May 31, 1909 — National Negro Conference, Charity Organization Hall, New York City
The color problem does not pertain to this alone, still less to a particular section of the country. The cry so often heard, “This is a southern problem,” “The South alone understands the Negro,” “Leave this matter to us” is but a repetition of the old cry which we heard before the war. The same human passion and sectional pride, the same sense of special ownership and right of final appeal inspires the later as the earlier cry. The color question is a national problem, it is a question of republican faith and well-being. Its just settlement is a matter of national honor and moral consistency. If the Negro is a citizen of these United States then his safety and welfare should be as much a matter of patriotic concern in Massachusetts and Illinois as in Mississippi and Alabama. Sectional feeling has no place in the settlement of this problem any more than in questions of the tariff and railway control.
We know what the situation is in India and South Africa, in the Philippines and on the California coast. Everywhere the dark-skinned man is coming to the front, claiming his share in the great comprehensive boon of civilization, with all it holds or implies of material benefit, of individual opportunity, of intellectual gain and social partnership in the common task of building a race that is only incidentally white or black, Oriental or Occidental, Teutonic, Asiatic or Negroid, but first and mainly human. Had we a tithe of the faith and courage which our political and religious professions are supposed to bestow we should recognize in this race or color question but one more demand for those manhood rights which we pretend to grant to all alike, one more application, in a case of special urgency and need which should win instant response, of that religion of reason and righteous ness which we profess.
It is not the Negro who is at stake in this controversy, deep and widespread as are his wrongs. It is the white man, the white man s civilization, the white man s republic. It is not a question of Negro supremacy, but of the worth of those claims to superiority which are so easily alarmed for their own safety and continuance. It is not a question of the black man s political enfranchisement, important and just as this phase of the question is. The Negro can better afford to lose his vote than the white man can afford to deprive him of it. The main question underlying this and all our social problems the woman question, the labor question, and a host of minor problems is one that casts doubt on all our high professions of democracy and humanity. What is our republic worth? How long and in what fashion will it continue to exist? What is our Christianity worth? Whence do we derive from the Sermon on the Mount or from those notions of hierarchy and social separation which the church as an institution condones and fosters?
The present greatest need of the Negro in this country is the discriminating friendship of the white man. The Negro suffers from a wholesale judgment that makes no distinctions or exceptions. It is only the Negro as cook or butler, waiter or porter, whom the average white man knows and takes into account. What a commentary on our Americanism is that state of mind which decrees an entire class or portion of the state and com munity to a position of fixed inferiority. The crux of the race question lies not at all in any feeling we may have, favorable or unfavorable, towards the colored cook or butler. It is not the class to which these belong that suffers most from race prejudice, but the colored man and woman who has risen far above the position of menial service, necessary and honorable as this may be. It is the educated man who through hardship and sacrifice, such as in any other case than the American Negro s would have won for him friendly recognition and re ward, finds himself in spite of all his efforts still subject to the same popular disfavor, the same restrictions as before.
I do not forget the Negro’s share of responsibility for the situation from which he and we suffer. I do not for get the mass of black idleness, ignorance and vice with which the social reformer must deal. The Negro has accomplished marvels for himself in many cases of individual worth and attainment, signalized in names like Washington, Du Bois, Kelly Miller, Scarborough, Kealing, the Grimke brothers, but no one knows so well as these how deep and dire, how constant and pressing are the needs in the lower stratum of Negro life, not in the South alone but in the large cities of the North.
We are in less danger to-day from the crass barbarities of the Tillmans, the Dixons and the Vardamans than from the super-refined and highly intellectualized utter ances of certain distinguished scholars. When Senator Tillman accidentally runs across Booker Washington in White House and, having never before seen the distinguished man of color, improves the occasion to look him over carefully, arid says to a waiting reporter afterwards, “He has white blood in him,” we only smile with amusement, and comfort ourselves with the reflection that if Mr. Tillman represents the type that is purely white we have reason to be thankful for the mixture of blood currents in the veins of his dark-skinned compatriot.
But when the venerable leader of our most distinguished seat of learning, founded on Pilgrim faith and love of liberty, speaks with unqualified condemnation of race unions of every kind and degree, even be tween separate families of the same race household, as the English and the Scandinavian, we are in truth grieved and discouraged. But we are at the same time thankful that men like Frederick Douglass and Booker Washington were luckily born and given to the world before the monstrous evil of their mixed race inheritance was discovered.
If race mixture, particularly the mixture of black and white, is of such injurious effect, let us address our argu ments and appeals, our warnings and rebukes, to the guilty party the white man of the South and of the North, Let us attach the crime and the crime s punishment to the sinning factor, and not darken innocent lives and increase ill-doing, punishing the guiltless progeny of such unions. The attitude of the average mind, learned or unlearned, on this phase of the question is as shame less as it is cruel, in its open connivance at crime and social misdoing The majority of people care very little about race mixture so long as it keeps itself safe from polite observation under the dark cloak of illicit practices. It is only when seeking to lift itself from the level of passion and shield itself in honest marriage, graced and upheld by the moralities and amenities of the home, that the sense of moral outrage is aroused. A strange anomaly.
This Race Conference meets at a timely hour and it should be the beginning of a permanent organization, with branches in every large center, whose work is to complete the upbuilding of the republic, to make good our professions of human brotherhood. Its aim must be twofold, to arouse the sense of responsibility among the more privileged and powerful, where social favor and opportunity are found on the white man’s side. Its work for the black man is to help and encourage in all ways which conduce to a high and self-respecting, self-sustaining type of manhood.
Source: Proceedings of the National Negro Conference, 1909, New York, May 31 and June 1 (New York: National Negro Conference) 1909, pp. 74-78.