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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 57/June 1900/The Future of the Negro in the Southern States

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 57‎ | June 1900

By Professor N. S. SHALER,


WHATEVER danger there may be of serious conflict between the negroes and whites in the Southern States—at most but slight—is likely to arise from the fact that the old class of slaveholders, men accustomed to hold a relation to the lower race, is passing away. Already the greater number of the white people know the blacks only as they are known by the Northern folk. Race prejudice, which in the days of slavery was hardly more than formal, finding expression mainly in certain rules as to the behavior of the inferior class, is likely to increase in proportion as the two peoples become parted from one another in interests. If the present movement to disfranchise the negroes should lead to their general and permanent separation from political life, or if in elections they should again array themselves as they did immediately after the war—under the lead of white adventurers against the property interests of the commonwealth—then there may be disaster. The aim of the statesman—of every citizen in his quality of a statesman—should be to make the present political separation of the races, as far as possible, temporary. Their effort should be to develop in the blacks the qualities which may make them safe holders of the franchise, and to give that trust to all who become worthy of it. We may at once put aside all the futile expedients for other dispositions of the negroes than the simple plan of adopting them into our national life. The ancient project of returning them to Africa, the suggestions that they should be deported to some part of the American tropics, or be segregated in some one of the Southern States, are all too impracticable to deserve a moment's attention. They must be dismissed, if for no other reason, because the labor of the negroes is needed where they now dwell. Their exodus would mean the commercial ruin of half a dozen great States. It is hardly necessary to suggest that any such action would involve a trespass upon the rights of both the whites and blacks too great to be thought of in our day.

Assuming that the only thing to do with the negroes is to shape them so that they may be fit for the place of citizens, the question is as to the steps which may be taken to attain this end. It is evident that it cannot quickly be done. Acting on the basis of our experience with immigrants from Europe, a majority of Congress concluded that all the negro needed to convert him from the slave to the truly free man was the ballot. We failed to see that between the primitive station of our race, two thousand years ago, and its present state there lay twenty centuries of toil and pain, spent in winning the state of mind of the citizen. We mocked the African with the gift of the franchise. We have now to begin where we should have begun thirty-five years ago, with measures that are proportionate to the need—with a system of education that may serve to develop the saving qualities of the race. What should this education be?

To most of us education begins with an alphabet and goes on to an indetermined limit of things that are to be had from books. The method is naturally esteemed, for we behold that the useful citizen comes forth from such teaching. Yet, logically, we might as well attribute the shape and quality of the body to the clothes it bears. The real education of our race, that which gives the most of its value to the trifle of instruction we give our children, is clearly a matter of race experience; of training in the generations of deeds since it began to pass from primitive savagery. First came the lessons in the art of continually laboring. Fortunately this lesson of labor the negro either brought with him, or learned so well in the generations of slavery that it is safely acquired. Next came the training in the occupations above the plane of simple agriculture—the industries of the forge, the loom, the ship and of military service and with it the habits of associated action. Along with these came the development of the commercial sense with the enlargements of view it gives, and from this the common sense of public affairs that makes a democracy possible. We assumed all this race training in the African when we cast him the ballot. Now that he has failed to profit by our folly, we begin to doubt whether there is, after all, the making of a citizen in him. A reasonable view of the facts leads us to conclude that he can be made a valuable citizen, provided he has a fair share of real help in the task of becoming such.

The first need of the negro is the conviction that his salvation depends upon himself. So long as he is deluded by the hope that some great external power is to lift him to the social and economic level of the whites, there is no chance that he will come to depend on himself for advancement. From this point of view, at least, it is advantageous that the attention of this country is for the time turned away from them in a search for other, and less practicable endeavors, to lift lowly peoples to the Saxon's estate. The next is that the negroes be as rapidly as possible employed in varied craft work—work in which they may receive a larger training than the toil the fields afford. The simple yet valuable lessons of the soil-tiller they have had. For the greater number of their race, particularly those of the Guinea type, this grade of employment is as high as they may be expected to attain. Yet somewhere near one-third of the people of their color are fit for employments demanding more skill and, because of that skill, giving a better intellectual station. The mechanical employments of the day are ever gaining in their culture-giving powers. The complication of the machines which are used, and the mysterious nature of the powers which they apply, seem to make them more effective means of enlargement than the old simple tools. Those who have observed the process by which the horse-car driver of a decade ago has been converted into the motor-man of to-day have had a chance to see what the control of energies may do for them. I feel safe in saying, from the basis of personal experience with the negroes, that somewhere near one third of them are ht to be trained for mechanical employment of a fairly high grade. They will need more instruction than the average whites, but they will have a keen interest in their work, and are more likely than the whites to lead up their children in their own trades. For such employment the types which, for lack of a better name, I have termed the Zulu and the Semetic are clearly well fitted. Here and there in the South we find these people of the abler stocks already so employed.

There seems no reason to believe that there is at present enough race prejudice in the South to oppose any effective resistance to negroes entering on any such employment as that of the engineer. It is true that among the women operatives in spinning and weaving mills there has been such objection already found as to make it impossible to employ the negro and white in the same rooms. It is, however, improbable that there would be any opposition to having the black women engaged in the industry, provided the personal association with the whites was not required. Whatever resistance it would be necessary to overcome in order to make the negro free to engineering employments would proceed from the poor white class or from Northern loom operators who brought to the South the obdurate hatred of the negro which is so strong in the regions where he is rarely seen. The old slave-holding class, and those who inherit their motives, will, I am convinced, welcome the effort to open such places to well-trained blacks. As an evidence of the state of mind of this ruling class, I may relate an experience of a year or two ago in one of the most remote corners of the extreme South:

I was lodged for some days in a small rustic inn whereto came, in the evening, a dozen men of the planter class to spin yarns, smoke and drink. They had all been Confederate soldiers—some of them were the very remnants of war. Willingly they allowed the talk to be led to the question as to the future of the black people. They showed their interest in all the forms of trade schooling that could be given them, and their contempt for the results of the literary education which they have received. Repeated reference was made to the great work that Booker Washington was doing at Tuskegee, and for it there was nothing but praise. One of the men dwelt with pleasure on the fact that in the nearest large town two negroes, trained at Tuskegee, were doing all the contract building, having 'run out' some cheap, ill-trained whites who had long been in the business. This talk was clearly not shaped for Northern ears, for the double reason that the Southern folk are not in the least moved to such deception, and also because I was with them as one of their own people. Very many such occasions for learning the temper of the ex-slaveholder class have convinced me that at present, and until the Southern conditions are assimilated to those of the North, there will be no difficulty in developing the technical skill of the blacks arising from the disinclination of the people when they are thus employed. It is true that the old slaveholder, with his care-taking humor towards the blacks, is passing away; but his motives are likely to be continued in his descendants at least for some generations.

There are at present in the South many thousand places for which it would be easy to train negroes—places which would give them a liberal education of the kind most needed by their race. It is not too much to reckon that each year, in the development of the industries of that region, adds some thousand chances which can not well be filled from the native white people, but are likely to go to men brought from elsewhere. Every opportunity to establish a family supported by a skilled mechanic is of value. With even five per cent of the male negroes thus employed, the prospects of their future would be greatly benefited. The means for attaining this end are not difficult to find. What is needed is an extension of the system followed at Tuskegee, where youths are trained with the intent that they shall be made ready for high-grade manual labor, the general schooling being limited to what is necessary to ensure success in such practical work. A system of trade schools for negroes, sufficient to supply the present demand for skilled mechanics, is now the gravest need of the South.

It has been suggested that the troops which are required for the Federal service in tropical lands might well be recruited from the negroes. It has indeed been proposed that these soldiers should be permitted to take their families with them so that they might become permanently and contentedly established in Luzon and elsewhere in the colonies. There is no doubt but that the abler negroes, when properly officered, make excellent soldiers—at least as infantry men. The experience had with them during the Spanish War makes this point perfectly clear. It may also be reckoned that they would endure tropical climates better than the whites. It may further be said that the existence of a large and well respected force of blacks in the Federal army would unquestionably add to the social position of the negroes in the estimation of both races. Again, the return of these men to their homes, after their period of service, would be advantageous. Their training and experience would make them of much value to their people.

There are, however, certain signal disadvantages which would arise from the employment of negroes as soldiers. In the first place, it would tend to remove from the body of the folk the abler men—those to whom we should mainly look for the uplifting of their race. This evil, great in the case of all levies, would be most serious in this case; for the reason that, while with white troops the rank and file are not commonly by nature leaders of their society, they would be so with black recruits. If the choice could be made of the Guinea type, this loss would not be serious; but it certainly would fall to the more militant stocks—those to which we have to look for advancement. In the next place, we must see that the negro does not need the training in passive obedience and mere order of life that the common soldier receives. He has had that already in quite sufficient measure. He now should have the lessons of individual responsibility—of control of his life from within—lessons that civil life alone can give. Therefore, the well-wisher of the race will be inclined to oppose this project of recruiting our armies from the negroes of the Southern States. If it is determined to enlist them it would be best to limit the age of the recruits to' about twenty years, and the period of active service to five years, so that the men may be returned to civil life young enough to enter on ordinary employments.

At present it is most desirable that the negroes of the South should be induced to save money, for until that habit is formed, there is little chance of lifting them in the economic scale or of developing in them the business sense, which is one of the corner-stones of civilization. It is probable that more could be done in the way of correcting the faults and stimulating the latent capacities of the race by developing this motive than by any other means. It is difficult to suggest any effective system by which this end can be attained. The general conditions of the South make rural savings-banks impossible. The receipts, at least for many years, would be too small to render the business remunerative. The only practicable method appears to be that of a Federal system operated through the post-offices. The institution of such a system appears to be justified by the two conditions: the exceeding need of such a provision and the impossibility of doing the work except through the postal machinery of which the Federal Government holds a monopoly. It may be said that this method has proved successful under other governments, and that it has been for some time established in Canada. In our own country it is clearly demanded, in all rural communities,, though nowhere else so gravely as in the Southern States.

In looking over the latent possibilities of the negro people, the observer can not fail to remark their keen delight in music. Statistics on this, as on other facts, are lacking; hut from what I have been able to learn, it appears probable that a far greater proportion of the blacks are sensitive to musical effects than is the case with the white people. I have indeed never been able to find a black man who was so far lacking in this sensibility that he did not enjoy the songs of his people. It is not unlikely that close inquiry would show this to be a remarkable feature in this unexplored race. As yet little effort has been made to determine the true measure of this capacity of the negro for music. It may be that they can not attain to the higher levels of the art; yet it is perfectly evident that their voices are exceptionally good, and that they have a keen native sense of time and tune. The most effective dance music I have ever heard has been made by negroes who could not read a note. When we consider how large a place music has in our life, it is a fair suggestion that this quality of the black nature might well be made the subject of experiment.

Those who look closely at the conditions of the negroes of the South are led to the belief that the existing separation in sympathy of the races is not likely long to continue. The greater number of the negroes instinctively crave a protective relation with the whites. It is the ancient disposition of the weak man to lean upon the strong which has in all ages and lands determined the relations of folk. At present the two peoples are held apart by the memories of slavery, rather than by any real personal dislike—the race prejudice which so commonly separates the Northern white from the negro. As this temporary barrier wears down, we may hope to find a new form of association arising—one in which the negroes will seek and find their friends among the trusted men of the superior race. I have seen marks of this new relation here and there, not many nor very clear, but fairly indicative of what may come about, provided the political excitement is allowed to subside and the people of the South, black and white, make their adjustments according to their motives and capacities, with no reference to the Federal power.

At first sight it will appear to most of the Northern people overmuch to ask that the powers at Washington give up all efforts to deal with the needs of the negro folk—the so-called wards of the nation. Yet experience has shown the impracticability of the project of helping these negroes with the long arm of the Federal law. All that has been undertaken in this way has been fruitless or worse. The only chance for lifting the black man to the full status of the citizen is by leaving his future essentially in the hands of the masterful folk who alone can help him. We see that the ruling class in the South have a measure of interest in the status of the negro and an opportunity to benefit his state that can never belong to the people of the North. Although the country, as a whole, will, of course, suffer from the failure to elevate the Macks, the hurden will lie most heavily on those with whom they dwell.

The Southern whites have given evidence of political capacity of a high order. Even their blunder in the rebellion is in good part compensated for by the sagacity with which they accepted the results of the war and turned them to the best account they could. They are not likely to cower before the vast undertakings which the uplifting of the blacks will entail; as yet, they have not accepted the task as their own. They have indeed been brought to believe that their business was to defend their own class interests, as well as they might be able to, against the attacks of the negroes, aided by the Federal power. If they are forced to see that within the limits the Federal Constitution sets to action, the responsibility for the future of their several States is in the hands of those who control their politics, we may hope to find the political and economic skill which went to the development of the system of slavery given to the advancement of the Africans. While the work must needs be done by the men who are near to it, it should receive every possible aid and sympathy from those who, because they are far away, can not effectively control the matter. The cause is so large that it needs the help of all who wish it well.

It appears to me that the time has come for an effective union of endeavor on the part of those of North and South, ex-slaveholder and ex-abolitionist alike, who wish to see the negro have, not his rights in the common sense of the word (for mere rights are a pitiful share for a man), but rather a good human chance to climb the ladder of civilization, upon which our ancestors set him. The aims of these two ancient parties surely have for a common end the best that can be done for the negro people. It is just as much a mistake to suppose that the majority of the slaveholders in a malign spirit sought to oppress and torture the blacks, as to fancy that the abolitionists desired to set the negroes over their sometime masters; for history will probably write it down that the better men of these two parties were both dealing with the same very difficult problem: that their contentions grew from a failure on both sides to see the whole of the matter.

It is possible that something might be done to help towards effective work, looking to the end we have in view, through a society for the study of the African problem. Such an association, provided it included men who were guided by a true spirit of inquiry and had no political ends to win, especially if it was in part made up of Southerners who had a large-minded view of the matter, could do much to guide action in profitable ways. In general, I am opposed to the increase in the number of societies; so that, if there be any in existence that could fairly undertake this task, I should prefer to see it set about the work. I am not aware, however, that there is any existing association which includes such questions in its field of inquiry.

It will be observed that the suggestions I have made concerning the immediate needs of the negro do not include any mention of the higher scholastic education. This is not because I disbelieve in such training for those blacks who, by their evident capacity, show that it fits them; but because it seems futile at the present time to waste efforts in giving these people an education for which they are in general by no means ready—which, if attained, does not afford them a way to a suitable station. The few youths of the race who really desire what is commonly called a college education, are reasonably certain to receive it in some one of the many schools where they-are sure of a welcome and of all due help. Even in the case of those blacks who, by some rare chance, have inherited the proper foundations of the higher mental training, and are made ready for the so-called professions, I see but a very poor chance of advancement to any fit positions in this country. Even in the part of the North where one would expect these well-trained, negroes would have a fair chance in life, it does hot avail them. As physicians, lawyers, clergymen or engineers they can look forward, to no future having a definite relation to their capacities. They can not expect to have any range of social opportunities, and their employment will have to be essentially with their own people.

The youth of negro blood might naturally expect to find in a community devoted to the maintenance of his rights at least a welcome to the external business society. He will, however, find that the people who would willingly sacrifice much to ensure him an equal place in matters political, allow their race prejudices or those of their associates to deny him fair play. It is a lamentable fact that this dislike to these men of the other aspect is far stronger in the North than in the South. In the parts of the North where negroes are rare, there is, it is true, a sense of duty by them that ensures their place before the law; but not enough personal contact with them to wear away the first offence of their diverse aspect. In most parts of the Southern States the black man is so constantly in view that the instinctive prejudice is worn away—he is perhaps, in a somewhat contemptuous way, personally liked. The race prejudice takes the form of certain rules of intercourse, expressing about the feeling that separates the commissioned officers and the enlisted men of an army. There is an element of truth in the statement, attributed to Thomas Carlyle, that the Northern man said, "God d—d you, Sambo, be free;" and the Southerner, "God bless you, Sambo, be slave." The result to Sambo is the same—a deprivation of opportunities in all the higher walks of life.

The only safe way up for the negro appears to lie in the industrial field, in mechanical employments, where his race may not weigh against him, and where head and hands may help one another to profit of mind and pocket—in business of varied kinds where he may get money, and with it the station that, in the common view, nothing else will afford him; in good work done for his race such as will give him the dignity in the eyes of all men that the master of Tuskegee has won. It is very much better for a negro youth, and for his race, that he should be a successful blacksmith, farmer or engineer, than a lawyer or physician, hindered and shunned, sorely burthened as he is sure to be by the cross that his fellowmen force him to bear. Therefore, unless they are willing to betake themselves to countries where the government is in the control of mixed peoples, thereby escaping the worst evils of race prejudice, it seems best for negroes not to seek the so-called learned professions, but to win their way on the lines where they will find less resistance—on ways quite fit for a man, even if not the highest.

It has been suggested that our colonies may afford a field for professionally educated negroes; but there, if they are to be ruled by the home government, it is likely that they will find a white caste in control. We may thus expect that the same essential disfranchisement will be found there as at home. Moreover, as before remarked, this project of sending to far lands the individual of ability who is needed at home, can not commend itself to those who feel the need which is with us, a need that calls for all the capacity we can hope to develop among the black people. It is clearly not a time to consider a proposition to export these abler youths of the black population.

Back of all our projects to bring the negroes of the South to the full station of citizens, to get rid of the contempt and the consequences of the contempt in which they are, as a race, so generally held, is the grave question as to the practicability of framing a social and political system in which men of such diverse origin may have a substantially equal chance. It must be granted that in no modern state of high grade has this problem been fairly solved. The instances from the tropical colonies of Great Britain are not really apposite; but there seems no fundamental difficulty to contend with in order to attain this end. With cultivated people of their own race about them the better negro youth would not be deprived of that element of education. We have taken into our political family races scarcely less different in motives from our own than are the negroes, making no kind of objection to their sharing the commonwealth with us. In certain ways it is true that a nation loses strength where it fails to have its elements closely knit together. But it may be doubted whether these losses are not more than compensated for by the gains that arise from diversities such as would come from the introduction into our system of a body of folk with the capacities which our Africans are likely with thorough training to develop.

In this matter there are but two courses open to us—one of folly, the other of wisdom. We may leave the black people to work out their own salvation as best they may, to lie as a mass at the bottom of our society, except so far as the abler men who may arise among them help their struggling fellows. The result of this will be the perpetuation of all the existing evils. Or we may set to work, after the true manner of our folk, with the full knowledge that the task is very great, but that we have the strength to see it done. With this spirit we may accomplish the noblest work that men have ever undertaken in any nation.

To the people of the South we may fairly say: "These negroes were brought here by your forefathers, and thus tied to the land. In their training as slaves, they were given an opportunity to rise far above their primitive savagery. You have seen in serious trials how, as a race, they are trustworthy. They are now your fellow-citizens in name, but are in a condition to be a permanent menace to your commonwealth. Properly aided on their way upward, they may be of great value to your descendants." To the people of the North we may plead for all the help they can give; for hardly less than the Southerners, their ancestors shared in the actions which brought the negroes to this country. They gave the blacks the semblance of citizenship by the process of emancipation. If the work stops there, it may be questioned whether it was a boon to the masses of the folk it made nominally free. To be what it was meant to be, then, it needs more than enactments. There must be long continued and devoted labor, wisely directed.

A necessary part of the work of a true emancipation of the negro is a careful inquiry into the history and former status of the people. Such an inquiry, placed and kept in good hands, is a necessary preliminary to sagacious action. It may serve to unite the men of all parts of the country in a work that so nearly concerns us all. There is not, nor is there likely to arise, a situation that so calls for intelligent patriotism as this we are sorely neglecting. We may go far away and rear an empire with our armies; but if we leave these, our neighbors, without a fair chance to develop the good that is in them, we shall have lost our real opportunity for great deeds—mayhap we shall fix among us evils that in the end will drag us down.