Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam


The story of slavery merges in the stories of the white man and the black man, to which there is no end. As the main period to the present study we have taken the beginning of President Hayes's administration in 1877, when the withdrawal of Federal troops from the South marked the return of the States of the Union to their normal relations, and also marked the disappearance of the negro problem as the central feature in national politics. From that time to the present we shall take but a bird's-eye view of the fortunes and the mutual relation of the two races.

The people of the Southern States realized gradually but at last fully that the conduct of their affairs was left in their own hands. From this time there was no important Federal legislation directed specially at the South. The restrictive laws left over from the reconstruction period were in some cases set aside by the Supreme Court and in general passed into abeyance. There was rare and brief discussion of a renewal of Federal supervision of elections. But the Northern people, partly from rational conviction and partly from absorption in new issues, were wholly indisposed to any further interference. Without such interference there was no slightest chance of any restoration of political preponderance of the negroes over the whites. The specter of "negro domination" haunted the Southern imagination long after it had become an impossibility. Then it was used as a bogy by small politicians. But the only serious attempt at national legislation for the South has been of a wholly different character. It was the plan of Senator Blair of New Hampshire, long urged upon Congress, and sometimes with good hope of success, for national assistance to local education, on the basis of existing illiteracy, for a term of ten years, to a total amount of $100,000,000. That is the only kind of special legislation for the South that has had any chance of enactment for almost thirty years.

Through the twelve years of political reconstruction, 1865-77, the Southern people were gradually adapting themselves to the new industrial and social conditions. Then the body of the whites, finding themselves fully restored to political mastery, grasped the entire situation with new clearness and vigor. They thrust the freedmen not only out of legislative majorities and the State offices, but out of all and any effective exercise of the suffrage. The means were various, consisting largely of indirect and technical hindrances, "tissue-paper ballots" and the like. The intelligent class massed against the ignorant found no serious difficulty in having their own way at all points. A considerable number of negroes still voted, and had their votes counted, but their party was always somehow put in the minority; almost all offices passed out of their hands; their representatives speedily disappeared from Congress, and before long from the Legislatures. Negro suffrage was almost nullified, and that, too, before the legislation of the last decade.

But, in asserting their complete political superiority, the whites also recognized a large responsibility for the race they controlled. A degree of civil rights was secured to them, short of a perfect equality with the whites, but far beyond the status intended by the "black codes" of 1865-6. The fundamental rights, of liberty to dispose of their labor and earnings in their own way, and protection of person and property by the law and the courts, were substantially secured. And, very notably, the common school education of blacks as well as whites was undertaken with fidelity, energy and new success. This great and vital advance, inaugurated by the Southern Republican governments, was accepted and carried on, loyally and at heavy cost, by the succeeding Democratic governments. The figures show a great advance from 1875 to 1880 in the number of schools and scholars of both races throughout the South. Political inferiority for the negroes, but civil rights, industrial freedom, and rudimentary education,—that was the theory and largely the practice of their white neighbors.

One clause they added with emphatic affirmation: "I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you." Social superiority, indicated by separation in all the familiar and courteous intercourse of daily life, was asserted by the whites with a rigor beyond that of the days of slavery. When humiliated and stung by the political ascendency of their former bondmen, they wrapped themselves in their social superiority with a new haughtiness. The pride of race, of color, of the owner above the serf, stripped of its old power and insignia, but no whit weakened in root and core, set an adamantine wall along the line of social familiarity. Let the black man have his own place—in school and church, in street and market and hotel; but the same place, never! Separate schools, churches, cars. And as in a hospitable country the social meal is the special occasion and symbol of good fellowship and equal comradeship, right there let the line be fixed,—no black man or woman shall sit at table with whites.

The usage came down by tradition, and became only a little more rigid under the new conditions. At the North the general practice had always been much the same; but there it was occasionally and growingly superseded, when people of the two races found a common level of education and manners. The Southern whites for a while took their own practice as a matter of course. But then, especially as by degrees some black men and women acquired mental cultivation and social polish,—then came question and challenge from the world without and from conscience within; why this rigid separation? An answer must be found or made,—and presently the answer appeared: If white and black men and women eat and drink together, play and work together,—then they will intermarry, and the white race will become mixed and degenerate. So that became the conviction, the creed, the shibboleth, of the Southern whites,—race purity, to be safeguarded by complete prohibition of all social intimacy, especially as symbolized by the common meal. And the prohibition was enforced among the whites by the penalty of sure and stern ostracism.

Under these conditions, then, the two sections of the Southern people have been working their way, for almost thirty years. How first have the negroes fared? Of the prophecies for their future, made when they were in bondage and in view of possible emancipation, one was that they would die out,—but in less than half a century they have doubled. Another was that if freed they would refuse to work,—but the industrial product of the South has never fallen off, but has steadily and vastly increased, with the negro still as the chief laborer. Another prediction was that they would lapse into barbarism. The Southern negroes as a mass have a fringe of barbarism—a heavy fringe. So has every community, white, black or yellow, the world over. Have the Southern blacks, as a body, moved toward barbarism or toward civilization since they were set free?

The comparative tests between civilization and barbarism are, broadly speaking, productive industry, intelligence and morality. If we gauge industry by results, we find that the class which forty years ago entered into freedom with empty hands now owns more than $300,000,000 of property by the tax-gatherers' lists. Another estimate—cited by Prof. Albert Bushnell Hart—puts their entire property holdings at $500,000,000. Though most of them are tenants or hired laborers, yet there are more than 173,000 who own their farms. The total number of farms worked by them in the South—owned, leased, or rented on shares—is figured at 700,000. The census of 1900 shows that in almost every profession, trade and handicraft the black race has numerous representatives—their range of occupation and industrial opportunity being far wider in the South than in the North. Taking the whole country, the percentage of adults in gainful pursuits is a trifle higher among blacks than among whites. Allow for the more frequent employment in toil of the black woman; allow, too, for the more intermittent character of black labor,—yet the relative showing is not unfavorable to the enfranchised race. And this comparison touches, too, the more difficult problem of morality,—for industry is itself a chief safeguard of morality.

As to intelligence, the statistics show that, roughly speaking, about half the blacks over ten years old can read and write. That is not much below the status of the people of England half a century ago. In the higher fields of intelligence, the American negroes,—there are 9,000,000 of them,—supply to-day a large part of their own teachers, ministers, lawyers and doctors, and in all these professions the standard is steadily rising.

In regard to morality, generalization is difficult. There is undoubtedly a much larger criminal element among the blacks than among the whites. There are proportionately more crimes against property, crimes of sensuality, crimes of violence. Materials are wanting for exact comparison, either with the whites, or among the blacks at different periods. Yet there are few or no sections at the South, even in the worst parts of the Black Belt, as to which the public gets the impression of any general lawlessness. And in any comparison of the present with the time of slavery, we must remember what Carlyle says in speaking of the cruelties of the French Revolution as compared with those of the tyranny which preceded it,—when the high-born suffer the world hears of it, but the woes of the inarticulate are unheard. Wrongs at the South which shock us to-day,—or wrongs as great—were commonplace, were unnoted and unchronicled, under slavery. It is offenses against women that rouse the hottest resentment. But for centuries the black woman's chastity had absolutely no protection under the law, and her woes were pitiful beyond telling. For the Southern negro, true family life was impossible until within fifty years. With so brief experience in the best school of character, there is no ground for doubting that he has won a vast moral advance, and the promise of greater.

Of the negroes, as of every race or community, we may consider the lowest stratum, the great mass, and the leaders. Regarding not morality only, but general conditions, there is a considerable element of the Southern blacks whose condition is most pitiable. Such especially are many of the peasants of the Black Belt; barely able to support themselves, often plundered with more or less of legality by landlord and storekeeper, shut up to heavy, dull, almost hopeless lives. Inheritance weighs on them as well as environment; when these plantations were recruited from Virginia, it was only the worst of the slaves whom their masters would sell, and the bad elements propagated their like. The case of these people to-day presents one of the open sores, the unanswered questions,—we might say the impossible tasks, did we not remember Armstrong's attitude toward things "impossible." Yet, even as to these,—are they not better off than when enslaved? A part of their trouble is the burden of responsibility—for themselves, their wives and children. In slavery they had no responsibility beyond the day's task; the whip and the full stomach were the two extremes of their possibilities. Now at least they are men—with manhood's burdens, but with its possibilities, too.

Of the great middle class, something has already been said, as to industry, property and education. But statistics are cold and dead, could we but see the living human realities which they vainly try to express. The growth of a slave, or a slave's child, into a free man or woman,—the birth and development of true family life,—could we see this in its millions of instances, or even distinctly in one typical instance, with all its phases of struggle, mistake, disappointment, success, the growth of character, the blossoming of manhood and womanhood,—it would be a more moving spectacle than any that Shakespeare has given. Here, again, it is mostly the inarticulate class, and their story is not told to the world. We especially fail to learn it, because of the wall of caste by which the white man shuts himself out from the finest sights and the most brotherly opportunities. More than farming or carpentry, more than school or church, and taking in the best fruits of all these, is family life, in its fullest and best. That is where the negro is coming to highest manhood.

A necessary test of a race is its power to furnish its own leaders. The negro race in America is developing a leadership of its own,—small as yet, but choice and growing. It was part of Armstrong's central idea to create and supply such a leadership. Hampton has gone steadily on in the work, and the sisters and the children of Hampton are multiplying their fruits. It was by an ideal fitness of things that Armstrong attracted, inspired and started as his worthy successor one of the negro race. At Tuskegee the black man is doing for himself what at Hampton the white man is doing for him. Booker Washington is the pupil and successor of Armstrong, but he has his own distinct individuality, his own word and work. His constant precept and practice has been that the black man should make himself so serviceable and valuable to the community that every door will open as fast as he is fit to enter it. It is the gospel of wisdom and of peace. Toward all the opportunities denied to the race, its attitude is one of patience but of untiring persistence. Its constant word is, Make yourself fit for any function, any place, and sooner or later it will be yours. Against political exclusion Mr. Washington on due occasion speaks his calm word, but he does not beat against the closed gate; he knows that when the black man shows his full capacity for citizenship it cannot long be denied him. The social exclusion he accepts with quiet self-respect; let time see to that, let us only do our full work, learn our full lesson. His teaching goes far beyond the schoolroom; he gathers in conference the heads of families, the fathers and mothers; he sets them to study and practice the curriculum of the family and the neighborhood. In his intense practicality he lacks something of the spiritual inspiration which Armstrong had and gave. But his teaching is in no wise narrow or selfish, for always it is animated by the spirit of brotherhood and service. His personal story, Up from Slavery, is one of the most moving of human documents; in itself it is an answer to all pessimism. It is a typical story; even as these sheets are written there comes to hand another like unto it, the story of another boy, William Holtzclaw, who groped his way up from a negro cabin, caught the sacred fire at Tuskegee, did battle with misfortune and adversity, and now in his turn is carrying on the good work. And for every such story that gets told there are a hundred that are acted.

The wider leadership of the negroes by their own men is exemplified,—it is not measured or exhausted,—by a pregnant little volume of essays entitled The Negro Problem. Seven of its phases are discussed by Booker Washington, Professor DuBois, Charles W. Chestnutt, Wilfred H. Smith, H. T. Kealing, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and T. Thomas Fortune. As a collection, these essays are noteworthy for their cogency and clearness, for their earnest and self-respectful plea for full justice and opportunity, and their calmness and candor. The race that can speak for itself in such tones has an assured future,—if democracy, evolution, Christianity, are the ruling powers.

This story is concerned mainly with the slave and the freedman, but it must also touch on his former master, now his neighbor and fellow-citizen. The new South is far too ample a theme for a paragraph or a chapter. But it must be said in a word that its main trait is the substitution, for a territorial and slave-owning aristocracy, of an industrial democracy. It is the coming of the new man,—laborious, enterprising, pushing his way. His development began when the whole community was set to work its way up from the impoverishment left by the war. It was accelerated when new resources were found, when coal and iron mines were started, when cotton manufacturing began where the cotton is grown. New types of character and society are developing, yet blending with the remnant of the old.

Politics, in all its forms, plays a smaller part in to-day's society than in that of fifty years ago. Not only has the South never regained its old ascendency at Washington, but it has not stood, and does not stand, for any distinct set of ideas or principles in the national life. It has clung closely together, under the influence of old sentiments and lingering apprehensions. In its fear of a recurrence of "negro domination," it has lost touch with the living questions of to-day and to-morrow. "The Solid South" has meant a secure contingent of electoral votes for the Democratic Presidential candidate,—whether he stood for a gold or a silver currency, for revenue reform or its opposite, for radicalism or conservatism,—and a solid array of members in Senate and House equally without pilotage on living issues. Until the South breaks away from its fetish of past fears and prejudices, it cannot rise to its proper opportunities of statesmanship.

Yet better than the old-time absorption in Federal politics and the prizes of the Capitol is the more diversified life of the South to-day. It is being swept into the current of industrialism—with its energies, its prizes, its perils. In other directions, too, the new life of the South flows free and strong. It is creating a literature,—a branch of American literature,—incomparably beyond any product of its earlier days. After what may be called a literature of statesmanship,—the work of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Marshall,—the old South was almost wholly barren of original scholarship and creative genius. Now it bears a harvest so rich that one cannot here begin to classify or to name. The war-time is bearing an aftermath, of less importance in its romances, but admirable and delightful in its biographies and reminiscences. Of these the most notable feature, full as they are of vivid human interest and striking personal characteristics,—is the freedom from rancor, the generosity toward old foes which seems even unconscious of any necessity to forgive. And in these personal sketches there are disclosed certain broad yet distinct types of manhood and womanhood, the special Southern contributions to the composite American. In general literature, too, the South is doing its full share. In its histories, the note of provincialism still lingers,—inevitably, and not blamably. The Southern essayist or historian naturally gravitates to the past of his own section,—and naturally he seeks to vindicate his comrades or his ancestors, and to interpret the past from their standpoint. But, compared with the provincialism of the South of 1860, he is a cosmopolitan.

The new South is doing perhaps its best work in education. Its leaders are both raising and widening their standards,—they are reaching out toward modern and progressive ways, while they are trying to amplify their systems so as to include the whole youthful population. Their intelligence and enthusiasm are seen alike in the ancient universities like that of Virginia, in the younger colleges such as Roanoke and Berea, and in the leaders of the public schools. Intelligence, enthusiasm, devotion,—all are needed, and all will be tasked to the utmost. For the education of the people's children, everywhere the most pressing of common concerns, and the most perplexing in the transition from old to new ideas and methods—bears with especial weight and importunity upon the South. Its thinly-spread population, its still limited resources of finance, the presence of the two races with their separate and common needs,—all set a gigantic task to the South, and one that calls for sympathy and aid from the nation at large.