Short History of the American Negro - Benjamin Brawley




Negro Effort for Freedom and Culture

59. Strivings of the Slave.—To the Negro in bonds the institution of slavery was one long night with little hope of day. His highest impulses, his tenderest emotions, his every, incentive to high endeavor, felt the blasting effects of the system. He might work in the field from sunrise to sunset; but none of the fruit of his labor was his own. He might cherish the tenderest sentiments of a father, only to see his child torn from his arms forever. He might possess lofty ambition or distinctive genius, and find effort made to deprive him of every quality of manhood. With his brethren he sang in the night-time his wild "sorrow song," "I've been a-listenin' all the night long;" and in yearning for the joys of heaven he prayed for deliverance from physical bondage. To escape at once from slavery, however, was possible only by regular manumission, by open revolt, or by running away. It is the purpose of this chapter to review some of the efforts put forth by Negroes themselves to cast off the chains that bound them and to advance in education and culture.

60. Fugitives.—In spite of the harsh laws against fugitives and the certain trail of bloodhounds, a great many slaves elected to run away. The attempt was commonly to direct one's way to the North, where the fugitive slave law of 1793 was not generally in force. Traveling largely by night under the guidance of the north star, the Negroes sustained themselves as best they could. The Dismal Swamp in Virginia became a famous hiding-place. A colony here defied owners right in the midst of a strong slavery community. Soldiers never ventured into the colony, and bloodhounds sent thither did not return. As many of the slaves made their way into Canada, an attempt was made in 1828 to effect some arrangement with Great Britain for the return of those who escaped thither; but this failed.

In the far South, while Florida was still under Spanish rule, there was some movement in the opposite direction, many fugitives taking refuge and intermarrying with the Indians. In 1816 American troops blew up a fort on the Appalachicola that was the headquarters of many slaves who had run away; and the first Seminole War was very largely caused by fugitives. When Florida was annexed slave-hunting increased, and then the escaping Negroes made their way as far south as the Everglades. The second Seminole War was even more directly caused by fugitives than the first. The famous chieftain Osceola had a wife who was the daughter of a Negro woman who had found refuge with the Indians. This woman (the wife) was seized in 1835 while at Fort King, being claimed as a slave by her mother's former owner. Osceola vowed revenge, and was temporarily imprisoned. On being released he conducted the war with remarkable bravery and resource, and it stands to the eternal shame of American arms that he was captured under a flag of truce.

61. Insurrections.—It always happens when one race is in subjection to another that among those in power there is constant fear of an uprising. This fact accounts for much of the harshness of the slave codes and for the attempts to check importations of Negroes. On plantations patrolmen frequently searched the quarters for concealed weapons. All told, however, the insurrections of slaves in America were very few in number. In 1687 there was in Virginia a conspiracy among the blacks in the Northern Neck that was detected just in time to prevent slaughter; and in Surry County in 1710 there was a similar plot, betrayed by one of the conspirators. The attempt in New York in 1712 resulted in the execution of many Negroes. In 1740 some slaves on the coast of South Carolina, under the lead of one of their number named Cato, began an indiscriminate slaughter of the whites in which many lives were lost. The news came to Wilton while the people were in church, and the Negroes were soon overtaken in a large field celebrating their achievement with draughts of rum. They were dispersed and their leaders hanged.

More ambitious in plan than this attempt was the effort made in Richmond in 1800 and known as Gabriel's Insurrection. This attempt was planned by two young and intelligent negroes; Gabriel, a slave, twenty-four years old, and one Jack Bowler, aged twenty-eight, neither of whom had an especial personal grievance to inspire him. They organized as many as 1,000 negroes in Henrico county, arming them with scythes and knives, and marched toward the city during the night. Forced to halt by a stream swollen and impassable from a recent storm, they disbanded, expecting to renew the attempt on the following night. . . . Their plot was disclosed by a slave Pharaoh, who had escaped from them and aroused the citizens of Richmond before the attack could be made. A reward of $300 was offered for the leaders, Gabriel and Jack. They were caught and executed, but a large number of the conspirators were mercifully acquitted or the charges against them were dismissed on account of lack of evidence. This plot resulted in the institution of a public guard for the city, of 68 persons under a captain and other officers."

62. Denmark Vesey.—Two of the insurrections of Negroes deserve greater consideration than the others, one because of the ambitiousness of its plan and the other because of its actual achievement. The first was conceived by Denmark Vesey. This man was probably born in Saint Thomas, West Indies, in 1767; but the first fourteen years of his life are a blank. He is first seen in 1781 as one of three hundred and ninety Negroes being transported to Santo Domingo on board a vessel commanded by one Captain Vesey. He did not remain there, however, being subsequently taken by Captain Vesey to Charleston, S. C. For nearly twenty years he was the faithful servant of this man, who in course of time retired from his iniquitous profession. In 1800, at the age of thirty-three, by winning a prize in a lottery Denmark Vesey found himself in possession of $ 1,500. Of this amount he paid $600 for his liberty. He worked at his trade, carpentry, amassed some wealth, and won general esteem. He was fluent in French as well as English, and being gifted with remarkable personal magnetism, by his intelligence and sagacity he inspired among the slaves of the city a respect that amounted almost to veneration. He became the father of several children, but no one of these could he call his own, as under the slave code a child followed the condition of the mother.

In course of time Vesey conceived a plan that contemplated nothing less than the total annihilation of the white population of Charleston. For years he sowed among his brethren the seeds of discontent, and such was his discreetness that although he played in every possible way upon the superstitions of the Negroes, and interpreted any public event as pointing to liberty, at no time did he come under suspicion. At length the time for action came. Vesey joined to himself five associates, Peter Poyas, Rolla Bennett, Ned Bennett, Monday Gell, and Gullah Jack. Aided by these men he brought into his plan thousands of Negroes in the city of Charleston and in the outlying districts, upon whom all the while the greatest secrecy and regular attention to daily tasks were enjoined. He finally selected the midnight of Sunday, July 22, 1822, as the time for his attack upon the city, Sunday because on that day many Negroes from the plantations were in Charleston, and July because in mid-summer many of the white people were away at the summer resorts. Of one class of slaves he had a peculiar distrust. "Take care," said he, "and don't mention the plan to those waiting men who receive presents of old coats, etc., from their masters, or they'll betray us." That his suspicions were justified was abundantly proved by the sequel. Late in May one of those very "waiting men" endeavored to inform against him; but so insufficient was the knowledge of this man that Peter Poyas and Mingo Harth, one of the minor leaders, who had been arrested, were released. Ned Bennett, who also came under suspicion, committed the daring deed of voluntarily going before the authorities with the request to be examined, outwitting them by his coolness and throwing the city into greater tumult than ever.

The original plan was now hastened by four weeks, Sunday, June 6, being the new date. Again in a few days it was divulged by a "waiting man," who in this instance had more accurate knowledge than the first informant. The attempt to carry out the plan was easily suppressed, and the leaders were tried before a special court in which appeared Robert Y. Hayne, then just rising into great distinction. Vesey conducted his case with great skill, but he was finally condemned to death. With Spartan courage Peter Poyas said to his associates, "Do not open your lips! Die silent as you shall see me die." In all, thirty-five men were executed and thirty-seven banished. Thus dosed the insurrection that for the magnitude of its plan, the care with which it was matured, and the faithfulness of the leaders to one another, was never equaled by a similar attempt for freedom in the United States.

63. Nat Turner.—The other important insurrection was that of Nat Turner, a religious enthusiast and the type of the emotional insurrectionist as Vesey was of the intellectual. This man was born in 1800 in Southampton County, Virginia. He was unusually precocious, learning to read with such rapidity that he came to be regarded as a prodigy. From his childhood he believed that he was divinely chosen for some great mission, claiming to hear voices and to see visions, among others a vision of white and black spirits in battle. In course of time he became convinced that his mission was to deliver his people. An eclipse in February, 1831, was accepted as the sign for which he had been waiting; but nothing was done until after a peculiar appearance of the sun on August 13th. With four friends, Sam Edwards, Henry Porter, Nelson Williams, and Hark Travis, he set about the work, being joined very soon by a gigantic and athletic Negro named Will. The insurrectionists ultimately numbered fifty or sixty. Their weapons were most indiscriminate, knives and axes as well as guns.

On Sunday night, August 21, near Cross Keys, Turner and his associates began their work by killing five members of his master's family. Throughout the night they went on with the work, killing any white person in the neighborhood. Next morning they killed all the pupils in a schoolhouse. In all, fifty-seven white people were killed; others would have died if their slaves had not defended them. By noon the news had spread. United States troops from Fortress Monroe came to the scene of action; also the militia from various counties in Virginia and North Carolina. The insurrectionists were hunted like wild beasts. After Turner had succeeded in concealing himself for six weeks, he was finally discovered, tried, convicted, and hanged, as were sixteen of his associates. As he predicted, the day of his death was one of terrible thunder and lightning. The insurrection naturally created the wildest fear and excitement throughout the South. Its effects upon legislation were immediate, the slave codes being made more harsh.

64. The Amistad Incident.—Once while one hundred and thirty-five slaves were being taken from Virginia to New Orleans, Madison Washington, one of the number, organized a rebellion and took possession of the vessel, carrying it to Nassau, an English port, where the authorities refused to surrender the Negroes. An incident very similar to this, but more famous and more important because of its legal consequences, was that of the Spanish slave schooner, L'Amistad, bound in 1839 for Puerto Principe, Cuba. The fifty-four slaves on board were just from Africa, where they had been kidnapped. Under the lead of one of their number, Joseph Cinquez, an African prince who had become disgusted at the cruel treatment accorded him and his companions, they revolted and took possession of the vessel. They killed two of the crew, most of the others escaping. They then commanded their owners, two white men whose lives they had spared, to steer them back to Africa. These men made a pretense of so doing, but really steered north. After considerable wandering the vessel was captured off Long Island by the United States brig Washington, under the command of Lieutenant Gedney, and taken into the harbor of New London, Conn. The Negroes were bound over to await trial as pirates.

The Spanish minister, Calderon, demanded that the Negroes be surrendered as "property rescued from pirates," and President Van Buren was disposed to yield to the demand in accordance with a treaty with Spain. The suggestion, however, met with the most violent opposition from the anti-slavery element. The trial lasted for some months, and in this time friends taught the Africans to read so that they could tell their story without the aid of an interpreter. The United States Circuit Court finally decided that inasmuch as the international slave-trade was illegal even by Spanish law, the Negroes were free men and had been justified in obtaining their liberty by force. The decision was sustained in March, 1841, by the United States Supreme Court, before which John Quincy Adams appeared in behalf of the Negroes. Lewis Tappan, one of the organizers of the New York Anti-Slavery Society, now raised among friends of the cause money for the transportation of the Negroes back to Africa. In the company of missionaries they were sent to Sierra Leone whence Great Britain had them taken to their own homes.

65. Story of a Representative Negro.—Perhaps no case that could be cited better illustrates the strivings of the quiet, thrifty, conservative Negro under the system of slavery than that of Lunsford Lane. This man was a slave belonging to a citizen of Raleigh, N. C., and grew up before the era of unusual harshness to slaves which came after the Nat Turner insurrection of 1831. At an early age he learned to read and write, and he gathered much general information from the conversation of his master's guests and from the political speeches of Calhoun and other statesmen. He once heard a distinguished minister say, "It is impossible to enslave an intelligent people;" and he never forgot these words. Earnestly desirous of his freedom, he carefully hoarded the fees given him by friends of his master, and by the time he had grown to manhood he had saved several hundred dollars. A part of this money Lane lost in bad investments, and some he spent in special care for his wife, the slave of another master, one Mr. Smith. By his father he had been taught the secret of making a superior kind of smoking tobacco, and he now began to manufacture the product for market, hiring his time from his master for from $100 to $120 a year. The master dying after a few years, he undertook to purchase his freedom from his mistress, the price agreed upon being $1,000. As a slave, however, he could not make a contract; hence he entrusted the matter to his wife's master. Smith, after making the purchase, asked court's leave to emancipate Lane. By law, however, a slave could be freed for meritorious service only. The best thing then that Smith could do was to take Lane with him to New York on his next business trip, and have the freedom papers issued there.

After this process Lane returned to Raleigh, where his business expanded generally, as among other things he manufactured pipes and kept a store. He now undertook to buy his wife and six children. Smith insisted on notes to the amount of $2,500, although eight years before he had bought the wife and two children for only $560. All this time Lane was very modest in his attitude toward the white people, dressing as poorly as when a slave, and doing or saying nothing that could cause him to be considered an agitator. All the same there were those who were jealous of his prosperity, and these called to mind an almost forgotten act that forbade free Negroes from other states to come to North Carolina. Lane was forced to leave. He returned after a short while, however, to straighten up his business. He had paid Smith $560 in cash, and had taken one of his boys to New York. He gave his house and lot for $500, undertaking to pay in cash the balance of $1,440. By lecturing in the North, within one year he raised the amount he wished. Lane now asked of the governor of North Carolina permission to return to the state. The governor replied that he had no authority to grant such permission, but that under the law he thought it would be all right for Lane to return, provided he did not remain longer than twenty days. Lane got back to Raleigh Saturday, April 23, 1842. He spent Sunday with his family, and on Monday went to Smith's store to finish up his business. He was arrested and accused of "delivering abolition lectures in the State of Massachusetts." In court he recounted with simple pathos the whole story of his life, and as the matter was clearly outside of the jurisdiction of a North Carolina court, the case was dismissed. The court house was surrounded by a mob, however, Lane's trunk was searched for abolition literature, and he himself was subjected to other indignities. He was put in jail for safe keeping, and spent the night at the home of an honored citizen. Early the next morning, however, he was tarred and feathered. The soldiery came at last to his protection, and the next day he set out with his family for Philadelphia. Several friends now assisted him, giving him food for the journey and arranging to have him take the train on the edge of the town in order to avoid a mob at the station. Lane's later life was spent in Boston, Oberlin, and Worcester. He had some success in selling a medicine which he made, and he was active in the abolition movement until his death.

66. Free Negroes.—A matter frequently lost sight of in the consideration of the larger aspects of slavery is that of the free person of color. Free Negroes were much more numerous than is sometimes thought, and contributed a corresponding influence to society as a whole. They formed really one-ninth of the total Negro population of the country, there being in 1860, 487,970 free persons to 3,953,760 slaves. Except in such centers as New Orleans and Charleston, most of these people were looked upon as forming a vicious and indolent element, from which society had more to fear than from any other class. All sorts of restrictive laws were enacted; but these were not generally enforced, and over half of the free Negroes in the country resided in the South. Although they labored under many disabilities, they engaged in almost every occupation that Negroes pursue to-day. A visitor from England received the impression in Washington and other cities that they enjoyed a special monopoly of the barber's trade. Their economic life left most to be desired in the non-slaveholding states. Even here, however, some found a place in domestic service, and a few made a beginning in the professions. "Their general status, taken as a whole, was better in Louisiana than anywhere else in the country, North or South. In 1836, in the city of New Orleans, 855 free people of color paid taxes on property assessed at $2,462,470, and owned 620 slaves. In 1860 the property holdings of the same class for the state at large were estimated at from $13,000,000 to $15,000,000. There were free colored planters in Louisiana whose property in land and slaves was valued at from $25,000 to $150,000. Many of these people enjoyed educational advantages and lived amidst refined surroundings equal to any possessed by their white neighbors. . . . What was true of conditions in New Orleans and Louisiana was also true of Baltimore, Charleston, Mobile, and other less important 'free negro centers in the South, and of Philadelphia, New York, and other places in the North."

67. Education before the Civil War.—The first schools for Negroes were private ones, such as everywhere preceded public schools. In 1704 one such school was opened in New York, in 1770 one in Philadelphia, and in 1798 one in Boston. In certain places in what is now the Middle West private schools became largely supported by manumitted Negroes. In the South efforts were of course more sporadic; but deserving of attention is the education which Negroes received through private or clandestine sources. More than one slave learned the alphabet while entertaining the son of his master. As early as 1764 the editor of a paper in Williamsburg, Va., had established a school for Negroes; and about 1800 a Negro, the Rev. John Chavis, passed "through a regular course of academic studies" at Washington Academy, now Washington and Lee University. In Charleston for a long time before the Civil War free Negroes could attend schools especially designed for their benefit and kept by white people or other Negroes. The course of study not infrequently embraced such subjects as physiology, elementary physics, and plane geometry.

After John Brown's raid the order went forth that no longer should any Negro teach Negroes. This resulted merely in a white person's being brought to sit in the classroom. On the outbreak of the Civil War, however, Negro schools were closed altogether. In the Northern states two institutions for the higher education of the Negro were established before the Civil War, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1854 and Wilberforce in Ohio in 1856. Oberlin, moreover, was founded in 1833. One year later the trustees took the advanced ground of admitting Negro men and women on equal terms with white students. Though before this individual Negroes had found their way into Northern institutions, it was here at Oberlin that they first received a real welcome. In 1865 about one-third of the students were of the Negro race, and Oberlin still leads Northern colleges in the number of Negro graduates, especially women.

68. The Negro in the Public Eye.—In spite of the handicaps under which they labored, Negroes took an active part in the agitation preceding the Civil War. Mention has already been made of David Walker's Appeal. Samuel Ringgold Ward, author of Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro, was only one of several prominent Negro lecturers; and, as has been shown, one Negro woman, Harriet Tubman, took an unusually prominent part in the work of the Underground Railroad. Anything that indicated intellectual and moral capacity on the part of the Negro was eagerly seized upon by the opponents of slavery. Within four years the poems of Phillis Wheatley ran through three new editions; Elizabeth Greenfield, of Philadelphia, sang before the royalty of Europe; and Ira Aldridge achieved such success as a great tragedian that he was decorated by the emperors of Austria and Russia. The African Methodist Church was already demonstrating that the Negro could do something in organization; and everywhere individuals, by hardy effort, were showing forth the possibilities of the former slave in the estate of freedom.

69. Sojourner Truth.—Two Negroes, because of their unusual gifts, stood out with great prominence in the agitation. These were Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. Sojourner Truth was born of slave parents about 1798 in Ulster County, New York. She remembered vividly in later years the cold, wet cellar-room in which slept the slaves of the family to which she belonged, and where she was taught by her mother to repeat the Lord's Prayer and to trust in God at all times. When in the course of gradual emancipation in New York she became legally free in 1827, her master refused to comply with the law. She left, but was pursued and found. Rather than have her go back, a friend paid for her services for the rest of the year. Then came an evening when, searching for one of her children that had been stolen and sold, she found herself a homeless wanderer. A Quaker family gave her lodging for the night. Subsequently she went to New York City, joined a Methodist church, and worked hard to improve her condition. Later, having decided to leave New York for a lecturing tour through the East, she made a small bundle of her belongings and informed a friend that her name was no longer Isabella but Sojourner. She went on her way, lecturing to people wherever she found them assembled and being entertained in many aristocratic homes. She was entirely untaught in the schools, but she was witty, original, and always suggestive. By her tact and her gift of song she kept down ridicule, and by her fervor and faith she won many friends for the anti-slavery cause. As to her name she said: "And the Lord gave me Sojourner because I was to travel up an' down the land showin' the people their sins an' bein' a sign unto them. Afterwards I told the Lord I wanted another name, 'cause everybody else had two names, an' the Lord gave me Truth, cause I was to declare the truth to the people."

70. Frederick Douglass.—Douglass was born in 1817 and lived for ten years as a slave upon a Maryland plantation. Then he was bought by a Baltimore shipbuilder. He learned to read, and, being attracted to The Lady of the Lake, when he escaped in 1838 and went disguised as a sailor to New Bedford, Mass., he adopted the name Douglas (spelling it with two s's however). He lived for several years in New Bedford, being assisted by Garrison in his efforts for an education. In 1841, at an anti-slavery convention in Nantucket, he exhibited such intelligence and showed himself the possessor of such a remarkable voice that he was made the agent f the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He now lectured extensively in England and the United States and English friends raised 150 to enable him regularly to purchase his freedom. For a time he published a paper in Rochester. Later in life he became Recorder of Deeds in the District of Columbia, and then Minister to Hayti. At the time of his death in 1895 Douglass had won for himself a place of unique distinction. Large of heart and of mind, he was interested in every forward movement for his people; but his charity also embraced all men and all races. His reputation was national, and many of his speeches are to-day found in the standard books on the subject of oratory.