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The Ethics of the Negro Question

September 10, 1902 — Biennial session, Friends’ General Conference, Asbury Park NJ


Where there is no vision, the people perish.
                                      — Proverbs 29:18

A nation’s greatness is not dependent upon the things it makes and uses. Things without thoughts are mere vulgarities. America can boast her expanse of territory, her guilded domes, her paving stones of silver dollars; but the question of deepest moment in this nation today is its span of the circle of brotherhood, the moral stature of its men and its women, the elevation at which it receives its “vision” into the firmament of eternal truth.

I walked not long since through the National Library at Washington. I confess that my heart swelled and my soul was satisfied; for however overpowering to a subdued individual taste the loud scream of color in the grand hallway may be, one cannot but feel that the magnificence of that pile, the loftiness of sentiment and grandeur of execution there adequately and artistically expresses the best in American life and aspiration. I have often sat silent in the gallery under the great dome, watching the massive pillars that support the encircling arches and musing on the texts traced above the head of each heroic figure. Science holding in her hand instruments for the study of Astronomy, proclaims: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork.” Law bears the equal scales and the text: “Of Law there can be no less acknowledged than that her voice is the harmony of the world.” Religion stands with firm feet and fearless mien, unequivocally summing up the whole matter thus: “What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” Surely, if American civilization should one day have to be guessed from a few broken columns and mutilated statues like the present grandeur of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, the antiquarian or the historian who shall in future ages dig from the dust of centuries this single masterpiece, this artistic expression of a peoples’ aspiration and achievement, will yield ready homage to the greatness of the nation which planned and executed such a monument of architectural genius. “Surely here was a nation,” they must conclude, “whose God was the Lord — a nation whose vision was direct from the mount of God.”

Whether such an estimate is just, it is our deepest concern to examine. Where there is no vision, the people perish, A nation cannot long survive the shattering of its own ideals. Its doom is already sounded when it begins to write one law on its walls and lives another in its halls. Weighed in the balance and found wanting was not more terribly signed and sealed for the trembling Belshazzar than for us by these handwritings on our walls, if they have lost their hold on the thought and conduct of the people.

The civilizations that have flowered and failed in the past did not harvest their fruit and die of old age. A worm was eating at the core even in the heyday of their splendor and magnificence, so soon as the grand truths which they professed had ceased to vitalize and vivify their national life. Rome’s religion was pagan, it is true but for all that it was because Rome had departed from the integrity of her own ideals and was laughing in her sleeve at the gods of her fathers that she found herself emasculated and effete before the virile hordes that plundered and finally superseded her. Thor and Woden had not become to the barbarians a figure to paint a wall and adorn a fountain.

Let America beware how she writes on her walls to be seen of men the lofty sentiment “Give instruction unto those who cannot procure it for themselves,” while she tips a wink at those communities which propose to give for instruction to the poor only that which is wrung from their penury. The vision as pictured on our walls is divine. The American ideal is perfect. A weak and undeveloped race apparently might ask no better fate than the opportunity of maturing under the great wing of this nation, and of becoming Christianized under its spiritual ministrations.

It is no fault of the Negro that he stands in the United States of America today as the passive and silent rebuke to the nation’s christianity, the great gulf between its professions and its practices, furnishing the chief ethical element in its politics, constantly pointing with dumb but inexorable fingers to those ideals of our civilization which embody the nation’s highest, truest, and best thought, its noblest and grandest purposes and aspirations. Amid all the deafening and maddening clamor of expediency and availability among politicians and parties, from tariffs and trusts to free coinage and 16 to 1, from the microscopic question of local sovereignty to the telescopic ones of expansion and imperialism, the Negro question furnishes the one issue that says ought, not what will the party gain by this measure or that, not will this or that, experiment bring in larger percentages and cash balances; but who, where, what is my neighbor? Am I my brother’s keeper? Are there any limitations or special adaptations of the Golden Rule? If Jesus were among men today is there a type of manhood, veiled wherein, the Divinity whom our civilization calls Captain, would again coming to his own, be again despised, rejected, because of narrow prejudices and blinding pride of race?

Uprooted from the sunny land of his forefathers by the white man’s cupidity and selfishness, torn ruthlessly from all the ties of clan and tribe, dragged against his will thousands of miles over unknown waters to a strange land among strange people, the Negro was transplanted to this continent in order to produce chattels and beasts of burden for a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”; a nation worshiping as God One who came not to be ministered unto, but to minister; a nation believing in a Savior meek and lowly of heart who, having no where to lay his head, was eyes to the blind, hearing to the deaf, a gospel of hope and joy to the poor and outcast, a friend to all who travail and are heavy laden.

The whites of America revolted against the mother country for a trifling tax on tea, because they were not represented in the body that laid the tax. They drew up their Declaration of Independence, a Magna Charta of human rights, embodying principles of universal justice and equality. Professing a religion of sublime altruism, a political faith in the inalienable rights of man as man, these jugglers with reason and conscience were at the same time stealing heathen from their far away! homes, forcing them with lash and gun, to unrequited toil, making it a penal ofiense to teach them to read the Word of God, — nay, more, were even begetting and breeding mongrels of their own flesh among these helpless creatures and Pocketing the guilty increase, the price of their own blood in unholy dollars and cents. Accursed hunger for gold! To what dost thou not drive mortal breasts! But God did not ordain this nation to reenact the tragedy of Midas and transmute its very heart’s core into yellow gold. America has a conscience as well as a pocketbook, and it comes like a pledge of perpetuity to the nation that she has never yet lost the seed of the prophets. Men of inner light and unfaltering courage, who would proclaim and spare not against the sin of the nation. The best brain and heart of this country have always rung true, and it, is our hope today that the petrifying spirit of commercialism which grows so impatient at the negro question or any other question calculated to weaken the money getting nerve by pulling at the heart and the conscience, may still find a worthy protagonist in the re-awakened ethical sense of the nation, which can take no step backward; and which must eventually settle, and settle right, this and every question involving the nation’s honor and integrity.

It gives me great pleasure to record the historian’s testimony to the clear vision and persistent action of the Society of Friends in keeping alive this sense in some dark days of the past. The Quakers have the honor, says Von Holtz, of having begun the agitation of the Slavery Question from the moral standpoint earliest and most radically, Thanks to the fiery zeal of some members of this Society the religious and moral instruction of the slaves and the struggle against any further importation of the negroes were begun by the close of the seventeenth century. By the middle of the eighteenth century the emancipation of slaves had gradually be come a matter of action by the whole Quaker body. By a resolution of 1774 all members concerned in importing, selling, purchasing, giving or transferring negroes or other slaves were directed to be excluded from membership or disowned. Two years later this resolution was extended to cover cases of those who delayed to set their slaves free. In February, 1790, the Quaker meeting in Philadelphia and the Quakers in New York sent addresses to Congress, requesting it to abolish the African slave trade. Certain representatives from the North urged that the petitions of so respectable a body as that of the Quakers in relation to so great a moral evil were deserving of special consideration. The representatives of the South replied with provoking irony and mercilessly lacerated the Quakers. Year after year the Friends came indefatigably with new petitions and each time had to undergo the same scornful treatment. In 1797 the Yearly Meeting at Philadelphia set forth some special wrongs in a petition, a prominent place in which was occupied by a complaint against the law of North Carolina condemning freed slaves to be sold again. Many Southern delegates in Congress expressed in a bullying fashion their scorn for the tenacity with which these men of earnest faith ever constantly came back again to their fruitless struggle.

Not only in America, in England in a petition to the House of Commons, also the faith and works of this body of consistent Christians bore witness to their clear vision. The first plea for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery went up from the Friends; and throughout the long agitation which ensued before that prayer was granted, the Society of Friends took an active and prominent part.

Their own dear Whittier has sounded the keynote both of their struggle and its reward:

“Whatever in love’s name is truly done
To free the bnnd and lift the fallen one,
Is done to Christ.”

And the Master Himself: “lnasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye did it unto Me.”

The colored people in America find themselves today in the most trying period of all their trying history in this land of their trial and bondage. As the trials and responsibilities of the man weigh heavier than do those of the infant, so the negro under free labor and cutthroat competition today has to vindicate his fitness to survive against a color-phobia that heeds neither reason nor religion and a prejudice that shows no quarter and admits no mitigating circumstances.

In the darkest days of slavery there were always at the North! friends of the oppressed and devoted champions of freedom who would go all lengths to wipe out the accursed stain of human slavery from their country’s escutcheon; while in the South, the slave’s close contact with the master class, mothering them in infancy, caring for them in sickness, sorrow and death, resulted, as the pulsing touch of humanity must ever result, in many warm sympathies and a total destruction of that repulsion to mere color which betokens narrow and exclusive intercourse with mankind.

Today all this is changed. White and black meet as strangers with cold distrust or avowed hostility. The colored domestic, who is no longer of the better and more intelligent class of her race, is barely tolerated in the home till she can do up the supper dishes and get away. The mistress who bemoans her shiftlessness and untidiness does not think of giving her a comfortable room, providing for her social needs and teaching her in the long evenings at home the simple household arts and virtues which our grandmothers found time for. Her vices are attributed to her freedom, especially if she has attended a public school and learned enough to spell her way through a street ballad. So generally is this the case that if a reform were attempted suddenly “the girl” herself would misunderstand and probably resent it. The condition of the male laborer on the plantations is even more hopeless. Receiving 50 cents a day for unskilled but laborious toil, from which wage he boards himself and is expected to keep a family in something better than a “one room cabin,” the negro workman receives neither sympathy nor recognition from, his white fellow laborers. Scandinavians, Poles, and Hungarians can tie up the entire country by a strike which paralyzes not only industry, but existence itself, when they are already getting a wage that sounds like affluence to the hungry black man. The union means war to the death against him, and the worst of it he can never be lost in the crowd and have his opprobrium forgotten. A foreigner can learn the language and out American the American on his own soil. A white man can apply burnt cork and impute his meanness to the colored race as his appointed scapegoat. But the Ethiopian cannot change his skin, On him is laid the iniquity of his whole race and his character is prejudged by formula. Even charity does not study his needs as an individual person but the good that love has planned for him must be labeled and basketed “special” for the negro. “Special” kinds of education, special forms of industry, special churches and special places of amusement, special sections of our cities during life and special burying grounds in death. White America has created a terra incognita in its midst, a strange, dark, unexplored waste of human souls from which if one essay to speak out an intelligible utterance, so well known is the place of preferment accorded the mirroring of preconceived notions, that instead of being the revelation of a personality and the voice of a truth, the speaker becomes a phonograph and merely talks back what is talked into him.

It is no popular task today to voice the black man’s woe. It is far easier and safer to say that the wrong is all in him. The American conscience would like a rest from the ghost of the black man. It was always an unpalatable subject; but now preeminently is the era of good feeling and self-satisfaction, of commercial omnipotence and military glory. It seems an impertinence, as did the boldness of Nathan when he caught the conscience of the great king at the pinnacle of victorious prosperity with the theft of a little ewe lamb. Has not the nation done and suffered enough for the Negro? Is he worth the blood and treasure that have been spilled on his account, the heartache and bitterness that have racked the country? Let us have no more of it. If he is a man let him stand up and prove it. Above all let us have peace! Northern capital is newly wed to Southern industry and the honeymoon must not be disturbed. If Southern conventions are ingenious enough to invent a device for disfranchising these unwelcome children of the soil, if it will work, what of it? On the floor of the most august body in the land a South Carolina senator said: “Yes; we bulldozed and terrorized niggers and we are not ashamed of it. If you had been in our place you would have done the same.”

During the slavery agitation Garrison was mobbed in the streets of Boston for advocating abolition, but he kept right on and would be heard. In our day the simplest narrative in just praise of the Negro meets with cold disfavor and the narrator is generally frozen into silence. A lecturer on the Spanish War at tempted, as an eyewitness and with the aid of stereopticon to tell a Richmond audience of the gallant charge up San Juan Hill and the brave part in it taken by the 10th Cavalry. His words were met by hisses, his lantern slides were destroyed and he was obliged to close his entertainment in darkness and confusion. A professor in a Southern school who in a magazine article condemned the saturnalia of blood and savagery known as lynchings, and argued that the Negro while an inferior was yet a man and should be accorded the fundamental rights of a man, lost his position for his frankness and fairness. The Negro finds himself between the upper and nether millstone. The South is intolerant of interference from either outside or inside. The North is too polite or too busy or too gleeful over the promised handshaking to manifest the most distant concern.

But God is not dead. Neither does He sleep. As a nation sows so shall it reap. Men do not gather grapes from thorns nor figs from thistles. To sow the wind is to reap the whirlwind.

A little over two years ago while the gentlest and kindest of presidents was making a tour of the South bent only on goodwill to men and the healing of all sectional rancor and ill-feeling, there occurred in almost a stone’s throw of where he was for the time being domiciled an outburst of diabolism that would shame a tribe of naked savages. A black wretch was to be burned. Without court or jury his unshrived soul was to be hurled into eternity and the prospect furnished a holiday festival for the countryside. Excursion trains with banners flying were run into the place and eager children were heard to exclaim, “We have seen a hanging, we are now going to see a burning.” Human creatures with the instincts of hyenas, contended with one an other for choice bones of their victim as souvenirs of the occasion. So wanton was the cannibalistic thirst for blood that the Negro preacher who offered the last solace of the Christian to the doomed man was caught in the same mad frenzy and made to share his fate. A shiver ran through the nation at such lawless demonism. But a cool analysis of the situation brought forth from the Attorney General of the United States the legal opinion that the case had probably no Federal aspects. 

Just one year ago the same gentle and people-loving ruler was again acting out his instinct of mingling naturally and democratically with his people. Again lawlessness, this time in the shape of a single red handed, unreasoning ruffian, instead of many, but the same mad spirit which puts its own will whether swayed by lurid passion or smoldering hate, on the throne of the majesty of law and duly constituted government, made the nation shiver and bleed by striking down unaccused and untried the great head of the nation. A fact may be mentioned which was unquestioned at the time by those standing near, that it was the burly arm of a Negro that felled the assassin and dealt the first blow in defense of the stricken President.

I will not here undertake an apology for the shortcomings of the American Negro. It goes without saying that the black is centuries behind the white race in material, mental and moral development. The American Negro is today but 37 years removed from chatteldom, not long enough, surely, to ripen the century plant of civilization. After 250 years of a most debasing slavery, inured to toil but not to thrift, with out homes, without family ties, with out those habits of self-reliant industry by which peoples maintain their struggle for existence, poor, naked, weak, ignorant, degraded even below his pristine state as a savage, the American Negro was at the close of the War of Rebellion “cut loose,” as the slang of the day expressed it, and left to fend for himself. The master class full of resentment and rage at the humiliations and losses of a grinding war, suffered their Old time interest to turn into bitterness or cold indifference, and Ku Klux beatings with re-enslaving black codes became the sorry substitute for the overseer’s lash and the auction block. At this juncture the conscience of the nation asserted itself and the federal constitution was so amended as to bring under the aegis of national protection these helpless people whom the exigencies of war had suddenly thrown into the maelstrom of remorseless life. That they are learning to stem the current there is ground for hope; that they have already made encouraging headway even enemies cannot deny. The Negro’s productivity as a free laborer is conceded to be greater than formerly as a slave: and the general productivity of the South where he constitutes the chief labor element has increased since his emancipation manifold. Not having inherited the “business bump,” his acquisitive principles have received some shocks and many times have been paralyzed and stunted by the insecurity of his property and the disregard of his rights shown by his more powerful white neighbors. Such was the case in the collapse of the Freedman’s Savings Bank and the recent Wilmington massacre when the accumulations of a life were wantonly swept away and home-loving, law abiding citizens were forced into exile, their homes and little savings appropriated by others. In spite of this, however, some headway is making in material wealth and the tax lists in former slave states show a credit of several millions to the descendants of the enslaved.

But all his advancement in wealth and education count for nought, and ought to count for nought, if it be true as commonly reported in certain quarters that the Negro is a moral leper, and that sexually he is a dangerous animal in any community. It is said that those astounding exhibitions of fury and force which dizzy the head and sicken the heart of civilized people are necessary to cower his brutish passions and guard the Holy Grail of Saxon civilization. That the sanctity of pure homes, the inviolability of helpless womanhood must be protected at any cost, and that nothing but devastation and woe will suffice. That the Negro must be kept under a reign of terror to make him know his place and keep his distance. The iteration and reiteration of this sharp and swift retribution for the “unusual” crime is kept up although the crime has been again and again proved to be unusual by more than 90 percent, and statistics of lynchings and their causes have been published from year to year showing every cause for a black man’s being lynched from “Being impudent to a white man” to “Preaching Christ and Him crucified to a black man.” And yet we are told that these things have probably “no Federal aspects.” Don’t you think we would find a way to give them Federal aspects if it were poor old Spain lynching her obstreperous islanders?

Says Professor Shaler of Harvard: “When we recall the fact that there are now some five million Negro men in the South, and that not one in ten thousand is guilty of crime against womanhood, we see how imperfect is the basis of this judgment. We have also to remember,” he continues, “that, this offense when committed by a Negro is through action of the mob widely published while if the offender be a white man it is unlikely to be seen. I, therefore, hold to the belief that violence to women is not proved to be a crime common among the blacks. I am inclined to believe that on the whole there is less danger to be apprehended from them in this regard than from an equal body of whites of like social grade.” Such is the calm testimony of an expert sociologist who speaks after scientific investigation and careful analysis.

Is it creditable that this race which has under freedom caught so eagerly on the rungs of progress in other respects, has so shockingly deteriorated in this all-essential particular as to reverse all claims to humane consideration which they had won by patient service during long years of slavery? Have a race of men to whom masters, not over kind, were not afraid to entrust helpless women and children while faring-forth to rivet the fetters more firmly on their dumb driven bodies, and who without one single exception demonstrated remarkable fidelity, trustworthiness, reverence for women and kindliness toward children suddenly be come such monsters of lust and vindictiveness that a woman is not safe on the same highway with them? A noble army of Christian workers and helpers have gone to the South ever since the war, have lived with these people on terms of Christian sympathy and perfect social equality. Have you ever heard of one of these pure minded missionaries being insulted or outraged and her delicate sensibilities shocked by the unconquerable instincts of the men they came to help?

But you ask what is the need of today. How can the Negro be best helped? What can be done by the man who loves his fellow-man and needs not to be convinced of duties but only to be assured of methods. What is the best means of the Negro’s uplift and amelioration? I answer Christian education. This is nothing new you say; that experiment has been tried and tried, and there are even those whose faith in the efficacy of this expedient is beginning to flag and we are looking around to see if there be not some other, some quicker and surer way of doing the work. It is not a mistake to suppose that the same old human laws apply to these people? Is there not after all something within that dark exterior not yet dreamt of in our philosophy? Can we seriously take the Negro as a man, can we hope to apply the key that unlocks all other hearts and by a little human sympathy and putting our selves in his place learn to understand him and let him understand us?

Assuredly yes. The Negro is not a saint — neither is he an algebraic formula. His thirty-five or forty checkered years of freedom have not transfigured en masse ten million slaves into experienced, thrifty, provident, law abiding members of society. There are some criminal, some shiftless, some provokingly intractable and uneducable classes and groups among blacks, as there are still, unless I am misinformed also among whites. But philanthropy does not. balk at this, nor do we lose our belief in the efficacy of Christian teaching and preaching. Turn on the light — light, more light! There will always be some who do not live up to the light they have, but the Master has left us no alternative. “Ye are the light of this world.” We cannot draw lines where He recognized none. We cannot falter so long as there is a human soul in need of the light. We owe it in dependently of the worthiness or unworthiness of that soul. Does any one question that Jesus’ “vision” would have pierced to the heart and marrow of our national problem and what would be His teaching in America today as to who is my neighbor? For after all the Negro question in America today is the white man’s problem — nay, it is humanity’s problem. The past (in which the Negro was mostly passive, the white man active) has ordained that they shall be permanently neighbors. To colonize or repatriate the blacks to Africa or any other continent, is out of the question even if it were generally desired. But no sane man talks of deportation now except as an exploded chimera. For weal or woe the lots of these two peoples are united, indissolubly, eternally. And thinking people on both sides are convinced that each race needs the other. The negro is the most stable and reliable factor today in American industry. Patient and docile as a laborer, conservative, law-abiding, totally ignorant of the anarchistic, socialistic radicalism and nihilism of other lands, the American negro is cap able of contributing not only of his brawn and sinew but also from brain and character a much-needed element in American civilization; and here is his home — the only home he has ever known. His blood has mingled with the bluest and the truest on every battlefield that checkers his country’s history. His sweat and his toil have more than any other’s felled its forests, drained its swamps, plowed its fields, and opened up its roads and waterways, From the beginning was he here, a strong, staunch, and not unwilling worker and helper. His traditions, his joys, his sorrows are all here. He has imbibed the genius and spirit of its institutions, growing with their growth and gathering hope and strength from their strength and depth. Alien neither in language, religion, nor customs, the educated colored American is today the most characteristic growth of the American soil; its only truly indigenous development. He is the most American of Americans, for he alone has no other civilization than that America has to offer. Its foibles are his foibles, its weaknesses his, its grotesque malformations are all found photographed and writ large in the warp and woof of his character. Nor is it too much to hope that its possibilities and promise, also prefigure his ultimate struggle and achievement in evolving his civilization. As the character of Uncle Tom is considered the most unique in American literature, so the plantation melodies and corn songs form the most original contribution to its music.

Homogenous or not the American web is incomplete without the African thread that runs through it from the beginning. Mr. Bryce in his study of the American Commonwealth, says: “The South is confronted by a peculiar and menacing problem in the presence of a mass of Negroes larger than was the whole population of the Union in 1800, persons who, though they are legally and industrially members of the nation, are still virtually an alien element, unabsorbed and unabsorbable.”

A similar misapprehension was shown by the gifted author of the Bonnie Briar Bush in his “Impressions of America,” who thought that the Negroes were like the Chinese in constituting the sole exception to an otherwise homogeneous population. This fallacy is common, the explanation obvious. Social cleavage is strictly along the lines of color only. Jim crow cars are not for the unwashed of all races, not for the drunken rowdy and the degraded, ignorant, vicious rabble, not even for the pauper classes who cannot pay for superior comforts in traveling. Simply what is the tinge of pigment in your epidermal cells, or in the epidermal cells of your mother’s grandmother. The colored man or woman of culture or refinement is shoved into the same box with the filthy and the degraded, no matter what his ability to pay for and his desire to secure better accommodations. He cannot eat a sandwich in one of the “white” hotels nor set down his luggage in one of their waiting rooms at a railway station. The result is that students of American society, like Mr. Bryce and Ian McClaren never see or suspect the existence of intelligent, aspiring thinking men and women of color in the midst of this’s social system; men and women who are pondering its adjustments, chaffing, it may be, under its incongruities, and gathering strength no doubt to snap asunder one of these days its tissue, beltings and couplings. The American traveler sees and can account for only the black porter and colored bootblack, the waiter, and barber and scullion. He is introduced to the criminal records wherein the negro, because the poorest, weakest, least shielded class in the community figures, of course, at his full strength. He is taken for a drive through what would in New York or Philadelphia constitute a slum, appealing only to the Christ in good men to start a mission and send out their light and their love. But here both the priest and the Levite pass by on the other side. The missions are to seek and to save the lost who are white. Come unto me all ye white who are heavy laden — the poor white have the gospel preached to them. Sufier the little white children to come, for of such is the kingdom of heaven! Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul and strength and thy white neighbor as thyself. But these negro quarters, these submerged souls, this “darkest America” — ah, this is our terrible “problem!” This mass that menaces Anglo-Saxon civilization, “unabsorbed and unabsorbable.” By this time our traveler is wholly inoculated. It is a peculiar problem to be sure. He does not quite see how the question can be solved. He is disposed, with Mr. Bryce, to trust much to the vis medicatrix naturae and to hope that somehow, somewhere, and some time, the Sphinx will answer its own riddle, it may be, under its incongruities, and gathering strength no doubt to snap asunder one of these days its tissue, beltings and couplings. The American traveler sees and can account for only the black porter and colored bootblack, the waiter, and barber and scullion. He is introduced to the criminal records wherein the negro, because the poorest, weakest, least shielded class in the community figures, of course, at his full strength. He is taken for a drive through what would in New York or Philadelphia constitute a slum, appealing only to the Christ in good men to start a mission and send out their light and their love. But here both the priest and the Levite pass by on the other side. The missions are to seek and to save the lost who are white. Come unto me all ye white who are heavy laden—the poor white have the gos pel preached to them. Sufier the lit tle white children to come, for of such is the kingdom of heaven! Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul and strength and thy white neighbor as thyself. But these ne gro quarters, these submerged souls, this “darkest America” — ah, this is our terrible “problem!” This mass that menaces Anglo-Saxon civilization, “unabsorbed and unabsorb able.” By this time our traveler is wholly inoculated. It is a peculiar problem to be sure. He does not quite see how the question can be solved. He- is disposed, with Mr. Bryce, to trust much to the vis me dicatrix naturae and to hope that somehow, somewhere, and some time, the Sphinx will answer its own riddle.

And yet I am no pessimist regard ing the future of my people in America. God reigns, and the good will prevail — it must prevail. While these are times that try men’s souls; while a weak and despised people are called upon to vindicate their right to exist in the face of a race of hard, jealous, all-subduing instincts, while the iron of their bitter wrath and prejudice seems entering the very bones and marrow of my people, I have faith to believe that God has not made us for nought and He has not ordained to wipe us out from the face of the earth. I believe, moreover, that America is the land of destiny for the descendants of the enslaved race, that here in the house of their bondage, are the seeds of promise for their ultimate enfrachisement and development. I maintain this in full knowledge of what at any time may be wrought by a sudden paroxysm of rage caused by the meaningless war-whoop of some obscure but ambitious politician; such as the rally word of “negro domination,” which at times deafens and bemuddles all ears. Negro domination, think of it! The great American eagle soaring majestically sunward, eyes ablaze with conscious power, suddenly screaming and shivering for fear of a little black starling which he can crush with the smallest finger of his claw! Yet this mad shriek is allowed to unbridle the worst passions of wicked men, to seal up and stifle the holiest instincts of good men. In dread of domination by a race whom they out number five to one,with every advantage in civilization, wealth, culture, with absolute mastery of every civil and military nerve center, Anglo Saxon America is in danger of forgetting how to deal justly,to love mercy, to walk humbly with its God!

In the old days I am told that two or three negroes gathered together in supplication and prayer were not allowed to present their petition at the throne of Grace without having it looked over and revised by a white man — for fear, probably, that white domination under a “peculiar” system might be endangered at the Court of the Almighty by those faltering lips and uncultured tongues! The same fear cowers the white man’s heart today. He dare not face his God with a lie on his lips. “These silent, sullen peeples” (so called because unknown sympathetically) are the touchstone of his conscience. America, with all her wealth and grandeur, with all her pride of inventions and mastery of the forces of nature, with all her breadth of principles and height of ideals, will never be at peace with herself till this question is settled, and settled, right. It is the conscience in her throat that is unabsorbed and unabsorbable!

The despairing wail of Macbeth’s bloodstained queen in all her gilded misery, at the moment of her sickening success, was profoundly and everlastingly true: “Better be that which we destroy!” It is in the power of this mighty nation to turn upon us in a St. Bartholomew’s massacre and in one bloody day reckon us among the extinct races of history. A Governor of Georgia said he thought “a dead negro in the back yard” a way to settle this question, and someone else recommended that a reward be ofiered for every one so disposed of. But the negro’s blood on this great nation becomes a heavier burden than the negro’s presence. His extermination will weigh more than all the weight of his uplift and regeneration.

A nation’s dishonor is a far more serious problem to settle than the extension of a brother’s hand and a Christian’s grip by a favored race that owes the light to others.

“Is your God a wooden fetish, to be hidden out of sight,
That his block eyes may not see you do the thing that is not right?
But the Destinies think not so; to their judgment chamber lone
Comes no voice of pepular clamor. Fame‘s trumpet is not blown.
But their silent way they keep.
Where empires towered that were not just
Lo the skulking wild fox scratches in a little heap of dust.”

This it were well for great Powers to ponder. The right to rule entails the obligation to rule right. Righteousness, and righteousness only, exalteth a nation and the surest guarantee of the perpetuity of our institutions is an alliance with God’s eternal forces that make for righteousness and justness in the world.

As for the negro, there can be no doubt that these trials are God’s plan for the refinement of the good gold to be found in him. The dross must be purged out. There is no other way than by fire. If the great Refiner sees that a stronger, truer, purer, racial character can be evolved from His crucible by heating the furnace seven times, He can mean only good. With hearty earnestness the million and a half colored boys and girls in the public schools South repeat on June 14th the salute to their country’s flag: “I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the country for which it stands.” I commend these boys and girls to you for as staunch and loyal a yeomanry as any country can boast of. They are Americans — true and bona fide citizens — by birth and blood incontestable.

Whatever may be problematical about us, our citizenship is beyond question. We have owned no other allegiance, have bowed before no other sovereign. Never has hand of ours been raised either in open rebellion or secret treachery against the Fatherland. Our proudest aspiration has been but to serve her, the crown of our glory to die for her. We were born here through no choice of our own or our ancestors; we cannot expatriate ourselves even if we would. When the wild forces of hate and unholy passion are left to run riot against us, our hearts recoil no more in dread of such a catastrophe to ourselves, than in grief and shame at the possibility of such a fall and such a failure from our country’s high estate. It is impossible that we should not feel the unnatural prejudice environing us like stones between our teeth and iron in the marrow of our bones. If at such times we cannot sing “America” it is not because of any treason lurking in our hearts. Our harps are hung on the willows — and in the Babylon of our sorrow — we needs must sit down and weep. But no dynamite plots are hatching amongst us, no uprising brewing. We are a song-loving people, and that song of all songs we would love to sing; and we challenge the lustiest singer to sing it more lustily and more eloquently than we. But when the wound is festering and the heart is so sore, we can only suffer and be silent, praying God to change the hearts of our misguided countrymen, and help them to see the things that make for righteousness.

Then pray we shall that come it may,
For come it will for a’ that,
That man to man the world o‘er
Shall brothers be for a ’that.”



Source: Proceedings of the Friends’ General Conference, First Day School, Philanthropic, Educational, Religious, Young Friends’ Associations, Held at Asbury Park, NJ, 1902 (Asbury Park), 1902, pp. 112-124.


Also: Anna J. Cooper Papers, Manuscript Division, Moorland-Springard Research Center, Howard University, Washington DC