Popular Science Monthly/Volume 57/May 1900/The Negro Since the Civil War




THE admirable conduct of the negro during the civil war made it seem possible to have the readjustment of his relations on the basis of freedom brought about with a minimum of friction. As a whole, the former slaves had stayed on the land where they belonged. Many of those who had wandered, moved by the homing instinct so strong in their race, found their way back to their accustomed places. The bonds of mutual interest and old affections were enough, had the situation been left without outside disturbance, to have made the transition natural and easy. It is true that the negro, with his scant wage paid in supplies, would not have advanced very far in the ways of freedom. He would have been hardly better than the middle-age serf bound to his field. It would, however, have been better to begin with a minimum of liberty, with provision for schooling and a franchise based on education. But this was not to be. Political ends and the popular misconception of the negroes as beings who differ from ourselves only in the color of their skin and in the kink of their hair led to their immediate enfranchisement and to the disenfranchisement of their masters. This was attended by an invasion into the South of the worst political rabble that has ever cursed the land. There were good and true men among the carpet-baggers, but as a lot they were of a badness such as the world has not known since captured provinces were dealt out to the political gamblers of Rome.

The effect of the carpet-bag period on the negroes was to raise their expectations of fortune to the highest point, and then to cast them down. Those of the poorest imaginations looked for forty acres of land and a mule. In the resulting political corruption the native whites and blacks endured even greater losses than the war had inflicted, the most grievous being a great unsettling of the relations between the races. The way in which the white men of the better sort met this trial is fit to be compared with the best political achievements of their folk. Gradually, on the whole without violence, for they had to abstain from that, working within the limits of the Constitution to which they had been forced to trust for their remedies, they rewon control of their wasted communities, and brought them back to civilized order. There was a share of terrorism and shame from such devices as tissue ballots to lessen the dignity of this remarkable work, yet it remains a great achievement—one that goes far to redeem the folly of the secession movement. The full significance of this action is yet to be comprehended.

The overthrow of the carpet-bag governments, quietly yet effectively accomplished, removed the only danger of war between the blacks and whites. We can not well imagine another crisis so likely to bring about a conflict of that kind. The blacks were driven from power. Their desperate leaders would willingly have led them to fight, but the allegiance to the ancient masters was too strong, their trust in the carpet-bagger, for all his affectation of love, too slight to set them on that way. The negro fell back as near as might be to the place he held at the close of the war. His position was thereafter worse than it was at that station in his history, for the confidence and affection which the behavior of their servants during the rebellion had inspired was replaced in the mind of the dominant race by an abiding sense of the iniquities in which the ex-slaves had shared. Thereafter, and to this day, the black man is looked upon as a political enemy, who has to be watched lest he will again win a chance to control the state. In the greater part of the South this fear is passing away. In several States new laws concerning the franchise have made it practically impossible for the negro vote to be a source of danger for some time to come—until, indeed, the negro is better educated and has property. There is a share of iniquity in these laws, as there is apt to be in all actions relating to a situation that rests on ancient evils, but their effect is better than that of terrorism and tissue ballots which it replaces. They will afford time for the new adjustments to be effected.

In considering the present conditions of the negro, we may first note the important fact that he is hard at work. The production of the South clearly shows that the sometime slaves, or rather their children, are laboring even more effectively than they did in the time of legal servitude. This disposes of the notion that the blacks will not work without other compulsion than those needs which bend the backs of his white brethren. It is evident that the generation born since the war is laborious and productive up to, if not beyond, the average of men. It is also plain that they are fitted for a rather wider range of employment than they were accustomed to follow as slaves. The negro has proved himself well adapted for labor in mines and about furnaces—in all places, indeed, where strength and a moderate share of intelligence are required. The fear that he would desert the land and flock to the cities has not been justified. He appears less disposed to yield to the temptations of the great towns than the whites. The first rage of the freed people for schooling seems to have passed. A good many of them are getting the rudiments of an education, some few a larger culture, but there appears to be danger that the folk may lapse into indifference concerning all training that is not immediately profitable.

As to the moral condition of the negroes, there appears to be good reason for believing that it is now in the way of betterment. Little as they were disturbed in their conduct by the sudden change in their apparent place in the world, they were for a time somewhat shaken as regards the limits of their rights. So far as I have been able to learn, they are much less given to stealing than they were just after they were freed, or even as they were as slaves. Their marital relations, though leaving much still to be desired, are improving, as is all that relates to the care of their children. Most important is the fact that loose relations between white men and negro women have in great measure ceased, so that the unhappy mixture of the races, which has been the curse of tropical states, is apparently not likely to prove serious.

Although the negro is not rapidly gaining property, he is making a steadfast advance in that direction. The money sense in all that relates to capital he, with a few exceptions, is yet to acquire. This part of his task is certain to be difficult to him, as it is to all peoples who are in the earlier stages of civilized thought. The experiment of the Freedman's Bank, by which many suffered at the hands of designing white people, has left a bad impression upon the minds of the negroes. Where they save, they commonly hoard their store. As yet they have not become accustomed to associative action. They rarely enter into any kind of partnership. In this indisposition to attain the advantages of mutual support we have another evidence of the primitive condition of the folk.

Before endeavoring to go further with this account of the present state of the negroes of this country, it is well to note the fact that while much has been done to blend the original diversities of their stock, these differences have by no means passed away. The seekers after slaves in Africa were not choice as to their purchases or captures; they reckoned as black if he were no darker than brown, and they were not at all careful to see that his hair was kinky. Thus it came about that from the wide ethnic range of the Dark Continent there came to us a great variety of people—a much more diverse population than we have received from Europe. It might be supposed that the conditions of slavery would quickly have effaced these differences, but even in that state there was choice in mating, and certain stocks have such prepotency that a small share of their blood stamps those who have it in a definite manner. The result is that, under the mask of a common dark, though really very variedly tinted skin, we have an exceeding diversity of race and quality.

It is discreditable to our students of anthropology that as yet there has been no considerable effort made to determine the varieties which exist in our negro population or the source of their peculiarities in the tribes whence they come. In a small way, for many years, on numerous journeys in the South, I have endeavored to classify the blacks I have met. For a long time I kept these results in a roughly tabulated form. Although such observations, including no measurements and giving only eye impressions of the general form, can have no determinable value, they may, in the absence of better work, deserve consideration. The result of this rough inspection of many thousand of these peoples in nearly every State in the South has been to indicate that there are several, probably more than six, groups of so-called negroes which represent original differences of stock or the mixed product of their union. The more characteristic of these I will now briefly describe.

For convenience I will first note those who are termed mulattoes, in which there is an evident mixture of white blood. Such admixture seems to be distinctly traceable if it amounts to as little as one eighth; it is said that one sixteenth of negro blood, or less, will be revealed on close study of the hair and skin. The proportion of the negroes in our Southern States who have white ancestry in any degree does not, in my opinion, exceed one tenth, and may be as small as one twentieth of the whole number. Judging only by the hue of the skin, the observer will be likely to make the proportion larger, for the reason that he will include many persons who, because they come from stocks that were not black-skinned, appear at first sight to be mulattoes of some degree. These Eu-Africans, as we may term them—imitating in the term the useful word Eurasian, which is applied to the mixture of European and Asiatic people in India—are in appearance exceedingly diverse, the variety being caused by the varying share of the blood of the two races, as well as by the diversities of the stocks to which the parents belong.

Besides the mixture of the European and black, we have another less well known but not uncommon between the negro and the Indian. This is often met with among the remnants of the Indian tribes in all the eastern part of the United States. The two groups of primitive people appear to have found their despised lot a basis for a closer union. The dark skin of the Algonkins, however, makes the remnants of that people appear to have more black blood than they really possess. Not only did stray negroes resort to the Indian settlements, but some of the tribes owned many slaves. The result is that in many parts of this country, but particularly in Virginia, the Carolinas, Florida, and Georgia, the attentive observer often will note the Indian's features stamped on those of the African.

Coming to the diversities of the stock among the pure Africans, we may first note the type which, in the rough judgment of the public, is the real or Guinea negro. That he is so taken is doubtless because he is the most distinctly characterized of all black people. The men of this well-known group are generally burly fellows, attaining at a relatively early age a massive trunk and strong thighs; they have thick necks and small though variedly shaped heads. The bridge of the nose is low, and the jaws protruding. The face, though distinctly of a low type, very often has a very charming expression—one in which the human look is blended with a remnant of the ancient animal who had not yet come to the careful stage of life. The women of this group are well made, but commonly less so than the men. In general form the two sexes of the group are much alike, a feature which also indicates an essentially low station. These people of the Guinea type form perhaps one half of the Southern negroes.

Along with the Guinea type goes another much rarer, which at first sight might by the careless observer be confounded with the lower group. The only common features are the burly form of both, the deep-black hue, and the general form of the features. The men we are now considering have a higher and in every way better head. Their foreheads are fuller, and the expression of the face, to my view, quite other than that of the Guinea men. In place of the sly, evasive child-animal look of the lower creature, this fellow has rather a lordly port, the expression of a vigorous, brave, alert man. This, which I am disposed to term the Zulu type, from the resemblance to that people, is on many accounts the most interesting of all the groups we have to consider. My idea that it may have come from the above-named tribe is based on an acquaintance with a party of southern Africans who some forty years ago were brought to this country by a showman. I came to know them well. They were attractive fellows, of the same quality as certain blacks I had known in Kentucky. When I saw these strangers I perceived their likeness to certain able blacks whose features and quality had made impressions on my mind that remain clear to the present day. It is likely that this element of the negro people I have termed Zulu is not of any one tribe; it may be of several diverse stocks with no other common quality than that which vigor gives. They may, in part, be from Bangora tribes of the Congo Valley, or even Soudanese. The proportion of this group to the whole is small; because it merges into the other it can not well be estimated. I find that I have reckoned it in my notes as one twentieth of the whole black population.

Set over against these robust blacks, but also of high quality, is a group less distinctly limited, which has for its characteristics a rather tall, lean form, a slender neck, a high head, and a thin face, usually with a nose of better form than is commonly found, sometimes approaching the aquiline. The skin of these people is often as black as that of the Guinea folk, yet it is of another hue—a deader black, perhaps due to some difference in the skin glands. Usually, however, there is a trace of brown in the complexion. Now and then the relative straightness of the hair and their facial profiles suggest that the peculiarity of this people is due to an admixture of Semitic (probably Arabian) blood. Negroes of this type are most abundant in the northern part of the South, particularly in Virginia. They are rare in the plantation States. This is mayhap due to the fact that in the selection of people to be sold to the traders such delicate folk were retained where they belonged—as house servants. These rare negroes, which for lack of a better name will be termed Arabs, are few in number. They can not be reckoned at more than one per cent of the whole.

Besides the comparatively recognizable types above reckoned, there is another which puzzles the observer. They are of varied shapes, generally, however, rather smaller than the average. Their peculiarity consists in the reddish-brown hue of their skins, which at first suggests that they are mulattoes. Their faces and hands are often distinctly blotched with darker patches, in the manner of freckles. At times I have been inclined to regard their features as indicating a tendency to albinism, or that change of pigment such as now and then gives silver foxes or white blackbirds. All things considered, it seems more likely that we have in these red negroes the remnant of a people once distinctly separated from the other black Africans. In favor of this view is the fact that the members of the group are very evenly distributed, as they would be if they were a distinct race, and not as we should expect to find them if they were the result of albinism or of a mixture of white blood. The number of this variety of folk is small; it probably does not exceed one per cent of the population.

When the observer has made the divisions above noted he has set apart a little more than one half of the blacks he has tried to classify. Among the remainder he will have remarked other but indistinct types in a way that appears to indicate that several other fairly characterized groups might by close scrutiny be established. The greater part of this remainder, however, evidently consists of mixed people, who have come from a mingling of the original diverse stocks.

Imperfectly founded and inadequate as are the results of my rough inspection of the Southern negroes, they fairly serve to show some facts of importance to those who would helpfully foresee the future of the black people in this country. We may first remark that, notwithstanding the many distinct racial qualities and diversity which, to my eye, far exceed what we may observe among the whites of the United States, they are, with the exception of the mulattoes, in excellent physical condition. They are of curiously even, serviceable size, dwarfs and giants being very rare—much rarer than among the whites. The percentage of deformed persons is, so far as the eye can determine it, very low. I am fairly well acquainted with the peasant class in most of the European states, and I know of no region where the average condition of the folk appears to be so good as it is among the Southern blacks. In fact, this state is doubtless due to the rigid selection which was had when the Africans were chosen for export; in part to the care of their bodies during the time when they were slaves. The result is a distinctly chosen people, well fitted to carry the burdens of this world.

The variety of physical quality which appears to exist among the negroes is important, for the reason that it appears to be associated with mental differences even as great, thus affording a basis for the differentiation of the people as regards occupations and consequent station in life. It is even more difficult to get at the mental peculiarities of the several groups of black folk than it is to ascertain those of their bodies, so what I shall now set forth is stated with much doubt. It represents my own opinion, qualified by that of others whose judgments I have sought. In the Guinea type we have a folk of essentially limited intelligence. The children are rather nimble-witted, but when the body begins to be mature it dominates the mind. It seems likely that thus the largest element of the race is to find its place in the field or in the lower stages of craft work. The Zulu type appears to me fit for anything that the ordinary men of our own race can do. They remain through life alert and with a capacity for a vigorous reaction with their associates. From them may come the leaders of their kindred of less masterful quality. From the Arab type we may expect more highly educable people than is afforded by the other distinct groups. They have more delicate qualities. They lack the wholesome exuberance of the ordinary negro, which is commonly termed "bumptiousness." Their nature is often what we may term clerical. They are inclined to be somber, but are not morose in the manner of a "musty" elephant, as is frequently the case with the Guinea and Zulu types. Of the red or freckled negroes I have no sufficient grounds for an opinion, yet they as a whole impress me less favorably than any other of the distinct groups. As for the unclassified remainder of the blacks, it can only be said that they seem to be as varied in their mental as they are in their physical character.

The mulattoes of this country appear to be of less importance to the future of the people with which they are classed than they are in other parts of the world, where the white element of the mixture is from other than the Teutonic stock. They are in general of feeble vitality, rarely surviving beyond middle age. My father, an able physician, who had been for nearly all of a longlife in contact with negroes, was of the opinion that he had never seen a half-breed who was more than sixty years old. There is certainly a notable lack of aged people of a hue that would indicate that they were anywhere near an equal mixture of the white and black races. Those in which the blood of white stock predominates appear to be more enduring than the half-breeds.

While the intellectual qualities of the mixed white and black are often very good and the attractiveness of the person and manner sometimes remarkable, they have in general a rather bad reputation as regards trustworthiness. Such a view of mestizos is common in all countries where they occur. Humboldt is quoted (though I have not found the matter in his works) as saying that all mixed races have rather the evil than the good of the races from which they sprang. In the case of the mulattoes, at least, there seems to be no warrant for this judgment, and all we know of offspring of diverse species in the animal and plant world fails to give it any support. It is most likely that this opinion as to the mixed white and black people is but one of the varieties of race prejudice where the sufferer is often despised by those who are below him as well as those who are above. The lot of all human half-breeds is unhappy in that they are limited to a narrow field of association. They are not perfectly free to make friends with either of the peoples to whom they are kin. Considering the peculiar situation of the mulattoes, the difficulty of which no one who has not sought information on the matter can well conceive, it seems to me that their way of life is creditable to them. On their own and other accounts, however, we may welcome the fact that their mixed stock is likely to disappear, being merged in those whence it sprang.

In considering the future of our American negroes it is important that we should make a judgment as to their moral tendencies. This is not easy to do, for the statistics of crime are not in such form as to make it clear in what regards they depart from the averages of the white population. There can, however, be no doubt that at first they were addicted to small thieving, and that this habit continued until after the civil war. Southern people, well placed for forming an opinion, believe that this evil is passing away, from the development of the property sense. As for drunkenness, the negro appears to be on the whole less tempted to it than are the whites. One rarely finds the sot type among them. Those of the lower class are liable to curious contagious excitements, which often make them behave as if they were intoxicated when they are not so. A scene I witnessed on a train out of New Orleans, a few years ago, illustrates this and other significant features of the negro character. It was a Sunday morning, and the car assigned to blacks was full of sturdy fellows, mostly of the Guinea type. Explaining to the conductor that I wished to see the people, he allowed me to take a seat in the rear of the carriage. At first my neighbors looked askance at me, but with a word they became friendly. While the train was at rest the throng was still, but as soon as it was in motion singing and shouting began. There was a lull at every station, but with each renewal of the motion the excitement rose higher, until it became very great. A white newsboy, a fellow of some eighteen or twenty years, was engaged in selling papers and candy. As he passed along the aisle one of the negroes sprang at him, knife in hand. In a flash the boy had the muzzle of his pistol almost against the assailant's head. At this every negro in the car was afoot and shouting. Fearing the boy might be struck from behind, I moved near to him, intending to caution him not to fire too soon, for I was sure that his opponent would quickly break down. The youngster needed no advice of mine. In a steady, low voice he called, "Put up your knife—one!" With that the throng became suddenly still. "Put up your knife—two!" whereupon the ugly fellow slowly hid his knife and sank into a seat with bowed head, while the newsboy went on crying his wares, as if nothing unusual had happened.

Thinking that the negro might have had some grudge in mind, I asked the newsboy for the facts. He assured me that he had never seen the fellow before, and had no reason to expect the attack. He agreed with me that none of the people were drunk, and accounted for their conduct much as I was disposed to do—that "coons would get wild when there was a racket going on." It was interesting to note that the brakemen, who, with their pistols ready, came from either end of the car, took the affair as quietly as did the newsboy, making no kind of comment on it. I stayed on for an hour or so in the car. While I was there the negroes were perfectly quiet, it being evident that although the offender was not arrested and no blow had been struck, not even a brutal word used, a profound impression had been made on those half-savage people, as in another way on me. We both felt what means the strong hand of a masterful race—the stronger when it withholds from smiting. I had seen a good example of one of the ways by which the wild men of Africa have been shaped to the habits of their masters. Such a scene as I have sketched is happily possible in only a limited part of the South—that in which there is a great body of negroes who have not yet been to any extent influenced by civilizing contact with the whites.

There is a common assertion that the male negroes are sexually dangerous animals. The lynchings for assaults on white women appear at first sight to give some color to this view. It is, however, evidently a difficult matter on which to form an opinion. It may be fairly said that these instances of violence occur in by far the larger proportion in the States where the blacks are least domesticated, where they have been in the smallest measure removed from their primitive savagery. If we could eliminate this uncivilized material, mostly that which took shape, or rather kept its primitive shape, on the great plantation, the iniquity would be as rare everywhere as it is in Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, and Tennessee. When we recall the fact that there are now some five million negro men in the South, and that probably not one in ten thousand is guilty of the crime, we see how imperfect is the basis of this judgment. We have also to remember that this offense when committed by a negro is through the action of the mob widely published, while if the offender be a white man it is unlikely to be so well known. I therefore hold to the belief that violence to women is not proved to be a crime peculiarly common among the blacks. I am inclined to believe that, on the whole, there is less danger to be apprehended from them in this regard than from an equal body of whites of the like social grade. This matter is one of exceeding importance, for on it may depend the future of the South. It is fit that in considering it men should keep their heads clear.

In reviewing the condition of the Eu-Africans a third of a century after the war that gave them their new estate, we have, I think, reason to be satisfied with the results of the change. The change has brought us no distinct economic evils, as shown by the statistics of the industries. The labor of the blacks is quite as productive as it was while they were slaves. Their moral situation is not evidently worse than it was before they attained the measure of liberty which they now possess. The first step, that which naturally caused the most fear, has been taken, the people are free and have not turned their liberty to license. In looking forward, however, we see that only a part of the task has been done. The negroes have failed to acquire, save in very small proportion, the capacity for a true political life. It has been found necessary to deprive them of the control they once exercised, to the peril of the States and their own great harm. The question is as to the ways in which they are to be lifted into the safe plane of American citizenship. They must be so lifted, or we shall in time see established in the South a system of serfdom under the control of an oligarchy—a state of affairs in some regards worse than that of slavery, for it will lack the element of personal interest which did much to help the black in the first stages of his life with us.

Faro II is a dog of fine breed and great intelligence, belonging to one of the artists of La Nature, and has been engaged as an actor in the play of Robinson Crusoe, at one of the theaters in Paris. On the stage his name is Toby, and he knows it, and knows just what he has to do. He has entered into relations with his fellow-actors, and obeys his cue instantly. He does the stage business with strict accuracy, picks up the bird that is shot and takes it to Robinson, looks up his yams and the vegetable soup and his pipe. He is grieved when Robinson is sad, exults when he is rejoicing, and looks after his fellow-actors—the goat, the monkey, and the parrot—who are not so bright as he. Off the stage he knows nothing of Toby or of Robinson Crusoe, answers to no name but Faro, and recognizes no master but the artist, M. Weisser.