Read CHAPTER III - THE NEGRO of Our Foreigners, free online book, by Samuel P. Orth, on

Not many years ago a traveler was lured into a London music hall by the sign: Spirited American Singing and Dancing. He saw on the stage a sextette of black-faced comedians, singing darky ragtime to the accompaniment of banjo and bones, dancing the clog and the cakewalk, and reciting negro stories with the familiar accent and smile, all to the evident delight of the audience. The man in the seat next to him remarked, “These Americans are really lively.” Not only in England, but on the continent, the negro’s melodies, his dialect, and his banjo, have always been identified with America. Even Americans do not at once think of the negro as a foreigner, so accustomed have they become to his presence, to his quaint mythology, his soft accent, and his genial and accommodating nature. He was to be found in every colony before the Revolution; he was an integral part of American economic life long before the great Irish and German immigrations, and, while in the mass he is confined to the South, he is found today in every State in the Union.

The negro, however, is racially the most distinctly foreign element in America. He belongs to a period of biological and racial evolution far removed from that of the white man. His habitat is the continent of the elephant and the lion, the mango and the palm, while that of the race into whose state he has been thrust is the continent of the horse and the cow, of wheat and the oak.

There is a touch of the dramatic in every phase of the negro’s contact with America: his unwilling coming, his forcible detention, his final submission, his emancipation, his struggle to adapt himself to freedom, his futile competition with a superior economic order. Every step from the kidnaping, through “the voiceless woe of servitude” and the attempted redemption of his race, has been accompanied by tragedy. How else could it be when peoples of two such diverse epochs in racial evolution meet?

His coming was almost contemporaneous with that of the white man. “American slavery,” says Channing, “began with Columbus, possibly because he was the first European who had a chance to introduce it: and negroes were brought to the New World at the suggestion of the saintly Las Casas to alleviate the lot of the unhappy and fast disappearing red man” They were first employed as body servants and were used extensively in the West Indies before their common use in the colonies on the continent. In the first plantations of Virginia a few of them were found as laborers. In 1619 what was probably the first slave ship on that coast it was euphemistically called a “Dutch man-of-war” landed its human cargo in Virginia. From this time onward the numbers of African slaves steadily increased. Bancroft estimated their number at 59,000 in 1714, 78,000 in 1727, and 263,000 in 1754. The census of 1790 recorded 697,624 slaves in the United States. This almost incredible increase was not due alone to the fecundity of the negro. It was due, in large measure, to the unceasing slave trade.

It is difficult to imagine more severe ordeals than the negroes endured in the day of the slave trade. Their captors in the jungles of Africa usually neighboring tribesmen in whom the instinct for capture, enslavement, and destruction was untamed soon learned that the aged, the inferior, the defective, were not wanted by the trader. These were usually slaughtered. Then followed for the less fortunate the long and agonizing march to the seaboard. Every one not robust enough to endure the arduous journey was allowed to perish by the way. On the coast, the agent of the trader or the middle-man awaited the captive. He was an expert at detecting those evidences of weakness and disease which had eluded the eye of the captor or the rigor of the march. “An African factor of fair repute,” said a slave captain, “is ever careful to select his human cargo with consummate prudence, so as not only to supply his employers with athletic laborers, but to avoid any taint of disease.” But the severest test of all was the hideous “middle passage” which remained to every imported slave a nightmare to the day of his death. The unhappy captives were crowded into dark, unventilated holds and were fed scantily on food which was strange to their lips; they were unable to understand the tongue of their masters and often unable to understand the dialects of their companions in misfortune; they were depressed with their helplessness on the limitless sea, and their childish superstitions were fed by a thousand new terrors and emotions. It was small wonder that, when disease began its ravages in the shipload of these kidnaped beings, “the mortality of thirty per cent was not rare.” That this was primarily a physical selection which made no allowance for mental aptitudes did not greatly diminish in the eyes of the master the slave’s utility. The new continent needed muscle power; and so tens of thousands of able-bodied Africans were landed on American soil, alien to everything they found there.

These slaves were kidnaped from many tribes. “In our negro population,” says Tillinghast, “as it came from the Western Coast of Africa, there were Wolofs and Fulans, tall, well-built, and very black, hailing from Senegambia and its vicinity; there were hundreds of thousands from the Slave Coast Tshis, Ewes, and Yorubans, including Dahomians; and mingled with all these Soudanese negroes proper were occasional contributions of mixed stock, from the north and northeast, having an infusion of Moorish blood. There were other thousands from Lower Guinea, belonging to Bantu stock, not so black in color as the Soudanese, and thought by some to be slightly superior to them." No historian has recorded these tribal differences. The new environment, so strange, so ruthless, swallowed them; and, in the welter of their toil, the black men became so intermingled that all tribal distinctions soon vanished. Here and there, however, a careful observer may still find among them a man of superior mien or a woman of haughty demeanor denoting perhaps an ancestral prince or princess who once exercised authority over some African jungle village.

Slavery was soon a recognized institution in every American colony. By 1665 every colony had its slave code. In Virginia the laws became increasingly strict until the dominion of the master over his slaves was virtually absolute. In South Carolina an insurrection of slaves in 1739, which cost the lives of twenty-one whites and forty-four blacks, led to very drastic laws. Of the Northern colonies, New York seems to have been most in fear of a black peril. In 1700 there were about six thousand slaves in this colony, chiefly in the city, where there were also many free negroes, and on the large estates along the Hudson. Twice the white people of the city for reasons that have not been preserved, believing that slave insurrections were imminent, resorted to extreme and brutal measures. In 1712 they burned to death two negroes, hanged in chains a third, and condemned a fourth to be broken on the wheel. In 1741 they went so far as to burn fourteen negroes, hang eighteen, and transport seventy-one.

In New England where their numbers were relatively small and the laws were less severe, the negroes were employed chiefly in domestic service. In Quaker Pennsylvania there were many slaves, the proprietor himself being a slave owner. Ten years after the founding of Philadelphia, the authorities ordered the constables to arrest all negroes found “gadding about” on Sunday without proper permission. They were to remain in jail until Monday, receiving in lieu of meat or drink thirty-nine lashes on the bare back.

Protests against slavery were not uncommon during the colonial period; and before the Revolution was accomplished several of the States had emancipated their slaves. Vermont led the way in 1777; the Ordinance of 1787 forbade slavery in the Northwest Territory; and by 1804 all the Northern States had provided that their blacks should be set free. The opinion prevailed that slavery was on the road to gradual extinction. In the Federal Convention of 1787 this belief was crystallized into the clause making possible the prohibition of the slave trade after the year 1808. Mutual benefit organizations among the negroes, both slave and free, appeared in many States, North and South. Negro congregations were organized. The number of free negroes increased rapidly, and in the Northern States they acquired such civil rights as industry, thrift, and integrity commanded. Here and there colored persons of unusual gifts distinguished themselves in various callings and were even occasionally entertained in white households.

The industrial revolution in England, with its spinning jenny and power loom, indirectly influenced the position of the negro in America. The new machinery had an insatiable maw for cotton. It could turn such enormous quantities of raw fiber into cloth that the old rate of producing cotton was entirely inadequate. New areas had to be placed under cultivation. The South, where soil and climate combined to make an ideal cotton land, came into its own. And when Eli Whitney’s gin was perfected, cotton was crowned king. Statistics tell the story: the South produced about 8000 bales of cotton in 1790; 650,000 bales in 1820; 2,469,093 bales in 1850; 5,387,052 bales in 1860. This vast increase in production called for human muscle which apparently only the negro could supply.

Once it was shown that slavery paid, its status became fixed as adamant. The South forthwith ceased weakly to apologize for it, as it had formerly done, and began to defend it, at first with some hesitation, then with boldness, and finally with vehement aggressiveness. It was economically necessary; it was morally right; it was the peculiar Southern domestic institution; and, above all, it paid. On every basis of its defense, the cotton kingdom would brook no interference from any other section of the country. So there was formed a race feudality in the Republic, rooted in profits, protected by the political power of the slave lords, and enveloped in a spirit of defiance and bitterness which reacted without mercy upon its victims. Tighter and tighter were drawn the coils of restrictions around the enslaved race. The mind and the soul as well as the body were placed under domination. They might marry to breed but not to make homes. Such charity and kindness as they experienced, they received entirely from individual humane masters; society treated them merely as chattels.

Attempted insurrections, such as that in South Carolina in 1822 and that in Virginia in 1831 in which many whites and blacks were killed, only produced harsher laws and more cruel punishments, until finally the slave became convinced that his only salvation lay in running away. The North Star was his beacon light of freedom. A few thousand made their way southward through the chain of swamps that skirt the Atlantic coast and mingled with the Indians in Florida. Tens of thousands made their way northward along well recognized routes to the free States and to Canada: the Appalachian ranges with their far-spreading spurs furnished the friendliest of these highways; the Mississippi Valley with its marshlands, forests, and swamps provided less secure hiding places; and the Cumberland Mountains, well supplied with limestone caves, offered a third pathway. At the northern end of these routes the “Underground Railway" received the fugitives. From the Cumberlands, leading through the heart of Tennessee and Kentucky, this benevolent transfer stretched through Ohio and Indiana to Canada; from southern Illinois it led northward through Wisconsin; and from the Appalachian route mysterious byways led through New York and New England.

How many thus escaped cannot be reckoned, but it is known that the number of free negroes in the North increased so rapidly that laws discriminating against them were passed in many States. Nowhere did the negro enjoy all the rights that the white man had. In some States the free negroes were so restricted in settling as to be virtually prohibited; in others they were disfranchised; in others they were denied the right of jury duty or of testifying in court. But in spite of this discrimination on the part of the law, a great sympathy for the runaway slave spread among the people, and the fugitive carried into the heart of the North the venom of the institution of which he was the unhappy victim.

Meanwhile the slave trade responded promptly to the lure of gain which the increased demand for cotton held out. The law of 1807 prohibiting the importation of slaves had, from the date of its enactment, been virtually a dead letter. Messages of Presidents, complaints of government attorneys, of collectors and agents called attention to the continuous violation of the law; and its nullity was a matter of common knowledge. When the market price of a slave rose to $325 in 1840 and to $500 after 1850, the increase in profits made slave piracy a rather respectable business carried on by American citizens in American built ships flying the American flag and paying high returns on New York and New England capital. Owing to this steady importation there was a constant intermingling of raw stock from the jungles with the negroes who had been slaves in America for several generations.

In 1860 there were 4,441,830 negroes in the United States, of whom only 488,070 were free. About thirteen per cent of the total number were mulattoes. Among the four million slaves were men and women of every gradation of experience with civilization, from those who had just disembarked from slave ships to those whose ancestry could be traced to the earliest days of the colonies. It was not, therefore, a strictly homogeneous people upon whom were suddenly and dramatically laid the burdens and responsibilities of the freedman. Among the emancipated blacks were not a few in whom there still throbbed vigorously the savage life they had but recently left behind and who could not yet speak intelligible English. Though there were many who were skilled in household arts and in the useful customary handicrafts, large numbers were acquainted only with the simplest toil of the open fields. There were a few free blacks who possessed property, in some instances to the value of many thousands of dollars, but the great bulk were wholly inexperienced in the responsibilities of ownership. There were some who had mastered the rudiments of learning and here and there was to be found a gifted mind, but ninety per cent of the negroes were unacquainted with letters and were strangers to even the most rudimentary learning. Their religion was a picturesque blend of Christian precepts and Voodoo customs.

The Freedmen’s Bureau, authorized by Congress early in 1865, had as its functions to aid the negro to develop self-control and self-reliance, to help the freedman with his new wage contracts, to befriend him when he appeared in court, and to provide for him schools and hospitals. It was a simple, slender reed for the race to lean upon until it learned to walk. But it interfered with the orthodox opinion of that day regarding individual independence and was limited to the period of war and one year thereafter. It was eyed with suspicion and was regarded with criticism by both the keepers of the laissez faire faith and the former slave owners. It established a number of schools and made a modest beginning in peasant proprietorship and free labor.

When this temporary guide was withdrawn, private organizations to some extent took its place. The American Missionary Association continued the educational work, and volunteers shouldered other benevolences. But no power and no organization could take the place of the national authority. If the Freedmen’s Bureau could have been stripped of those evil-intentioned persons who used it for private gain, been so organized as to enlist the support of the Southern white population, and been continued until a new generation of blacks were prepared for civil life, the colossal blunders and criminal misfits of that bitter period of transition might have been avoided. But political opportunism spurned comprehensive plans, and the negro suddenly found himself forced into social, political, and economic competition with the white man.

The social and political struggle that followed was short-lived. There were a few desperate years under the domination of the carpetbagger and the Ku Klux Klan, a period of physical coercion and intimidation. Within a decade the negro vote was uncast or uncounted, and the grandfather clauses soon completed the political mastery of the former slave owner. A strict interpretation of the Civil Rights Act denied the application of the equality clause of the Constitution to social equality, and the social as well as the political separation of the two stocks was also accomplished. “Jim Crow,” cars, separate accommodations in depots and theaters, separate schools, separate churches, attempted ségrégations in cities these are all symbolic of two separate races forcibly united by constitutional amendments.

But the economic struggle continued, for the black man, even if politically emasculated and socially isolated, had somehow to earn a living. In their first reaction of anger and chagrin, some of the whites here and there made attempts to reduce freedmen to their former servitude, but their efforts were effectually checked by the Fifteenth Amendment. An ingenious peonage, however, was created by means of the criminal law. Strict statutes were passed by States on guardianship, vagrancy, and petty crimes. It was not difficult to bring charges under these statutes, and the heavy penalties attached, together with the wide discretion permitted to judge and jury, made it easy to subject the culprit to virtual serfdom for a term of years. He would be leased to some contractor, who would pay for his keep and would profit by his toil. Whatever justification there may have been for these statutes, the convict lease system soon fell into disrepute, and it has been generally abandoned.

It was upon the land that the freedman naturally sought his economic salvation. He was experienced in cotton growing. But he had neither acres nor capital. These he had to find and turn to his own uses ere he could really be economically free. So he began as a farm laborer, passed through various stages of tenantry, and finally graduated into land ownership. One finds today examples of every stage of this evolution. There is first the farm laborer, receiving at the end of the year a fixed wage. He is often supplied with house and garden and usually with food and clothing. There are many variations of this labor contract. The “cropper” is barely a step advanced above the laborer, for he, too, furnishes nothing but labor, while the landlord supplies house, tools, live stock, and seed. His wage, however, is paid not in cash but in a stipulated share of the crop. From this share he must pay for the supplies received and interest thereon. This method, however, has proved to be a mutually unsatisfactory arrangement and is usually limited to hard pressed owners of poor land.

The larger number of the negro farmers are tenants on shares or metayers. They work the land on their own responsibility, and this degree of independence appeals to them. They pay a stipulated portion of the crop as rent. If they possess some capital and the rental is fair, this arrangement proves satisfactory. But as very few negro metayers possess the needed capital, they resort to a system of crop-lienage under which a local retail merchant advances the necessary supplies and obtains a mortgage on the prospective crop. Many negro farmers, however, have achieved the independence of cash renters, assuming complete control of their crops and the disposition of their time. And finally, 241,000 negro farmers are landowners. By 1910 nearly 900,000 negroes had achieved some degree of rural economic stability.

The negro has not been so fortunate in his attempts to make a place for himself in the industrial world. The drift to the cities began soon after emancipation. During the first decade, the dissatisfaction with the landlordism which then prevailed, seconded by the demand for unskilled labor in the rapidly growing cities, drew the negroes from the land in such considerable numbers that the landowners were induced to make more liberal terms to keep the laborers on their farms. While there has been a large increase in the number of negroes engaged in agriculture, there has at the same time been a very marked current from the smaller communities to the new industrial cities of the South and to some of the manufacturing centers of the North. In recent years there have been wholesale importations of negro laborers into many Northern cities and towns, sometimes as strike breakers but more frequently to supply the urgent demand for unskilled labor. Many of the smaller manufacturing towns of New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Indiana are accumulating a negro population.

Very few of these industrial negroes, however, are skilled workers. They toil rather as ordinary day laborers, porters, stevedores, teamsters, and domestics. There has been a great deal written of the decline of the negro artisan. Walter F. Willcox, the eminent statistician, after a careful study of the facts concludes that economically “the negro as a race is losing ground, is being confined more and more to the inferior and less remunerative occupations, and is not sharing proportionately to his numbers in the prosperity of the country as a whole or of the section in which he mainly lives.”

It appears, therefore, that the pathway of emancipation has not led the negro out of the ranks of humble toil and into racial equality. In order to equip him more effectively for a place in the world, industrial schools have been established, among which the most noted is the Tuskegee Institute. Its founder, Booker T. Washington, advised his fellow negroes to yield quietly to the political and social distinctions raised against them and to perfect themselves in handicrafts and the mechanic arts, in the faith that civil rights would ultimately follow economic power and recognized industrial capacity. His teaching received the almost unanimous approval of both North and South. But opinion among his own people was divided, and in 1905 the “Niagara Movement” was launched, followed five years later by the organizing of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. This organization advised a more aggressive attitude towards race distinctions, outspokenly advocated race equality, demanded the negro’s rights, and maintained a restless propaganda. These champions of the race possibilities of the negro point to the material advance made since slavery; to the 500,000 houses and the 221,000 farms owned by them; their 22,000 small retail businesses and their 40 banks; to the 40,000 churches with nearly 4,000,000 members; to the 200 colleges and secondary schools maintained for negroes and largely supported by them; to their 100 old people’s homes, 30 hospitals, 300 periodicals; to the 6000 physicians, dentists, and nurses; the 30,000 teachers, the 18,000 clergymen. They point to the beacon lights of their genius: Frederick Douglass, statesman; J.C. Price, orator; Booker T. Washington, educator; W.E.B. DuBois, scholar; Paul Laurence Dunbar, poet; Charles W. Chestnutt, novelist. And they compare this record of 50 years’ achievement with the preceding 245 years of slavery.

This, however, is only one side of the shield. There is another side, nowhere better illustrated, perhaps, than in the neglected negro gardens of the South. Near every negro hut is a garden patch large enough to supply the family with vegetables for the entire year, but it usually is neglected. “If they have any garden at all,” says a negro critic from Tuskegee, “it is apt to be choked with weeds and other noxious growths. With every advantage of soil and climate and with a steady market if they live near any city or large town, few of the colored farmers get any benefit from this, one of the most profitable of all industries.” In marked contrast to these wild and unkempt patches are the gardens of the Italians who have recently invaded portions of the South and whose garden patches are almost miraculously productive. And this invasion brings a real threat to the future of the negro. His happy-go-lucky ways, his easy philosophy of life, the remarkable ease with which he severs home ties and shifts from place to place, his indifference to property obligations these negative defects in his character may easily lead to his economic doom if the vigorous peasantry of Italy and other lands are brought into competition with him.