctivecolor, and only now and then do the colors meet in close proximity. Even in thecountry something of this segregation is manifest in the smaller areas, and ofcourse in the larger phenomena of the Black Belt.
All this segregation by color is largely independent of that natural clusteringby social grades common to all communities. A Negro slum may be in dangerousproximity to a white residence quarter, while it is quite common to find awhite slum planted in the heart of a respectable Negro district. One thing,however, seldom occurs: the best of the whites and the best of the Negroesalmost never live in anything like close proximity. It thus happens that innearly every Southern town and city, both whites and blacks see commonly theworst of each other. This is a vast change from the situation in the past,when, through the close contact of master and house-servant in the patriarchalbig house, one found the best of both races in close contact and sympathy,while at the same time the squalor and dull round of toil among the field-handswas removed from the sight and hearing of the family. One can easily see how aperson who saw slavery thus from his father’s parlors, and sees freedomon the streets of a great city, fails to grasp or comprehend the whole of thenew picture. On the other hand, the settled belief of the mass of the Negroesthat the Southern white people do not have the black man’s best interestsat heart has been intensified in later years by this continual daily contact ofthe better class of blacks with the worst representatives of the white race.
Coming now to the economic relations of the races, we are on ground madefamiliar by study, much discussion, and no little philanthropic effort. And yetwith all this there are many essential elements in the cooperation of Negroesand whites for work and wealth that are too readily overlooked or notthoroughly understood. The average American can easily conceive of a rich landawaiting development and filled with black laborers. To him the Southernproblem is simply that of making efficient workingmen out of this material, bygiving them the requisite technical skill and the help of invested capital. Theproblem, however, is by no means as simple as this, from the obvious fact thatthese workingmen have been trained for centuries as slaves. They exhibit,therefore, all the advantages and defects of such training; they are willingand good-natured, but not self-reliant, provident, or careful. If now theeconomic development of the South is to be pushed to the verge of exploitation,as seems probable, then we have a mass of workingmen thrown into relentlesscompetition with the workingmen of the world, but handicapped by a training thevery opposite to that of the modern self-reliant democratic laborer. What theblack laborer needs is careful personal guidance, group leadership of men withhearts in their bosoms, to train them to foresight, carefulness, and honesty.Nor does it require any fine-spun theories of racial differences to prove thenecessity of such group training after the brains of the race have been knockedout by two hundred and fifty years of assiduous education in submission,carelessness, and stealing. After Emancipation, it was the plain duty of someone to assume this group leadership and training of the Negro laborer. I willnot stop here to inquire whose duty it was—whether that of the whiteex-master who had profited by unpaid toil, or the Northern philanthropist whosepersistence brought on the crisis, or the National Government whose edict freedthe bondmen; I will not stop to ask whose duty it was, but I insist it was theduty of some one to see that these workingmen were not left alone and unguided,without capital, without land, without skill, without economic organization,without even the bald protection of law, order, and decency,—left in agreat land, not to settle down to slow and careful internal development, butdestined to be thrown almost immediately into relentless and sharp competitionwith the best of modern workingmen under an economic system where everyparticipant is fighting for himself, and too often utterly regardless of therights or welfare of his neighbor.
For we must never forget that the economic system of the South to-day which hassucceeded the old regime is not the same system as that of the old industrialNorth, of England, or of France, with their trade-unions, their restrictivelaws, their written and unwritten commercial customs, and their longexperience. It is, rather, a copy of that England of the early nineteenthcentury, before the factory acts,—the England that wrung pity fromthinkers and fired the wrath of Carlyle. The rod of empire that passed from thehands of Southern gentlemen in 1865, partly by force, partly by their ownpetulance, has never returned to them. Rather it has passed to those men whohave come to take charge of the industrial exploitation of the NewSouth,—the sons of poor whites fired with a new thirst for wealth andpower, thrifty and avaricious Yankees, and unscrupulous immigrants. Into thehands of these men the Southern laborers, white and black, have fallen; andthis to their sorrow. For the laborers as such, there is in these new captainsof industry neither love nor hate, neither sympathy nor romance; it is a coldquestion of dollars and dividends. Under such a system all labor is bound tosuffer. Even the white laborers are not yet intelligent, thrifty, and welltrained enough to maintain themselves against the powerful inroads of organizedcapital. The results among them, even, are long hours of toil, low wages, childlabor, and lack of protection against usury and cheating. But among the blacklaborers all this is aggravated, first, by a race prejudice which varies from adoubt and distrust among the best element of whites to a frenzied hatred amongthe worst; and, secondly, it is aggravated, as I have said before, by thewretched economic heritage of the freedmen from slavery. With this training itis difficult for the freedman to learn to grasp the opportunities alreadyopened to him, and the new opportunities are seldom given him, but go by favorto the whites.
Left by the best elements of the South with little protection or oversight, hehas been made in law and custom the victim of the worst and most unscrupulousmen in each community. The crop-lien system which is depopulating the fields ofthe South is not simply the result of shiftlessness on the part of Negroes, butis also the result of cunningly devised laws as to mortgages, liens, andmisdemeanors, which can be made by conscienceless men to entrap and snare theunwary until escape is impossible, further toil a farce, and protest a crime. Ihave seen, in the Black Belt of Georgia, an ignorant, honest Negro buy and payfor a farm in installments three separate times, and then in the face of lawand decency the enterprising American who sold it to him pocketed the money anddeed and left the black man landless, to labor on his own land at thirty centsa day. I have seen a black farmer fall in debt to a white storekeeper, and thatstorekeeper go to his farm and strip it of every single marketablearticle,—mules, ploughs, stored crops, tools, furniture, bedding, clocks,looking-glass,—and all this without a sheriff or officer, in the face ofthe law for homestead exemptions, and without rendering to a single responsibleperson any account or reckoning. And such proceedings can happen, and willhappen, in any community where a class of ignorant toilers are placed by customand race-prejudice beyond the pale of sympathy and race-brotherhood. So long asthe best elements of a community do not feel in duty bound to protect and trainand care for the weaker members of their group, they leave them to be preyedupon by these swindlers and rascals.
This unfortunate economic situation does not mean the hindrance of all advancein the black South, or the absence of a class of black landlords and mechanicswho, in spite of disadvantages, are accumulating property and making goodcitizens. But it does mean that this class is not nearly so large as a fairereconomic system might easily make it, that those who survive in the competitionare handicapped so as to accomplish much less than they deserve to, and that,above all, the personnel of the successful class is left to chance andaccident, and not to any intelligent culling or reasonable methods ofselection. As a remedy for this, there is but one possible procedure. We mustaccept some of the race prejudice in the South as a fact,—deplorable inits intensity, unfortunate in results, and dangerous for the future, butnevertheless a hard fact which only time can efface. We cannot hope, then, inthis generation, or for several generations, that the mass of the whites can bebrought to assume that close sympathetic and self-sacrificing leadership of theblacks which their present situation so eloquently demands. Such leadership,such social teaching and example, must come from the blacks themselves. Forsome time men doubted as to whether the Negro could develop such leaders; butto-day no one seriously disputes the capability of individual Negroes toassimilate the culture and common sense of modern civilization, and to pass iton, to some extent at least, to their fellows. If this is true, then here isthe path out of the economic situation, and here is the imperative demand fortrained Negro leaders of character and intelligence,—men of skill, men oflight and leading, college-bred men, black captains of industry, andmissionaries of culture; men who thoroughly comprehend and know moderncivilization, and can take hold of Negro communities and raise and train themby force of precept and example, deep sympathy, and the inspiration of commonblood and ideals. But if such men are to be effective they must have somepower,—they must be backed by the best public opinion of thesecommunities, and able to wield for their objects and aims such weapons as theexperience of the world has taught are indispensable to human progress.
Of such weapons the greatest, perhaps, in the modern world is the power of theballot; and this brings me to a consideration of the third form of contactbetween whites and blacks in the South,—political activity.
In the attitude of the American mind toward Negro suffrage can be traced withunusual accuracy the prevalent conceptions of government. In the fifties wewere near enough the echoes of the French Revolution to believe prettythoroughly in universal suffrage. We argued, as we thought then ratherlogically, that no social class was so good, so true, and so disinterested asto be trusted wholly with the political destiny of its neighbors; that in everystate the best arbiters of their own welfare are the persons directly affected;consequently that it is only by arming every hand with a ballot,—with theright to have a voice in the policy of the state,—that the greatest goodto the greatest number could be attained. To be sure, there were objections tothese arguments, but we thought we had answered them tersely and convincingly;if some one complained of the ignorance of voters, we answered, “Educatethem.” If another complained of their venality, we replied,“Disfranchise them or put them in jail.” And, finally, to the menwho feared demagogues and the natural perversity of some human beings weinsisted that time and bitter experience would teach the most hardheaded. Itwas at this time that the question of Negro suffrage in the South was raised.Here was a defenceless people suddenly made free. How were they to be protectedfrom those who did not believe in their freedom and were determined to thwartit? Not by force, said the North; not by government guardianship, said theSouth; then by the ballot, the sole and legitimate defence of a free people,said the Common Sense of the Nation. No one thought, at the time, that theex-slaves could use the ballot intelligently or very effectively; but they didthink that the possession of so great power by a great class in the nationwould compel their fellows to educate this class to its intelligent use.
Meantime, new thoughts came to the nation: the inevitable period of moralretrogression and political trickery that ever follows in the wake of warovertook us. So flagrant became the political scandals that reputable men beganto leave politics alone, and politics consequently became disreputable. Menbegan to pride themselves on having nothing to do with their own government,and to agree tacitly with those who regarded public office as a privateperquisite. In this state of mind it became easy to wink at the suppression ofthe Negro vote in the South, and to advise self-respecting Negroes to leavepolitics entirely alone. The decent and reputable citizens of the North whoneglected their own civic duties grew hilarious over the exaggerated importancewith which the Negro regarded the franchise. Thus it easily happened that moreand more the better class of Negroes followed the advice from abroad and thepressure from home, and took no further interest in politics, leaving to thecareless and the venal of their race the exercise of their rights as voters.The black vote that still remained was not trained and educated, but furtherdebauched by open and unblushing bribery, or force and fraud; until the Negrovoter was thoroughly inoculated with the idea that politics was a method ofprivate gain by disreputable means.
And finally, now, to-day, when we are awakening to the fact that the perpetuityof republican institutions on this continent depends on the purification of theballot, the civic training of voters, and the raising of voting to the plane ofa solemn duty which a patriotic citizen neglects to his peril and to the perilof his children’s children,—in this day, when we are striving for arenaissance of civic virtue, what are we going to say to the black voter of theSouth? Are we going to tell him still that politics is a disreputable anduseless form of human activity? Are we going to induce the best class ofNegroes to take less and less interest in government, and to give up theirright to take such an interest, without a protest? I am not saying a wordagainst all legitimate efforts to purge the ballot of ignorance, pauperism, andcrime. But few have pretended that the present movement for disfranchisement inthe South is for such a purpose; it has been plainly and frankly declared innearly every case that the object of the disfranchising laws is the eliminationof the black man from politics.
Now, is this a minor matter which has no influence on the main question of theindustrial and intellectual development of the Negro? Can we establish a massof black laborers and artisans and landholders in the South who, by law andpublic opinion, have absolutely no voice in shaping the laws under which theylive and work? Can the modern organization of industry, assuming as it doesfree democratic government and the power and ability of the laboring classes tocompel respect for their welfare,—can this system be carried out in theSouth when half its laboring force is voiceless in the public councils andpowerless in its own defence? To-day the black man of the South has almostnothing to say as to how much he shall be taxed, or how those taxes shall beexpended; as to who shall execute the laws, and how they shall do it; as to whoshall make the laws, and how they shall be made. It is pitiable that franticefforts must be made at critical times to get law-makers in some States even tolisten to the respectful presentation of the black man’s side of acurrent controversy. Daily the Negro is coming more and more to look upon lawand justice, not as protecting safeguards, but as sources of humiliation andoppression. The laws are made by men who have little interest in him; they areexecuted by men who have absolutely no motive for treating the black peoplewith courtesy or consideration; and, finally, the accused law-breaker is tried,not by his peers, but too often by men who would rather punish ten innocentNegroes than let one guilty one escape.
I should be the last one to deny the patent weaknesses and shortcomings of theNegro people; I should be the last to withhold sympathy from the white South inits efforts to solve its intricate social problems. I freely acknowledged thatit is possible, and sometimes best, that a partially undeveloped people shouldbe ruled by the best of their stronger and better neighbors for their own good,until such time as they can start and fight the world’s battles alone. Ihave already pointed out how sorely in need of such economic and spiritualguidance the emancipated Negro was, and I am quite willing to admit that if therepresentatives of the best white Southern public opinion were the ruling andguiding powers in the South to-day the conditions indicated would be fairlywell fulfilled. But the point I have insisted upon and now emphasize again, isthat the best opinion of the South to-day is not the ruling opinion. That toleave the Negro helpless and without a ballot to-day is to leave him not to theguidance of the best, but rather to the exploitation and debauchment of theworst; that this is no truer of the South than of the North,—of the Norththan of Europe: in any land, in any country under modern free competition, tolay any class of weak and despised people, be they white, black, or blue, atthe political mercy of their stronger, richer, and more resourceful fellows, isa temptation which human nature seldom has withstood and seldom will withstand.
Moreover, the political status of the Negro in the South is closely connectedwith the question of Negro crime. There can be no doubt that crime amongNegroes has sensibly increased in the last thirty years, and that there hasappeared in the slums of great cities a distinct criminal class among theblacks. In explaining this unfortunate development, we must note two things:(1) that the inevitable result of Emancipation was to increase crime andcriminals, and (2) that the police system of the South was primarily designedto control slaves. As to the first point, we must not forget that under astrict slave system there can scarcely be such a thing as crime. But when thesevariously constituted human particles are suddenly thrown broadcast on the seaof life, some swim, some sink, and some hang suspended, to be forced up or downby the chance currents of a busy hurrying world. So great an economic andsocial revolution as swept the South in ’63 meant a weeding out among theNegroes of the incompetents and vicious, the beginning of a differentiation ofsocial grades. Now a rising group of people are not lifted bodily from theground like an inert solid mass, but rather stretch upward like a living plantwith its roots still clinging in the mould. The appearance, therefore, of theNegro criminal was a phenomenon to be awaited; and while it causes anxiety, itshould not occasion surprise.
Here again the hope for the future depended peculiarly on careful and delicatedealing with these criminals. Their offences at first were those of laziness,carelessness, and impulse, rather than of malignity or ungoverned viciousness.Such misdemeanors needed discriminating treatment, firm but reformatory, withno hint of injustice, and full proof of guilt. For such dealing with criminals,white or black, the South had no machinery, no adequate jails or reformatories;its police system was arranged to deal with blacks alone, and tacitly assumedthat every white man was ipso facto a member of that police. Thus grewup a double system of justice, which erred on the white side by undue leniencyand the practical immunity of red-handed criminals, and erred on the black sideby undue severity, injustice, and lack of discrimination. For, as I have said,the police system of the South was originally designed to keep track of allNegroes, not simply of criminals; and when the Negroes were freed and the wholeSouth was convinced of the impossibility of free Negro labor, the first andalmost universal device was to use the courts as a means of reenslaving theblacks. It was not then a question of crime, but rather one of color, thatsettled a man’s conviction on almost any charge. Thus Negroes came tolook upon courts as instruments of injustice and oppression, and upon thoseconvicted in them as martyrs and victims.
When, now, the real Negro criminal appeared, and instead of petty stealing andvagrancy we began to have highway robbery, burglary, murder, and rape, therewas a curious effect on both sides the color-line: the Negroes refused tobelieve the evidence of white witnesses or the fairness of white juries, sothat the greatest deterrent to crime, the public opinion of one’s ownsocial caste, was lost, and the criminal was looked upon as crucified ratherthan hanged. On the other hand, the whites, used to being careless as to theguilt or innocence of accused Negroes, were swept in moments of passion beyondlaw, reason, and decency. Such a situation is bound to increase crime, and hasincreased it. To natural viciousness and vagrancy are being daily added motivesof revolt and revenge which stir up all the latent savagery of both races andmake peaceful attention to economic development often impossible.
But the chief problem in any community cursed with crime is not the punishmentof the criminals, but the preventing of the young from being trained to crime.And here again the peculiar conditions of the South have prevented properprecautions. I have seen twelve-year-old boys working in chains on the publicstreets of Atlanta, directly in front of the schools, in company with old andhardened criminals; and this indiscriminate mingling of men and women andchildren makes the chain-gangs perfect schools of crime and debauchery. Thestruggle for reformatories, which has gone on in Virginia, Georgia, and otherStates, is the one encouraging sign of the awakening of some communities to thesuicidal results of this policy.
It is the public schools, however, which can be made, outside the homes, thegreatest means of training decent self-respecting citizens. We have been sohotly engaged recently in discussing trade-schools and the higher educationthat the pitiable plight of the public-school system in the South has almostdropped from view. Of every five dollars spent for public education in theState of Georgia, the white schools get four dollars and the Negro one dollar;and even then the white public-school system, save in the cities, is bad andcries for reform. If this is true of the whites, what of the blacks? I ambecoming more and more convinced, as I look upon the system of common-schooltraining in the South, that the national government must soon step in and aidpopular education in some way. To-day it has been only by the most strenuousefforts on the part of the thinking men of the South that the Negro’sshare of the school fund has not been cut down to a pittance in some half-dozenStates; and that movement not only is not dead, but in many communities isgaining strength. What in the name of reason does this nation expect of apeople, poorly trained and hard pressed in severe economic competition, withoutpolitical rights, and with ludicrously inadequate common-school facilities?What can it expect but crime and listlessness, offset here and there by thedogged struggles of the fortunate and more determined who are themselves buoyedby the hope that in due time the country will come to its senses?
I have thus far sought to make clear the physical, economic, and politicalrelations of the Negroes and whites in the South, as I have conceived them,including, for the reasons set forth, crime and education. But after all thathas been said on these more tangible matters of human contact, there stillremains a part essential to a proper description of the South which it isdifficult to describe or fix in terms easily understood by strangers. It is, infine, the atmosphere of the land, the thought and feeling, the thousand and onelittle actions which go to make up life. In any community or nation it is theselittle things which are most elusive to the grasp and yet most essential to anyclear conception of the group life taken as a whole. What is thus true of allcommunities is peculiarly true of the South, where, outside of written historyand outside of printed law, there has been going on for a generation as deep astorm and stress of human souls, as intense a ferment of feeling, as intricatea writhing of spirit, as ever a people experienced. Within and without thesombre veil of color vast social forces have been at work,—efforts forhuman betterment, movements toward disintegration and despair, tragedies andcomedies in social and economic life, and a swaying and lifting and sinking ofhuman hearts which have made this land a land of mingled sorrow and joy, ofchange and excitement and unrest.
The centre of this spiritual turmoil has ever been the millions of blackfreedmen and their sons, whose destiny is so fatefully bound up with that ofthe nation. And yet the casual observer visiting the South sees at first littleof this. He notes the growing frequency of dark faces as he ridesalong,—but otherwise the days slip lazily on, the sun shines, and thislittle world seems as happy and contented as other worlds he has visited.Indeed, on the question of questions—the Negro problem—he hears solittle that there almost seems to be a conspiracy of silence; the morningpapers seldom mention it, and then usually in a far-fetched academic way, andindeed almost every one seems to forget and ignore the darker half of the land,until the astonished visitor is inclined to ask if after all there IS anyproblem here. But if he lingers long enough there comes the awakening: perhapsin a sudden whirl of passion which leaves him gasping at its bitter intensity;more likely in a gradually dawning sense of things he had not at first noticed.Slowly but surely his eyes begin to catch the shadows of the color-line: herehe meets crowds of Negroes and whites; then he is suddenly aware that he cannotdiscover a single dark face; or again at the close of a day’s wanderinghe may find himself in some strange assembly, where all faces are tinged brownor black, and where he has the vague, uncomfortable feeling of the stranger. Herealizes at last that silently, resistlessly, the world about flows by him intwo great streams: they ripple on in the same sunshine, they approach andmingle their waters in seeming carelessness,—then they divide and flowwide apart. It is done quietly; no mistakes are made, or if one occurs, theswift arm of the law and of public opinion swings down for a moment, as whenthe other day a black man and a white woman were arrested for talking togetheron Whitehall Street in Atlanta.
Now if one notices carefully one will see that between these two worlds,despite much physical contact and daily intermingling, there is almost nocommunity of intellectual life or point of transference where the thoughts andfeelings of one race can come into direct contact and sympathy with thethoughts and feelings of the other. Before and directly after the war, when allthe best of the Negroes were domestic servants in the best of the whitefamilies, there were bonds of intimacy, affection, and sometimes bloodrelationship, between the races. They lived in the same home, shared in thefamily life, often attended the same church, and talked and conversed with eachother. But the increasing civilization of the Negro since then has naturallymeant the development of higher classes: there are increasing numbers ofministers, teachers, physicians, merchants, mechanics, and independent farmers,who by nature and training are the aristocracy and leaders of the blacks.Between them, however, and the best element of the whites, there is little orno intellectual commerce. They go to separate churches, they live in separatesections, they are strictly separated in all public gatherings, they travelseparately, and they are beginning to read different papers and books. To mostlibraries, lectures, concerts, and museums, Negroes are either not admitted atall, or on terms peculiarly galling to the pride of the very classes who mightotherwise be attracted. The daily paper chronicles the doings of the blackworld from afar with no great regard for accuracy; and so on, throughout thecategory of means for intellectual communication,—schools, conferences,efforts for social betterment, and the like,—it is usually true that thevery representatives of the two races, who for mutual benefit and the welfareof the land ought to be in complete understanding and sympathy, are so farstrangers that one side thinks all whites are narrow and prejudiced, and theother thinks educated Negroes dangerous and insolent. Moreover, in a land wherethe tyranny of public opinion and the intolerance of criticism is for obvioushistorical reasons so strong as in the South, such a situation is extremelydifficult to correct. The white man, as well as the Negro, is bound and barredby the color-line, and many a scheme of friendliness and philanthropy, ofbroad-minded sympathy and generous fellowship between the two has droppedstill-born because some busybody has forced the color-question to the front andbrought the tremendous force of unwritten law against the innovators.
It is hardly necessary for me to add very much in regard to the social contactbetween the races. Nothing has come to replace that finer sympathy and lovebetween some masters and house servants which the radical and moreuncompromising drawing of the color-line in recent years has caused almostcompletely to disappear. In a world where it means so much to take a man by thehand and sit beside him, to look frankly into his eyes and feel his heartbeating with red blood; in a world where a social cigar or a cup of teatogether means more than legislative halls and magazine articles andspeeches,—one can imagine the consequences of the almost utter absence ofsuch social amenities between estranged races, whose separation extends even toparks and streetcars.
Here there can be none of that social going down to the people,—theopening of heart and hand of the best to the worst, in generous acknowledgmentof a common humanity and a common destiny. On the other hand, in matters ofsimple almsgiving, where there can be no question of social contact, and in thesuccor of the aged and sick, the South, as if stirred by a feeling of itsunfortunate limitations, is generous to a fault. The black beggar is neverturned away without a good deal more than a crust, and a call for help for theunfortunate meets quick response. I remember, one cold winter, in Atlanta, whenI refrained from contributing to a public relief fund lest Negroes should bediscriminated against, I afterward inquired of a friend: “Were any blackpeople receiving aid?” “Why,” said he, “they wereall black.”
And yet this does not touch the kernel of the problem. Human advancement is nota mere question of almsgiving, but rather of sympathy and cooperation amongclasses who would scorn charity. And here is a land where, in the higher walksof life, in all the higher striving for the good and noble and true, thecolor-line comes to separate natural friends and coworkers; while at the bottomof the social group, in the saloon, the gambling-hell, and the brothel, thatsame line wavers and disappears.
I have sought to paint an average picture of real relations between the sons ofmaster and man in the South. I have not glossed over matters for policy’ssake, for I fear we have already gone too far in that sort of thing. On theother hand, I have sincerely sought to let no unfair exaggerations creep in. Ido not doubt that in some Southern communities conditions are better than thoseI have indicated; while I am no less certain that in other communities they arefar worse.
Nor does the paradox and danger of this situation fail to interest and perplexthe best conscience of the South. Deeply religious and intensely democratic asare the mass of the whites, they feel acutely the false position in which theNegro problems place them. Such an essentially honest-hearted and generouspeople cannot cite the caste-levelling precepts of Christianity, or believe inequality of opportunity for all men, without coming to feel more and more witheach generation that the present drawing of the color-line is a flatcontradiction to their beliefs and professions. But just as often as they cometo this point, the present social condition of the Negro stands as a menace anda portent before even the most open-minded: if there were nothing to chargeagainst the Negro but his blackness or other physical peculiarities, theyargue, the problem would be comparatively simple; but what can we say to hisignorance, shiftlessness, poverty, and crime? can a self-respecting group holdanything but the least possible fellowship with such persons and survive? andshall we let a mawkish sentiment sweep away the culture of our fathers or thehope of our children? The argument so put is of great strength, but it is not awhit stronger than the argument of thinking Negroes: granted, they reply, thatthe condition of our masses is bad; there is certainly on the one hand adequatehistorical cause for this, and unmistakable evidence that no small number have,in spite of tremendous disadvantages, risen to the level of Americancivilization. And when, by proscription and prejudice, these same Negroes areclassed with and treated like the lowest of their people, simply because theyare Negroes, such a policy not only discourages thrift and intelligence amongblack men, but puts a direct premium on the very things you complainof,—inefficiency and crime. Draw lines of crime, of incompetency, ofvice, as tightly and uncompromisingly as you will, for these things must beproscribed; but a color-line not only does not accomplish this purpose, butthwarts it.
In the face of two such arguments, the future of the South depends on theability of the representatives of these opposing views to see and appreciateand sympathize with each other’s position,—for the Negro to realizemore deeply than he does at present the need of uplifting the masses of hispeople, for the white people to realize more vividly than they have yet donethe deadening and disastrous effect of a color-prejudice that classes PhillisWheatley and Sam Hose in the same despised class.
It is not enough for the Negroes to declare that color-prejudice is the solecause of their social condition, nor for the white South to reply that theirsocial condition is the main cause of prejudice. They both act as reciprocalcause and effect, and a change in neither alone will bring the desired effect.Both must change, or neither can improve to any great extent. The Negro cannotstand the present reactionary tendencies and unreasoning drawing of thecolor-line indefinitely without discouragement and retrogression. And thecondition of the Negro is ever the excuse for further discrimination. Only by aunion of intelligence and sympathy across the color-line in this criticalperiod of the Republic shall justice and right triumph,
“That mind and soul according well,
May make one music as before,
Of the Faith of the Fathers
Dim face of Beauty haunting all the world,
Fair face of Beauty all too fair to see,
Where the lost stars adown the heavens are hurled,—
There, there alone for thee
May white peace be.
Beauty, sad face of Beauty, Mystery, Wonder,
What are these dreams to foolish babbling men
Who cry with little noises ’neath the thunder
Of Ages ground to sand,
To a little sand.
It was out in the country, far from home, far from my foster home, on a darkSunday night. The road wandered from our rambling log-house up the stony bed ofa creek, past wheat and corn, until we could hear dimly across the fields arhythmic cadence of song,—soft, thrilling, powerful, that swelled anddied sorrowfully in our ears. I was a country schoolteacher then, fresh fromthe East, and had never seen a Southern Negro revival. To be sure, we inBerkshire were not perhaps as stiff and formal as they in Suffolk of oldentime; yet we were very quiet and subdued, and I know not what would havehappened those clear Sabbath mornings had some one punctuated the sermon with awild scream, or interrupted the long prayer with a loud Amen! And so moststriking to me, as I approached the village and the little plain church perchedaloft, was the air of intense excitement that possessed that mass of blackfolk. A sort of suppressed terror hung in the air and seemed to seizeus,—a pythian madness, a demoniac possession, that lent terrible realityto song and word. The black and massive form of the preacher swayed andquivered as the words crowded to his lips and flew at us in singular eloquence.The people moaned and fluttered, and then the gaunt-cheeked brown woman besideme suddenly leaped straight into the air and shrieked like a lost soul, whileround about came wail and groan and outcry, and a scene of human passion suchas I had never conceived before.
Those who have not thus witnessed the frenzy of a Negro revival in theuntouched backwoods of the South can but dimly realize the religious feeling ofthe slave; as described, such scenes appear grotesque and funny, but as seenthey are awful. Three things characterized this religion of theslave,—the Preacher, the Music, and the Frenzy. The Preacher is the mostunique personality developed by the Negro on American soil. A leader, apolitician, an orator, a “boss,” an intriguer, anidealist,—all these he is, and ever, too, the centre of a group of men,now twenty, now a thousand in number. The combination of a certain adroitnesswith deep-seated earnestness, of tact with consummate ability, gave him hispreeminence, and helps him maintain it. The type, of course, varies accordingto time and place, from the West Indies in the sixteenth century to New Englandin the nineteenth, and from the Mississippi bottoms to cities like New Orleansor New York.
The Music of Negro religion is that plaintive rhythmic melody, with itstouching minor cadences, which, despite caricature and defilement, stillremains the most original and beautiful expression of human life and longingyet born on American soil. Sprung from the African forests, where itscounterpart can still be heard, it was adapted, changed, and intensified by thetragic soul-life of the slave, until, under the stress of law and whip, itbecame the one true expression of a people’s sorrow, despair, and hope.
Finally the Frenzy of “Shouting,” when the Spirit of the Lordpassed by, and, seizing the devotee, made him mad with supernatural joy, wasthe last essential of Negro religion and the one more devoutly believed in thanall the rest. It varied in expression from the silent rapt countenance or thelow murmur and moan to the mad abandon of physical fervor,—the stamping,shrieking, and shouting, the rushing to and fro and wild waving of arms, theweeping and laughing, the vision and the trance. All this is nothing new in theworld, but old as religion, as Delphi and Endor. And so firm a hold did it haveon the Negro, that many generations firmly believed that without this visiblemanifestation of the God there could be no true communion with the Invisible.
These were the characteristics of Negro religious life as developed up to thetime of Emancipation. Since under the peculiar circumstances of the blackman’s environment they were the one expression of his higher life, theyare of deep interest to the student of his development, both socially andpsychologically. Numerous are the attractive lines of inquiry that here groupthemselves. What did slavery mean to the African savage? What was his attitudetoward the World and Life? What seemed to him good and evil,—God andDevil? Whither went his longings and strivings, and wherefore were hisheart-burnings and disappointments? Answers to such questions can come onlyfrom a study of Negro religion as a development, through its gradual changesfrom the heathenism of the Gold Coast to the institutional Negro church ofChicago.
Moreover, the religious growth of millions of men, even though they be slaves,cannot be without potent influence upon their contemporaries. The Methodistsand Baptists of America owe much of their condition to the silent but potentinfluence of their millions of Negro converts. Especially is this noticeable inthe South, where theology and religious philosophy are on this account a longway behind the North, and where the religion of the poor whites is a plain copyof Negro thought and methods. The mass of “gospel” hymns which hasswept through American churches and well-nigh ruined our sense of song consistslargely of debased imitations of Negro melodies made by ears that caught thejingle but not the music, the body but not the soul, of the Jubilee songs. Itis thus clear that the study of Negro religion is not only a vital part of thehistory of the Negro in America, but no uninteresting part of American history.
The Negro church of to-day is the social centre of Negro life in the UnitedStates, and the most characteristic expression of African character. Take atypical church in a small Virginia town: it is the “FirstBaptist”—a roomy brick edifice seating five hundred or morepersons, tastefully finished in Georgia pine, with a carpet, a small organ, andstained-glass windows. Underneath is a large assembly room with benches. Thisbuilding is the central club-house of a community of a thousand or moreNegroes. Various organizations meet here,—the church proper, theSunday-school, two or three insurance societies, women’s societies,secret societies, and mass meetings of various kinds. Entertainments, suppers,and lectures are held beside the five or six regular weekly religious services.Considerable sums of money are collected and expended here, employment is foundfor the idle, strangers are introduced, news is disseminated and charitydistributed. At the same time this social, intellectual, and economic centre isa religious centre of great power. Depravity, Sin, Redemption, Heaven, Hell,and Damnation are preached twice a Sunday after the crops are laid by; and fewindeed of the community have the hardihood to withstand conversion. Back ofthis more formal religion, the Church often stands as a real conserver ofmorals, a strengthener of family life, and the final authority on what is Goodand Right.
Thus one can see in the Negro church to-day, reproduced in microcosm, all thegreat world from which the Negro is cut off by color-prejudice and socialcondition. In the great city churches the same tendency is noticeable and inmany respects emphasized. A great church like the Bethel of Philadelphia hasover eleven hundred members, an edifice seating fifteen hundred persons andvalued at one hundred thousand dollars, an annual budget of five thousanddollars, and a government consisting of a pastor with several assisting localpreachers, an executive and legislative board, financial boards and taxcollectors; general church meetings for making laws; sub-divided groups led byclass leaders, a company of militia, and twenty-four auxiliary societies. Theactivity of a church like this is immense and far-reaching, and the bishops whopreside over these organizations throughout the land are among the mostpowerful Negro rulers in the world.
Such churches are really governments of men, and consequently a littleinvestigation reveals the curious fact that, in the South, at least,practically every American Negro is a church member. Some, to be sure, are notregularly enrolled, and a few do not habitually attend services; but,practically, a proscribed people must have a social centre, and that centre forthis people is the Negro church. The census of 1890 showed nearly twenty-fourthousand Negro churches in the country, with a total enrolled membership ofover two and a half millions, or ten actual church members to everytwenty-eight persons, and in some Southern States one in every two persons.Besides these there is the large number who, while not enrolled as members,attend and take part in many of the activities of the church. There is anorganized Negro church for every sixty black families in the nation, and insome States for every forty families, owning, on an average, a thousanddollars’ worth of property each, or nearly twenty-six million dollars inall.
Such, then, is the large development of the Negro church since Emancipation.The question now is, What have been the successive steps of this social historyand what are the present tendencies? First, we must realize that no suchinstitution as the Negro church could rear itself without definite historicalfoundations. These foundations we can find if we remember that the socialhistory of the Negro did not start in America. He was brought from a definitesocial environment,—the polygamous clan life under the headship of thechief and the potent influence of the priest. His religion was nature-worship,with profound belief in invisible surrounding influences, good and bad, and hisworship was through incantation and sacrifice. The first rude change in thislife was the slave ship and the West Indian sugar-fields. The plantationorganization replaced the clan and tribe, and the white master replaced thechief with far greater and more despotic powers. Forced and long-continued toilbecame the rule of life, the old ties of blood relationship and kinshipdisappeared, and instead of the family appeared a new polygamy and polyandry,which, in some cases, almost reached promiscuity. It was a terrific socialrevolution, and yet some traces were retained of the former group life, and thechief remaining institution was the Priest or Medicine-man. He early appearedon the plantation and found his function as the healer of the sick, theinterpreter of the Unknown, the comforter of the sorrowing, the supernaturalavenger of wrong, and the one who rudely but picturesquely expressed thelonging, disappointment, and resentment of a stolen and oppressed people. Thus,as bard, physician, judge, and priest, within the narrow limits allowed by theslave system, rose the Negro preacher, and under him the first church was notat first by any means Christian nor definitely organized; rather it was anadaptation and mingling of heathen rites among the members of each plantation,and roughly designated as Voodooism. Association with the masters, missionaryeffort and motives of expediency gave these rites an early veneer ofChristianity, and after the lapse of many generations the Negro church becameChristian.
Two characteristic things must be noticed in regard to the church. First, itbecame almost entirely Baptist and Methodist in faith; secondly, as a socialinstitution it antedated by many decades the monogamic Negro home. From thevery circumstances of its beginning, the church was confined to the plantation,and consisted primarily of a series of disconnected units; although, later on,some freedom of movement was allowed, still this geographical limitation wasalways important and was one cause of the spread of the decentralized anddemocratic Baptist faith among the slaves. At the same time, the visible riteof baptism appealed strongly to their mystic temperament. To-day the BaptistChurch is still largest in membership among Negroes, and has a million and ahalf communicants. Next in popularity came the churches organized in connectionwith the white neighboring churches, chiefly Baptist and Methodist, with a fewEpiscopalian and others. The Methodists still form the second greatestdenomination, with nearly a million members. The faith of these two leadingdenominations was more suited to the slave church from the prominence they gaveto religious feeling and fervor. The Negro membership in other denominationshas always been small and relatively unimportant, although the Episcopaliansand Presbyterians are gaining among the more intelligent classes to-day, andthe Catholic Church is making headway in certain sections. After Emancipation,and still earlier in the North, the Negro churches largely severed suchaffiliations as they had had with the white churches, either by choice or bycompulsion. The Baptist churches became independent, but the Methodists werecompelled early to unite for purposes of episcopal government. This gave riseto the great African Methodist Church, the greatest Negro organization in theworld, to the Zion Church and the Colored Methodist, and to the blackconferences and churches in this and other denominations.
The second fact noted, namely, that the Negro church antedates the Negro home,leads to an explanation of much that is paradoxical in this communisticinstitution and in the morals of its members. But especially it leads us toregard this institution as peculiarly the expression of the inner ethical lifeof a people in a sense seldom true elsewhere. Let us turn, then, from the outerphysical development of the church to the more important inner ethical life ofthe people who compose it. The Negro has already been pointed out many times asa religious animal,—a being of that deep emotional nature which turnsinstinctively toward the supernatural. Endowed with a rich tropical imaginationand a keen, delicate appreciation of Nature, the transplanted African lived ina world animate with gods and devils, elves and witches; full of strangeinfluences,—of Good to be implored, of Evil to be propitiated. Slavery,then, was to him the dark triumph of Evil over him. All the hateful powers ofthe Under-world were striving against him, and a spirit of revolt and revengefilled his heart. He called up all the resources of heathenism toaid,—exorcism and witch-craft, the mysterious Obi worship with itsbarbarious rites, spells, and blood-sacrifice even, now and then, of humanvictims. Weird midnight orgies and mystic conjurations were invoked, thewitch-woman and the voodoo-priest became the centre of Negro group life, andthat vein of vague superstition which characterizes the unlettered Negro evento-day was deepened and strengthened.
In spite, however, of such success as that of the fierce Maroons, the Danishblacks, and others, the spirit of revolt gradually died away under the untiringenergy and superior strength of the slave masters. By the middle of theeighteenth century the black slave had sunk, with hushed murmurs, to his placeat the bottom of a new economic system, and was unconsciously ripe for a newphilosophy of life. Nothing suited his condition then better than the doctrinesof passive submission embodied in the newly learned Christianity. Slave mastersearly realized this, and cheerfully aided religious propaganda within certainbounds. The long system of repression and degradation of the Negro tended toemphasize the elements of his character which made him a valuable chattel:courtesy became humility, moral strength degenerated into submission, and theexquisite native appreciation of the beautiful became an infinite capacity fordumb suffering. The Negro, losing the joy of this world, eagerly seized uponthe offered conceptions of the next; the avenging Spirit of the Lord enjoiningpatience in this world, under sorrow and tribulation until the Great Day whenHe should lead His dark children home,—this became his comforting dream.His preacher repeated the prophecy, and his bards sang,—
“Children, we all shall be free
When the Lord shall appear!”
This deep religious fatalism, painted so beautifully in “UncleTom,” came soon to breed, as all fatalistic faiths will, the sensualistside by side with the martyr. Under the lax moral life of the plantation, wheremarriage was a farce, laziness a virtue, and property a theft, a religion ofresignation and submission degenerated easily, in less strenuous minds, into aphilosophy of indulgence and crime. Many of the worst characteristics of theNegro masses of to-day had their seed in this period of the slave’sethical growth. Here it was that the Home was ruined under the very shadow ofthe Church, white and black; here habits of shiftlessness took root, and sullenhopelessness replaced hopeful strife.
With the beginning of the abolition movement and the gradual growth of a classof free Negroes came a change. We often neglect the influence of the freedmanbefore the war, because of the paucity of his numbers and the small weight hehad in the history of the nation. But we must not forget that his chiefinfluence was internal,—was exerted on the black world; and that there hewas the ethical and social leader. Huddled as he was in a few centres likePhiladelphia, New York, and New Orleans, the masses of the freedmen sank intopoverty and listlessness; but not all of them. The free Negro leader earlyarose and his chief characteristic was intense earnestness and deep feeling onthe slavery question. Freedom became to him a real thing and not a dream. Hisreligion became darker and more intense, and into his ethics crept a note ofrevenge, into his songs a day of reckoning close at hand. The “Coming ofthe Lord” swept this side of Death, and came to be a thing to be hopedfor in this day. Through fugitive slaves and irrepressible discussion thisdesire for freedom seized the black millions still in bondage, and became theirone ideal of life. The black bards caught new notes, and sometimes even daredto sing,—
“O Freedom, O Freedom, O Freedom over me!
Before I’ll be a slave
I’ll be buried in my grave,
And go home to my Lord
And be free.”
For fifty years Negro religion thus transformed itself and identified itselfwith the dream of Abolition, until that which was a radical fad in the whiteNorth and an anarchistic plot in the white South had become a religion to theblack world. Thus, when Emancipation finally came, it seemed to the freedman aliteral Coming of the Lord. His fervid imagination was stirred as never before,by the tramp of armies, the blood and dust of battle, and the wail and whirl ofsocial upheaval. He stood dumb and motionless before the whirlwind: what had heto do with it? Was it not the Lord’s doing, and marvellous in his eyes?Joyed and bewildered with what came, he stood awaiting new wonders till theinevitable Age of Reaction swept over the nation and brought the crisis ofto-day.
It is difficult to explain clearly the present critical stage of Negroreligion. First, we must remember that living as the blacks do in close contactwith a great modern nation, and sharing, although imperfectly, the soul-life ofthat nation, they must necessarily be affected more or less directly by all thereligious and ethical forces that are to-day moving the United States. Thesequestions and movements are, however, overshadowed and dwarfed by the (to them)all-important question of their civil, political, and economic status. Theymust perpetually discuss the “Negro Problem,”—must live,move, and have their being in it, and interpret all else in its light ordarkness. With this come, too, peculiar problems of their inner life,—ofthe status of women, the maintenance of Home, the training of children, theaccumulation of wealth, and the prevention of crime. All this must mean a timeof intense ethical ferment, of religious heart-searching and intellectualunrest. From the double life every American Negro must live, as a Negro and asan American, as swept on by the current of the nineteenth while yet strugglingin the eddies of the fifteenth century,—from this must arise a painfulself-consciousness, an almost morbid sense of personality and a moral hesitancywhich is fatal to self-confidence. The worlds within and without the Veil ofColor are changing, and changing rapidly, but not at the same rate, not in thesame way; and this must produce a peculiar wrenching of the soul, a peculiarsense of doubt and bewilderment. Such a double life, with double thoughts,double duties, and double social classes, must give rise to double words anddouble ideals, and tempt the mind to pretence or revolt, to hypocrisy orradicalism.
In some such doubtful words and phrases can one perhaps most clearly picturethe peculiar ethical paradox that faces the Negro of to-day and is tingeing andchanging his religious life. Feeling that his rights and his dearest ideals arebeing trampled upon, that the public conscience is ever more deaf to hisrighteous appeal, and that all the reactionary forces of prejudice, greed, andrevenge are daily gaining new strength and fresh allies, the Negro faces noenviable dilemma. Conscious of his impotence, and pessimistic, he often becomesbitter and vindictive; and his religion, instead of a worship, is a complaintand a curse, a wail rather than a hope, a sneer rather than a faith. On theother hand, another type of mind, shrewder and keener and more tortuous too,sees in the very strength of the anti-Negro movement its patent weaknesses, andwith Jesuitic casuistry is deterred by no ethical considerations in theendeavor to turn this weakness to the black man’s strength. Thus we havetwo great and hardly reconcilable streams of thought and ethical strivings; thedanger of the one lies in anarchy, that of the other in hypocrisy. The one typeof Negro stands almost ready to curse God and die, and the other is too oftenfound a traitor to right and a coward before force; the one is wedded to idealsremote, whimsical, perhaps impossible of realization; the other forgets thatlife is more than meat and the body more than raiment. But, after all, is notthis simply the writhing of the age translated into black,—the triumph ofthe Lie which today, with its false culture, faces the hideousness of theanarchist assassin?
To-day the two groups of Negroes, the one in the North, the other in the South,represent these divergent ethical tendencies, the first tending towardradicalism, the other toward hypocritical compromise. It is no idle regret withwhich the white South mourns the loss of the old-time Negro,—the frank,honest, simple old servant who stood for the earlier religious age ofsubmission and humility. With all his laziness and lack of many elements oftrue manhood, he was at least open-hearted, faithful, and sincere. To-day he isgone, but who is to blame for his going? Is it not those very persons who mournfor him? Is it not the tendency, born of Reconstruction and Reaction, to founda society on lawlessness and deception, to tamper with the moral fibre of anaturally honest and straightforward people until the whites threaten to becomeungovernable tyrants and the blacks criminals and hypocrites? Deception is thenatural defence of the weak against the strong, and the South used it for manyyears against its conquerors; to-day it must be prepared to see its blackproletariat turn that same two-edged weapon against itself. And how naturalthis is! The death of Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner proved long since to theNegro the present hopelessness of physical defence. Political defence isbecoming less and less available, and economic defence is still only partiallyeffective. But there is a patent defence at hand,—the defence ofdeception and flattery, of cajoling and lying. It is the same defence whichpeasants of the Middle Age used and which left its stamp on their character forcenturies. To-day the young Negro of the South who would succeed cannot befrank and outspoken, honest and self-assertive, but rather he is daily temptedto be silent and wary, politic and sly; he must flatter and be pleasant, endurepetty insults with a smile, shut his eyes to wrong; in too many cases he seespositive personal advantage in deception and lying. His real thoughts, his realaspirations, must be guarded in whispers; he must not criticise, he must notcomplain. Patience, humility, and adroitness must, in these growing blackyouth, replace impulse, manliness, and courage. With this sacrifice there is aneconomic opening, and perhaps peace and some prosperity. Without this there isriot, migration, or crime. Nor is this situation peculiar to the SouthernUnited States, is it not rather the only method by which undeveloped races havegained the right to share modern culture? The price of culture is a Lie.
On the other hand, in the North the tendency is to emphasize the radicalism ofthe Negro. Driven from his birthright in the South by a situation at whichevery fibre of his more outspoken and assertive nature revolts, he findshimself in a land where he can scarcely earn a decent living amid the harshcompetition and the color discrimination. At the same time, through schools andperiodicals, discussions and lectures, he is intellectually quickened andawakened. The soul, long pent up and dwarfed, suddenly expands in new-foundfreedom. What wonder that every tendency is to excess,—radical complaint,radical remedies, bitter denunciation or angry silence. Some sink, some rise.The criminal and the sensualist leave the church for the gambling-hell and thebrothel, and fill the slums of Chicago and Baltimore; the better classessegregate themselves from the group-life of both white and black, and form anaristocracy, cultured but pessimistic, whose bitter criticism stings while itpoints out no way of escape. They despise the submission and subserviency ofthe Southern Negroes, but offer no other means by which a poor and oppressedminority can exist side by side with its masters. Feeling deeply and keenly thetendencies and opportunities of the age in which they live, their souls arebitter at the fate which drops the Veil between; and the very fact that thisbitterness is natural and justifiable only serves to intensify it and make itmore maddening.
Between the two extreme types of ethical attitude which I have thus sought tomake clear wavers the mass of the millions of Negroes, North and South; andtheir religious life and activity partake of this social conflict within theirranks. Their churches are differentiating,—now into groups of cold,fashionable devotees, in no way distinguishable from similar white groups savein color of skin; now into large social and business institutions catering tothe desire for information and amusement of their members, warily avoidingunpleasant questions both within and without the black world, and preaching ineffect if not in word: Dum vivimus, vivamus.
But back of this still broods silently the deep religious feeling of the realNegro heart, the stirring, unguided might of powerful human souls who have lostthe guiding star of the past and seek in the great night a new religious ideal.Some day the Awakening will come, when the pent-up vigor of ten million soulsshall sweep irresistibly toward the Goal, out of the Valley of the Shadow ofDeath, where all that makes life worth living—Liberty, Justice, andRight—is marked “For White People Only.”
Of the Passing of the First-Born
O sister, sister, thy first-begotten,
The hands that cling and the feet that follow,
The voice of the child’s blood crying yet,
Who hath remembered me? who hath forgotten?
Thou hast forgotten, O summer swallow,
But the world shall end when I forget.
“Unto you a child is born,” sang the bit of yellow paper thatfluttered into my room one brown October morning. Then the fear of fatherhoodmingled wildly with the joy of creation; I wondered how it looked and how itfelt—what were its eyes, and how its hair curled and crumpled itself. AndI thought in awe of her,—she who had slept with Death to tear a man-childfrom underneath her heart, while I was unconsciously wandering. I fled to mywife and child, repeating the while to myself half wonderingly, “Wife andchild? Wife and child?”—fled fast and faster than boat andsteam-car, and yet must ever impatiently await them; away from the hard-voicedcity, away from the flickering sea into my own Berkshire Hills that sit allsadly guarding the gates of Massachusetts.
Up the stairs I ran to the wan mother and whimpering babe, to the sanctuary onwhose altar a life at my bidding had offered itself to win a life, and won.What is this tiny formless thing, this newborn wail from an unknownworld,—all head and voice? I handle it curiously, and watch perplexed itswinking, breathing, and sneezing. I did not love it then; it seemed a ludicrousthing to love; but her I loved, my girl-mother, she whom now I saw unfoldinglike the glory of the morning—the transfigured woman. Through her I cameto love the wee thing, as it grew strong; as its little soul unfolded itself intwitter and cry and half-formed word, and as its eyes caught the gleam andflash of life. How beautiful he was, with his olive-tinted flesh and dark goldringlets, his eyes of mingled blue and brown, his perfect little limbs, and thesoft voluptuous roll which the blood of Africa had moulded into his features! Iheld him in my arms, after we had sped far away from our Southernhome,—held him, and glanced at the hot red soil of Georgia and thebreathless city of a hundred hills, and felt a vague unrest. Why was his hairtinted with gold? An evil omen was golden hair in my life. Why had not thebrown of his eyes crushed out and killed the blue?—for brown were hisfather’s eyes, and his father’s father’s. And thus in theLand of the Color-line I saw, as it fell across my baby, the shadow of theVeil.
Within the Veil was he born, said I; and there within shall he live,—aNegro and a Negro’s son. Holding in that little head—ah,bitterly!—he unbowed pride of a hunted race, clinging with that tinydimpled hand—ah, wearily!—to a hope not hopeless but unhopeful, andseeing with those bright wondering eyes that peer into my soul a land whosefreedom is to us a mockery and whose liberty a lie. I saw the shadow of theVeil as it passed over my baby, I saw the cold city towering above theblood-red land. I held my face beside his little cheek, showed him thestar-children and the twinkling lights as they began to flash, and stilled withan even-song the unvoiced terror of my life.
So sturdy and masterful he grew, so filled with bubbling life, so tremulouswith the unspoken wisdom of a life but eighteen months distant from theAll-life,—we were not far from worshipping this revelation of the divine,my wife and I. Her own life builded and moulded itself upon the child; hetinged her every dream and idealized her every effort. No hands but hers musttouch and garnish those little limbs; no dress or frill must touch them thathad not wearied her fingers; no voice but hers could coax him off to Dreamland,and she and he together spoke some soft and unknown tongue and in it heldcommunion. I too mused above his little white bed; saw the strength of my ownarm stretched onward through the ages through the newer strength of his; sawthe dream of my black fathers stagger a step onward in the wild phantasm of theworld; heard in his baby voice the voice of the Prophet that was to rise withinthe Veil.
And so we dreamed and loved and planned by fall and winter, and the full flushof the long Southern spring, till the hot winds rolled from the fetid Gulf,till the roses shivered and the still stern sun quivered its awful light overthe hills of Atlanta. And then one night the little feet pattered wearily tothe wee white bed, and the tiny hands trembled; and a warm flushed face tossedon the pillow, and we knew baby was sick. Ten days he lay there,—a swiftweek and three endless days, wasting, wasting away. Cheerily the mother nursedhim the first days, and laughed into the little eyes that smiled again.Tenderly then she hovered round him, till the smile fled away and Fear crouchedbeside the little bed.
Then the day ended not, and night was a dreamless terror, and joy and sleepslipped away. I hear now that Voice at midnight calling me from dull anddreamless trance,—crying, “The Shadow of Death! The Shadow ofDeath!” Out into the starlight I crept, to rouse the grayphysician,—the Shadow of Death, the Shadow of Death. The hours trembledon; the night listened; the ghastly dawn glided like a tired thing across thelamplight. Then we two alone looked upon the child as he turned toward us withgreat eyes, and stretched his stringlike hands,—the Shadow of Death! Andwe spoke no word, and turned away.
He died at eventide, when the sun lay like a brooding sorrow above the westernhills, veiling its face; when the winds spoke not, and the trees, the greatgreen trees he loved, stood motionless. I saw his breath beat quicker andquicker, pause, and then his little soul leapt like a star that travels in thenight and left a world of darkness in its train. The day changed not; the sametall trees peeped in at the windows, the same green grass glinted in thesetting sun. Only in the chamber of death writhed the world’s mostpiteous thing—a childless mother.
I shirk not. I long for work. I pant for a life full of striving. I am nocoward, to shrink before the rugged rush of the storm, nor even quail beforethe awful shadow of the Veil. But hearken, O Death! Is not this my life hardenough,—is not that dull land that stretches its sneering web about mecold enough,—is not all the world beyond these four little walls pitilessenough, but that thou must needs enter here,—thou, O Death? About my headthe thundering storm beat like a heartless voice, and the crazy forest pulsedwith the curses of the weak; but what cared I, within my home beside my wifeand baby boy? Wast thou so jealous of one little coign of happiness that thoumust needs enter there,—thou, O Death?
A perfect life was his, all joy and love, with tears to make itbrighter,—sweet as a summer’s day beside the Housatonic. The worldloved him; the women kissed his curls, the men looked gravely into hiswonderful eyes, and the children hovered and fluttered about him. I can see himnow, changing like the sky from sparkling laughter to darkening frowns, andthen to wondering thoughtfulness as he watched the world. He knew nocolor-line, poor dear—and the Veil, though it shadowed him, had not yetdarkened half his sun. He loved the white matron, he loved his black nurse; andin his little world walked souls alone, uncolored and unclothed. I—yea,all men—are larger and purer by the infinite breadth of that one littlelife. She who in simple clearness of vision sees beyond the stars said when hehad flown, “He will be happy There; he ever loved beautifulthings.” And I, far more ignorant, and blind by the web of mine ownweaving, sit alone winding words and muttering, “If still he be, and hebe There, and there be a There, let him be happy, O Fate!”
Blithe was the morning of his burial, with bird and song and sweet-smellingflowers. The trees whispered to the grass, but the children sat with hushedfaces. And yet it seemed a ghostly unreal day,—the wraith of Life. Weseemed to rumble down an unknown street behind a little white bundle of posies,with the shadow of a song in our ears. The busy city dinned about us; they didnot say much, those pale-faced hurrying men and women; they did not saymuch,—they only glanced and said, “Niggers!”
We could not lay him in the ground there in Georgia, for the earth there isstrangely red; so we bore him away to the northward, with his flowers and hislittle folded hands. In vain, in vain!—for where, O God! beneath thybroad blue sky shall my dark baby rest in peace,—where Reverence dwells,and Goodness, and a Freedom that is free?
All that day and all that night there sat an awful gladness in myheart,—nay, blame me not if I see the world thus darkly through theVeil,—and my soul whispers ever to me saying, “Not dead, not dead,but escaped; not bond, but free.” No bitter meanness now shall sicken hisbaby heart till it die a living death, no taunt shall madden his happy boyhood.Fool that I was to think or wish that this little soul should grow choked anddeformed within the Veil! I might have known that yonder deep unworldly lookthat ever and anon floated past his eyes was peering far beyond this narrowNow. In the poise of his little curl-crowned head did there not sit all thatwild pride of being which his father had hardly crushed in his own heart? Forwhat, forsooth, shall a Negro want with pride amid the studied humiliations offifty million fellows? Well sped, my boy, before the world had dubbed yourambition insolence, had held your ideals unattainable, and taught you to cringeand bow. Better far this nameless void that stops my life than a sea of sorrowfor you.
Idle words; he might have borne his burden more bravely than we,—aye, andfound it lighter too, some day; for surely, surely this is not the end. Surelythere shall yet dawn some mighty morning to lift the Veil and set the prisonedfree. Not for me,—I shall die in my bonds,—but for fresh youngsouls who have not known the night and waken to the morning; a morning when menask of the workman, not “Is he white?” but “Can hework?” When men ask artists, not “Are they black?” but“Do they know?” Some morning this may be, long, long years to come.But now there wails, on that dark shore within the Veil, the same deep voice,Thou shalt forego! And all have I foregone at that command, and with smallcomplaint,—all save that fair young form that lies so coldly wed withdeath in the nest I had builded.
If one must have gone, why not I? Why may I not rest me from this restlessnessand sleep from this wide waking? Was not the world’s alembic, Time, inhis young hands, and is not my time waning? Are there so many workers in thevineyard that the fair promise of this little body could lightly be tossedaway? The wretched of my race that line the alleys of the nation sit fatherlessand unmothered; but Love sat beside his cradle, and in his ear Wisdom waited tospeak. Perhaps now he knows the All-love, and needs not to be wise. Sleep,then, child,—sleep till I sleep and waken to a baby voice and theceaseless patter of little feet—above the Veil.
Of Alexander Crummell
Then from the Dawn it seemed there came, but faint
As from beyond the limit of the world,
Like the last echo born of a great cry,
Sounds, as if some fair city were one voice
Around a king returning from his wars.
This is the story of a human heart,—the tale of a black boy who many longyears ago began to struggle with life that he might know the world and knowhimself. Three temptations he met on those dark dunes that lay gray and dismalbefore the wonder-eyes of the child: the temptation of Hate, that stood outagainst the red dawn; the temptation of Despair, that darkened noonday; and thetemptation of Doubt, that ever steals along with twilight. Above all, you musthear of the vales he crossed,—the Valley of Humiliation and the Valley ofthe Shadow of Death.
I saw Alexander Crummell first at a Wilberforce commencement season, amid itsbustle and crush. Tall, frail, and black he stood, with simple dignity and anunmistakable air of good breeding. I talked with him apart, where the stormingof the lusty young orators could not harm us. I spoke to him politely, thencuriously, then eagerly, as I began to feel the fineness of hischaracter,—his calm courtesy, the sweetness of his strength, and his fairblending of the hope and truth of life. Instinctively I bowed before this man,as one bows before the prophets of the world. Some seer he seemed, that camenot from the crimson Past or the gray To-come, but from the pulsingNow,—that mocking world which seemed to me at once so light and dark, sosplendid and sordid. Fourscore years had he wandered in this same world ofmine, within the Veil.
He was born with the Missouri Compromise and lay a-dying amid the echoes ofManila and El Caney: stirring times for living, times dark to look back upon,darker to look forward to. The black-faced lad that paused over his mud andmarbles seventy years ago saw puzzling vistas as he looked down the world. Theslave-ship still groaned across the Atlantic, faint cries burdened the Southernbreeze, and the great black father whispered mad tales of cruelty into thoseyoung ears. From the low doorway the mother silently watched her boy at play,and at nightfall sought him eagerly lest the shadows bear him away to the landof slaves.
So his young mind worked and winced and shaped curiously a vision of Life; andin the midst of that vision ever stood one dark figure alone,—ever withthe hard, thick countenance of that bitter father, and a form that fell in vastand shapeless folds. Thus the temptation of Hate grew and shadowed the growingchild,—gliding stealthily into his laughter, fading into his play, andseizing his dreams by day and night with rough, rude turbulence. So the blackboy asked of sky and sun and flower the never-answered Why? and loved, as hegrew, neither the world nor the world’s rough ways.
Strange temptation for a child, you may think; and yet in this wide land to-daya thousand thousand dark children brood before this same temptation, and feelits cold and shuddering arms. For them, perhaps, some one will some day liftthe Veil,—will come tenderly and cheerily into those sad little lives andbrush the brooding hate away, just as Beriah Green strode in upon the life ofAlexander Crummell. And before the bluff, kind-hearted man the shadow seemedless dark. Beriah Green had a school in Oneida County, New York, with a scoreof mischievous boys. “I’m going to bring a black boy here toeducate,” said Beriah Green, as only a crank and an abolitionist wouldhave dared to say. “Oho!” laughed the boys. “Ye-es,”said his wife; and Alexander came. Once before, the black boy had sought aschool, had travelled, cold and hungry, four hundred miles up into free NewHampshire, to Canaan. But the godly farmers hitched ninety yoke of oxen to theabolition schoolhouse and dragged it into the middle of the swamp. The blackboy trudged away.
The nineteenth was the first century of human sympathy,—the age when halfwonderingly we began to descry in others that transfigured spark of divinitywhich we call Myself; when clodhoppers and peasants, and tramps and thieves,and millionaires and—sometimes—Negroes, became throbbing soulswhose warm pulsing life touched us so nearly that we half gasped with surprise,crying, “Thou too! Hast Thou seen Sorrow and the dull waters ofHopelessness? Hast Thou known Life?” And then all helplessly we peeredinto those Other-worlds, and wailed, “O World of Worlds, how shall manmake you one?”
So in that little Oneida school there came to those schoolboys a revelation ofthought and longing beneath one black skin, of which they had not dreamedbefore. And to the lonely boy came a new dawn of sympathy and inspiration. Theshadowy, formless thing—the temptation of Hate, that hovered between himand the world—grew fainter and less sinister. It did not wholly fadeaway, but diffused itself and lingered thick at the edges. Through it the childnow first saw the blue and gold of life,—the sun-swept road that ran’twixt heaven and earth until in one far-off wan wavering line they metand kissed. A vision of life came to the growing boy,—mystic, wonderful.He raised his head, stretched himself, breathed deep of the fresh new air.Yonder, behind the forests, he heard strange sounds; then glinting through thetrees he saw, far, far away, the bronzed hosts of a nationcalling,—calling faintly, calling loudly. He heard the hateful clank oftheir chains; he felt them cringe and grovel, and there rose within him aprotest and a prophecy. And he girded himself to walk down the world.
A voice and vision called him to be a priest,—a seer to lead the uncalledout of the house of bondage. He saw the headless host turn toward him like thewhirling of mad waters,—he stretched forth his hands eagerly, and then,even as he stretched them, suddenly there swept across the vision thetemptation of Despair.
They were not wicked men,—the problem of life is not the problem of thewicked,—they were calm, good men, Bishops of the Apostolic Church of God,and strove toward righteousness. They said slowly, “It is all verynatural—it is even commendable; but the General Theological Seminary ofthe Episcopal Church cannot admit a Negro.” And when that thin,half-grotesque figure still haunted their doors, they put their hands kindly,half sorrowfully, on his shoulders, and said, “Now,—of course,we—we know how you feel about it; but you see it isimpossible,—that is—well—it is premature. Sometime, wetrust—sincerely trust—all such distinctions will fade away; but nowthe world is as it is.”
This was the temptation of Despair; and the young man fought it doggedly. Likesome grave shadow he flitted by those halls, pleading, arguing, half angrilydemanding admittance, until there came the final No; until men hustledthe disturber away, marked him as foolish, unreasonable, and injudicious, avain rebel against God’s law. And then from that Vision Splendid all theglory faded slowly away, and left an earth gray and stern rolling on beneath adark despair. Even the kind hands that stretched themselves toward him from outthe depths of that dull morning seemed but parts of the purple shadows. He sawthem coldly, and asked, “Why should I strive by special grace when theway of the world is closed to me?” All gently yet, the hands urged himon,—the hands of young John Jay, that daring father’s daring son;the hands of the good folk of Boston, that free city. And yet, with a way tothe priesthood of the Church open at last before him, the cloud lingered there;and even when in old St. Paul’s the venerable Bishop raised his whitearms above the Negro deacon—even then the burden had not lifted from thatheart, for there had passed a glory from the earth.
And yet the fire through which Alexander Crummell went did not burn in vain.Slowly and more soberly he took up again his plan of life. More critically hestudied the situation. Deep down below the slavery and servitude of the Negropeople he saw their fatal weaknesses, which long years of mistreatment hademphasized. The dearth of strong moral character, of unbending righteousness,he felt, was their great shortcoming, and here he would begin. He would gatherthe best of his people into some little Episcopal chapel and there lead, teach,and inspire them, till the leaven spread, till the children grew, till theworld hearkened, till—till—and then across his dream gleamed somefaint after-glow of that first fair vision of youth—only an after-glow,for there had passed a glory from the earth.
One day—it was in 1842, and the springtide was struggling merrily withthe May winds of New England—he stood at last in his own chapel inProvidence, a priest of the Church. The days sped by, and the dark youngclergyman labored; he wrote his sermons carefully; he intoned his prayers witha soft, earnest voice; he haunted the streets and accosted the wayfarers; hevisited the sick, and knelt beside the dying. He worked and toiled, week byweek, day by day, month by month. And yet month by month the congregationdwindled, week by week the hollow walls echoed more sharply, day by day thecalls came fewer and fewer, and day by day the third temptation sat clearer andstill more clearly within the Veil; a temptation, as it were, bland andsmiling, with just a shade of mockery in its smooth tones. First it camecasually, in the cadence of a voice: “Oh, colored folks? Yes.” Orperhaps more definitely: “What do you expect?” In voice andgesture lay the doubt—the temptation of Doubt. How he hated it, andstormed at it furiously! “Of course they are capable,” he cried;“of course they can learn and strive and achieve—” and“Of course,” added the temptation softly, “they do nothing ofthe sort.” Of all the three temptations, this one struck the deepest.Hate? He had outgrown so childish a thing. Despair? He had steeled his rightarm against it, and fought it with the vigor of determination. But to doubt theworth of his life-work,—to doubt the destiny and capability of the racehis soul loved because it was his; to find listless squalor instead of eagerendeavor; to hear his own lips whispering, “They do not care; they cannotknow; they are dumb driven cattle,—why cast your pearls beforeswine?”—this, this seemed more than man could bear; and he closedthe door, and sank upon the steps of the chancel, and cast his robe upon thefloor and writhed.
The evening sunbeams had set the dust to dancing in the gloomy chapel when hearose. He folded his vestments, put away the hymn-books, and closed the greatBible. He stepped out into the twilight, looked back upon the narrow littlepulpit with a weary smile, and locked the door. Then he walked briskly to theBishop, and told the Bishop what the Bishop already knew. “I havefailed,” he said simply. And gaining courage by the confession, he added:“What I need is a larger constituency. There are comparatively fewNegroes here, and perhaps they are not of the best. I must go where the fieldis wider, and try again.” So the Bishop sent him to Philadelphia, with aletter to Bishop Onderdonk.
Bishop Onderdonk lived at the head of six white steps,—corpulent,red-faced, and the author of several thrilling tracts on Apostolic Succession.It was after dinner, and the Bishop had settled himself for a pleasant seasonof contemplation, when the bell must needs ring, and there must burst in uponthe Bishop a letter and a thin, ungainly Negro. Bishop Onderdonk read theletter hastily and frowned. Fortunately, his mind was already clear on thispoint; and he cleared his brow and looked at Crummell. Then he said, slowly andimpressively: “I will receive you into this diocese on one condition: noNegro priest can sit in my church convention, and no Negro church must ask forrepresentation there.”
I sometimes fancy I can see that tableau: the frail black figure, nervouslytwitching his hat before the massive abdomen of Bishop Onderdonk; histhreadbare coat thrown against the dark woodwork of the bookcases, whereFox’s “Lives of the Martyrs” nestled happily beside“The Whole Duty of Man.” I seem to see the wide eyes of the Negrowander past the Bishop’s broadcloth to where the swinging glass doors ofthe cabinet glow in the sunlight. A little blue fly is trying to cross theyawning keyhole. He marches briskly up to it, peers into the chasm in asurprised sort of way, and rubs his feelers reflectively; then he essays itsdepths, and, finding it bottomless, draws back again. The dark-faced priestfinds himself wondering if the fly too has faced its Valley of Humiliation, andif it will plunge into it,—when lo! it spreads its tiny wings and buzzesmerrily across, leaving the watcher wingless and alone.
Then the full weight of his burden fell upon him. The rich walls wheeled away,and before him lay the cold rough moor winding on through life, cut in twain byone thick granite ridge,—here, the Valley of Humiliation; yonder, theValley of the Shadow of Death. And I know not which be darker,—no, not I.But this I know: in yonder Vale of the Humble stand to-day a million swarthymen, who willingly would
“. . . bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,”—
all this and more would they bear did they but know that this were sacrificeand not a meaner thing. So surged the thought within that lone black breast.The Bishop cleared his throat suggestively; then, recollecting that there wasreally nothing to say, considerately said nothing, only sat tapping his footimpatiently. But Alexander Crummell said, slowly and heavily: “I willnever enter your diocese on such terms.” And saying this, he turned andpassed into the Valley of the Shadow of Death. You might have noted only thephysical dying, the shattered frame and hacking cough; but in that soul laydeeper death than that. He found a chapel in New York,—the church of hisfather; he labored for it in poverty and starvation, scorned by his fellowpriests. Half in despair, he wandered across the sea, a beggar withoutstretched hands. Englishmen clasped them,—Wilberforce and Stanley,Thirwell and Ingles, and even Froude and Macaulay; Sir Benjamin Brodie bade himrest awhile at Queen’s College in Cambridge, and there he lingered,struggling for health of body and mind, until he took his degree in ’53.Restless still, and unsatisfied, he turned toward Africa, and for long years,amid the spawn of the slave-smugglers, sought a new heaven and a new earth.
So the man groped for light; all this was not Life,—it was theworld-wandering of a soul in search of itself, the striving of one who vainlysought his place in the world, ever haunted by the shadow of a death that ismore than death,—the passing of a soul that has missed its duty. Twentyyears he wandered,—twenty years and more; and yet the hard raspingquestion kept gnawing within him, “What, in God’s name, am I onearth for?” In the narrow New York parish his soul seemed cramped andsmothered. In the fine old air of the English University he heard the millionswailing over the sea. In the wild fever-cursed swamps of West Africa he stoodhelpless and alone.
You will not wonder at his weird pilgrimage,—you who in the swift whirlof living, amid its cold paradox and marvellous vision, have fronted life andasked its riddle face to face. And if you find that riddle hard to read,remember that yonder black boy finds it just a little harder; if it isdifficult for you to find and face your duty, it is a shade more difficult forhim; if your heart sickens in the blood and dust of battle, remember that tohim the dust is thicker and the battle fiercer. No wonder the wanderers fall!No wonder we point to thief and murderer, and haunting prostitute, and thenever-ending throng of unhearsed dead! The Valley of the Shadow of Death givesfew of its pilgrims back to the world.
But Alexander Crummell it gave back. Out of the temptation of Hate, and burnedby the fire of Despair, triumphant over Doubt, and steeled by Sacrifice againstHumiliation, he turned at last home across the waters, humble and strong,gentle and determined. He bent to all the gibes and prejudices, to all hatredand discrimination, with that rare courtesy which is the armor of pure souls.He fought among his own, the low, the grasping, and the wicked, with thatunbending righteousness which is the sword of the just. He never faltered, heseldom complained; he simply worked, inspiring the young, rebuking the old,helping the weak, guiding the strong.
So he grew, and brought within his wide influence all that was best of thosewho walk within the Veil. They who live without knew not nor dreamed of thatfull power within, that mighty inspiration which the dull gauze of castedecreed that most men should not know. And now that he is gone, I sweep theVeil away and cry, Lo! the soul to whose dear memory I bring this littletribute. I can see his face still, dark and heavy-lined beneath his snowy hair;lighting and shading, now with inspiration for the future, now in innocent painat some human wickedness, now with sorrow at some hard memory from the past.The more I met Alexander Crummell, the more I felt how much that world waslosing which knew so little of him. In another age he might have sat among theelders of the land in purple-bordered toga; in another country mothers mighthave sung him to the cradles.
He did his work,—he did it nobly and well; and yet I sorrow that here heworked alone, with so little human sympathy. His name to-day, in this broadland, means little, and comes to fifty million ears laden with no incense ofmemory or emulation. And herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men arepoor,—all men know something of poverty; not that men arewicked,—who is good? not that men are ignorant,—what is Truth? Nay,but that men know so little of men.
He sat one morning gazing toward the sea. He smiled and said, “The gateis rusty on the hinges.” That night at star-rise a wind came moaning outof the west to blow the gate ajar, and then the soul I loved fled like a flameacross the Seas, and in its seat sat Death.
I wonder where he is to-day? I wonder if in that dim world beyond, as he camegliding in, there rose on some wan throne a King,—a dark and pierced Jew,who knows the writhings of the earthly damned, saying, as he laid thoseheart-wrung talents down, “Well done!” while round about themorning stars sat singing.
Of the Coming of John
What bring they ’neath the midnight,
Beside the River-sea?
They bring the human heart wherein
No nightly calm can be;
That droppeth never with the wind,
Nor drieth with the dew;
O calm it, God; thy calm is broad
To cover spirits too.
The river floweth on.
Carlisle Street runs westward from the centre of Johnstown, across a greatblack bridge, down a hill and up again, by little shops and meat-markets, pastsingle-storied homes, until suddenly it stops against a wide green lawn. It isa broad, restful place, with two large buildings outlined against the west.When at evening the winds come swelling from the east, and the great pall ofthe city’s smoke hangs wearily above the valley, then the red west glowslike a dreamland down Carlisle Street, and, at the tolling of the supper-bell,throws the passing forms of students in dark silhouette against the sky. Talland black, they move slowly by, and seem in the sinister light to flit beforethe city like dim warning ghosts. Perhaps they are; for this is WellsInstitute, and these black students have few dealings with the white citybelow.
And if you will notice, night after night, there is one dark form that everhurries last and late toward the twinkling lights of Swain Hall,—forJones is never on time. A long, straggling fellow he is, brown and hard-haired,who seems to be growing straight out of his clothes, and walks with ahalf-apologetic roll. He used perpetually to set the quiet dining-room intowaves of merriment, as he stole to his place after the bell had tapped forprayers; he seemed so perfectly awkward. And yet one glance at his face madeone forgive him much,—that broad, good-natured smile in which lay no bitof art or artifice, but seemed just bubbling good-nature and genuinesatisfaction with the world.
He came to us from Altamaha, away down there beneath the gnarled oaks ofSoutheastern Georgia, where the sea croons to the sands and the sands listentill they sink half drowned beneath the waters, rising only here and there inlong, low islands. The white folk of Altamaha voted John a good boy,—fineplough-hand, good in the rice-fields, handy everywhere, and always good-naturedand respectful. But they shook their heads when his mother wanted to send himoff to school. “It’ll spoil him,—ruin him,” they said;and they talked as though they knew. But full half the black folk followed himproudly to the station, and carried his queer little trunk and many bundles.And there they shook and shook hands, and the girls kissed him shyly and theboys clapped him on the back. So the train came, and he pinched his littlesister lovingly, and put his great arms about his mother’s neck, and thenwas away with a puff and a roar into the great yellow world that flamed andflared about the doubtful pilgrim. Up the coast they hurried, past the squaresand palmettos of Savannah, through the cotton-fields and through the wearynight, to Millville, and came with the morning to the noise and bustle ofJohnstown.
And they that stood behind, that morning in Altamaha, and watched the train asit noisily bore playmate and brother and son away to the world, had thereafterone ever-recurring word,—“When John comes.” Then what partieswere to be, and what speakings in the churches; what new furniture in the frontroom,—perhaps even a new front room; and there would be a newschoolhouse, with John as teacher; and then perhaps a big wedding; all this andmore—when John comes. But the white people shook their heads.
At first he was coming at Christmas-time,—but the vacation proved tooshort; and then, the next summer,—but times were hard and schoolingcostly, and so, instead, he worked in Johnstown. And so it drifted to the nextsummer, and the next,—till playmates scattered, and mother grew gray, andsister went up to the Judge’s kitchen to work. And still the legendlingered,—“When John comes.”
Up at the Judge’s they rather liked this refrain; for they too had aJohn—a fair-haired, smooth-faced boy, who had played many a longsummer’s day to its close with his darker namesake. “Yes, sir! Johnis at Princeton, sir,” said the broad-shouldered gray-haired Judge everymorning as he marched down to the post-office. “Showing the Yankees whata Southern gentleman can do,” he added; and strode home again with hisletters and papers. Up at the great pillared house they lingered long over thePrinceton letter,—the Judge and his frail wife, his sister and growingdaughters. “It’ll make a man of him,” said the Judge,“college is the place.” And then he asked the shy little waitress,“Well, Jennie, how’s your John?” and added reflectively,“Too bad, too bad your mother sent him off—it will spoilhim.” And the waitress wondered.
Thus in the far-away Southern village the world lay waiting, half consciously,the coming of two young men, and dreamed in an inarticulate way of new thingsthat would be done and new thoughts that all would think. And yet it wassingular that few thought of two Johns,—for the black folk thought of oneJohn, and he was black; and the white folk thought of another John, and he waswhite. And neither world thought the other world’s thought, save with avague unrest.
Up in Johnstown, at the Institute, we were long puzzled at the case of JohnJones. For a long time the clay seemed unfit for any sort of moulding. He wasloud and boisterous, always laughing and singing, and never able to workconsecutively at anything. He did not know how to study; he had no idea ofthoroughness; and with his tardiness, carelessness, and appalling good-humor,we were sore perplexed. One night we sat in faculty-meeting, worried andserious; for Jones was in trouble again. This last escapade was too much, andso we solemnly voted “that Jones, on account of repeated disorder andinattention to work, be suspended for the rest of the term.”
It seemed to us that the first time life ever struck Jones as a really seriousthing was when the Dean told him he must leave school. He stared at thegray-haired man blankly, with great eyes. “Why,—why,” hefaltered, “but—I haven’t graduated!” Then the Deanslowly and clearly explained, reminding him of the tardiness and thecarelessness, of the poor lessons and neglected work, of the noise anddisorder, until the fellow hung his head in confusion. Then he said quickly,“But you won’t tell mammy and sister,—you won’t writemammy, now will you? For if you won’t I’ll go out into the city andwork, and come back next term and show you something.” So the Deanpromised faithfully, and John shouldered his little trunk, giving neither wordnor look to the giggling boys, and walked down Carlisle Street to the greatcity, with sober eyes and a set and serious face.
Perhaps we imagined it, but someway it seemed to us that the serious look thatcrept over his boyish face that afternoon never left it again. When he cameback to us he went to work with all his rugged strength. It was a hardstruggle, for things did not come easily to him,—few crowding memories ofearly life and teaching came to help him on his new way; but all the worldtoward which he strove was of his own building, and he builded slow and hard.As the light dawned lingeringly on his new creations, he sat rapt and silentbefore the vision, or wandered alone over the green campus peering through andbeyond the world of men into a world of thought. And the thoughts at timespuzzled him sorely; he could not see just why the circle was not square, andcarried it out fifty-six decimal places one midnight,—would have gonefurther, indeed, had not the matron rapped for lights out. He caught terriblecolds lying on his back in the meadows of nights, trying to think out the solarsystem; he had grave doubts as to the ethics of the Fall of Rome, and stronglysuspected the Germans of being thieves and rascals, despite his textbooks; hepondered long over every new Greek word, and wondered why this meant that andwhy it couldn’t mean something else, and how it must have felt to thinkall things in Greek. So he thought and puzzled along for himself,—pausingperplexed where others skipped merrily, and walking steadily through thedifficulties where the rest stopped and surrendered.
Thus he grew in body and soul, and with him his clothes seemed to grow andarrange themselves; coat sleeves got longer, cuffs appeared, and collars gotless soiled. Now and then his boots shone, and a new dignity crept into hiswalk. And we who saw daily a new thoughtfulness growing in his eyes began toexpect something of this plodding boy. Thus he passed out of the preparatoryschool into college, and we who watched him felt four more years of change,which almost transformed the tall, grave man who bowed to us commencementmorning. He had left his queer thought-world and come back to a world of motionand of men. He looked now for the first time sharply about him, and wondered hehad seen so little before. He grew slowly to feel almost for the first time theVeil that lay between him and the white world; he first noticed now theoppression that had not seemed oppression before, differences that erstwhileseemed natural, restraints and slights that in his boyhood days had goneunnoticed or been greeted with a laugh. He felt angry now when men did not callhim “Mister,” he clenched his hands at the “Jim Crow”cars, and chafed at the color-line that hemmed in him and his. A tinge ofsarcasm crept into his speech, and a vague bitterness into his life; and he satlong hours wondering and planning a way around these crooked things. Daily hefound himself shrinking from the choked and narrow life of his native town. Andyet he always planned to go back to Altamaha,—always planned to workthere. Still, more and more as the day approached he hesitated with a namelessdread; and even the day after graduation he seized with eagerness the offer ofthe Dean to send him North with the quartette during the summer vacation, tosing for the Institute. A breath of air before the plunge, he said to himselfin half apology.
It was a bright September afternoon, and the streets of New York were brilliantwith moving men. They reminded John of the sea, as he sat in the square andwatched them, so changelessly changing, so bright and dark, so grave and gay.He scanned their rich and faultless clothes, the way they carried their hands,the shape of their hats; he peered into the hurrying carriages. Then, leaningback with a sigh, he said, “This is the World.” The notion suddenlyseized him to see where the world was going; since many of the richer andbrighter seemed hurrying all one way. So when a tall, light-haired young manand a little talkative lady came by, he rose half hesitatingly and followedthem. Up the street they went, past stores and gay shops, across a broadsquare, until with a hundred others they entered the high portal of a greatbuilding.
He was pushed toward the ticket-office with the others, and felt in his pocketfor the new five-dollar bill he had hoarded. There seemed really no time forhesitation, so he drew it bravely out, passed it to the busy clerk, andreceived simply a ticket but no change. When at last he realized that he hadpaid five dollars to enter he knew not what, he stood stockstill amazed.“Be careful,” said a low voice behind him; “you must notlynch the colored gentleman simply because he’s in your way,” and agirl looked up roguishly into the eyes of her fair-haired escort. A shade ofannoyance passed over the escort’s face. “You will notunderstand us at the South,” he said half impatiently, as if continuingan argument. “With all your professions, one never sees in the North socordial and intimate relations between white and black as are everydayoccurrences with us. Why, I remember my closest playfellow in boyhood was alittle Negro named after me, and surely no two,—well!” Theman stopped short and flushed to the roots of his hair, for there directlybeside his reserved orchestra chairs sat the Negro he had stumbled over in thehallway. He hesitated and grew pale with anger, called the usher and gave himhis card, with a few peremptory words, and slowly sat down. The lady deftlychanged the subject.
All this John did not see, for he sat in a half-daze minding the scene abouthim; the delicate beauty of the hall, the faint perfume, the moving myriad ofmen, the rich clothing and low hum of talking seemed all a part of a world sodifferent from his, so strangely more beautiful than anything he had known,that he sat in dreamland, and started when, after a hush, rose high and clearthe music of Lohengrin’s swan. The infinite beauty of the wail lingeredand swept through every muscle of his frame, and put it all a-tune. He closedhis eyes and grasped the elbows of the chair, touching unwittingly thelady’s arm. And the lady drew away. A deep longing swelled in all hisheart to rise with that clear music out of the dirt and dust of that low lifethat held him prisoned and befouled. If he could only live up in the free airwhere birds sang and setting suns had no touch of blood! Who had called him tobe the slave and butt of all? And if he had called, what right had he to callwhen a world like this lay open before men?
Then the movement changed, and fuller, mightier harmony swelled away. He lookedthoughtfully across the hall, and wondered why the beautiful gray-haired womanlooked so listless, and what the little man could be whispering about. He wouldnot like to be listless and idle, he thought, for he felt with the music themovement of power within him. If he but had some master-work, somelife-service, hard,—aye, bitter hard, but without the cringing andsickening servility, without the cruel hurt that hardened his heart and soul.When at last a soft sorrow crept across the violins, there came to him thevision of a far-off home, the great eyes of his sister, and the dark drawn faceof his mother. And his heart sank below the waters, even as the sea-sand sinksby the shores of Altamaha, only to be lifted aloft again with that lastethereal wail of the swan that quivered and faded away into the sky.
It left John sitting so silent and rapt that he did not for some time noticethe usher tapping him lightly on the shoulder and saying politely, “Willyou step this way, please, sir?” A little surprised, he arose quickly atthe last tap, and, turning to leave his seat, looked full into the face of thefair-haired young man. For the first time the young man recognized his darkboyhood playmate, and John knew that it was the Judge’s son. The WhiteJohn started, lifted his hand, and then froze into his chair; the black Johnsmiled lightly, then grimly, and followed the usher down the aisle. The managerwas sorry, very, very sorry,—but he explained that some mistake had beenmade in selling the gentleman a seat already disposed of; he would refund themoney, of course,—and indeed felt the matter keenly, and so forth,and—before he had finished John was gone, walking hurriedly across thesquare and down the broad streets, and as he passed the park he buttoned hiscoat and said, “John Jones, you’re a natural-born fool.” Thenhe went to his lodgings and wrote a letter, and tore it up; he wrote another,and threw it in the fire. Then he seized a scrap of paper and wrote:“Dear Mother and Sister—I am coming—John.”
“Perhaps,” said John, as he settled himself on the train,“perhaps I am to blame myself in struggling against my manifest destinysimply because it looks hard and unpleasant. Here is my duty to Altamaha plainbefore me; perhaps they’ll let me help settle the Negro problemsthere,—perhaps they won’t. ‘I will go in to the King, whichis not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.’” And thenhe mused and dreamed, and planned a life-work; and the train flew south.
Down in Altamaha, after seven long years, all the world knew John was coming.The homes were scrubbed and scoured,—above all, one; the gardens andyards had an unwonted trimness, and Jennie bought a new gingham. With somefinesse and negotiation, all the dark Methodists and Presbyterians were inducedto join in a monster welcome at the Baptist Church; and as the day drew near,warm discussions arose on every corner as to the exact extent and nature ofJohn’s accomplishments. It was noontide on a gray and cloudy day when hecame. The black town flocked to the depot, with a little of the white at theedges,—a happy throng, with “Good-mawnings” and“Howdys” and laughing and joking and jostling. Mother sat yonder inthe window watching; but sister Jennie stood on the platform, nervouslyfingering her dress, tall and lithe, with soft brown skin and loving eyespeering from out a tangled wilderness of hair. John rose gloomily as the trainstopped, for he was thinking of the “Jim Crow” car; he stepped tothe platform, and paused: a little dingy station, a black crowd gaudy anddirty, a half-mile of dilapidated shanties along a straggling ditch of mud. Anoverwhelming sense of the sordidness and narrowness of it all seized him; helooked in vain for his mother, kissed coldly the tall, strange girl who calledhim brother, spoke a short, dry word here and there; then, lingering neitherfor handshaking nor gossip, started silently up the street, raising his hatmerely to the last eager old aunty, to her open-mouthed astonishment. Thepeople were distinctly bewildered. This silent, cold man,—was this John?Where was his smile and hearty hand-grasp? “’Peared kind o’down in the mouf,” said the Methodist preacher thoughtfully.“Seemed monstus stuck up,” complained a Baptist sister. But thewhite postmaster from the edge of the crowd expressed the opinion of his folksplainly. “That damn Nigger,” said he, as he shouldered the mail andarranged his tobacco, “has gone North and got plum full o’ foolnotions; but they won’t work in Altamaha.” And the crowd meltedaway.
The meeting of welcome at the Baptist Church was a failure. Rain spoiled thebarbecue, and thunder turned the milk in the ice-cream. When the speaking cameat night, the house was crowded to overflowing. The three preachers hadespecially prepared themselves, but somehow John’s manner seemed to throwa blanket over everything,—he seemed so cold and preoccupied, and had sostrange an air of restraint that the Methodist brother could not warm up to histheme and elicited not a single “Amen”; the Presbyterian prayer wasbut feebly responded to, and even the Baptist preacher, though he wakened faintenthusiasm, got so mixed up in his favorite sentence that he had to close it bystopping fully fifteen minutes sooner than he meant. The people moved uneasilyin their seats as John rose to reply. He spoke slowly and methodically. Theage, he said, demanded new ideas; we were far different from those men of theseventeenth and eighteenth centuries,—with broader ideas of humanbrotherhood and destiny. Then he spoke of the rise of charity and populareducation, and particularly of the spread of wealth and work. The question was,then, he added reflectively, looking at the low discolored ceiling, what partthe Negroes of this land would take in the striving of the new century. Hesketched in vague outline the new Industrial School that might rise among thesepines, he spoke in detail of the charitable and philanthropic work that mightbe organized, of money that might be saved for banks and business. Finally heurged unity, and deprecated especially religious and denominational bickering.“To-day,” he said, with a smile, “the world cares littlewhether a man be Baptist or Methodist, or indeed a churchman at all, so long ashe is good and true. What difference does it make whether a man be baptized inriver or washbowl, or not at all? Let’s leave all that littleness, andlook higher.” Then, thinking of nothing else, he slowly sat down. Apainful hush seized that crowded mass. Little had they understood of what hesaid, for he spoke an unknown tongue, save the last word about baptism; thatthey knew, and they sat very still while the clock ticked. Then at last a lowsuppressed snarl came from the Amen corner, and an old bent man arose, walkedover the seats, and climbed straight up into the pulpit. He was wrinkled andblack, with scant gray and tufted hair; his voice and hands shook as withpalsy; but on his face lay the intense rapt look of the religious fanatic. Heseized the Bible with his rough, huge hands; twice he raised it inarticulate,and then fairly burst into words, with rude and awful eloquence. He quivered,swayed, and bent; then rose aloft in perfect majesty, till the people moanedand wept, wailed and shouted, and a wild shrieking arose from the corners whereall the pent-up feeling of the hour gathered itself and rushed into the air.John never knew clearly what the old man said; he only felt himself held up toscorn and scathing denunciation for trampling on the true Religion, and herealized with amazement that all unknowingly he had put rough, rude hands onsomething this little world held sacred. He arose silently, and passed out intothe night. Down toward the sea he went, in the fitful starlight, half consciousof the girl who followed timidly after him. When at last he stood upon thebluff, he turned to his little sister and looked upon her sorrowfully,remembering with sudden pain how little thought he had given her. He put hisarm about her and let her passion of tears spend itself on his shoulder.
Long they stood together, peering over the gray unresting water.
“John,” she said, “does it make every one—unhappy whenthey study and learn lots of things?”
He paused and smiled. “I am afraid it does,” he said.
“And, John, are you glad you studied?”
“Yes,” came the answer, slowly but positively.
She watched the flickering lights upon the sea, and said thoughtfully, “Iwish I was unhappy,—and—and,” putting both arms about hisneck, “I think I am, a little, John.”
It was several days later that John walked up to the Judge’s house to askfor the privilege of teaching the Negro school. The Judge himself met him atthe front door, stared a little hard at him, and said brusquely, “Go’round to the kitchen door, John, and wait.” Sitting on the kitchensteps, John stared at the corn, thoroughly perplexed. What on earth had comeover him? Every step he made offended some one. He had come to save his people,and before he left the depot he had hurt them. He sought to teach them at thechurch, and had outraged their deepest feelings. He had schooled himself to berespectful to the Judge, and then blundered into his front door. And all thetime he had meant right,—and yet, and yet, somehow he found it so hardand strange to fit his old surroundings again, to find his place in the worldabout him. He could not remember that he used to have any difficulty in thepast, when life was glad and gay. The world seemed smooth and easy then.Perhaps,—but his sister came to the kitchen door just then and said theJudge awaited him.
The Judge sat in the dining-room amid his morning’s mail, and he did notask John to sit down. He plunged squarely into the business.“You’ve come for the school, I suppose. Well John, I want to speakto you plainly. You know I’m a friend to your people. I’ve helpedyou and your family, and would have done more if you hadn’t got thenotion of going off. Now I like the colored people, and sympathize with alltheir reasonable aspirations; but you and I both know, John, that in thiscountry the Negro must remain subordinate, and can never expect to be the equalof white men. In their place, your people can be honest and respectful; and Godknows, I’ll do what I can to help them. But when they want to reversenature, and rule white men, and marry white women, and sit in my parlor, then,by God! we’ll hold them under if we have to lynch every Nigger in theland. Now, John, the question is, are you, with your education and Northernnotions, going to accept the situation and teach the darkies to be faithfulservants and laborers as your fathers were,—I knew your father, John, hebelonged to my brother, and he was a good Nigger. Well—well, are yougoing to be like him, or are you going to try to put fool ideas of rising andequality into these folks’ heads, and make them discontented andunhappy?”
“I am going to accept the situation, Judge Henderson,” answeredJohn, with a brevity that did not escape the keen old man. He hesitated amoment, and then said shortly, “Very well,—we’ll try youawhile. Good-morning.”
It was a full month after the opening of the Negro school that the other Johncame home, tall, gay, and headstrong. The mother wept, the sisters sang. Thewhole white town was glad. A proud man was the Judge, and it was a goodly sightto see the two swinging down Main Street together. And yet all did not gosmoothly between them, for the younger man could not and did not veil hiscontempt for the little town, and plainly had his heart set on New York. Nowthe one cherished ambition of the Judge was to see his son mayor of Altamaha,representative to the legislature, and—who could say?—governor ofGeorgia. So the argument often waxed hot between them. “Good heavens,father,” the younger man would say after dinner, as he lighted a cigarand stood by the fireplace, “you surely don’t expect a young fellowlike me to settle down permanently in this—this God-forgotten town withnothing but mud and Negroes?” “I did,” the Judge wouldanswer laconically; and on this particular day it seemed from the gatheringscowl that he was about to add something more emphatic, but neighbors hadalready begun to drop in to admire his son, and the conversation drifted.
“Heah that John is livenin’ things up at the darky school,”volunteered the postmaster, after a pause.
“What now?” asked the Judge, sharply.
“Oh, nothin’ in particulah,—just his almighty air and uppishways. B’lieve I did heah somethin’ about his givin’ talks onthe French Revolution, equality, and such like. He’s what I call adangerous Nigger.”
“Have you heard him say anything out of the way?”
“Why, no,—but Sally, our girl, told my wife a lot of rot. Then,too, I don’t need to heah: a Nigger what won’t say‘sir’ to a white man, or—”
“Who is this John?” interrupted the son.
“Why, it’s little black John, Peggy’s son,—your oldplayfellow.”
The young man’s face flushed angrily, and then he laughed.
“Oh,” said he, “it’s the darky that tried to forcehimself into a seat beside the lady I was escorting—”
But Judge Henderson waited to hear no more. He had been nettled all day, andnow at this he rose with a half-smothered oath, took his hat and cane, andwalked straight to the schoolhouse.
For John, it had been a long, hard pull to get things started in the ricketyold shanty that sheltered his school. The Negroes were rent into factions forand against him, the parents were careless, the children irregular and dirty,and books, pencils, and slates largely missing. Nevertheless, he struggledhopefully on, and seemed to see at last some glimmering of dawn. The attendancewas larger and the children were a shade cleaner this week. Even the boobyclass in reading showed a little comforting progress. So John settled himselfwith renewed patience this afternoon.
“Now, Mandy,” he said cheerfully, “that’s better; butyou mustn’t chop your words up so:‘If—the-man—goes.’ Why, your little brother evenwouldn’t tell a story that way, now would he?”
“Naw, suh, he cain’t talk.”
“All right; now let’s try again: ‘If the man—’
The whole school started in surprise, and the teacher half arose, as the red,angry face of the Judge appeared in the open doorway.
“John, this school is closed. You children can go home and get to work.The white people of Altamaha are not spending their money on black folks tohave their heads crammed with impudence and lies. Clear out! I’ll lockthe door myself.”
Up at the great pillared house the tall young son wandered aimlessly aboutafter his father’s abrupt departure. In the house there was little tointerest him; the books were old and stale, the local newspaper flat, and thewomen had retired with headaches and sewing. He tried a nap, but it was toowarm. So he sauntered out into the fields, complaining disconsolately,“Good Lord! how long will this imprisonment last!” He was not a badfellow,—just a little spoiled and self-indulgent, and as headstrong ashis proud father. He seemed a young man pleasant to look upon, as he sat on thegreat black stump at the edge of the pines idly swinging his legs and smoking.“Why, there isn’t even a girl worth getting up a respectableflirtation with,” he growled. Just then his eye caught a tall, willowyfigure hurrying toward him on the narrow path. He looked with interest atfirst, and then burst into a laugh as he said, “Well, I declare, if itisn’t Jennie, the little brown kitchen-maid! Why, I never noticed beforewhat a trim little body she is. Hello, Jennie! Why, you haven’t kissed mesince I came home,” he said gaily. The young girl stared at him insurprise and confusion,—faltered something inarticulate, and attempted topass. But a wilful mood had seized the young idler, and he caught at her arm.Frightened, she slipped by; and half mischievously he turned and ran after herthrough the tall pines.
Yonder, toward the sea, at the end of the path, came John slowly, with his headdown. He had turned wearily homeward from the schoolhouse; then, thinking toshield his mother from the blow, started to meet his sister as she came fromwork and break the news of his dismissal to her. “I’ll goaway,” he said slowly; “I’ll go away and find work, and sendfor them. I cannot live here longer.” And then the fierce, buried angersurged up into his throat. He waved his arms and hurried wildly up the path.
The great brown sea lay silent. The air scarce breathed. The dying day bathedthe twisted oaks and mighty pines in black and gold. There came from the windno warning, not a whisper from the cloudless sky. There was only a black manhurrying on with an ache in his heart, seeing neither sun nor sea, but startingas from a dream at the frightened cry that woke the pines, to see his darksister struggling in the arms of a tall and fair-haired man.
He said not a word, but, seizing a fallen limb, struck him with all the pent-uphatred of his great black arm, and the body lay white and still beneath thepines, all bathed in sunshine and in blood. John looked at it dreamily, thenwalked back to the house briskly, and said in a soft voice, “Mammy,I’m going away—I’m going to be free.”
She gazed at him dimly and faltered, “No’th, honey, is yo’gwine No’th agin?”
He looked out where the North Star glistened pale above the waters, and said,“Yes, mammy, I’m going—North.”
Then, without another word, he went out into the narrow lane, up by thestraight pines, to the same winding path, and seated himself on the great blackstump, looking at the blood where the body had lain. Yonder in the gray past hehad played with that dead boy, romping together under the solemn trees. Thenight deepened; he thought of the boys at Johnstown. He wondered how Brown hadturned out, and Carey? And Jones,—Jones? Why, he was Jones, and hewondered what they would all say when they knew, when they knew, in that greatlong dining-room with its hundreds of merry eyes. Then as the sheen of thestarlight stole over him, he thought of the gilded ceiling of that vast concerthall, heard stealing toward him the faint sweet music of the swan. Hark! was itmusic, or the hurry and shouting of men? Yes, surely! Clear and high the faintsweet melody rose and fluttered like a living thing, so that the very earthtrembled as with the tramp of horses and murmur of angry men.
He leaned back and smiled toward the sea, whence rose the strange melody, awayfrom the dark shadows where lay the noise of horses galloping, galloping on.With an effort he roused himself, bent forward, and looked steadily down thepathway, softly humming the “Song of the Bride,”—
“Freudig geführt, ziehet dahin.”
Amid the trees in the dim morning twilight he watched their shadows dancing andheard their horses thundering toward him, until at last they came sweeping likea storm, and he saw in front that haggard white-haired man, whose eyes flashedred with fury. Oh, how he pitied him,—pitied him,—and wondered ifhe had the coiling twisted rope. Then, as the storm burst round him, he roseslowly to his feet and turned his closed eyes toward the Sea.
And the world whistled in his ears.
Of the Sorrow Songs
I walk through the churchyard
To lay this body down;
I know moon-rise, I know star-rise;
I walk in the moonlight, I walk in the starlight;
I’ll lie in the grave and stretch out my arms,
I’ll go to judgment in the evening of the day,
And my soul and thy soul shall meet that day,
When I lay this body down.
They that walked in darkness sang songs in the olden days—SorrowSongs—for they were weary at heart. And so before each thought that Ihave written in this book I have set a phrase, a haunting echo of these weirdold songs in which the soul of the black slave spoke to men. Ever since I was achild these songs have stirred me strangely. They came out of the South unknownto me, one by one, and yet at once I knew them as of me and of mine. Then inafter years when I came to Nashville I saw the great temple builded of thesesongs towering over the pale city. To me Jubilee Hall seemed ever made of thesongs themselves, and its bricks were red with the blood and dust of toil. Outof them rose for me morning, noon, and night, bursts of wonderful melody, fullof the voices of my brothers and sisters, full of the voices of the past.
Little of beauty has America given the world save the rude grandeur God himselfstamped on her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itselfin vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty. And so by fateful chance theNegro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands to-day notsimply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression ofhuman experience born this side the seas. It has been neglected, it has been,and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken andmisunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritualheritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.
Away back in the thirties the melody of these slave songs stirred the nation,but the songs were soon half forgotten. Some, like “Near the lake wheredrooped the willow,” passed into current airs and their source wasforgotten; others were caricatured on the “minstrel” stage andtheir memory died away. Then in war-time came the singular Port Royalexperiment after the capture of Hilton Head, and perhaps for the first time theNorth met the Southern slave face to face and heart to heart with no thirdwitness. The Sea Islands of the Carolinas, where they met, were filled with ablack folk of primitive type, touched and moulded less by the world about themthan any others outside the Black Belt. Their appearance was uncouth, theirlanguage funny, but their hearts were human and their singing stirred men witha mighty power. Thomas Wentworth Higginson hastened to tell of these songs, andMiss McKim and others urged upon the world their rare beauty. But the worldlistened only half credulously until the Fisk Jubilee Singers sang the slavesongs so deeply into the world’s heart that it can never wholly forgetthem again.
There was once a blacksmith’s son born at Cadiz, New York, who in thechanges of time taught school in Ohio and helped defend Cincinnati from KirbySmith. Then he fought at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg and finally served inthe Freedmen’s Bureau at Nashville. Here he formed a Sunday-school classof black children in 1866, and sang with them and taught them to sing. And thenthey taught him to sing, and when once the glory of the Jubilee songs passedinto the soul of George L. White, he knew his life-work was to let thoseNegroes sing to the world as they had sung to him. So in 1871 the pilgrimage ofthe Fisk Jubilee Singers began. North to Cincinnati they rode,—fourhalf-clothed black boys and five girl-women,—led by a man with a causeand a purpose. They stopped at Wilberforce, the oldest of Negro schools, wherea black bishop blessed them. Then they went, fighting cold and starvation, shutout of hotels, and cheerfully sneered at, ever northward; and ever the magic oftheir song kept thrilling hearts, until a burst of applause in theCongregational Council at Oberlin revealed them to the world. They came to NewYork and Henry Ward Beecher dared to welcome them, even though the metropolitandailies sneered at his “Nigger Minstrels.” So their songs conqueredtill they sang across the land and across the sea, before Queen and Kaiser, inScotland and Ireland, Holland and Switzerland. Seven years they sang, andbrought back a hundred and fifty thousand dollars to found Fisk University.
Since their day they have been imitated—sometimes well, by the singers ofHampton and Atlanta, sometimes ill, by straggling quartettes. Caricature hassought again to spoil the quaint beauty of the music, and has filled the airwith many debased melodies which vulgar ears scarce know from the real. But thetrue Negro folk-song still lives in the hearts of those who have heard themtruly sung and in the hearts of the Negro people.
What are these songs, and what do they mean? I know little of music and can saynothing in technical phrase, but I know something of men, and knowing them, Iknow that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world.They tell us in these eager days that life was joyous to the black slave,careless and happy. I can easily believe this of some, of many. But not all thepast South, though it rose from the dead, can gainsay the heart-touchingwitness of these songs. They are the music of an unhappy people, of thechildren of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoicedlonging toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.
The songs are indeed the siftings of centuries; the music is far more ancientthan the words, and in it we can trace here and there signs of development. Mygrandfather’s grandmother was seized by an evil Dutch trader twocenturies ago; and coming to the valleys of the Hudson and Housatonic, black,little, and lithe, she shivered and shrank in the harsh north winds, lookedlongingly at the hills, and often crooned a heathen melody to the child betweenher knees, thus:
The child sang it to his children and they to their children’s children,and so two hundred years it has travelled down to us and we sing it to ourchildren, knowing as little as our fathers what its words may mean, but knowingwell the meaning of its music.
This was primitive African music; it may be seen in larger form in the strangechant which heralds “The Coming of John”:
“You may bury me in the East,
You may bury me in the West,
But I’ll hear the trumpet sound in that morning,”
—the voice of exile.
Ten master songs, more or less, one may pluck from the forest of melody-songsof undoubted Negro origin and wide popular currency, and songs peculiarlycharacteristic of the slave. One of these I have just mentioned. Another whosestrains begin this book is “Nobody knows the trouble I’veseen.” When, struck with a sudden poverty, the United States refused tofulfill its promises of land to the freedmen, a brigadier-general went down tothe Sea Islands to carry the news. An old woman on the outskirts of the throngbegan singing this song; all the mass joined with her, swaying. And the soldierwept.
The third song is the cradle-song of death which all menknow,—“Swing low, sweet chariot,”—whose bars begin thelife story of “Alexander Crummell.” Then there is the song of manywaters, “Roll, Jordan, roll,” a mighty chorus with minor cadences.There were many songs of the fugitive like that which opens “The Wings ofAtalanta,” and the more familiar “Been a-listening.” Theseventh is the song of the End and the Beginning—“My Lord, what amourning! when the stars begin to fall”; a strain of this is placedbefore “The Dawn of Freedom.” The song of groping—“Myway’s cloudy”—begins “The Meaning of Progress”;the ninth is the song of this chapter—“Wrestlin’ Jacob, theday is a-breaking,”—a paean of hopeful strife. The last master songis the song of songs—“Steal away,”—sprung from“The Faith of the Fathers.”
There are many others of the Negro folk-songs as striking and characteristic asthese, as, for instance, the three strains in the third, eighth, and ninthchapters; and others I am sure could easily make a selection on more scientificprinciples. There are, too, songs that seem to be a step removed from the moreprimitive types: there is the maze-like medley, “Bright sparkles,”one phrase of which heads “The Black Belt”; the Easter carol,“Dust, dust and ashes”; the dirge, “My mother’s tookher flight and gone home”; and that burst of melody hovering over“The Passing of the First-Born”—“I hope my mother willbe there in that beautiful world on high.”
These represent a third step in the development of the slave song, of which“You may bury me in the East” is the first, and songs like“March on” (chapter six) and “Steal away” are thesecond. The first is African music, the second Afro-American, while the thirdis a blending of Negro music with the music heard in the foster land. Theresult is still distinctively Negro and the method of blending original, butthe elements are both Negro and Caucasian. One might go further and find afourth step in this development, where the songs of white America have beendistinctively influenced by the slave songs or have incorporated whole phrasesof Negro melody, as “Swanee River” and “Old Black Joe.”Side by side, too, with the growth has gone the debasements andimitations—the Negro “minstrel” songs, many of the“gospel” hymns, and some of the contemporary “coon”songs,—a mass of music in which the novice may easily lose himself andnever find the real Negro melodies.
In these songs, I have said, the slave spoke to the world. Such a message isnaturally veiled and half articulate. Words and music have lost each other andnew and cant phrases of a dimly understood theology have displaced the oldersentiment. Once in a while we catch a strange word of an unknown tongue, as the“Mighty Myo,” which figures as a river of death; more often slightwords or mere doggerel are joined to music of singular sweetness. Purelysecular songs are few in number, partly because many of them were turned intohymns by a change of words, partly because the frolics were seldom heard by thestranger, and the music less often caught. Of nearly all the songs, however,the music is distinctly sorrowful. The ten master songs I have mentioned tellin word and music of trouble and exile, of strife and hiding; they grope towardsome unseen power and sigh for rest in the End.
The words that are left to us are not without interest, and, cleared of evidentdross, they conceal much of real poetry and meaning beneath conventionaltheology and unmeaning rhapsody. Like all primitive folk, the slave stood nearto Nature’s heart. Life was a “rough and rolling sea” likethe brown Atlantic of the Sea Islands; the “Wilderness” was thehome of God, and the “lonesome valley” led to the way of life.“Winter’ll soon be over,” was the picture of life and deathto a tropical imagination. The sudden wild thunderstorms of the South awed andimpressed the Negroes,—at times the rumbling seemed to them“mournful,” at times imperious:
“My Lord calls me,
He calls me by the thunder,
The trumpet sounds it in my soul.”
The monotonous toil and exposure is painted in many words. One sees theploughmen in the hot, moist furrow, singing:
“Dere’s no rain to wet you,
Dere’s no sun to burn you,
Oh, push along, believer,
I want to go home.”
The bowed and bent old man cries, with thrice-repeated wail:
“O Lord, keep me from sinking down,”
and he rebukes the devil of doubt who can whisper:
“Jesus is dead and God’s gone away.”
Yet the soul-hunger is there, the restlessness of the savage, the wail of thewanderer, and the plaint is put in one little phrase:
Over the inner thoughts of the slaves and their relations one with another theshadow of fear ever hung, so that we get but glimpses here and there, and alsowith them, eloquent omissions and silences. Mother and child are sung, butseldom father; fugitive and weary wanderer call for pity and affection, butthere is little of wooing and wedding; the rocks and the mountains are wellknown, but home is unknown. Strange blending of love and helplessness singsthrough the refrain:
“Yonder’s my ole mudder,
Been waggin’ at de hill so long;
’Bout time she cross over,
Git home bime-by.”
Elsewhere comes the cry of the “motherless” and the“Farewell, farewell, my only child.”
Love-songs are scarce and fall into two categories—the frivolous andlight, and the sad. Of deep successful love there is ominous silence, and inone of the oldest of these songs there is a depth of history and meaning:
A black woman said of the song, “It can’t be sung without a fullheart and a troubled sperrit.” The same voice sings here that sings inthe German folk-song:
“Jetz Geh i’ an’s brunele, trink’ aber net.”
Of death the Negro showed little fear, but talked of it familiarly and evenfondly as simply a crossing of the waters, perhaps—who knows?—backto his ancient forests again. Later days transfigured his fatalism, and amidthe dust and dirt the toiler sang:
“Dust, dust and ashes, fly over my grave,
But the Lord shall bear my spirit home.”
The things evidently borrowed from the surrounding world undergo characteristicchange when they enter the mouth of the slave. Especially is this true of Biblephrases. “Weep, O captive daughter of Zion,” is quaintly turnedinto “Zion, weep-a-low,” and the wheels of Ezekiel are turned everyway in the mystic dreaming of the slave, till he says:
“There’s a little wheel a-turnin’ in-a-my heart.”
As in olden time, the words of these hymns were improvised by some leadingminstrel of the religious band. The circumstances of the gathering, however,the rhythm of the songs, and the limitations of allowable thought, confined thepoetry for the most part to single or double lines, and they seldom wereexpanded to quatrains or longer tales, although there are some few examples ofsustained efforts, chiefly paraphrases of the Bible. Three short series ofverses have always attracted me,—the one that heads this chapter, of oneline of which Thomas Wentworth Higginson has fittingly said, “Never, itseems to me, since man first lived and suffered was his infinite longing forpeace uttered more plaintively.” The second and third are descriptions ofthe Last Judgment,—the one a late improvisation, with some traces ofoutside influence:
“Oh, the stars in the elements are falling,
And the moon drips away into blood,
And the ransomed of the Lord are returning unto God,
Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
And the other earlier and homelier picture from the low coast lands:
“Michael, haul the boat ashore,
Then you’ll hear the horn they blow,
Then you’ll hear the trumpet sound,
Trumpet sound the world around,
Trumpet sound for rich and poor,
Trumpet sound the Jubilee,
Trumpet sound for you and me.”
Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faithin the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change oftento triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes afaith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair worldbeyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime,somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins. Is such ahope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true?
The silently growing assumption of this age is that the probation of races ispast, and that the backward races of to-day are of proven inefficiency and notworth the saving. Such an assumption is the arrogance of peoples irreverenttoward Time and ignorant of the deeds of men. A thousand years ago such anassumption, easily possible, would have made it difficult for the Teuton toprove his right to life. Two thousand years ago such dogmatism, readilywelcome, would have scouted the idea of blond races ever leading civilization.So wofully unorganized is sociological knowledge that the meaning of progress,the meaning of “swift” and “slow” in human doing, andthe limits of human perfectability, are veiled, unanswered sphinxes on theshores of science. Why should Æschylus have sung two thousand years beforeShakespeare was born? Why has civilization flourished in Europe, and flickered,flamed, and died in Africa? So long as the world stands meekly dumb before suchquestions, shall this nation proclaim its ignorance and unhallowed prejudicesby denying freedom of opportunity to those who brought the Sorrow Songs to theSeats of the Mighty?
Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Herewe have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of storyand song—soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land;the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, andlay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier thanyour weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit. Around usthe history of the land has centred for thrice a hundred years; out of thenation’s heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdueall that was worst; fire and blood, prayer and sacrifice, have billowed overthis people, and they have found peace only in the altars of the God of Right.Nor has our gift of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have wovenourselves with the very warp and woof of this nation,—we fought theirbattles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generationafter generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise notJustice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. Our song,our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation inblood-brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work andstriving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?
Even so is the hope that sang in the songs of my fathers well sung. Ifsomewhere in this whirl and chaos of things there dwells Eternal Good, pitifulyet masterful, then anon in His good time America shall rend the Veil and theprisoned shall go free. Free, free as the sunshine trickling down the morninginto these high windows of mine, free as yonder fresh young voices welling upto me from the caverns of brick and mortar below—swelling with song,instinct with life, tremulous treble and darkening bass. My children, my littlechildren, are singing to the sunshine, and thus they sing:
And the traveller girds himself, and sets his face toward the Morning, and goeshis way.
Hear my cry, O God the Reader; vouchsafe that this my book fall not still-borninto the world wilderness. Let there spring, Gentle One, from out its leavesvigor of thought and thoughtful deed to reap the harvest wonderful. Let theears of a guilty people tingle with truth, and seventy millions sigh for therighteousness which exalteth nations, in this drear day when human brotherhoodis mockery and a snare. Thus in Thy good time may infinite reason turn thetangle straight, and these crooked marks on a fragile leaf be not indeed
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