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Abolition vs. Gradual Emancipation

American slavery was widely criticized from the very beginning, and many of the nation’s founders hoped, perhaps naively, that the Peculiar Institution would soon die a natural death. But critics of slavery could never seem to agree on how the institution should best be discontinued.

The War of Independence generated a lot of public discourse concerning freedom and personal liberty, and during the last several decades of the eighteenth century, every northern state in the U.S. enacted measures to prohibit slavery. But the hoped-for natural death of slavery did not follow. Partly this was attributable to the fact that the federal government remained largely in the hands of southerners; between 1788 and 1848 all but four U.S. presidents were slaveholders.

Then, in the early nineteenth century, slavery was given a new lease on life. This was due to the sudden and spectacular growth in world demand for cotton, which quickly became the country’s most important export. Slave states and free states alike benefited from the cotton trade, and the antislavery sentiments inspired by the War for Independence soon faded in the light of these new economic considerations.

Still, slavery remained a divisive political issue, and between 1790 and 1830 dozens of antislavery proposals came before Congress. During this period, most antislavery proposals were paired with the idea of “colonization” – the removal of the black population from the United States. Advocates of this idea envisioned a nation peacefully freed from both the institution of slavery and the unwanted presence of free blacks.

Although colonization may sound far-fetched today, it was quite popular in its time, and Thomas Jefferson remained committed to the idea to his dying day. He personally proposed that the federal government purchase all slave children born each year for the purpose of deporting them – yes, infants – so that the slave population would age and eventually die out.

The first emancipation – that of slaves in the north – had contained no provision for colonization. That emancipation had been gradual rather than immediate, and usually included some sort of compensation to the owners. For example, slave children born after a certain date were required to work for the mother’s owner for a certain number of years before eventually becoming free. In effect, these slaves were required to purchase their own freedom with a period of indentured servitude.

It seems to have been assumed in the north that the former slaves would somehow just be absorbed into mainstream society. But this did not happen. Indeed, it should not be imagined that free northern blacks enjoyed either political or social equality with whites; they could neither vote, become citizens, nor serve in the armed forces. Instead, the rapid growth of the free northern black population was followed by a upsurge of anti-black sentiment among northern whites. The American Colonization Society, founded in 1816, first directed its efforts at removing free blacks from the north.

Although a few African-Americans agreed with the colonization movement, most were strongly against the idea of being deported, either voluntarily or by force, from the land of their birth. Their vision of an America of birthright citizenship and equality before the law helped to give rise to a new, militant abolitionism in the 1820s and 30s.

Abolitionism combined the energies of two impulses – black anti-colonization and white evangelicalism. It rejected gradual emancipation, compensation, and colonization, and called for immediate, uncompensated emancipation and an America that was fully biracial. Rather than spending time formulating detailed plans for emancipation, abolitionists focused on altering public opinion, using the public media of the day – lectures, petitions, and pamphlets. Abolitionist rhetoric often appealed to the heart as well the mind, exposing the day-to-day brutality of slavery as well as its weakness as an economic system.

Abolitionists diverged most widely from other critics of slavery in their vision of a post-slavery America. The first racially integrated social movement in America, abolitionism was also the first to link emancipation with equal rights.

This was a radical departure from the mainstream, and many northerners expressed their disfavor by violently attacking abolitionist meetings and destroying printing presses. Still, during the 1830s between 200,000 and 300,000 northerners joined the movement.

Colonizationists resented the spread of abolitionism, and they were responsible for instigating a series of anti-abolitionist riots that swept the north. Their main objection was that abolitionism would harm the cause of emancipation since no southerner would ever accept the idea of equal rights.

(Foner 14-22)

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Abolitionism and Evangelical Christianity

The Abolitionist movement began in Britain, where evangelical Christians like William Wilberforce succeeded in ending slavery by 1833. The idea migrated to America with religious groups such as the Quakers and the Methodists. But Abolitionism would prove more problematic in the U.S., with its millions of slaves throughout the southern states, than in the British Empire, where slavery mostly existed in far-flung colonies.

In the 18th century, most Americans, North and South, believed that slavery was basically an evil, although regrettably a necessary one. But by the 1820s and 30s the cotton gin, the amazing profits to be made from cotton, and the correspondingly high price of slaves had effected a change in attitudes. Slavery was increasingly being promoted in the South as a positive good, something that needed to be expanded. A number of states passed laws making manumission illegal. Southerners became hostile to any criticism of slavery.

The earliest anti-slavery organizations in the U.S. advocated the resettlement of African-Americans to Africa. Groups like the American Colonization Society believed that slaveholders would willingly let their slaves go if they knew that upon their emancipation the freedmen would immediately leave the country. But this supposedly painless option never materialized; only a few free African Americans migrated to Liberia, and the Society never freed a single slave.

Abolitionists found the deportation idea offensively tame. They called for an immediate, uncompensated termination of slavery. Most Abolitionists were evangelical Christians, to whom slavery was a blatant violation of God’s command to love one’s neighbor, a sin that must be completely renounced.

Churches were enormously important institutions in the early 19th century. The American Methodist Episcopal denomination had more than one million members, with regular church attenders numbering two to three times that many. On any given Sunday, one in five Americans was sitting in a Methodist church! The Methodist church had always been strongly anti-slavery, and in 1800 the General Conference required conferences in slave states to petition their legislatures for abolition.

But mainstream Americans considered abolition a dangerously radical idea. It was frightening, not so much because of the financial loss it would cause, which was considerable, but because the specter of a lot of freed slaves suddenly living among whites on a basis of equality was too shocking to comprehend.

In the 1820s and 30s, Abolitionists were a radical minority; even in the North, abolitionist orators were often the targets of mob action. Southern leaders threatened to lynch any northerner found carrying Abolitionist literature. Southern congressmen succeeded in banning Abolitionist materials from the U.S. Mail. In 1836, proslavery congressmen passed a “Gag Rule” – no petition about slavery would be read or debated. A similar rule was passed in the Senate.

But the harder proslavery forces worked to suppress Abolition, the more northerners joined the cause. Americans who were not at first interested in slavery were stirred by Congress’s blatant infringement of their time-honored right of petition. Suddenly, antislavery petitions began flooding the Capitol, and a small group of sympathetic congressmen, including John Quincy Adams, fought to get them read. And it seemed that every time a southern mob attacked an Abolitionist, more and more complacent northerners were awakened to the tyranny of slavery.

To many northerners, the final straw was Article IV, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution: the Fugitive Slave Law. This law meant that slave states could override the rights of free states by retrieving escaped slaves from states were slavery did not exist. This was an intolerable violation of states’ rights.

For many citizens, the Fugitive Slave Law was asking them to place human law above divine law. Church congregations and abolitionist groups all over the North passed resolutions declaring that human laws contrary to divine law were not binding. By 1848, seven northern states had passed personal liberty laws, declaring that no state personnel or facilities could be used for retrieving runaway slaves. If the federal government insisted on dragging people into slavery, it would have to attend to the matter itself.

Meanwhile, more and more northerners were becoming involved in aiding fugitive slaves, and many colleges, seminaries and other Christian institutions became stations on the Underground Railroad.

But Methodism, facing constant pressure from its southern congregations, dropped the ball. National Methodist leadership began to assert that slavery was a social evil, rather than an individual one. Therefore, slaveholders would not be barred from church membership. The rapid influx of unrepentant slaveholders irreparably weakened the denomination’s stance on slavery. By the 1820s Methodist periodicals were urging church members not to be “judgmental” against slavery. In 1836 the General Conference, as always more interested in stability than in religious zeal, announced that the Methodist Church would henceforth refrain from discussing the disturbing subject of slavery.

This did not reflect majority sentiment in Methodist pews and pulpits in the North. Seven of every eight Abolitionists were evangelical Christians, and most were Methodists. Dissatisfaction with denominational acquiescence on slavery inspired about 15,000 Methodists to splinter off and form a new antislavery denomination, the Wesleyans, in 1843. Then in 1844, following a scandal concerning a slave-owning bishop, outraged southerners left to form their own strongly proslavery denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

Similar splits occurred within the Baptist and Presbyterian denominations. These various schisms in the 1840s reflected the beginnings of a major rift within the nation as a whole. For the average American, religious matters were much more important day-to-day than the doings of Congress. By polarizing along strictly North-South lines, the denominations succeeded where politics had failed: now, to the average American, the country was beginning to seem divided in two.

(Woodworth 40-54)

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Chinese Plantation Workers

Before the 1870s, there were only a tiny handful of Chinese people living in the American South. But with the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of black slaves, Southern planters began to eye the Chinese as possible substitutes for their former human property.

It should have been an ideal match. After all, according to reports from California, Chinese laborers were docile and hardworking. Why should they be less so as field hands than as gold miners and railroad workers? If the Chinese would be willing to work according to the terms that had prevailed under slavery, perhaps the emancipated blacks could be persuaded to return to their former condition as well.

So in 1869, Southern elites organized a conference to discuss Chinese labor. Hundreds of delegates assembled in Memphis, Tennessee. A notable Chinese labor contractor assured the crowd that the Chinese were obedient, industrious, and naive; a famous importer of Chinese labor promised that workers could be brought from China on five-year contracts for as little as ten dollars a month.

Giddy with the prospect of building a new South on the backs of coolies, the delegates raised a million dollars for the cause, then set about aggressively recruiting Chinese labor.

American clipper companies distributed handbills in Chinese ports, making extravagant promises. For example, some of them claimed that Chinese workers could become “richer than mandarins” in the American South. This campaign succeeded in bringing about two thousand Chinese workers to the South in 1869 and 1870.

Both the Southern planters and the Chinese laborers quickly became disillusioned. The plantation owners were accustomed to exerting absolute control over their workers; they believed that the way to increase productivity was to have overseers whip grown men into tractability. But the Chinese considered their relationship to the planters to be a normal business arrangement; they expected their employers to adhere to the terms of their contracts, and had no intentions of laboring under oppressive conditions.

On one plantation, the Chinese responded to the whipping of a Chinese servant by staging a strike. Elsewhere, a Chinese labor gang attempted to lynch a Chinese agent for giving them false information about the terms of their employment. Unlike the former slaves, the Chinese laborers worked under contract, and they proved to be shrewd negotiators, hiring bilingual interpreters and lawyers to protect their interests. When employers violated contracts, the Chinese filed lawsuits. In this they were supported by a postwar government that was alert to any signs of racial exploitation in the South.

The Southern oligarchy’s dream of holding Chinese workers in bondage turned out to be a nightmare. Within a few years, most of the Chinese had walked away from their contracts and moved to cities, where they accepted real jobs or opened their own businesses. By 1915 there were almost no Chinese workers on Southern plantations.

(Chang 93-99)

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The Democratic Party Goes Liberal

Since the Civil War, the GOP had identified itself as the Party of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, while the Democratic Party had always been dominated by southern Jim Crow conservatives.This all began to change during the Great Depression.

In 1932, a wave of newly-active voters from among the white American middle class swept the polls. They managed to place liberal Democrats in office at all levels of the government, including the presidency. Franklin D. Roosevelt, during his first one hundred days in office, led the federal government in a series of unprecedented actions to help Americans survive the economic crisis. His New Deal raised the hopes of millions, and working-class Americans everywhere loved him.

They also loved his wife, Eleanor, who became the first politically active first lady in US history. She connected easily and with no apparent condescension to the poor and to African Americans, who mostly fell into that category. (While about 30 percent of Americans were unemployed during the Depression, among blacks the unemployment rate was around 50 percent.)

While the New Deal focused on economic liberalism, it did not at first include the kind of racial liberalism exemplified by Eleanor Roosevelt. Early New Deal leaders were mostly northern white intellectuals who had little firsthand experience with the southern white mindset. They believed that race prejudice was a result of economic conditions – African Americans were discriminated against because they were poor – and they naively thought that once the New Deal had lifted blacks out of poverty, race would cease to be an issue.

Eventually, as they saw their economic programs in many states segregated along racial lines, they began to realize that racism was the cause, rather than the effect, of black poverty. Of course, black leaders had been saying this all along, but finally, New Deal liberals began to see it too.

In order for blacks to get civil rights onto the agenda of the Democratic Party, first they had to join that party. This meant leaving the Republican Party – the party of Lincoln and emancipation. For many this was a painful decision; as one man said, Roosevelt might feed him, but Lincoln had freed him. Nevertheless, in the late 1930s, blacks in the North and West overwhelmingly switched to the Democratic Party. That shift was to permanently change American politics and the civil rights movement.

In some ways, Republicans brought it on themselves. For a long time, the GOP had been taking black votes for granted. They had largely ignored the subject of black civil rights, figuring that African Americans had no choice but to vote Republican; the only alternative was the Democratic Party, the party of the Confederacy and white supremacy. Now suddenly, the triumph of the liberal Democrats gave black voters new motivation to switch parties.

Also, New Deal aid did reach African American families, saving homes and livelihoods. This was a strong influence on winning black support for the Democratic Party.

A third reason black voters switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party in the 1930s had to do with the Roosevelts themselves. Largely through Eleanor’s prompting, FDR established an unofficial “Black Cabinet” committee of African American leaders, to advise him on race issues in the New Deal. He actively welcomed African Americans into the Democratic Party and made a special effort to court the black vote in the 1936 election. While his popularity among all Americans virtually assured his reelection, he won a large percentage of the black vote that year. More and more blacks would continue to become Democrats in the following years and decades.

While conservative southern Democrats continued to fight black civil rights to the end, it was the liberal Democrats who would eventually reshape racial law in America.

(Flamming 150-157)

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The Tulsa Race Riot

The late 1910s witnessed a wave of white-on-black racial violence throughout the American West. Major race riots included those in Houston (1917), East St. Louis (1917), Chicago (1919), Elaine, Arkansas (1919) and Omaha, Nebraska (1919).

The last and worst of this wave of racial violence erupted in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 31, 1921. Tulsa was at that time a rapidly growing city, mostly white but with a sizeable and prosperous black population; the city was tightly segregated, and the homes and businesses of black middle-class families were centered in an area called Greenwood.

The incident began when a black man named Dick Rowland was falsely accused by some white men of having made advances upon a white girl. Rowland was arrested and locked in a courthouse jail; that afternoon, a white newspaper announced in bold headlines that there would be a lynching that night.

A group of Greenwood’s leading citizens and property owners decided to intervene. At dusk, about two dozen got their guns and drove to the courthouse. Already a white mob of several hundred was assembled. Approaching the sheriff, the Greenwood men offered their services; the sheriff informed them that he had already contacted the National Guard, and that the situation was under control. The men, convinced for the moment, got in their cars and returned to Greenwood.

Meanwhile, the white mob was growing. At some point, part of the mob tried to break into the National Guard armory to seize guns and ammunition; the Guard held them off but failed to disperse them. News of the escalation reached Greenwood; this time, from 50 to 75 men assembled and returned to the courthouse.

No one knows who fired the first shot, but someone did, and a riot broke out. The Greenwood men, outnumbered 75 to 3,000, managed to fight their way out of downtown and back toward their own neighborhood. The white mob followed them; fighting continued all night, and sometime the next morning, Greenwood began to burn. In broad daylight, as their homes and businesses went up in flames, as many as 6,000 blacks were rounded up and force-marched to internment centers.

The destruction continued all day. White newspaper photographers followed the mob and took pictures of the burning buildings. The National Guard did nothing to stop the violence; the whites freely continued destroying property as they chose.

The number of deaths due to the violence was never accurately established. Estimates range from 30 to 300 persons dead; perhaps half of these were white men. More than 1,000 homes and businesses in Greenwood were destroyed; black Tulsa lay in ruins. White officials at the city and state levels openly blamed the riot on the small group of black men who had arrived downtown with guns. Many black families left the city, never to return.

The violence in Tulsa began a panic in Los Angeles, when rumors of a Klan riot began to circulate; reportedly, black Los Angeles had been scheduled for the “Tulsa treatment” on July 4.

But it didn’t happen. Los Angeles was a very different place from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa was a southern-style city, and Greenwood was the kind of all-black neighborhood that didn’t exist in the cities of the West Coast. In places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, blacks lived and worked in mixed neighborhoods, interspersed with whites, Mexicans, and Asians. There would be no way to attack the “black district” without destroying the property of many non-blacks. This diversity could not, of course, prevent violence on an individual basis, but it may explain why the cities of the West Coast escaped the race riots so prevalent during this period.

(Flamming 130-133)

 

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From Reconstruction to Jim Crow

In the years immediately following the Civil War, most former slaves did not leave the South. Instead, they placed their faith in the federal government’s plan for Reconstruction. As the defeated Confederate states were rejoined to the Union, the freedmen hoped they would be able to enjoy the rights of American citizenship in a redeemed, Reconstructed South.

Initially, Reconstruction was amazingly successful. Three Constitutional amendments were ratified in quick order: The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) outlawed slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) gave full citizenship to former slaves, and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) extended the franchise to all male citizens, regardless of race or color. Southern Reconstruction governments also quickly established systems of public education for former slaves and their children.

These gains were not to last. As the party of Lincoln began to morph into the party of Big Business, Northern Republicans lost interest in southern racial conflicts; the last federal troops were withdrawn from the South in 1877. This officially ended the Reconstruction process, and things went bad very quickly.

Outraged by the loss of slavery, the former Confederates, now the Democratic Party, committed themselves to creating a strict racial caste system instead. They began by systematically destroying the Republican Party in the South. Republican leaders were run out of town, or murdered outright. Republican voters were threatened, beaten, and killed. Democrats destroyed Republican votes or stuffed ballot boxes with fake Democratic votes. As the North declined to interfere, Southern Democrats pushed black voters, and white Republican voters, out of the political system.

The Democrats used several methods to disfranchise black voters. One way was to require an annual tax of anyone wishing to maintain their voters’ registration; most blacks and poor whites did not have the necessary cash to pay for a vote that probably wouldn’t be counted anyway. Another method was to require registrants to read and successfully interpret the Constitution – to the satisfaction of the Democratic registrar – in order to be allowed to vote.

During the 1890s, thousands of black men and women were lynched by white mobs. No white southerner was ever convicted of any crime related to the lynchings, and few were even charged. Often, law enforcement officials themselves were involved in the murders. This was the ultimate form of disfranchisement: the unchecked, wholesale murder of black citizens, with no consequences for the murderers.

With disfranchisement complete, segregation laws were quickly passed throughout the South. By the end of the century, the white supremacist system known as Jim Crow was firmly established. African Americans in the South had no legal or political rights at all, and the dream of Reconstruction was over.

(Flamming 94-98)

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Exodusters

In the years immediately following the Civil War, black southerners did not suddenly leave the South for greater opportunities in the North or out West. Most freedmen placed their hope in Reconstruction, as their Republican allies sought to redeem the South and protect their newly-acquired political rights.

But Reconstruction did not go far enough. The freedmen were never given the allotments of land they’d been promised. The Southern state governments were all recaptured by former Confederates, and all federal troops left the South in 1877, leaving the former slaves to fend for themselves. With no protection, they faced unrestrained violence, especially in the areas along the lower Mississippi River, in northeastern Louisiana and western Mississippi.

In 1879, rumors started to circulate that the federal government was making plans to send boats up the Mississippi to transport black families to St. Louis and on to freedom out West. The promised land, where they  hoped to build their new lives, was the state of Kansas.

Kansas had a strong abolitionist history. It was there that John Brown and other white abolitionists first took up arms against the slave South. During the war, Kansas had been a refuge for blacks fleeing slavery, and it was there that blacks were first armed to fight for the Union. After the war, the Republican government of Kansas was strongly in favor of black civil rights.

Believing that boats would arrive any time to take them away to freedom in Kansas, thousands of black families began to congregate on the banks of the Mississippi. The large numbers of people camped on the riverbank, the fact that they appeared to have no leader, and their faith that boats would come for them and that they would be welcomed in Kansas made them national news. Their story seemed like something out of the Old Testament, and they soon became known as “Exodusters.”

Riverboats did eventually begin picking up the crowds, and some 6,000 Exodusters made their way to Kansas.

Although there was neither enough land nor adequate public resources to meet the needs of these new emigrants, Kansas authorities did not turn them away. At both state and local levels, the authorities worked to blend the new arrivals into the state’s growing urban economy. Although many Exodusters had to give up their dreams of land ownership for service jobs in Topeka and other railroad towns, for many it was good enough to be safely out of the South.

(Flamming 74-77)

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