Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/November 1884/The Future of the Negro in the South


THE term "mud-sill" is supposed to be used contemptuously in the Southern States to designate the lowest rank of the people: those who use nothing and have nothing to use but muscle for their maintenance; men who are uneducated and indifferent to education; men without other aspiration or ambition than that which incites them to appease their hunger and to ward off the blasts of winter. Under every form of government, despotic, monarchal, or republican, such class, more or less depraved, must necessarily exist, and the question in the Southern States is. What shall be the color of the mud-sill? or, if the colors be assorted, white, black, and yellow, shall we have different orders of mud-sills based on colors? The position is open to competition, to all shades of color, to whichever is willing to take it, or most reluctant to strive for anything higher or better.

The Executive war decree of emancipation fell on the South at a time when, owing to the manly front presented by the Confederate forces, it was generally regarded by the Southern people as mere brutum fulmen. Even in cities which had succumbed to Federal arms, and were garrisoned by national troops, the proclamation was regarded by the citizens simply as a threat; these latter looked forward to a rapid advance of the Southern armies, and had no doubt of final victory. Hence they submitted to the increasing rebelliousness of their slaves, just as they submitted to the military requirements of post-officers, provosts, etc.—a mere temporary annoyance, not only soon to be got rid of, but to be heavily atoned for. In the sparsely settled rural regions the news came slowly, and v/as at first, to the ordinary negro mind, incomprehensible; nevertheless, it gradually permeated his brain that, should the Federal arms prevail, he would be free. But would the North prevail? Every man in the circle of his acquaintance in whom had heretofore resided authority hooted at the idea; the possibility of the South being conquered was openly scouted, and the effect of this on the negro's intelligence was to warn him to submission. Here and there, one more adventurous than the rest ran away and hid himself behind the Federal lines, but ninety-nine out of a hundred not only remained in bondage, but openly ridiculed the idea of their preferring to be free: the old farm and the old master were good enough for them. Of these a small percentage were sincere, as was proved by their remaining at home and serving their former owners after the necessity for so doing had ceased, just as if no edict had been issued; but in time the last one deserted, even the octogenarians, who set up their separate establishments, when they could, with a parting declaration to their old masters that so long as they were able to support themselves they would do so, but after that they proposed to return and be maintained as were the aged in times of slavery.

To the unreflecting white man it seemed as if chaos had come again; nothing like this had ever before come under the limited range of his reading or experience. To the student it was but a repetition of history; to him, beyond the loss of so much personal property, and the delay in the readjustment of social laws, no great cataclysm had occurred or was to be apprehended. Before emancipation, the negro had to work or be lashed; now, he has to work or to starve. Before the war, the owner was obligated to furnish the slave with provisions and clothing, to pay his doctor's bills when sick, to maintain him in idleness when superannuated, to bury him when dead. Under the new régime the freedman must do all these things and make these provisions for himself. The intelligent Southern man was prepared to pocket his losses and to go to work under the new order of affairs, but was met at the very beginning with obstacles. The poor emancipated slave had an idea that liberty meant license: all his life he had seen free white people living a life of, what appeared to him, perfect idleness, and his thought was to reach that blissful condition: he was willing to labor only sufficiently to supply himself with meat and clothes, and it really appeared that the South, instead of selling, as it now does, the produce of a single crop to the value of over three hundred million dollars, would sink into a semi-barbarous condition, with a population (all the enterprising ones having removed) satisfied with just enough to prevent absolute want. And thus it might have been but for the vim and determination of the Anglo-Saxon people+, who foresaw that, if but small crops were made, large prices would be obtained. Their example has told among the blacks, especially the men; the women have yet to learn; the example of white ladies, who lived luxuriously before the war, now doing a great part of their own labor and drudgery, instead of being an example to the former slave women, only affords a gratification to their spite and malevolence.

The freedman imagined that whatever superiority white people have over the blacks is owing to education; and as Eve was induced to think that if she and Adam should eat of the forbidden fruit they would be as gods, so the ordinary African thought if his child could only read, write, and cipher, he would be in every way the equal of the Caucasian. He was utterly unable to discriminate between a man with only capacity to fill with infinite labor a postal card and one who could reason out the law of gravity or define the principles of electricity. With this glorified idea on the subject of education, their enthusiastic desire for schools is not surprising. Their only idea of the difference between Prospero and Caliban was, that one could read and write and the other could not.

However absurd these views were, and however great the disappointment which follows, the result is good. If the entire race could read, write, and cipher, it would be an excellent thing. An utterly uneducated man, unless he chances to be of extraordinary acuteness, is at the mercy of one who is learned; the latter may assert that twice twenty are fifty, and the ignorant man, unable to disprove the assertion, submits. Enough education to enable a laboring-man to calculate the amount of his wages, and to verify the entries and summing of his pass-book, is necessary to prevent his being cheated by unscrupulous men. A vast number of the colored people are now educated to that extent, with great advantage to the better understanding between employer and employé. If the latter can comprehend simple accounts, there will be little difficulty in the settlement of his wages; but it is difficult to explain figures to the ignorant man, who, in most cases, imagines himself defrauded, simply because he can not comprehend. Persons who have to do with working-men, white or black, will readily agree that there is tenfold more trouble in adjusting accounts with those who are illiterate than with those who have even rudimental education.

The opportunities of the blacks for obtaining education in the South are abundant, greater, indeed, in many places than those in reach of the whites. In the State wherein the writer resides, each county is divided into school districts of convenient size, each with self-contained power of subdivision, under certain conditions: these districts are autonomous under general State laws; they decide for themselves, by popular vote, the amount of tax they are willing to pay respectively for the purpose of education, which tax is collected by the revenue collector as other taxes are; they elect each three directors to manage the scholastic affairs and funds, selection of teachers, etc. In vast numbers of these districts the blacks largely outnumber the whites, and elect not only magistrates, constables, etc., but also school directors, and in school matters the white element is utterly disregarded, except in the matter of taxes. In the sparsely settled districts the amount of annual tax (limited to five mills) will permit of but one school, and that with a session of not more than four or five months each year, and herein lies the trouble. The black directors, knowing that but one school can be maintained, are willing to employ a white teacher and call it a white school provided their children are allowed to attend, or they will make it a black school, and white children may share the advantages. White prejudices, which none but a Southerner can understand or appreciate, render each of these offers unacceptable and repulsive, and it is difficult to blame the freedmen that they avail themselves of the power which the law has given them, and employ colored teachers. Things may be better regulated after a while; in the mean time the negroes are gradually acquiring education, while in many places the whites remain without schooling, or with but little.

If the African brain were as large and as active as that of the Caucasian, the result of this condition of affairs could be easily calculated, for, notwithstanding the preponderance of authority which centuries of domination have given to the white race, it is much to be doubted if the conditions would not be reversed if, with equal natural capacity, an educated colored race should oppose illiterate whites; but, fortunately for the latter, two things stand in the way of such absolute subversion of positions: First, it is indisputable that, as a race, the African is inferior to the Caucasian in intelligent comprehensive reasoning and constructive power, and it would require something besides mere intellectual improvement to bring the former up to the level of the latter. Second, the colored man has to-day a strong desire that his children shall be educated, though he is willing to make but few personal sacrifices for that object. To be sure, he votes taxes for the purpose, but, as he pays his proportion indirectly, he does not feel them. The desire is entirely predominated by his determination that they shall, at as early an age as possible, become workers, and thereby relieve his shoulders of a large part of his necessary labor. Consequently he is unwilling to allow much time to schools. So soon as the child is able to wield a hoe he is regarded a fractional field-hand, and during the cotton-picking season quite a large fraction. He knows nothing, it is not in his nature to know anything, of that vigorous Anglo-Saxon determination which, under the circumstances described, cheerfully pays the school-tax, and then makes personal sacrifices in order that the children may be sent to some pay-school. The desire of the African parent that his child shall work is so strong that it is safe to say that, with few exceptions, the young negroes of to-day, especially those on farms, live under more severe rules as to labor than their fathers did while children in slavery, with the reasonable consequence that the young African, as soon as he finds himself capable of self-support, quits forever the paternal roof which appears to him precisely as slavehood appeared to his ancestors.

Much has been written of late years concerning the condition of morality among the emancipated people, but little in extenuation thereof. During the existence of slavery, the status of married life among the blacks, especially among those of the rural districts, was much higher and more respectable than it is now. Slave-owners for sanitary and police reasons required a certain amount of conjugal fidelity. In all cases masters were consulted as to marriage alliances, and in most cases insisted that the ceremony should be performed in a public manner either by a magistrate or a minister of the gospel with all the formality that obtained among the whites. Conjugal fidelity was insisted on and enforced, if need be, by punishment. Man and wife finding themselves bound together by an indissoluble tie, did as the more intelligent of other races do, made the best of their bonds and lived harmoniously. This is all changed. After the war, the highest courts of the country decided that as matrimony is a civil contract and as slaves could not make legal contracts, ergo, no marriage entered into in a state of bondage was valid or could be enforced. The result of this correct but unfortunate decision was, that every former slave who lusted after a new and younger wife put aside the old one. The young married negroes, seeing this free-and-easy way of upsetting domestic arrangements, and without caring for the reason thereof, availed themselves of the first domestic quarrel to separate and select new partners. The newly separated, if continuing in the same neighborhood, did not of course marry other wives, but lived in concubinage; but, if they removed to other States, they did not hesitate to marry again. If the crime of bigamy were followed by sure punishment, there would not be penitentiaries enough in the South to hold the guilty of a single State. The colored people do not appear to see the viciousness of this condition of affairs; and the white people, grand juries included, do not care to take the matter up, and so it continues.

A great fault of the negro is a lack of veracity. It may be safely ventured that there is not a magistrate, judge, or lawyer in the South who will assert that the statements of negroes, especially of those out of cities, are to be relied upon. To be sure, there are many honorable exceptions, but it is a race characteristic. Many hesitate to tell a direct falsehood, but there are but few who will not lie constructively in concealing the truth. It is hard to condemn them. In times of slavery their only safety from deserved punishment was concealment and by lying out of the difficulty, assisted by the concurrent testimony of friends. The habit descends from father to child. The first lesson taught a colored child as soon as it is able to comprehend the lesson is, "If the white folks ask you anything, always answer, 'I don't know.'" Absolute ignorance, even if assumed, is safer than a manufactured lie. Often I have known a colored parent to chastise her child unmercifully for answering truthfully some simple question of no importance whatever, only that it was a white person who was the questioner. These parents will not learn that a child taught systematically to lie to others will lie to them, and any detected prevarication with them is in the same way cruelly punished; and, as the ignorant never punish except when in a rage, it is safe to say that the life of the young darkey is not a pleasant one.

The peculiarities and monstrosities of African religion (so called) have been too often described to require many words here. In the cant of the present time, a number of Protestant denominations, each at war with the others, assume and allow to the others the title "orthodox." It is difficult for a layman to understand how twenty different bodies all teaching different faiths can all be orthodox, but so it is, and under this ruling the various African churches are all orthodox. How far are the vices, described as appertaining to the race, modified by religion? Not much. With the ordinary African religion is not a matter of doing, but entirely a matter of feeling. If one of them, after spending an entire week in vicious living, can only get up a certain amount of enthusiastic feeling during the shouting, howling, and dancing of a Sunday-night meeting, he feels that his soul is washed and that it is spotless as snow. It is the same ratiocination that convinces every convicted negro murderer that he will ascend directly from the gallows into heaven. Other more phlegmatic sinners may be compelled to wait for the judgment-day, but for him the gates of heaven stand wide open. When pardon follows sin so rapidly, it is not to be wondered at that he is ready to fall again to-morrow.

What has been written of the African people in this paper has in view those who live in the country and have but limited intercourse with minds superior to their own; a class of people who, if left to themselves, would degenerate rapidly into barbarism. But for the small leaven of more intelligent whites, the black people would soon be victims of voudoo. Indeed, it is hard to find a rural community in the South where that dreadful bugbear is not more or less believed in and feared. Often a stupid, uneducated negro secretly dominates an entire neighborhood by virtue of a self-assertion that he possesses mystic powers, and an obscure hint of a dirty little bag of miscellaneous abominations carries far more terror than ever did overseer's whip, I may defy the magician's power and openly submit myself to his supernatural malevolence, but it will do but little toward assuaging the fears of the negroes, who agree that the spells have no power over another race.

I have never had the craze of enforced education or enforced temperance; all the same, I shall be glad to see the colored people as well as the whites educated: not in high schools, with a view of deluging the country with school-teachers, but to the extent of giving every child a good common-school education. In my official character as school director (to which office I was once elected simply because there were but two colored men in the district who could read and write, and the law requires three officers), I have received a number of written applications for the position as teacher, some from graduates of normal schools and universities (?), all with examiners' certificates of ability, etc, but I do not remember seeing any one of these applications which was grammatically expressed or orthographically correct. Still, as the applicants were capable of teaching the rudiments of education, these trifling defects were never permitted to stand in the way of their employment. It is not asserted that all the graduates of these normal schools and universities are equally deficient; it is quite probable that the better sort find places in cities, while the country must content itself with what is left.

The social problem in the South does not so immediately concern the wealthy as it does the poor whites. The rich man can send his children to academies and colleges; he can seek society wherever it is congenial; but the poor man, tied to one spot, must be governed by circumstances beyond his control. At present the poor white and black people work together in the fields and shops and live on friendly terms without hitch or jar until the white asserts in some way his feeling of superiority, which, both being equal in means, education, and political power, is based on nothing more substantial than the mere color of the skin. Then the negro stands on his dignity, and is ready for combat. In peaceful neighborhoods, there is but little assumption of superiority, and it is only manifested in a silent way by the steady refusal of the white to permit his children to sit at school or in church with the children of the black; they may play together, work together, and treat each other as equals, until church or school is mentioned, and there the line is drawn. So long as this passive ostracism works his children no absolute evil, the negro, with his own schools and his own churches, cares nothing for it. It is perhaps vain speculation as to the future of this problem; only it seems certain that if the white children are not educated and taught refinements, and the black children are, it will be difficult in the future, even if desirable, to maintain any distinction of classes in the South, and especially any favorable distinction, which will be based on nothing more substantial than the absence of color in the epidermis, unless African nature is irredeemably bad; unless the vicious qualities attributed to him in this paper are irreparable, it is absolutely certain that, with the aids which now surround him, he will rise greatly in the scale of humanity, and a generous world will show its favor to the intelligent individual, no matter how black his skin, who has lifted himself out of the mire and contempt of centuries, rather than extend a helping hand to one who has had the fortune to be born of a higher race, but who proved unworthy of his lot.

Scientists and the world admit the natural superiority of the white races over the colored, and it seems incontrovertible that, with equal ambition and equal excitement to exertion, the white will surely surpass the black in any and every condition of life, and in the exercise of every function of mind and muscle; and there can be no political chain strong enough to bind the white in a subordinate position, provided he will avail himself of the advantages which Nature has given him in the division of the races of humanity.