Some Testimony in the Case

Conversations with Southerners about race relations and life in the aftermath of the Civil War

Library of Congress

The discussions of the negro problem in Northern and Southern reviews last winter, it is true, showed us the subject from widely different points of view. But if any Northerner, living quietly at home, surrounded only by white faces, supposes that these pictures of the great struggle of race in the South have discovered the whole of it to him, he is greatly mistaken.

An impartial traveler through the Southern States just now must feel that he is in the middle of a great game, which will decide the future of the negro, and in which every man or woman that he meets, white or black, is taking a part. The result of this struggle, if not a matter of life and death to either race, will certainly affect permanently their domestic relations, their commercial prosperity, and the place which the South will hereafter hold in the scale of civilized peoples. The Southern people everywhere are ready to talk freely of this matter, and every man has his own positive opinion about it. He looks at the problem from the standing-point of his own plantation, or family, or factory, and is quite sure that he of all men in the country sees it clearly and has found the answer to it.

It occurred to me, while in the Gulf States, last winter, that this conflicting testimony from actual witnesses in the case would surprise and interest other Southerners. It seems to be so difficult in that part of the world to understand why your neighbor differs with you in opinion!

Northern readers are apt to listen to all varying statements of troubles in the South as they might to the different slogans of clans who come into the world only to fight each other. It would be far more just if they would receive them as the candid utterances of men who, whether white or black, are, like ourselves, struggling honestly to live at peace and happily with each other, and to make life fuller and nobler for their children than it has been for themselves. The educated white Southerner seldom thinks or talks now of the war or of slavery. His hands are full of the immediate struggle for a living, and in this work the negro helps or thwarts him at every turn.

I have tried to set down fragments of conversation or letters, which will explain some of these complex relations, giving as closely as possible the literal words of the speakers.

First, then, let us hear a cotton planter near Montgomery, Alabama.

He was asked, “What is the difficulty in the way of the Alabamians? You ought to make a great commercial success, in five years. You have apparently limitless resources in iron and coal. You have good soil, and your planters understand their business scientifically. Capital is coming in steadily from the North. What else do you want?”

“White labor,” he promptly replied, — “white labor. The abolition of slavery lifted a great weight from the shoulders of the ruling class in the South. I acknowledge that now. If the blacks could be lifted en masse and dropped into Africa, it would be still greater relief. if I, for instance, could work twenty intelligent Germans instead of two hundred negroes, I could double my cotton crop this year.”

“You certainly have had time to train the negro as a laborer. Where does he fall short?”

He laughed. “’Train!’ Look at that fellow holding up the fence yonder. He is a fair specimen of the field hands on a large plantation. Laziness is inborn in him; it is part of his flesh and his blood. It is as incurable as leprosy. He will pretend to work for four days, and on the fifth go off for a fortnight without a word. It matters nothing to him that it is the most critical point of the year’s work. He has neither reason, nor conscience, nor ambition, to which you can appeal. No, nor even greed. He would rather sneak off and sleep all day with a nickel in his pocket than work two days longer for ten dollars. He has the mind of an animal, and, I begin to think, can be governed, like an animal, only by the lash. However, the day is over for that,” shrugging his shoulders.

“But his moral sense, — his gratitude?”

“He has neither. He takes a new wife every year, and he steals from me while I am looking at him. He reckons me an exceptionally kind ‘boss,’ too.

“But this is only one man, of millions.”

“The great mass of field hands are alike. It is an ugly story, but it is plain fact.”

* * *

An aged lady in Virginia, the head of a large family, who still lives on the old plantation: —

“These are not all my own old people that work the place now,” she said, scanning the haymakers, as they came in, with a shrewd, kindly smile. “Only one third were our own; the others gathered in from the old places in the neighborhood, when strangers bought them. They are not the lowest class of laborers, as you see. We pay them good wages, and they are not driven. I hear many complaints, she added, about the idleness and incompetency of the negro. But he was just as idle and incompetent before the war. Only now the planter is poor; he hires the laborer instead of owning him, and he feels the necessity of getting the worth of his money from him.”

“You do not think, then, that freedom has elevated these people?”

“I can speak only for my own plantation.” She hesitated. “In one way, yes. Most of the young people now can read and write. The elder negroes are eager to get money, to push their children on, to make them, as they say, like the whites. Further than that I fail to see any good results. Their education has not been put to any practical purpose. It cannot be used, as with us, in helping them up into trades or professions. It has made them ambitious and restless, and there is no outlet for them but manual labor. Their ambition usually ends in gaudy clothes, and their restlessness in a bitter antipathy and insolence to the whites. The old loyal affection of the negro to his master, though you may think the master did not deserve it, was an ennobling quality in the slave. He has lost it, and suspicion and self-conceit have taken its place. Merely teaching a child to read and write, or even to cipher, will not give it a higher character. These people here know less of the Bible and of God than when the old Methodist preacher and I taught them and they could not read. Now they read penny song books and the lowest flash newspapers. They are more tricky, vain, and vulgar than they were as slaves.”

“Do you think the color line will ever be blotted out in the South?” asked one of her listeners. “The Civil Rights Bill was fought with inhuman prejudice here, it seemed to us.”

“Inhuman?” Her fair old face reddened. “How was it in the North? How long was it after you had freed your slaves in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania before you admitted them to the cars and theatres? Do they sit at your tables now? Al, no! We may make laws, as Lady Mary said, but we all follow customs! And how can the North, that has been so tardy in this matter, sneer at us or urge us to our duty? The negro will not receive social recognition in my day,” with a sigh of relief.

* * *

Cloty (or Madame Clotilde, as the other freedmen called her) was a stout, neat, keen-eyed mulatto in a cotton-raising district on the Gulf.

“A very rich country,” she told us, adding, with a certain pride, “Mos’ of de planters yahbouts worked from three hundred to a thousand slaves. Dere idee of livin’ was to dress ‘n’ drink ‘n’ go to de springs ‘n’ play kyards on de money dere people made foh dem. When we was took ‘way from dem, it was like knockin’ de bottom outen de tub. Dey jes’ fell, ‘n’ dey don’ seem t’ recober demselves. But it’s our time now! De good Lohd sees to dat! I reckon,” she added, “’t was ‘s bad a place foh de black man yahbouts ‘s any in de Souf. De rich planters, dey leab eberyt’ing ‘n’ de han’s ob oberseers, ‘n’ de hardest ob dem was Yankees. But de wust marsters was de pore folk who on’y owned one or two. Dey was such litty bit ‘bove dere people dey keep de distance by countin’ em as dogs.”

Her husband was the owner of a carriage, in which he drove strangers about the town: a burly, Celtic-looking fellow, with sullen light eyes and straight brown hair, the passions of a colder-blooded race than that of the negro smouldering in his face. He, too, boasted proudly of the “old families,” and the state they kept, until one of the strangers said carelessly, —

“I suppose all those stories of the cruelty of slavery were exaggerated.”

He glanced sharply at the speaker, and did not speak for a minute or two; then he said in a low voice, “I’ll be fah. ‘T wa’n’t so bad foh de house suhvants ob gemmen. Dey was gemmen. But dese low white marsters! Why, madam, s’pose yoh be a cook, ‘n’ you got two nice litty gals, ‘n’ some man he see one, ‘n’ want her, ‘n’ he go to ole mas’, ‘n’ to sabe a fuss dey say to you, ‘Send Susy to de stoh, foh matches, or soap, or somepin’.’ An’ she go, ‘n’ de man he waitin’ at de stoh, ‘n’ you nebber see your chile ag’in in dis wurl’! Or, you be a man, ‘n’ you see you mas’ or he’s son knock you wife or you litty gal down, ‘n’ you dahsn’t say, ‘Please, sah, don’t!’ Cruel, did you say? Good Lohd! My ole mas’ owned twenty people. He couldn’t read or write. He know’d no more dan a debbil fish, ‘n’ he keer no’ mo what he kill. I knowed a boy—a boy of fohteen—bucked head to feet, ‘n’ de lash laid on till he sick foh days.” His eyes were set, and the blood settled in mottled spots on his jaws, as he talked. “’N’ as soon ‘s he could stan’, a collar put on his neck ‘n’ a chain from dat to he’s feet, ‘n’ him ploughin’ all day wid he’s head down, ‘n’ at night salt brine poured on his raw back. Great God in heaven! ‘N’ me only a boy of fohteen! I was ole mas’s grandson, sah. He terr’ble temper! When he get in fury he tear he’s hat off he’s head ‘n’ tramp it like mad bull. ‘N’ one day when dey push me so hard I get fah wild, ‘n’ rush in from de field ‘n’ tell him to he’s face to shoot me, foh God’s sake! I couldn’t stan’ libin’ no longer. ‘N’ de folks tell me dat I tore de cloes off me, ‘n’ tramp em down; ‘n’ at dat, old mas’ look at me scart ‘n’ say, quite quiet, ‘Take him to de cabin.’”

He drove on in silence for some time and then said, “I t’ink sometimes dat pore boy hab hard times!” with an unsteady laugh. Pointing to a gibbet-like structure in the middle of the shady street, “Dah’s de ole whippin’-post,” he said. “‘N’ hyah,” turning into a settlement of comfortable, tidy houses, “hyah’s whah we cullored folks lib now, ‘n’ dis is de college foh our chillen,” stopping before a large brick house, which he told us had been built and endowed by a few wealthy ex-slaveholders. He was greatly pleased when he went in, and followed us, the teacher addressing him respectfully as Mr. Paxton, shaking his hand, and telling him of his children’s progress. After we had left the school, he asked if he might show us his house, which was a pretty, white, vine-covered cottage in a large garden. He called his three “litty gals” out, and was very proud and happy in them.

As we drove away, he said, “When we fus’ start, my wife go out to cook, ‘n’ we banked every dollah, till we build dat house. Den I say, ‘You stay home, Cloty, ‘n’ cook, ‘n’ patch, ‘n’ sew, ‘n’ de gals go to school, ‘n’ I scratch foh dem all outside.’ ‘N’ next year I goin’ build a sittin’-room to dat house foh de gals: ‘n’ I’ll paint it all up. ‘N’ mebbe,” with a delighted chuckle, “when strangers from de Norf come ridin’ by, same as you, dey’ll t’ink white folks lib in dat house! But sometimes I t’ink, sah, sposen my litty gals been born ‘foh the wah, ‘n’ somebody want ‘em, ‘n’ dey be sent down street to de stoh, ‘n’ come back no more!”

It is impossible to see the present of the negro in its true light without the background of the past.

* * *

Hear now the Northern owner of a plantation in one of the Gulf States: —

“I have owned this place for fifteen years, and I have tried honestly in that time to better the condition of the negroes I employ. Without being an active abolitionist, I was no believer in slavery. I did believe that these people, by patience and rational treatment, could be elevated. But I am totally discouraged. I had a good deal of feeling in the matter, and gave it my personal attention. We went to work practically. I built them decent cabins; my wife gave them some furniture and a few little comforts. I paid them liberally, and explained to them that the better their work, the better should be their wages. There was the foundation for useful citizenship. It was of no use. They will not understand the uses of work. Then they are gregarious in their filth and idleness. Build six cabins for six families, and in a month they will all be living (or kenneling) in two, and burning the others for firewood. My wife gave them hens, ducks, etc., promising to buy their eggs and poultry. But they immediately had a grand feast on the fowls, and ever since have robbed her hen-roosts. It is impossible to keep poultry, tools, or anything else which can be carried away. No, to be just, they are not all alike. Here and there, one, like Job, my coachman, is honest and truthful, and will work hard for my interest and his own. There are probably half a dozen such among our people. You will find such on every plantation. But the others borrow, beg, or steal from them. An industrious negro always has a load of lazy kinsfolk to carry, and he carries them without grumbling.”

Job, however, on inquiry, was found to have “banked” enough to buy a house and patch of ground, in spite of his load.

A business man in New Orleans, a Southerner and former slaveholder: “It is hardly fair to judge of the place which the negro can hold in the future, among the workers of this country, by the present generation. They are still weighted by the ignorance of slavery and (what is perhaps as heavy a load) their intense self-conceit, which is largely due to the influence of the carpet-baggers who flooded the country after the war. They convinced the negro not only that he was entitled to freedom and suffrage, but that, without education, skill, or even a wish to work, he was as good a man as his master. Why, there are negroes holding office now in Louisiana, justices of the peace and post-masters, who can neither read nor write their own names. It would be hard, under these circumstances, to convince the rest of their race that success in life depends on knowledge, skill, honesty, or work. But in thirty years another generation, at least partially educated, will have supplanted the ex-slaves. They will have more intelligence and common sense than the present freed-men, and will have found out that a man’s place, be he white or black, depends on the way in which he does his special work.”

* * *

An outspoken Mississippian wrote, “As for the system of convict labor, it seems cruel to Northerners, no doubt. But we have a mass of ignorant paupers to carry. What better use can we make of them than to set them to open mines and build roads? They help civilization in that way as they can in no other.”

A leading politician in another State said, still more frankly, “We were forced to give up slavery. But we have got hold of a better thing for us than slavery.”

Many prominent Georgians denounced it as “an atrocious cruelty, a sin against humanity.”

The editor of one of the most influential Southern journals: “We are accused by certain demagogues, both here and in the North, with injustice to our freed slaves; as for instance, in the system of convict labor, in social oppression, keeping them out of hotels, theatres, etc. I can only say in reply, The negro is a voter, and the South is giving him the education which will enable him to defend himself intelligently against legalized tyranny. She is taxing herself heavily for his schools; she is putting her own shoulder to the wheel to lift him out of the mire; she is, in short, helping him in the surest way to help himself. That is an argument which is, as yet, unanswered. As for social rank, that is a matter which, as you know, no legislation can reach. It was folly to attempt to do it.”

A clergyman, born in the South, said, “These different attempts to describe the position of the negro and to define his future remind me of the fable of the travelers who met in an inn, and began to discuss the chameleon. ‘It is green,’ said one. ‘It is blue,’ said another. ‘It is yellow,’ said a third. ‘I have one here and to convince you’—He opened the box, and the lizard came out—white. Mr. Cable, Mr. Grady, and other recent essayists see the same subject, but with different lights on it. The character and the claims of the colored man differ with each individual precisely as do those of the white. They have their political rights: they are receiving education. For the rest they must work it out. Admission to theatres, cars, etc., will come, probably, as they show their fitness to rank as the equals of refined and well-bred people. But it will be slowly, as in the North. One thing, however, I will say with full conviction, and that is that the freed-man receives from nobody, not even his Northern teacher, as much real personal sympathy or intelligent comprehension of his character and wants as from the better class of his former owners.”

A beautiful and educated woman, married to a man as white as any Englishman, in telling her story, said, “My father’s family were wealthy Germans. I have my blood and my fair skin and gray eyes from them. There is nothing to show that my mother was an octoroon but these dark patches on the palms of my hands. But that is enough. My father, out of his love for me, sent me to a Northern school as a white girl. He would have done better to send me to the slave pens. I should never then have known what I had lost. Neither my husband’s education nor mine opens the way for us to earn our living in any trade or profession occupied by educated people. The only way in which he can be admitted into the society of gentlemen is as a waiter behind their chairs.”

“Why, then,” she was asked, “if you are barred out from the white race, do you not ally yourself to your own, make their cause yours, and try to elevate them?”

“Because they are not my own!” she cried passionately. “I am white! Must I bring the curse which falls on every negro on my children, when there are not ten black drops in my veins? Are they to be held as lepers by the whites to whom they belong for these few drops? They are white children, sensitive, refined, lovers of books, music, and art. Are they to be classed and made to herd with field hands all their lives?”

A North Carolinian, hearing the story of this woman (which I have but hinted here), remarked that “the question between the two races in the South would be easily settled if one race were white and the other black. It is the mulatto that offers the impregnable difficulties. We Southerners are apt, when we talk of the future of the negro, to forget that the white and black man meet in the same individual. Given the temper, feeling, and ambition of a high-bred Carolinian, with the skin and lot in life of a freedman, and the problem is not easy to solve. When we talk of the implacable instinct which must forever separate the races, we forget that the answer confronts us in the face of every mulatto that we meet. This mixed race is, in every case, the kinsman by birth of the white. We can predicate that the negro cannot become industrious, cannot comprehend mathematics, has a natural disability for skilled labor; but how can we assume these natural defects for our brothers and cousins?”

“Give us time,” urged more than one Southerner of the more moderate, thoughtful class. “It is easy for Northerners to read us lessons of duty. They never seem to have realized how complete was the ruin that overtook us, or how frightful the social and financial overthrow. The old relations between the races still are fresh in the minds of the more ignorant whites. The freedmen are still slaves in their eyes. Give them all time. We are turning to new industries and new interests: these, and increased friction with the world, will wear away the prejudices and soreness in the minds of whites, while education will change the character of the negro. Wait until the fermentation is over, to pass judgment. The North must not and cannot force nor hurry it. She never had any right to interfere.”

* * *

Two significant facts appear to me to offer suggestions worth consideration on this subject: —

The first is the universal increasing demand in every Southern State for skilled labor. Machinists are wanted, carpenters, joiners, shoemakers, weavers, plumbers, mill-hands, — every kind of craftsmen, in short, who can efficiently aid in the countless new industries which are struggling into existence in the South. So great and pressing is the need for them that most strenuous efforts are being made to induce European emigrants to come to this new-old field, instead of to the Northern ports; in fact to enter by New Orleans, and remain a few months before going West, if West they will go.

The second fact was the negro exhibit at the New Orleans exhibition. It was significant and pathetic, because it showed what the free colored men wished to do, but never had been taught to do. Their schools and colleges made creditable displays of their intellectual progress. But the work of their hands was almost invariably the work of willing but untrained hands. There were attempts at every kind of handicraft, from shoes and rolling-pins to a steam engine cleverly made by a negro, who assuredly did not understand mechanics, as he could neither read nor write. Shoes, machines, tubs, even pictures, were, as a rule, proudly labeled as the work of a man or woman who never had been taught to make them. The whole exhibit was pitiable as a display of wasted cleverness. In suggestive contrast were the work from the Hampton Industrial School, and some really admirable specimens of saddlery and engraved glass made by colored men in Philadelphia who had “learned how.”

General S. C. Armstrong, who has had seventeen years of experience in teaching the Industrial School for negroes at Hampton, writes, “There is now a large class of negro mechanics in the South, carpenters, blacksmiths, and bricklayers. The proof of the capacity of the negro for skilled labor is, I think, ample. I fully believe in it. The great difficulty is their lack of opportunity to learn. They have less chance to learn now than in the days of slavery, which, in a crude way, was a great industrial school. I have seen so much evidence here of the negro’s desire to learn trades, and have had such satisfactory experience of the race as mechanics, that I consider its success a question of opportunity only.”

There are several colleges and universities in the South for the freedmen which profess to rank with those for the whites, but I know of no other industrial school than that at Hampton.

No practical visitor to the South can help questioning whether the great mass of negroes and mulattoes do not, in this crisis of their history, need training in handicrafts rather than in Latin and metaphysics; and whether, too, granting that the negro and mulatto have the mechanical ability to receive this training, it will not be more to the interest of the Southern white man to keep the new industries, now opening with such splendid promise, under his own control, with his familiar freed work-men, than to surrender them to foreign capitalists and foreign laborers?