The Negro Problem
in American History
The one excuse for slavery which the South can plead without fear before the Judgement bar of God is the blacker problem which their emancipation will create. -Robert E. LeeFROM DARKEST Africa to the shores of North America where a mighty civilization was to be carved from a vast wilderness came the ships that brought the Negro slaves to the Arnerican colonies. To these vessels bearing their cargos of human freight, the words of the poet Milton have been aptly applied:
That fatal, that perfidious bark,Just as the ships which brought the African to these shores were "rigged with curses dark," so have many pages of American history been filled with pages dark from the stain of the Negro problem.
The race problem may be said to have had its origin in the new world when a Dutch vessel brought the first cargo of Negro slaves and sold them to the settlers at Jamestown, Virginia, in August, 1619. There seems to be some disagreement among the historians as to whether there were fourteen or twenty African Negroes in this group, but it is conceded by all that this was the beginning of the slave trade in North America. The growth of the Negro population of Virginia was slow but steady, and by the time of the American Revolution there were over 200,000 Negroes in that colony. A few of this number were classified as freedmen, but the large majority were held in slavery. The demand for slave labor and the increase of the Negro population in Virginia was typical of the other colonies of the South.
There was also a demand for slaves in the colonies in the Northern section of the country. As early as 1741 Negroes were so numerous in the City of New York that panic-stricken colonists feared for their own safety, and by the time of the Revolution, there were 26,000 Negroes in the colony of New York.
Slavery in the New England section was on a much smaller scale since slave labor was most profitably utilized on the plantations in the South. The census of 1790 showed the presence of some 17,000 Negroes, practically all of whom were slaves, in the New England colonies. However, it should also be pointed out that while these colonies did not furnish a ready market for the purchase of slaves, New England ship owners quickly found that transporting Negroes from West Africa to be sold in the Southern colonies was a profitable enterprise. The slave trade was a regular business with the colonial Yankees; it furnished wealth and adventure. Having some one hundred and fifty vessels engaged in the African slave trade in 1770, Rhode Island is said to have been responsible for bringing more Africans to this country than any of the other New England colonies.
The business of transporting slaves from Africa to the Americas was immensely profitable, and most of the civilized nations of the old world engaged in it. Great Britain entered the field at an early date, and Royal companies were formed to engage in the slave trade. Succeeding in this undertaking,from the very first, the English did not abolish slave traffic until 1807, the year before the American markets were closed.
In all sections in the American colonies the Negroes were rigidly controlled. They were not considered to have ordinary human rights and could be severely punished for any act of insubordination. Harsh laws and punitive measures to enforce strict discipline among the Africans appeared early on the statute books and were strictly enforced.
There were 757,208 Negroes, the great mass of whom were held in slavery, in the United States in 1790. (1) Even before this date, the growth of the Negro population had already caused alarm. There were a number of men in the colonies who realized what the increase of slavery in this country would eventually mean, and there were efforts made to restrict slavery in the undeveloped regions of the Northwest by the Continental Congress in 1787.
In this same year, the members of the Constitutional Convention faced the question of slavery as they worked at their task to form a better and more perfect union. There were grave difficulties involved and compromises were necessary. The three following provisions concerning the Negro question (2) were embodied in the Constitution of the United States by the founding fathers:
Article 1, Section II: Rcpresentatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this Union according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifth of all other persons.The first section which was the result of a compromise and without which the Constitution would not have been ratified by the required number of states settled the question as to how the Negroes, not being citizens, were to be counted in determining the representation of the states in the House of Representatives of the Congress and in the Electoral College. The next section allowed the continuance of the slave trade for -the next twenty years, giving Congress the power to prohibit -such traffic in 1808. The last section enabling slave-holders to reclaim slaves which escaped into another state was later to form the basis for the widely-discussed "Fugitive Slave Law." Thus, in a spirit of compromise and even optimism, the framers of the Constitution disposed of the difficult problem of slavery and established the status of the Negro under the terms of the Constitution of the United States.
Regardless of the Constitutional provisions, problems caused by the presence of the African slaves continued to confront this Nation. Neither all the pressing problems connected with the organization and administration of the new government nor the War of 1812 succeeded in submerging the question of slavery. It again became acute and threatened our national existence in 1820. In that year Missouri, with a constitution providing for slavery, applied for admission into the Union. Until this time, the states had been admitted in balanced order, one in the South permitting slavery balancing with one in the North forbidding slavery. When Missouri sought to become a slave state, the fight to restrict slavery which had been begun with the adoption of the Northwestern Ordinance by the Continental Congress in 1787 was resumed with added vigor. The result was the famous Missouri Compromise of 1820 establishing the line of latitude thirty-six-thirty, north of which no state would be admitted to the Union permitting slavery within its borders.
Just as the framers of the Constitution failed permanently to settle the question of slavery, so the Missouri Compromise likewise failed. (3) As the years passed, the South felt the need for new slave territory; the North demanded that there be no extension of slavery. The Southern states proclaimed their right to maintain slavery within their borders; Northern sentiment for the abolition of slavery grew stronger and stronger. With the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854, the efforts of the North to restrict slavery gave way to the demand that it be abolished completely throughout the Nation. The pulpits sounded forth their condemnation of the institution of slavery; the printing press carried the pleas of William Lloyd Garrison far and wide; Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin with its egregious exaggerations of Southern plantation life found a ready and eager audience. The Nation swayed beneath the intensity of the abolition movement, and again our national existence was in imminent danger.
The South fought back desperately to defend her position. Southern orators pleaded. Did not each state have the right under the Constitution to maintain slavery if the people of that state so desired? The arguments of Southern statesmen echoed in the halls of Congress, but they fell on deaf ears. It was fundamentally a question of states' rights and the interpretation of the Constitution, but the time for reason and compromise had passed. The abolition flame reached the point of white heat; the Nullification Act was passed; the South-the fighting South-could stand no more. Secession -Fort Sumter-The War Between the States was on!
It is not necessary for us to review the history of the tragic and fateful years of the War Between the States. The men who wore the gray and the blue wrote that history in blood upon the green valleys and hills of the Southland that were turned into battlefields. While the battle raged, President Abraham Lincoln sat at his White House desk in the Nation's Capital, struggling beneath his duties to preserve the Union and trying to work out a solution to the Negro problem.
Long before he became President of the United States, Lincoln had been a student of the race question. The issue was discussed at length in the famous debates between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, and the following quotations from Lincoln's speeches show his position:
When Southern people tell us they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery than we are, I acknowledge the fact. When it is said that the institution exists, and that it is very difficult to get rid of it in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself. If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, to their own native land. But a moment's reflection would convince me that whatever of high hope (as I think there is) there may be in this in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. If they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the next ten days; and there are not surplus shipping and surplus money enough to carry them there in many times ten days. What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery at any rate, yet the point is not clear enough for me to denounce people upon. What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals. My own feelings will not admit of this and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of whites will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment is not the sole question if indeed it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill founded, cannot be safely disregarded. We cannot, then, make them equals. It does seem to me that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted, but for their tardiness in this I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the South. (From Lincoln's speech at Peoria, Illinois, October 16, 1854.)The last quotation from Lincoln's speech at Charleston should be especially emphasized because those words were frequently repeated with only slight variations in the wording in Lincoln's speeches during the next several years. Such was the seasoned opinion of the man who became the "Great Emancipator" of the Negro race; and it should not be forgotten that Lincoln, when a member of the Illinois Legislature, voted to exclude Negroes from that State.
In his first annual message to Congress in December, 1861, President Lincoln recommended that steps be taken for the colonization of the Negroes "at some place or places in a climate congenial to them." On August 24, 1862, in a speech to a committee of Negro men at the White House, he made the following statements:
You and I are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss; but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think. Your race suffer very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word, we suffer on each side....A few weeks after the above speech was made on September 24, 1862, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. His views as to the solution of the Negro problem were again embodied in this document.
I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America, and commander-in-chief of the army and navy thereof, do hereby proclaim and declare that hereafter, as heretofore, the war will be prosecuted for the object of practically restoring the constitutional relation between the United States and each of the states and the people thereof, in which states that relation is or may be suspended or disturbed.In his second message to Congress, Lincoln proposed an amendment to the Constitution which would provide for the colonization of the Negroes in some place outside the United States. He was working on his plan for gradual colonization when the War Between the States was brought to a close. (5) He was also devoting all his great ability which was never disputed even by his political enemies to a generous program of reconstruction for the conquered South. But fate intervened and the wartime President fell before the assassin's bullet.
With Lincoln's death on April 14, 1865, his plans for rebuilding the South and reuniting the Nation as well as his plans for solving the Negro problem were completely cast aside and forgotten. While a Nation mourned for her fallen leader, a group of powerful politicians, led by Thaddeus Stevens, planned to take over the reins of government and force Negro domination upon the South. They were destined to write the blackest pages in American history.
While the hallowed chamber of the United States Senate echoed the speeches of Stevens and Charles Sumner, while the radicals laid their plans to give the ballot to the Negro and to pass the Civil Rights Laws to proclaim and enforce social equality, the South lay prostrate in humiliation and defeat. The fighting South had indeed fought to exhaustion. Leaving thousands of their comrades buried on the battlefields, the men in the worn uniforms of gray slowly made their way across the desolate and destitute countrysides and the wreckage of the towns and cities to their homes which were often found to be only a heap of ashes. General Sherman had done his job well. The land was lying idle, the houses and barns destroyed, and the fences down, the cattle, horses and mules had been driven away. It seems that nothing had escaped destruction. Businesses were gone; banks were closed; poverty was universal. And the white Southerner amid the wreckage and ruins was surrounded by the newly-freed Negroes who seemed to be the only concern of those directing the policy of the Federal government on the banks of the Potomac.
Under military rule, the South was securely bound by the chains of the conqueror. Federal soldiers were everywhere. Northern agitators flocked to the Southern states to excite and inflame the mobs of Negroes and turn them against their former masters. Carpetbaggers, scalawags, corrupt politicians, dishonorable military commanders infested the land. There seemed to be only one more possibility of adding insult upon injury, and this the negrophiles in Washington did. Negro troops wearing the uniform of the United States Army and armed with bayonets were stationed throughout the South to maintain order over a people already conquered, poverty-stricken, and possessing no arms!
This, then, was the combination against the peace of a fallen people-the soldiers inciting the blacks against their former masters, the Bureau agents preaching political and social equality, the white scum of the North fraternizing with the blacks in their shacks, and the thieves of the Treasury stealing cotton under the protection of Federal bayonets. And in the North, demagogic politicians and fanatics were demanding immediate negro suffrage and clamoring for the blood of Southern leaders. (6)Impoverished and disfranchised, the white Southerners began their struggle to take back their state governments from those who had usurped them. They could expect no help from the politicians in Washington whose racial madness knew no bounds. This power-crazed group had succeeded in forcing the passage of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Federal Constitution.
The thirteenth amendment abolishing slavery was quickly ratified and received overwhelming support, but the fourteenth amendment bestowing citizenship upon the Negroes and the fifteenth amendment giving them the right to vote were the products of fraud and coercion. When the proponents of the fourteenth amendment could not otherwise obtain ratification from the necessary three-fourths of the states, legislatures were installed in ten of the Southern states under military rule. And the approval of six of these states given through these legislatures composed largely of Negroes and under military coercion was counted to secure the ratification of the required number of states. Because of the fraudulent methods used by the proponents of the fourteenth amendment to secure its approval, Secretary of State Seward felt compelled to express his doubts as to the validity of the amendment when it was incorporated into the Federal Constitution.
The Negro suffrage politicians were confronted with another difficult task when they began their efforts to secure the ratification of the fifteenth amendment. In every state throughout the North where the question of Negro suffrage had been submitted to the people, it had been rejected except in Iowa and Minnesota. (7)
In December, 1865, when the question of the establishment of Negro suffrage in the District of Columbia was submitted to the voters there, the vote stood, in Georgetown, 1 vote for and 812 against the measure, and in Washington, 35 votes for and 6,521 votes against the measure.Thus, it is apparent that the faction which controlled Congress succeeded in forcing the adoption of the fifteenth amendment in direct opposition to the will of the majority of the people. The state legislatures throughout the North were made to feel the mighty pressure of the party whip. The dominant group in Congress was successful in having a bill passed to establish Negro suffrage in the District of Columbia and in all of the territories. Following this, Negro suffrage was forced upon the South, and it was only a matter of a few months until the fifteenth amendment was embodied into the Constitution of the United States.
Using methods never before nor after resorted to by men in high office, Stevens (9) and Sumner seemed to triumph in Washington. They had placed the ballot in the hands of the Negroes and left the great majority of the white population in "This assumption that she was Stevens's mistress was not confined, however, to undertone gossip, which is never impressive. It was current in the press, and the South voteless. The blacks and the unscrupulous politicians from the North with some dishonorable ones from the South maintained their sway over state and local governments throughout Dixie, but the white Southerners knew that they would find a way to redeem their power. The years were long and the road was difficult. There were heartaches and bloodshed, but one by one the Southern states threw off the yoke of Negro rule and domination.
The events which took place as Mississippi "broke her chains" were typical of those which occurred throughout the Southland. To refresh the memory of some and to help others to understand why the Southerner today instantly and emphatically cries "never again" at the slightest mention of Negroes in state politics, the following historical analysis by Claude Bowers of events in Mississippi-"dramatic as any in American history"-is related (10):
The events in Louisiana had their reactions in Mississippi, and immediately after sending his notorious message on bandits, Sheridan sent soldiers to Vicksburg to maintain the corrupt negro and carpetbag city government.The Constitution of Mississippi, adopted in 1890, contained two important sections on franchise. Section 241 provided that every qualified elector must have paid all taxes which had been legally required of him for the two preceding years (12) and that a qualified elector must have resided in the state two years and in the election district one year prior to the election. Section 244 provided that every qualified elector must be able to read any section of the state Constitution or understand same when read to him or give a reasonable interpretation thereof. The Mississippi Constitution of 1890 with subsequent statutes enacted thereunder had the effect of eliminating the Negro as a factor in county and state politics. (13) The other Southern states found similar methods to accomplish the same results, and by the turn of the century White supremacy had been restored throughout the Southland. It had been a long time since General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox on April 9, I865, and the years were filled with bitter memories, but at last the South had regained her power.
When the slaves were freed, a new pattern of race relations was necessary, and the Southern people put into operation the policy of racial segregation. Separate facilities and separate accommodations were provided for the white people and the Negroes, and the color line was drawn in every walk of life below the Mason and Dixon Line. Segregation of the races was established by custom, re-enforced by various state statutes, and this policy has remained through the years as a definite and fixed part of the Southern way of life.
The people of the South have continuously faced countless problems brought about by the presence of millions of Negroes within their midst. There have been economic and social problems, problems of health and education, and the white South has coped with these questions to the best of her ability. Any student who will approach the subject with fairness and justice will certainly come to the conclusion that the Negro in the South has made more progress under the guiding hand of the White Southerner than the black race has made anywhere else in the world in a similar period of time.
The following tables (14) give an indication of the Negro problem in numbers:
|NEGRO POPULATION IN I940
|District of Columbia
NEGRO POPULATION OF
11 SOUTHERN STATES IN 194O
It should be noted that although three-fourths of the
Nation's 12,865,518 Negroes still live in the South,
the number in other sections has been increasing steadily
in recent years. The great majority of the Negroes
in the North are concentrated in segregated areas in
the large cities, and there the "black belts"
and slum sections present the Negro problem in a form
unparalleled in the entire Southland.
It has generally been contended that the North has offered the Negro more freedom and greater opportunity than the South. Certainly that section has had more wealth with which to provide for education, and the Negro vote along the Eastern seaboard and in the middle West has increased in size until today this vote amounts to something of a balance of power between the white Democrats and white Republicans in the balance-of-power states.
It is unnecessary for us to discuss the different attitudes toward the Negro in various sections of the Nation. Whether the dominant white group is concerned chiefly with racial integrity or with the economic, social. cultural. or political aspect of the question. the race problem is universally a source of friction. And this much is certain. At no time in the history of this Nation in any section of the country has the Negro race been accorded full and absolute equality. The South has never pretended to offer complete political and social equality to the black race, and other sections have endorsed full equality in words only-with rare exceptions, they do not "practice what they preach." (15)
Equality means just what the word implies, and nothing less than full equality can, in reality, fulfill the meaning of the word. To be given equality, Negroes would have to be given business, industrial, political, social, and matrimonial equality with the whites. This has never been granted to the Negro race in the United States except on the statute books, and there is no indication that the great mass of the American people are willing to respond to the demands of the present-day leaders of the black race by granting this equality now. However, this situation certainly serves to make it both timely and urgent that a solution to the race question must be found and adopted.
In our Nation's history, this Negro problem, like the ships which brought the African slaves, has indeed been rigged with curses dark. Attitudes may still differ and proposed solutions may vary, but today in all sections public opinion is beginning to realize that the problems presented by the colored tenth of our population are national in scope. The Negro question may today, in a restricted sense, belong primarily to the South, but it is indeed a matter which only the Nation as a whole can adequately and permanently solve.