Some of the Dangers
Confronting Southern Girls in the North
July 21, 1898 — Hampton Negro Conference, Academic and Virginia Halls, Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, Hampton VA
If the majority of the girls who go North every year, understood the condition of the labor market, the estimate in which the crowds are held, who are willing to adopt any method of transportation for the sake of getting to the North and the kind of work they must expect to do, and an inkling of the many humiliations they must put up with after they get there from their so-called friends, it is reasonable to suppose that self-respect would deter hundreds from rushing into a life that only the strongest physically, spiritually and morally can be be expected to stand. But the girls don’t know: they feel stifled in the dead country town. Their very nature turns scornfully from the thought of supporting themselves in the home village by raising vegetables, chickens, making honey, butter, canning fruit or vegetables, putting up pickles and such like. And yet could they spend a few weeks with me, and hear the agonized moans, of many a heart broken, disgraced young creature, from whom only a few short sin-stained years of city life, has taken every vestige of hope, every chance of innocent happiness. — could they hear as I have heard the one cry over and over, — “Oh, had I known — had I only staid down home,” and seen the despair upon young faces when some sympathizing one would ask, “Why not go back?,” “Go back! Never! I could not face the folks; I’d rather die.” Could even some of the women see and hear these things, the condition of our people in the cities would soon change and many a life would be saved, many a home protected and blessed. But the girls don’t know, it is simply a story of human nature-only “the burnt child really dreads the fire” it would seem, and until the truth is known in every town and hamlet in the South, the youth of our race, educated and uneducated alike, will pay with their bright young lives, and the sacrifice of all that is noble, not only for our ignorance, but our sinful negligence in watching over and protecting our struggling working class against the hordes of unscrupulous money-making combinations that make the study of their needs and limitations for traps in moral and human life without a parallel in this country. So successful have been the operations of certain associations for the bringing of young innocent girls from the South for immoral purposes, that all southern girls are commonly adjudged to be weak morally. And the earnest young girl leaving her home for a northern city must expect to face this. So many of the careless, unneat, untrained, shiftless class have been brought out simply as blinds and imposed upon by ladies, for the purpose of lessening the demand among honest respectable people for colored help, that the demand has greatly fallen off. Combinations can’t get as much money in the way of office fees from respectable people as from the disreputable class, hence every effort is made to increase trade among the latter, even at the expense of the innocence of ignorant and unprotected young girls.
Every week, from the early spring till the late fail crowds arrive by the Southern Steamship Lines. They are spoken of as “crops.” A “crop” will ordinarily last about five years. There are always new recruits and the work of death and destruction goes on without let or hindrance under the very eaves of the churches as it were. Never did the words of Jeremiah, the prophet, seem more fitting than at this time and in this connection; “Yet hear the voice of the Lord oh, ye women, and let your ear receive the word of his mouth, and teach your daughter wailing and every one her neighbor lamentation. For death is come up in our palaces to cut off the children from without, and the young men from the streets.” — Jere, 9, 20-21.
Many of the dangers confronting our girls from the South in the great cities of the North are so perfectly planned, so overwhelming in their power to subjugate and destroy that no women’s daughter is safe away from home. And now that this honored institution has enabled the message to come to you, no women here can shirk without sin the obligation to study into this matter to the end that the evil may be completely exterminated, and protection guaranteed to the lives and reputations of the generations yet to come.
In order that my meaning may be perfectly clear I will confine myself to one of the dangers confronting the southern girls, one designed expressly to make money out of their helplessness and ignorance, and of which innumerable dangers spring into existence in a way so bewildering as to make life in New York and other large centers a perfect net-work of moral degradation for the unknowingly unfortunate who may happen to fall into its toils. Black men and women are often the promoters of this vile scheme, but it is by no means confined to them, for on actual investigation as many white men will be found in it as black. The very necessities of the case demand that Afro-Americans be the figure heads at least, and the fact that men and women can be found of our race willing to aid such work but illustrates the extent of certain phases of racial deterioration.
As has been said, the sporting and otherwise disreputable class prefer green southern girls as servants. They pay higher wages and higher office fees than any other class. Their mode of living offers many inducements to untrained and inexperienced workers, considerable time, a chance to make extra money, and unrestricted opportunity for entertaining promiscuous company. Pretty girls are always in demand, but not at first as servants. In order to supply the demand made by this class of patrons safe, the interest of the public must be deflected. A general employment bureau is planned. The patronage and sympathy of the public is sought on the ground that in helping the earnest but almost despairing idle class of the south to better homes a grand work of humanity will be done. Agents are sent throughout the South. Great promises are held out to the people; many are helped, particularly those too wise to be fooled. The agent offers to send a certain number off on a certain day: he tells them that an “officer” from the “Society” will meet them and conduct them to the “office” and lodging house. Another officer will procure service places for them, and all they are to do in return is to sign a paper giving the company the right to collect their wages until traveling expenses are paid back.
As soon as they arrive in New York they find the company treats them as so many head of cattle. They are huddled in dirty ill-smelling apartments, many feeling lucky if a pallet is given them to sleep on the floor. Often girls are forced to sleep on their own clothes. The food provided is not only very scant but often of the most miserable quality. No privacy is secured to them. Men can pass out an in at will and not infrequently they sleep in the same room owing to over-crowding. Board and lodging is regularly charged against each one at regular city prices, also storage for trunks, The Society will collect wages until all debts are fully cancelled according to their reckoning. Hundreds are provided with work, and if it were merely a question of an organized body charging first class fare for second class passage, extorting illegal rates of interest, herding the good, the had and the indifferent into regular prescribed city dens making possible contact with every phase of vicious life, not excepting petty gambling, if this were all it would he simply a matter for the courts, but this is not all.
While the girls are waiting for work they are not permitted to see any lady who may call. All particulars are given and agreements are made in the “office.” A girl will he sent to a place. Should she become dissatisfied with the character of the people and refuse to remain, the agent will threaten her with court proceedings, for broken contract, etc. Thoroughly cowed, she will remain with the determination to go on her own responsibility after she has worked out her debt. She does not know that no lady will care to employ her, will trust or even tolerate her in the family after she has had such contact; the girl does not know this, she determines to get out of the agent’s debt and hunt for her self the kind of work she prefers. Hundreds mean this, but daily contact with depraved characters, daily association. with friends (?) whose business it is to corrupt the mind of the subject by timely comments and subtle suggestions, destroys the good intention and many go down, their day is a brief one. They drift back to the “office” and become part of another circle of wickedness and depravity. Under the guidance of the officers various camps are countenanced, that is a man will be found who is willing to pose as husband. Innocent girls, tired of waiting day in and day out around the office will be decoyed, and soon they become regular members of the camp, (a couple of rooms will be rented and the girls will pose as lodgers.)’ from operating “traveling policy” and other petty gambling schemes they drift to the street. When any one of the camp is arrested the man appears and pleads for “my wife.” Probably in the course of a month he appears before the same magistrate for four or five different women, each one claimed as “wife.” In turn all the women of the camp share their earnings with him. When, by their combined efforts, a young and pretty girl is ensnared all will bunch their earnings, deck her out in fine clothes and diamonds the “husband” becomes a sort of contractor, and in due time she is entered into some “swell set.” Hundreds of dollars are made in this way, and distributed among the “company” the “camp” and the officers protecting both institutions. The poor butterfly finally drifts, a mass of disease and yearning for death, to the city hospital on Blackwell’s Island! — begging piteously to be recorded as coming from anywhere but where she did come from, screaming in the abandonment of despair — “O! if I had only known! If I had only known!”
By various sophistries many refined, educated girls, particularly mulattoes and fair quadroons, are secured for the diversion of young Hebrews (the identity of their offspring is easily lost among Afro-Americans.) These girls are led to believe they will get permanent work in stores and public service under the control of politics. So our “tenderloins” are filled. The public, seeing these women haunting certain portions of the city in such an unfailing stream, takes it for granted that all black people — all Afro-Americans are naturally low. The trade which supplies southern girls as domestics so disreputable has been carried to such an extent that many ladies refuse to employ colored help for no other reason than that they are associated in the public mind with that class, and the idea prevalent that they are “signs” or “badges” as to the whereabouts of these people. Thousands of Afro-Americans throughout the city are employed by this class, and the standard of the race is gauged by them. The small percentage comparatively speaking of the refined working girls is so hopelessly small that those in charge of desirable work unhesitatingly refuse to consider the application made by a nice Afro-American girl, until public sentiment has been created in favor of employing her along with respectable white girls. In other words the public must be convinced that there is another class that is represented by the depraved class commonly met with on the streets and in certain localities. The common standard of life must be elevated. The “tenderloins” must be purified. Corrective influences must be established in the infested centres. Torches must be lighted in dark places. The sending of untrained youth into the jaws of moral death must be checked. Any girl taking her chances in the cities in this stage of our history must expect in some way to be affected by the public repute of the misguided lives led by those preceding her. Unless a girl has friends whom she and her family know are to be trusted, unless she has money enough to pay her way until she can get work, she cannot expect to be independent or free from question among careful people.
These are hard truths, but truths they are. The conditions I have tried to present are not confined to any one city; by correspondence and personal investigation I have found evidences of the system in such centres as New York, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, and other cities of lesser note. You may ask what is to he done about this awful condition? Naturally the indignant mind would immediately suggest the bringing of the guilty ones to justice. That must be done, but not in the ordinary way. All employment systems are not necessarily combined against virtue. The wrong doers are not ignorant of the law. They know their limitations, and the loop-holes-for their legal escape is simply a question of money. It would take the absorbing interest of more lives than one to ferret out all the real responsible culprits. Then the bringing of the guilty ones to justice is likely to blast the hopes of many a girl who now sees the light, and is building again slowly the mined castle of honor. Such should be protected. This iniquitous system has the advantage of many years headway. It cannot be overthrown in a day. Let women and girls become enlightened, let them begin to think, and stop placing themselves voluntarily in the power of strangers. Let them search into the workings of every institution under whose auspices they contemplate traveling North. If they have no means of learning somewhat of every one connected with the business represented by a “traveling agent,” let them stay at home, it is better to starve and go home to God morally clean, than to helplessly drag out miserable lives of remorse and pain in Northern tenderloins.
As Virginia seems to have been the starting point of the system, (and its beginning dates shortly after the first honest intelligence office began operations in the South — just as soon as men saw there was money in it) it is meet that appeal should be made at this conference not only in behalf of Virginia’s absent daughters, but the long-suffering cruelly wronged, sadly unprotected daughters of the entire South.
Source: Report of the Hampton Negro Conference, Number II, July 1898, (Hampton, VA: Hampton Institute Press), 1898, pp. 62-69.