We feel to bee a people.
—A. H. HAINES, BEAUFORT, SOUTH CAROLINA, OCTOBER 19, 18651
We want representative men, without regard to color, as long as they carry the brand of negro oppression. We need power and intellectual equality with the whites. It does not matter whether he be a pretty or ugly negro; a black negro or a mulatto. Whether he were a slave or a free negro; the question is, is he a negro at all?… We want power; it only comes through organization, and organization comes through unity. Our efforts must be one and inseparable, blended, tied, and bound together.
—HENRY MCNEAL TURNER, AUGUSTA,
GEORGIA, JANUARY 4, 18662
THE SCENE HAD NO REAL PRECEDENTS. Seeking to underscore that fact, a white reporter thought it nothing less than “the great sensation of the day” and a harbinger of “great and dreaded innovations.” On September 29, 1865, more than 115 black men, most of them only recently slaves, filed into the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, designated themselves a Convention of Freedmen, and elected a northern-born black minister who had never experienced slavery to preside over their deliberations. They had come together from all parts of the state, chosen in some fashion by their people and instructed by them to find ways to eradicate the legal inequities of the past that still circumscribed their new freedom. Meanwhile, several blocks from this site, the same number of white men, some of them former slaveholders, assembled in a legislative chamber to frame a civil government for North Carolina and to determine what they could preserve of a seemingly shattered past.
The dramatic contrasts in the meeting halls and purposes of these two conventions extended as well to the political and economic power whites and blacks wielded and to the occupations, class biases, attire, and formal education of the respective bodies. The distinctions in native intelligence and capacity for self-government were less discernible. Although the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were more literate, how they used their accumulated intelligence in the next six days of deliberations made that advantage less than obvious. If some of them retained charitable feelings for the former slave, in the belief that he bore no responsibility for his freedom, that did not mean they would entertain any foolish notions about his right to participate in the political life of the state.
Located in a back street of Raleigh, the church in which the Freedmen’s Convention assembled was a modest wooden structure, scantily furnished, able to accommodate about 300 persons on the floor and another 100 in the gallery. During the four days of the convention, every seat would be filled with delegates and interested spectators, most of them also black. Affixed to the wall directly behind the pulpit, a lifelike bust of the martyred Abraham Lincoln remained shrouded in mourning more than five months after his assassination, and the inscription overhead repeated the classic words of his last inaugural address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right.” That proved to be the spirit of this unique gathering. Several of the delegates, however, among them Abraham H. Galloway, a light-skinned man whose black mother had been a slave of the distinguished Galloway family, would have preferred less charity, more firmness, and at least a suggestion of malice if charity and firmness yielded no results. Whatever might have been Galloway’s blood ties to the aristocratic clan whose name he bore, he harbored no affection for his former owners. Having escaped to Ohio in 1857, where he became an ardent abolitionist, Galloway returned to his native state after the war exuding what one observer called an “exceedingly radical and Jacobinical spirit.” At this Raleigh gathering, he would agree to compromise his advocacy of immediate and universal manhood suffrage only if an educational test for voting was applied equally to both races. But he thought it unlikely that white North Carolinians would wish to disfranchise more than half of their eligible voters. And he refused to believe the threats of leading whites to exile themselves if blacks won political equality. “It wouldn’t be six months,” he thought, “before they would be putting their arms around our necks and begging us to vote [for] them for office.”
Although Galloway called the Raleigh convention to order, the dominant mood was quickly established by the man the delegates chose as their permanent chairman—James W. Hood. Born in Pennsylvania, Hood had been a minister in Bridgeport, Connecticut, before coming South in 1864 as a missionary for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The election of a northern-born black to preside over a gathering of ex-slaves did not go unchallenged. “I myself am an adopted citizen of the State,” Hood said in his defense, “having lived here for some two years, and if I am not a citizen here, I am not a citizen of any State.” Upon hearing that some delegates were displeased with his election, he offered to resign, but the convention would not hear of it. In his opening address, Hood implored the delegates to refrain from “harsh language” and recrimination. “I say that we and the white people have to live here together.… We have been living together for a hundred years and more, and we have got to live together still; and the best way is to harmonize our feelings as much as possible, and to treat all men respectfully. Respectability will always gain respect …”
Voicing a similar moderation, James H. Harris, a native of North Carolina, emerged as the most influential figure of this and subsequent gatherings. Although born a slave, he had obtained his freedom in 1850 (his certificate of freedom described him as a nineteen-year-old “dark mulatoe” with a scar upon his head), migrated to Ohio, where he received some formal education, visited Liberia and Sierra Leone to observe the Afro-American settlements there, and returned to the United States in 1863 to help recruit blacks for military service. Two years later, as a delegate from Raleigh to the Freedmen’s Convention, he shared with his new colleagues the results of his varied experiences. He had met enough northern whites, he told them, to know that the “intelligent white class in the South” remained the “best friends” of colored people. He had seen enough of the North to know the depth of racial animosities in that region, manifested in the exclusion of blacks from most non-menial employments and in wartime riots that ranked among the most “diabolical and murderous” exhibitions of racial hatred in history. He had come to recognize, too, that only the law of military necessity, not a benevolent crusade of the Union Army, had freed his people. Finally, his travels elsewhere in the world—“40,000 miles in search of a better country”—had convinced him that neither Africa nor the West Indies were places of asylum for American blacks. The freedmen’s place was here on southern soil, and the only way to win the confidence of white men was to work faithfully and show “a patient and respectful demeanor.” This was no time for recrimination, nor was this the proper moment for radical manifestos. If the present tensions and ill feeling were only permitted to subside, the freedmen would surely “receive what they had a right to claim.” After all, he suggested, God was on their side, and he envisioned “a glorious future” for the black race in the South.
Like many of the postwar black conventions, the Raleigh conclave came to be dominated by those who thought it more expedient to request than to demand and who preferred to take their stand on the more abstract and less controversial principle of equality before the law rather than immediate admission to all political privileges. The effect of speeches such as those of Hood and Harris not only blunted the radicalism symbolized by Galloway but did much, said one relieved reporter, to disabuse the minds of fearful whites about the intent of these unprecedented and only recently prohibited meetings. Nevertheless, the delegates sometimes took a position at variance with this deliberately cultivated tone of moderation. The resolution revering the memory of John Brown would hardly have endeared them to the great mass of southern whites. Nor would native whites have appreciated the resolution praising the efforts of “that portion of the Republican party of which Messrs. Chase and Sumner and Stevens and Greeley are the heads” to secure blacks their rights through congressional action. And even as James Hood made his plea for conciliation, he rejected any return to the old days of subserviency, declared that blacks had waited long enough for their rights, and scoffed at the notion that they were unprepared to exercise those rights.
People used to say it was not the time to abolish slavery, and used to tell us to wait until the proper time arrived; but it would only seem reasonable that the more slaves there were, the more difficult it would be to set them free. The best way is to give the colored man rights at once, and then they will practice them and the sooner know how to use them.
Nor did he hesitate to enumerate the rights which properly belonged to black people, as much as to their white fellow citizens.
First, the right to testify in courts of justice, in order that we may defend our property and our rights. Secondly, representation in the jury box. It is the right of every man accused of any offence, to be tried by a jury of his peers.… Thirdly and finally, the black man should have the right to carry his ballot to the ballot box. These are the rights that we want—that we will contend for—and that, by the help of God, we will have, God being our defender.
That could hardly have been clearer. But the Appeals, Addresses, and Petitions adopted by the convention, and intended largely for white audiences, often failed to reflect the aggressive spirit with which individual blacks pressed their demands in speeches intended for their fellow delegates and the black spectators. With the Constitutional Convention meeting nearby, the Freedmen’s Convention drew up an Address to that body which was the very model of circumspection—“moderate in tone,” a white reporter wrote of it, and “unexceptionable in its phraseology and demands.” Avoiding the issues of testimony in the courts, representation on juries, and suffrage, the Address acknowledged instead the powerlessness of the freedmen, their dependence upon “moral appeals to the hearts and consciences of the people,” and their confidence in the “justice, wisdom, and patriotism” of the Constitutional Convention. Surely, that body would protect the interests of “all classes,” including a people who were now “helpless” after 250 years of slavery, who had been raised in intimate association with the dominant race, and who in the Civil War had “remained throughout obedient and passive.” Although they had no wish to return to slavery, they chose to emphasize the positive side of that sense of mutual obligations which had bound the masters and the slaves together. Rather than look to the North for protection and sympathy, they preferred to win their rights by “industry, sobriety and respectful demeanor.” But whites needed to reciprocate this commitment by compensating them properly for their labor, by respecting the sanctity of their family relations, by providing for the education of their children, and by abolishing “oppressive laws” which made racial distinctions. “Is this asking too much?” the Address concluded.
The moderate tone of their appeals, the conspicuous omissions, the humble posture were all consistent with the conciliatory spirit that dominated the convention. The Raleigh newspapers, as did several northern reporters who were present, quickly lauded the Address as a product of good sense—“a wonderfully conservative document, undisfigured by the marks of levelling radicalism.” Under the circumstances, the Constitutional Convention treated the Address with courtesy, while failing to act on the issues it raised. Like the “respect” and “confidence” which blacks accorded that body, the “courtesy” with which the whites responded seemed like so much playacting, with each side recognizing the inevitability of a prolonged struggle between them. Outside of the convention hall, the white delegates breathed precisely that spirit. “The niggers are having a convention, a’n’t they?” one delegate asked a northern reporter. “What do they want? Equal rights, I suppose. How do they talk, anyhow? Going to vote, be they?” When informed that the blacks had been quite moderate in their speeches and that their principal demand had been the right to testify in the courts, the delegate quickly replied, “No, sir; they won’t get that. It wouldn’t do at all. No, sir.… The people won’t have niggers giving evidence. They’ll never get that. The people won’t have it.”
The tactics of accommodation failed to yield the expected concessions. If anything, the state’s white leadership might have been encouraged to think they could return to the antebellum racial code with a minimum of resistance. Fortunately, the Freedmen’s Convention had not left everything to the white man’s sense of fair play. Before dispersing, the delegates agreed to organize a state Equal Rights League, instructed that organization to press for the repeal of all discriminatory laws, and proposed cooperation with any national group which might be formed with similar objectives. When the National Equal Rights League convened less than a month later in Cleveland, Ohio, James Harris was there to represent North Carolina. Alluding to his extensive travels, Harris declared on this occasion that he had found that “white men are white men” the world over.3
Less than a year after the Freedmen’s Convention, blacks again gathered in the AME Church in Raleigh for a statewide meeting, but this time the rhetoric, the resolutions, and the appeals took on a more aggressive tone, as if to suggest that a year of “moderation” and “conciliation” had been sufficient time to test white intentions and intransigence. This time, too, the delegates recited their grievances with far more openness and with an obvious impatience: “In the counties of Jones, Duplin, Craven, Hyde, Halifax, and many others in this State, outrages are committed, such as killing, shooting and robbing the unprotected people for the most trifling offences, and, in frequent instances, for no offence at all.” The perpetrators of this violence, the convention declared, were permitted to roam freely without any arrest for their crimes. Rather than appeal to the state legislature for a redress of grievances, the delegates expressed their “profound gratitude” for the recent actions of Congress, particularly the Freedmen’s Bureau bill, the Civil Rights bill, and the proposed Fourteenth Amendment. They denounced taxation without representation as “in direct violation of the sacred rights of American citizens.” And they urged blacks in every county, district, and village to organize branches of the Equal Rights League, so that the Federal government and the entire world would learn of the cruelties to which the freed slaves were being subjected.4
On January 14, 1868, delegates poured into Raleigh for still another Constitutional Convention to draft a new government and document for the state. But this body differed strikingly from its predecessor, both in spirit and in composition. This time blacks were not meeting separately several blocks away, drawing up “moral appeals” to the white conscience; instead, fifteen black delegates, duly elected by the eligible voters of the state, took their seats with the white delegates and prepared to participate fully in the deliberations. Presumably, the grievances and demands of the freed slaves would be reflected in the final results of the convention. Among others, James H. Harris, James W. Hood, and Abraham H. Galloway were on hand to make certain.
THE FREEDMEN’S CONVENTIONS marked the political debut of southern blacks. What made them so unprecedented was that men who had only recently been slaves, along with freeborn blacks, were expressing themselves in ways that had only recently been banned, gathering together for the first time, exchanging experiences, discussing the problems they faced in their particular counties, and sharing visions of a new South and a “redeemed” race. The scenes acted out in Raleigh were being duplicated in Mobile, Charleston, New Orleans, Vicksburg, Alexandria, Augusta, Nashville, Lexington, and Little Rock. Within a year after Appomattox, in nearly every ex-Confederate state, the local political activity which had begun with Federal occupation and the rallies celebrating emancipation culminated in the election of delegates to statewide conventions. And out of these gatherings would emerge a black leadership that would soon be called upon to help in the task of political reconstruction.
Perhaps as important as the conventions themselves was the local political activity that preceded them and the initial politicization of large numbers of blacks, both in the urban centers and in the countryside. Typical of such activity, the blacks of Edgecombe County, North Carolina, met in Tarboro to elect delegates to the state convention; they also took up a collection to defray the expenses of the trip to Raleigh and instructed the delegates on the most pressing concerns in their respective locales. The election of delegates might reveal as much about prevailing sentiments as the resolutions these local meetings passed. In Thomasville, Georgia, for example, blacks met in a grove near the edge of town and elected the Reverend Jared Wade, a literate clergyman and teacher, over Giles Price, an educated and fairly affluent blacksmith who had been free before the war and who had apparently offended some of his people by the generous and conspicuous support he had given the Confederacy.5
Where the election of delegates in mass meetings proved to be impossible or too dangerous, they were apt to be chosen after church services, by informal gatherings, or by clandestine neighborhood conferences. Even so, the cost and difficulty of travel to the state conventions kept some elected delegates away, while others might refuse to attend unless promised Federal protection when they returned to their homes. The absence of troops or of Federal officials had a way of reducing representation from the back-country or up-country counties, as in Louisiana and South Carolina. Ignoring the advice of local whites and threats to their lives and jobs, some delegates came to the state meetings at considerable personal and economic risk; others made a point of leaving during the night and returning with the least amount of notice, while some never returned after the local newspaper noted their presence at the convention. Isham Swett, a self-educated former slave and a barber in Fayetteville, North Carolina, attended the state conclave in Raleigh as a delegate. When the news became known, his white customers immediately withdrew their patronage. After attending the state convention in Macon, Georgia, several delegates remained in that city rather than return to their homes, fearing the strong stand they had taken on equal suffrage and civil rights would expose them instantly to roving white gangs. During the Convention of the Colored People of Virginia, Peter K. Jones, a delegate from Petersburg, asked, “Why are not more of you here?” and then suggested the answer: “Some of our people have been paid to stay away by our former masters. They told us that coming here would hurt us at home.” At the same convention, a delegate from Williamsburg recited the difficulties in securing representation from his region, with former slaveholders doing everything in their power to prevent elected delegates from attending.6
Despite the absentees, most of the statewide conventions brought together a remarkable cross section of the black population. The sharp contrasts in attire, complexion, and demeanor, and the equally apparent differences in background and education, again impressed outside observers with the uniqueness of these assemblages. There were black soldiers in uniform, and nearly every convention recognized their symbolic importance by appointing at least one of them to some official position. Ministers appeared in substantial numbers, some of them dressed in black broadcloth and several of them only recently chaplains in the black regiments. If lawyers, farmers, and planters dominated the white constitutional conventions, clergymen, teachers, carpenters, mechanics, hotel waiters, barbers, household servants (including the former body servant of Jefferson Davis), and plantation hands made up the bulk of the black conventions. In Louisiana, where the freeborn mulattoes of New Orleans had met frequently since Federal occupation, the Convention of Colored Men that assembled in January 1865 was the first time delegates from the country parishes had participated, and that scene elicited a special comment from a black editor:
There were seated side by side the rich and the poor, the literate and educated man, and the country laborer, hardly released from bondage, distinguished only by the natural gifts of the mind. There, the rich landowner, the opulent tradesman, seconded motions offered by humble mechanics and freedmen. Ministers of the gospel, officers and soldiers of the U.S. army, men who handle the sword or the pen, merchants and clerks,—all the classes of society were represented, and united in a common thought: the actual liberation from social and political bondage. It was a great spectacle, and one which will be remembered for generations to come.7
The leadership that emerged at the freedmen’s conventions gained valuable experience for the roles many of them would subsequently play in Radical Reconstruction. Among the delegates to the state convention that assembled in Charleston in November 1865, for example, were a future lieutenant governor, state supreme court justice, and secretary of state of South Carolina, as well as several men destined to serve in the legislature and the United States Congress. The quality of black leader ship, in South Carolina and elsewhere, immediately impressed outside observers, even skeptical native whites who had found the concept of blacks in such roles as either distasteful or incomprehensible. What remained open to question, however, was whether or not a “leader” commanded a significant following and constituency or was simply a self-appointed spokesman whose claims rested on his education, occupation, or northern origins. That was never an easy question to answer, though clergymen, who were in the most advantageous position to gather a following around them, tended to dominate postwar black political life.
In the early stages of organizational activity, especially in places like Charleston and New Orleans, the old free black communities contributed a disproportionate share of the leadership. But that dominance did not necessarily endure, particularly as some freed slaves quickly acquired an education and began to accumulate property. “It is remarkable,” thought Richard H. Cain, who had come to Charleston in 1865, “that the former leading men in these parts, those whom we would have recognized as the great minds of the South among the colored people, have relapsed into secondary men; and the class who were hardly known, have come forward and assumed a bold front, and are asserting their manhood.” In some states, moreover, as in Mississippi, blacks who had been free before the war were considered too dependent on whites to be entrusted with positions of leadership.8
Equally important in the early stages of political organization were northern blacks, most of them missionaries and teachers, who came to the South during and after the war, in some instances returning to a native land from which they had become exiles. Henry M. Turner, a freeborn South Carolinian who had already distinguished himself as an army chaplain and AME organizer, opened the Freedmen’s Convention in Georgia in 1866 and shared political leadership in that state with Tunis G. Campbell, a Massachusetts-born black and Freedmen’s Bureau agent who had established a virtually independent governnment in the Georgia Sea Islands. Richard H. Cain (a native of Virginia) and Francis L. Cardozo (a native of South Carolina), both of them ministers in Connecticut during the war, came to South Carolina in time to participate in the early convention movement, thereby joining an illustrious group that also included, as recent arrivals from the North, Martin R. Delany (a native of Virginia) and Jonathan J. Wright (a native of Pennsylvania), both of whom served for a time as Freedmen’s Bureau agents.9
But the bulk of the delegates to the conventions were themselves freedmen who came out of the virtual anonymity of slavery to participate in the political life of their localities and states. Some of them were house servants and artisans who had acquired a rudimentary education and a degree of acculturation to white values; still others had spent their bondage in the fields and quarters, having little contact with whites except for the owner and overseer. For many of the freedmen, whatever their varied experiences in slavery, military service had exposed them for the first time to the outside world and helped to accelerate the transition from bondage to political activism and leadership. In South Carolina, Robert Smalls managed to construct a loyal constituency in the Sea Islands on the basis of his wartime exploits, as did Prince Rivers, a former coachman in Beaufort and a sergeant in the Union Army, who had impressed Colonel Higginson as a man “of apparently inexhaustible strength and activity” with extraordinary leadership powers. “He makes Toussaint perfectly intelligible; and if there should ever be a black monarchy in South Carolina, he will be its king.”10
Not many of the freedmen in the black conventions initially assumed leadership roles. More often, the ministers, as the most educated and articulate members, effectively controlled the proceedings by displaying their oratorical talents and their political knowledge and, if necessary, by manipulating the finer points of parliamentary procedure with which most of the delegates were unfamiliar. But even if many of the ex-slaves “sat mute on the benches,” as one observer described them, the delegates who most underscored the remarkable character of these conventions were those who came dressed in the cheapest homespun clothes, who could neither read nor write, whose faces and bodies still bore the marks of their recent bondage, and who spoke a language, said one reporter, “that no northern white man can understand.” The only comparable assemblages in their experience had been for religious purposes, and if they spoke at all during the proceedings they might on occasion approximate in their gestures, shouts, and singsong oratory the rural prayer meetings they knew so intimately.11
When the ex-slave delegates pressed their grievances before the conventions, they lacked the style, the propensity for intellectual abstractions, and the ability to embellish their points with literary and biblical references that characterized, sometimes all too ostentatiously, their ministerial colleagues. But they spoke from their own individual experiences. “My dear brothers,” one of them declared, “I don’t place myself in this honorable convention as a Henry Clay or a Webster, fur I know I kin not do it, nor to speak afore you. I know I’s a poor, destituted, onlarnt don’t-know-A-from-B. I’s been rocked in a hard cradle, from my youth up to the present age.” Occasionally, they would rise to familiarize the delegates with conditions in their respective counties; some of them lost their patience altogether and scolded their more experienced colleagues for wasting precious time in parliamentary wrangling and trivialities and urged them to get on with the more pressing issues of freedom from economic oppression and the two-faced judicial system—issues that they confronted in their daily lives. Whatever their limitations in education and vocabulary, they often projected a wisdom that few of the wordy ministers and northern-educated delegates could surpass. “There is an eloquence in experience,” one black reporter wrote after hearing an ex-slave relate the problems his people confronted, “which can never be had elsewhere; no, not even by the most polished culture of the schools.” And if the white newspapers chose to dwell upon the ungrammatical utterances and plantation speech of some delegates, and mock their pretensions to oratory, several of the more literate blacks who were present saw no reason to be embarrassed. “I hope the reporters will take me down as saying ‘dis,’ ‘dat,’ ‘de oder,’ and the ‘deformities of de constitution,’ ” James D. Lynch told the State Convention of the Colored People of Tennessee. “I know more of syntax than all of them put together.” Nor would he tolerate the demeaning ways in which whites addressed black people, both the ex-slaves and the freeborn, outside the convention hall. “A white man said to me this morning, ‘Well, Uncle, how are you getting along?’ I was glad to know that I had a white nephew.”12
That these were conventions of black people, called and managed and financed by black people, was a source of considerable pride. Although whites (usually Freedmen’s Bureau officers) were invited to address them, and dignitaries (like Horace Greeley) sent messages replete with moral injunctions, the delegates wished to make clear that they were not the dupes of white men. A delegate to the Virginia freedmen’s convention proudly asserted that the Appeal to the American People, which had just been read aloud, was “the production of our own people, and not the work of our northern friends.” He knew the charge would be made and he wanted to forestall it. The point would have to be made more than once, that having been controlled and manipulated as slaves, they had no desire to perpetuate that relationship in freedom, even with whites who claimed to be their liberators. After all, some would argue, the underlying purpose of these meetings was to show the world that black people, most of them only recently slaves, were perfectly capable of coming together to discuss and act upon the critical issues of the day. In New Orleans, after a Federal official criticized the actions of a recent colored convention, the Tribune lashed out at his presumptuousness. “He seemed unwilling to understand that the Convention felt as colored men feel, while Mr. Conway could only feel as a white man feels.… We need no apprenticeship to take the place of slavery, no social minors, no political children.”13
To proclaim their independence of white influence did not always make it so. Actually, the question of what relations they should sustain with their white friends remained an ongoing source of divisiveness within the ranks of black leadership. The matter came to a head at the Freedmen’s Convention of Georgia in early 1866 when a majority committee report nominated a white Freedmen’s Bureau official as president of the newly formed Georgia Equal Rights Association, while a minority report nominated a black clergyman. After some debate, the delegates elected the white man, who proceeded to commend them for the wisdom they had exercised “in choosing your President from among your white friends.” But in Mobile, Alabama, when a black meeting considered a proposal to make a white man the editor of their newspaper, at least one participant strongly dissented. Such an appointment, he argued, would acknowledge that blacks still needed whites to act and think for them. “There is none but colored men that can truly sympathize with their race! None but those who have been subjected to the degrading influence of slavery that can truthfully lay our grievances before the world and claim its sympathy!”14
Since their white friends from the North were thought to be nearer to the sources of power, some blacks thought it in their best interests to cultivate close relationships, even at the risk of compromising their own independence. Still others deferred to them as men of experience and education who were in advantageous positions, whether as Freedmen’s Bureau agents or the representatives of benevolent societies, to render them immediate relief and assistance. But in those places where a black leadership quickly emerged in the aftermath of the war, impatience with white dictation and advice manifested itself from the very outset. Not surprisingly, the New Orleans Tribune voiced the strongest opinions on this question. Without intending any disrespect for “our white friends,” and while appreciating “the disinterestedness, the courage, the sound sense and the fraternal feeling they have displayed during their long crusade in behalf of liberty,” the newspaper insisted that black people make their own policies, decide on priorities, and select leaders from among themselves. “Who can better know our interest than we do? Who is more competent to discern what is good for us than we are?” How blacks answered those questions went to the very heart of their freedom, and the Tribune thought their white friends could best demonstrate their friendship by immediately conceding that fact.
If we are men—as our friends contend we are—we are able to attend to our own business. There is no man in the world so perfectly identified with our own interest as to understand it better than we do ourselves. We listen respectfully to the addresses of our white friends; but we must deliberate and decide for ourselves.… We need friends, it is true; but we do not need tutors. The age of guardianship is past forever. We now think for ourselves, and we shall act for ourselves.15
Although blacks demonstrated a healthy skepticism about how much reliance they should place on their white friends, they were not always agreed on the amount of confidence they could place in themselves and in their own leaders and movements. With the critical problems they faced, and the need to project an image of harmony and responsibility to a skeptical white America, blacks could ill afford the factional struggles, acrimonious debates, and conflicts of personal ambition that pitted the dark-skinned against the light-skinned, the ex-slave against the freeborn, the native against the northern-born. No matter how often black leaders, newspapers, and meetings called for unity, the advent of freedom had a way of exacerbating old differences and introducing new divisions. During the Convention of the Freedmen of North Carolina, for example, one delegate could not restrain himself after a light-skinned Negro had criticized him for daring to oppose the northern-born black they had chosen for chairman. “I didn’t come here,” he shouted, “and no other man of this convention didn’t come here, sir, to have the whip of slavery cracked over us by no slaveholder’s son.” With similar disdain, some blacks who had been free before the war resented being called “freedmen” and tried in every way to dissociate themselves from the former slaves.16
The sources of such divisiveness were familiar enough, reflecting as they did deeply rooted distinctions not only of color but of class, education, income, occupation, and acculturation to white society. Aside from being more literate and affluent than the ex-slaves, the mulattoes and free Negroes who made up the colored elites in cities like New Orleans, Charleston, and Washington, D.C., tended to lead a separate social life, married within their group, attended different churches, and preferred to send their children to private schools rather than to the newly established freedmen’s schools. The Brown Fellowship Society of Charleston, which admitted only well-to-do mulattoes, and the Lotus Club of Washington, D.C., which excluded freedmen, exemplified the more extreme manifestations of this caste consciousness. Even the haughtiest house servants of Charleston and Washington, D.C., while thinking themselves superior to the “country niggers” who flocked to their cities after the war, might have been barred from “colored society” unless they possessed the necessary ancestral credentials.17
Having experienced the hostility of freeborn blacks, a newly freed slave found difficulty in making any sense out of it. “The free fellows felt themselves better than the slave, because of the fact, I suppose, that they were called free, while in reality they were no more free than the slave, until the war set both classes free.” The problem he described became particularly acute in Washington, D.C., where upwards of 40,000 emancipated slaves from Virginia and Maryland confirmed the worst fears of inundation. Many of those who made up the old free Negro class, which had numbered less than 10,000 in 1860, reacted by withdrawing into their own social orbit, as if to draw a boundary between themselves and the “contrabands.” John E. Bruce, an ex-slave who migrated to Washington with his mother during the war, would some years later pen a caustic commentary on the “fust families” that composed the colored elite of the nation’s capital. The older citizens, he noted, manifested an exclusiveness that often bordered on the ludicrous. With an insatiable “love of display” and a frequently proclaimed pride in their ancestry (“forever and ever informing the uninitiated what a narrow escape they had from being born white”), they tried to assume the airs and manners of colored aristocrats “and wouldn’t be caught dead with an ordinary Negro.” If they lacked the means to live as aristocrats, they made up for it by their recollections of previous service to white dignitaries. “He has seen Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Ben Wade and Joshua R. Giddings. He used to shave these great luminaries, which is the only consolation that the memories of departed days can now give him.”18
Whether based on color or previous status, the distinctions separating blacks seldom assumed such importance outside of the few large urban centers. To make too much of the pretentiousness exhibited by members of these small elites would be to overlook the degree to which most mulattoes, free Negroes, and former slaves had always worked and lived together, sharing a common condition and plight and generally too preoccupied with survival and a hostile white society to cultivate any caste pretensions. When imposing restrictions and reinforcing racial segregation, moreover, whites would pay no attention to gradations of color or to the previous status of blacks. What a northern-born black leader observed of white attitudes in 1876 was no less true ten years earlier: “They call everybody a negro that is as black as the ace of spades or as white as snow, if they think he is a negro or know that he has negro blood in his veins.”19
The sources of divisiveness persisted among blacks, and internal strife would occasionally surface and weaken their movements. But the common hostility they confronted usually forced the various groups that made up the black community to minimize and surmount their differences. Even in the large cities, the colored elites came to understand the futility of divorcing their cause from that of the mass of freedmen. “They must stand or fall together,” the New Orleans Tribune proclaimed, and this mulatto organ consistently urged unity between the freemen and the freedmen.20 Not simply the experience of a common oppression united them but the conviction that they could overcome it together. The black convention movement, as a vehicle for this unity, would play a major role in defining a common future.
WITH THE END OF THE WAR, black hopes and expectations seemed almost boundless. “Never was there a brighter prospect before any people,” Richard H. Cain wrote from South Carolina, “than that presented to the colored people of the Southern states.”21 To take a conciliatory approach toward the former ruling class, now reeling under its wartime losses but still possessing considerable economic power, appeared to make sound political sense. If they could only share the future with whites, as equal participants in the body politic, black spokesmen vowed they would keep the peace, harbor no ill feelings or recriminations about the past, and no longer feel the need to look to the North for protection and sympathy. That hope (and implied threat if it were not realized) underlay much of the moderation that characterized the early postwar political activity of southern blacks.
Exulting in their freedom, but perceiving at the same time their powerlessness and vulnerability, the black conventions framed their addresses and manifestos for consideration by the state constitutional conventions and legislatures. Invariably, they appealed to the “wisdom, sense of justice, and magnanimous generosity” they expected from those bodies and which they professed to find in the hearts and minds of the white South. The pose they struck of a long-suffering but patient people seemed best calculated to win the approval of their white countrymen, many of whom had only recently come to know the true meaning of suffering, the separation of families, and defeat. The Convention of Colored People that gathered in Charleston in late 1865 grounded its appeal to “the White Inhabitants of South Carolina” in precisely that spirit:
We have not come together in battle array to assume a boastful attitude and to talk loudly of high-sounding principles, or of unmeaning platitudes; nor do we pretend to any great boldness; for we remember your former wealth and greatness, and we know our poverty and weakness; and although we feel keenly our wrongs, still we come together, we trust, in a spirit of meekness and of patriotic good-will toward all the people of the State.22
To emphasize the mutuality of interest upon which a new South would rise, blacks attending the freedmen’s conventions dwelled upon their own southern roots and how their lives, experiences, and destinies were interwoven with those of white Southerners. That kind of appeal would hopefully not only allay white apprehensions but lay to rest any new speculation about blacks expatriating themselves to some distant land. The South was their homeland, not Africa, not Central America, not even the northern United States, and they fully intended to make their homes in the regions they knew intimately and in which they had been born and reared along with their fellow whites.
The dust of our fathers mingle with yours in the same grave yards; you have transmitted into our veins much of the rich blood which course through yours; we talk the same language, and worship the same God; our mothers have nursed you, and satisfied your hunger with our pap; our association with you have taught us to revere you. This is your country, but it is ours too; you were born here, so were we; your fathers fought for it, but our fathers fed them.23
To underscore their regional roots and loyalties, black spokesmen also thought this an appropriate time to remind white Southerners of how the slaves had remained peaceful and faithful “while your greatest trials were upon you” and when any rebellious behavior might have plunged the South into an even more costly bloodbath. Nearly every black convention repeated some variant of this theme, as if to suggest that their wartime conduct provided ample evidence not only of their essentially peaceful nature but of their ability to function responsibly under the most trying conditions.
No race ever served a people more faithfully than we have served them who were our masters. When they were carrying on a war, the object of which was, to rivet our bonds still more firmly, and to make slavery perpetual, we at home conducted ourselves peaceably. We not only protected their wives and children, but tilled their fields and fed their armies. Did we, at any time rise against their helpless families, did we ever offer them insult of any kind?24
Actually, as both whites and blacks knew, the answers to those questions depended on individual experiences. The wartime record of slave behavior had been far more varied and complex, and the fidelity of blacks had often been fragile and fragmented. But for altogether different reasons, blacks and whites in the postwar years chose to ignore the wartime black Judases, the runaways, and the looters in favor of those who had stood by the side of their “white folks.” Even as blacks recited their wartime loyalty, however, they claimed not to have been “indifferent spectators” to a war involving their very freedom and that their faithfulness suggested forbearance and Providential guidance rather than contentment with their condition. Seeking to explain their “docility and obedience,” and their failure to avenge themselves on their oppressors during the Civil War, a statewide convention of Virginia blacks professed to see “the hand of an all-wise God, who has seen fit to hold the passions of His African children until He saw fit to stir the passions of the two sections of the country—that both North and South should suffer for the sin of slavery.”25
Even the most effusive promises of continued loyalty and faithfulness were conditioned on whites responding in kind—that is, with good works that were commensurate with black expressions of good faith. While Alabama blacks acknowledged the affections they felt for those “among whom our lot is cast,” they cautioned whites not to misinterpret those feelings as a willingness to forfeit or postpone “the rights of our common manhood.” Similarly, the freedmen of Robeson County, North Carolina, were not necessarily averse to the conciliatory spirit that characterized the Freedmen’s Convention of 1865, but they expected local whites to reciprocate by ceasing to beat them, drive them from their homes, and cheat them of their wages. Pending such developments, they promised to retain their skepticism about those native whites who were suddenly posing as their best friends. “We are ignorant, illiterate and all that, but we are not altogether so simple as to allow any person to impose himself on us as a friend when he has been our enemy and oppressor, until the arms of the United States struck the fetters from off our race.” Recitals of wartime faithfulness, then, were apt to be accompanied by a clear statement of postwar expectations and aspirations, with black petitioners basing their case on the need for mutual respect and a common humanity. “It is contrary to nature,” Georgia freedmen warned the state legislature, “to love that which is not lovely.”26
While proudly proclaiming their love of the South, black spokesmen and nearly every black convention indicated a still higher loyalty. The allegiance they professed to the nation, the Federal government, and the Constitution took precedence over any regional identification. “We are part and parcel of the great American body politic,” Kentucky blacks declared. “We love our country and her institutions. We are proud of her greatness, her glory and her might. We are intensely American.” And being “intensely American,” they had naturally sympathized with the Union cause in the Civil War. While blacks recited their wartime faithfulness, then, they might wish to make clear at the very same time the indispensable role many of them had played in crushing “the Slaveholder’s Rebellion.” How they chose to phrase their wartime services often depended on the audience they were addressing. In the Appeal they adopted for local consumption, Virginia blacks acknowledged their previous “docility and obedience.” But in the Address they drew up for the United States Congress, the same convention delegates described the conduct of a people who had been neither “docile” nor “obedient.”
We, with scarce an exception, in our inmost souls espoused your cause, and watched, and prayed, and waited, and labored for your success. In spite of repeated discouragements we continued to flock to your lines, giving invaluable information, guiding your scouting parties and your minor expeditions, digging in your trenches, driving your teams, and in every way lightening the labors of your soldiers; concealing and aiding your soldiers who were escaping from the prison pens of a barbarous foe, and when reluctantly permitted, we rallied by myriads under your banner, and by the heroism illustrated at Fort Wagner, Port Hudson, Milliken’s Bend and before Petersburg and Richmond, we demonstrated our capacity to understand the ideas of the contest, and our worthiness to stand side by side with the bravest in fighting it out.
No less explicit, William H. Grey, the leading force of the Arkansas freedmen’s convention, excoriated the “bastard republic” which had been established in the South, with slavery as its cornerstone, and revealed how his people had “thrown off the mask” and had provided the necessary force to break the back of the rebellion and save the Union. At first, he conceded, the mighty and educated northern Saxon had evinced little sympathy for the slave. But the American people suddenly awoke in 1862 to find him less of a fool than they had imagined. Beneath an exterior and “seeming respect” made up of endless chants of “yes, sir, massa” and “no, sir, massa,” they discovered “a human soul, with a will and a purpose of its own.” And Grey suggested that this discovery would have profound meaning for the nation. “We have now thrown off the mask, hereafter to do our own talking, and to use all legitimate means to get and to enjoy our political privileges. We don’t want anybody to swear for us or to vote for us; we want to exercise those privileges for ourselves.” The “peace and quiet” of Arkansas, he warned, depended on it.27
No matter how warmly they dwelled on the mutual affections and shared experiences of blacks and whites, no matter how genuine the professions of loyalty and the recitals of wartime faithfulness, none of the many postwar black meetings and conventions expressed the slightest tinge of nostalgia for the old days of slavery. That experience, as they viewed it, had been brutalizing and degrading. Although they might sympathize with the plight of former masters and mistresses and with the losses their “white folks” had sustained on the battlefield, such solicitude did not embrace the Confederate war effort or the “peculiar institution.” In their overly conciliatory Address to the Constitutional Convention, North Carolina freedmen acknowledged an intimacy with whites “unknown to any other state of society” and “attachments for the white race which must be as enduring as life.” But that same Address talked of having emerged from a bondage under which their race had “groaned” for 250 years and suffered indescribable “degradation.” Even as the Kentucky Colored People’s Convention acknowledged some former slaveholders as their “best friends,” the view of bondage they incorporated in their Declaration of Sentiment was uncompromising: “that cursed system under which we so long groaned, which crushed every aspiration; debased us to the level with the beasts of the field; robbed us of every attribute of humanity, and prostituted our wives, our sisters, and daughters.” Nor did the Virginia convention, although denying any ill will toward their former owners, hesitate to write into the Declaration of Rights and Wrongs an assessment of the “peculiar institution” as scathing as any prewar abolitionist might have conceived:
We have been compelled, under pain of death, to submit to injuries deeper and darker than the earth ever witnessed in the case of any other people. We have been forced to silence and inaction; to look on the infernal spectacle of our sons groaning under the lash; our daughters ravished; our wives violated, and our firesides desolated, while we ourselves have been led to the shambles, and sold like beasts of the field.
When that same convention debated the wording of its Appeal to the American People, a delegate moved that the phrase “we feel no ill-will or prejudice towards our former masters” be amended by striking out “our former masters” and inserting “our former oppressors.” The convention agreed to the change.28
Having recalled the nightmare of slavery, black spokesmen could be expected to voice a deep gratitude for their liberation and for the work of northern benevolent associations and Federal officials in the South. But praise for the North was often mixed with a bitter denunciation of northern emissaries who had allegedly betrayed their trust and mission. The Alabama state convention found the actions of Union Army soldiers “a source of great perplexity and discouragement to us”; far more scathing condemnations of the occupation troops came from local meetings dealing with local grievances, many of which spared few words to complain of daily robberies and beatings by men wearing Union Army uniforms.29 Nearly every black convention endorsed the Freedmen’s Bureau; nevertheless, the praise was apt to be tempered with criticism of the actions and racial attitudes of various local agents. In Georgia, two blacks were elected as “Anti-Bureau” delegates to the state convention of 1866 but they may not have reached their destination; after denouncing the Bureau at a local meeting as “mischievous and creative of disturbances between the races,” they were arrested and jailed by the same agent they had criticized. Several months later, the convention in Georgia, although supportive of the Bureau, heard from a number of delegates about local agents who were indifferent to the fate of the freedmen, giving them no protection from hostile whites and always siding with employers in labor disputes. Still another convention that same year blamed the problems of the Bureau on the appointment of native whites to official posts and urged that any new openings be reserved exclusively for blacks or northern whites. Despite the Bureau’s shortcomings, blacks recognized that even the minimal protection it provided was better than none at all. In New Bern, North Carolina, freedmen complained of the “atrocities” committed by several local Bureau agents but thought them insufficient reason to dismantle the entire structure. “As a few leaky places in the roof of a man’s house would not be considered a sufficient ground for pulling it down and living out of doors neither can we see sufficient reason in these abuses for removing the Bureau but a greater reason why it should be perfected and maintained.”30
Notwithstanding the often severe condemnations of slavery, the black convention movement in its appeals and strategy reflected far greater concern with the oppressions of the present than with the atrocities of the past. But blacks willingly drew upon the past, and in particular the revolutionary heritage of the American people, to press their case for a future. To be subjected to taxation without representation, said Missouri blacks, was as “gross and outrageous” a violation of their rights as that which had moved colonists to wage a war for independence. Not only did blacks revive the issues of the American Revolution but they invoked its imagery as well. The Zion Church in Charleston, for example, where delegates to the statewide black convention assembled in 1865, was compared to Faneuil Hall in Boston, where patriots had plotted the struggle against British tyranny, and Martin R. Delany, who spoke at the Charleston meeting, was introduced as “the Patrick Henry of his race in this, the second revolution for the rights of the colored man.” The several conventions which drew up Declarations of Rights and Wrongs modeled their recitation of grievances on the most revered document of the nation—the Declaration of Independence—and black spokesmen borrowed heavily from it to underscore their claim to the “inalienable rights” guaranteed every American.31
Few moments in the freedmen’s conventions were as dramatic and emotional as those set aside to hear the reports of individual delegates about conditions in their respective localities. Clerics, teachers, field hands, and urban artisans rose to their feet to describe the brutalities inflicted upon their people back home—the mutilated bodies fished out of local rivers, the restraints placed on black movement, the promised wages and crop shares that remained unpaid, the churches and schoolhouses set afire, the intimidation of their leaders, and a judicial system that operated largely to deprive them of justice rather than to redress their grievances. The same themes kept repeating themselves. They were taunted with their inferiority and ignorance by men who had conspired in the past to keep them illiterate and who now refused to accord them even minimal opportunities for an education. They were told of their incapacity for self-government and voting by men who had never taught them to be anything but slaves and who now refused to introduce them, even gradually, to any political responsibilities. They were denounced as cowards by men who had kept them disarmed and who now deprived them of any means to defend themselves.32
To strike a balance, as some conventions sought to do, between the need to articulate their grievances, to demand full citizenship, and to allay white suspicions of their actions proved to be a formidable undertaking. And it would ultimately fail, largely because blacks could neither resolve the contradiction between their advocacy of agitation and conciliation nor compromise any of the demands they thought absolutely indispensable to a free people. Few black activists, whatever their professions of conciliation, expected the deeply entrenched and pervasive racial ideology of the white South to wither away by itself. Their optimism about the future rested on their conviction that racial prejudices were susceptible to change through legislation, equal enforcement of the law, and relentless black agitation. To win their freedom, they had been entrusted with the rifle and the cartridge box. To maintain that freedom, they now insisted upon equal access to the ballot box, the jury box, and the schoolhouse. In drawing up their demands, delegates to the Convention of the Colored People of South Carolina stated the minimal position assumed by nearly every black leader and meeting in the immediate post-emancipation years:
We simply ask that we shall be recognized as men; that there be no obstructions placed in our way; that the same laws which govern white men shall govern black men; that we have the right of trial by a jury of our peers; that schools be established for the education of colored children as well as white, and that the advantages of both colors shall, in this respect, be equal;that no impediments be put in the way of our acquiring homesteads for ourselves and our people; that, in short, we be dealt with as others are—in equity and justice.33
The preponderance of concern in nearly every black convention lay with political and civil rights. Nothing, in fact, seems more perplexing about these meetings, with their often eloquent appeals, petitions, and declarations, than the virtual absence of any substantive economic content. To read the convention documents is to learn little about the most immediate and critical problem facing the great mass of former slaves—how they would fare as free laborers working for employers who had only recently been slaveholders. No convention debated the democratization of land proprietorship as an alternative to the perpetuation of the old dependency, nor did delegates express alarm over the eviction of ex-slaves from abandoned plantations which they claimed as their own. Only the Freedmen’s Convention of Georgia went so far as to propose that slaves freed under the Emancipation Proclamation be paid for any labor performed after January 1, 1863.34 But compensating black workers for years and decades of unpaid labor as slaves never even warranted the same consideration given in some white circles to compensating slaveholders for the losses they had sustained by emancipation.
While paying lip service to the land aspirations of the ex-slaves, the black convention movement rejected any interference with the rights of private property. Presuming to speak for the freedmen of Alabama, a state convention in Mobile declared that they neither desired nor expected to receive any man’s property without giving him “a just equivalent.” The Freedmen’s Convention of Georgia suggested only that the Federal government dispose of Federal land in the South by offering it for sale to freedmen under reasonable terms. The black newspaper in Opelousas, Louisiana, envisioned families of freedmen in possession of independent homesteads, but it made clear at the same time that blacks harbored no confiscatory notions, such as those proposed “by some of the leaders of the Republican Party in the North.”35
The restraint exercised by black leadership on this issue reflected more than its tacit acceptance of the prevailing middle-class ideology of white Americans. In their overriding concern for realizing the same rights to life, liberty, and property as whites enjoyed, black spokesmen did not wish to undermine their own position by appearing to advocate confiscation. Perhaps, too, they recognized the futility of that cause and the turmoil and resentment that would inevitably fall on their heads if any such policy were adopted. Whatever the reason, the black convention movement contented itself with demands for “even-handed justice” rather than “special privileges or favor,” though such justice was apt to mean very little to propertyless laborers caught up in the web of indebtedness and dependency.
To listen to black leaders, the way for propertyless ex-slaves to achieve economic success differed in no significant respect from the advice traditionally proffered to propertyless whites. Rather than affirm the need for government action and planning to protect the interests of black agricultural laborers, the black convention movement, like most black newspapers, repeated the moral and economic injunctions and shibboleths that were standard fare in nineteenth-century American society: success came ultimately to the hard-working, the sober, the honest, and the educated, to those individuals who engaged in “faithful industry,” practiced “judicious economy,” cultivated habits of thrift and temperance, made their homes “models of neatness,” and led moral, virtuous, Christian lives.36 Jonathan C. Gibbs, destined to be a leading black force in Reconstruction politics in Florida, laid down a simple set of rules in the aftermath of the war: “If we can secure, for the next ten years, three clean shirts a week, a tooth brush, and spelling-book to every Freedman in South Carolina, I will go bail (a thing I seldom do) for the next hundred years, that we will have no more slavery, and both whites and blacks will be happier and better friends.”37 Nearly every black convention, cleric, editor, and self-professed leader repeated in one form or another these time-honored middle-class verities, discountenanced vagrancy and pauperism, and extolled the virtues of the Puritan work ethic. If blacks would only heed such advice, the doors that were now closed to them would swing open and they would achieve the respect and recognition of white Americans. That assumption would prove to be as naïve and mistaken as it was persistent.
When patronizing public places and riding in public transportation, the most successful blacks invariably found themselves sitting in separate compartments with the least successful blacks. Color, not class, made the essential difference, and the black convention movement addressed itself to this problem by insisting on equal access with whites to all public facilities. That was not the same thing as social equality, they assured whites, nor did they intend or desire to thrust themselves into the private lives and circles of whites. “We deem our own race, equal to all our wants of purely social enjoyment,” the Freedmen’s Convention of Georgia resolved. If anything, blacks sought protection from white miscegenationists and transgressors—that is, from a perverse form of “social equality” in which whites presumed to invade the sanctity of black families and approach their women with “insulting and degrading propositions.”38
The equality blacks insisted upon was equality before the law, in which black testimony would be admitted into the courtroom and blacks seated on the juries. If this demand often loomed the largest, that was because many black spokesmen viewed it as essential for the protection of their lives and families and the necessary base on which suffrage and the acquisition of property would rest. Even if some whites still recoiled at the thought of black testimony and jurors, black leaders also perceived that these measures were deemed far less controversial than the right to vote and hold office. After all, blacks had enjoyed for some years the right of testimony in northern states which refused to permit them to vote, and many southern whites who were uncompromising on the suffrage issue seemed willing to yield on the lesser evil of equal rights in the courtroom, if only to restore the courts to civil authority. That would simply extend to blacks a right the Constitution already specified all free citizens should enjoy. Far less acceptable to whites were the proposals made by several black conventions that the proportion of blacks on juries reflect the racial composition of the region.39
After the Virginia black convention drew up a powerful Declaration of Rights and Wrongs, Henry Highland Garnet, a prewar abolitionist who participated in the meeting as an “honorary member,” suggested a critical change in the wording. Since blacks were in no position to retaliate in the event whites refused to heed the Declaration, he thought it more respectful, “as humble petitioners,” to use the word “ask” instead of “demand” when submitting their grievances to the American people. The delegates agreed with Garnet and approved his amendment. The question raised by Garnet’s move was by no means trivial. With the many appeals, petitions, and declarations directed by these black conventions toward whites, what if no one bothered to listen and the constitutional conventions and state legislatures refused to act on even the most humbly worded requests? Few black spokesmen addressed themselves directly to this possibility, except to assure whites that they would never countenance insurrection or violence. No matter what happened to their memorial, Mississippi blacks told the forthcoming constitutional convention, “rest assured that we shall still remain your friends, and keep the Star Spangled Banner above us.” Similarly, the Colored People’s Convention in Alabama advised their people to be law-abiding, no matter what trials they might be forced to endure. “We must rather suffer wrong, if evil-minded men inflict wrong upon us than do wrong, while we seek to have those wrongs righted by law.” That same meeting rejected insurrection as “inconsistent with our history as a people, and the farthest from our desires or possible intentions.”40
While rejecting violent alternatives, black spokesmen and conventions tried to wield whatever leverage they thought they commanded to exact from native whites a recognition of their legal rights. The arguments they advanced, incorporating warnings of continued Federal intervention in the affairs of the South, revealed a certain political sagacity. In the event the constitutional conventions and legislatures rejected their demands, the white men who controlled those bodies should be prepared to pay a political price for their actions. If, for example, blacks who had loyally supported the Federal government had no right to representation, neither should whites who had lately taken up arms against the government complain of being denied representation in Congress. If blacks were deprived of the right of testimony or representation on the juries, southern whites should not expect to regain control over the judicial system. With similar shrewdness, blacks turned native white hostility to the Freedmen’s Bureau to their own advantage by suggesting to Congress that the Bureau remained an “indispensable necessity” until such time as they were in a position to protect themselves through the vote, equal justice, and the right to bear arms.41
The ultimate leverage, as black spokesmen began to discern, lay in a reorganization of the ex-Confederate states that would provide the freed slaves with a political muscle commensurate with their electoral strength. That perception increasingly found its way into the black newspapers and conventions. While identifying themselves with their southern homeland and adopting a conciliatory stance toward the old ruling class, black spokesmen developed simultaneously a conception of postwar reconstruction that most native whites would have thought downright traitorous. And the longer whites persisted in denying them their demands and in writing white supremacy into the legal codes of the states, the more blacks would turn to the North and to Congress with their appeals. Even as blacks denied any insurrectionary intent, they gave their support and subsequently their votes to a reconstruction with revolutionary implications and possibilities.
“STRANGE, novel, and anomalous,” the editor of the New Orleans Tribune wrote of the position of occupied Louisiana in the Union. He might have said the same of any of the ex-Confederate states. With few precedents to guide the victors, the proper legal status of the vanquished South defied any immediate or easy solution. That it became an issue at all stemmed from sharply conflicting notions about the content of southern reconstruction and whether the President or Congress should assume responsibility. For the ex-slave, the furious debate that raged in Washington, D.C., over this problem took on critical importance when its resolution spelled the difference between a congressional reconstruction in which blacks participated as political equals with whites and a presidential restoration in which they remained political mutes. “Be careful,” the Tribune advised Congress, after assessing the results of President Lincoln’s all too lenient proclamation of amnesty and reconstruction. “Magnanimity and amnesty are noble things; but do not deliver yourselves into the hands of your enemies—the enemies of progress, justice, and freedom.”42
The skepticism with which southern whites greeted the conciliatory pronouncements of the black conventions resembled the suspicions they had often attached to the professions of loyalty emanating from their slaves. If anything, the evidence of possible duplicity seemed even more compelling when whites compared the many recitals of regional loyalty in the convention declarations with resolutions and petitions to Congress which suggested betrayal. The same North Carolina convention that had been so moderate in its demands and so loquacious in stating its identification with the South also praised the Radical faction of the Republican Party, including individuals like Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, who were an anathema to whites. Many of the same black meetings that advised their people to cultivate good relations with the white population also endorsed the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Civil Rights bill, and the Fourteenth Amendment, any one of which aroused intense emotional responses from white Southerners. The same conventions and newpapers that cautioned their people against recriminations also urged Congress not to accept the elected representatives from the southern states until blacks had a voice in their selection. The Louisiana Equal Rights Convention even refused to memorialize the state legislature in 1865, lest such an action be misunderstood as recognizing the legitimacy of that body.43
The apparent contradictions in their pronouncements about conciliation and reconstruction were not viewed by blacks as contradictions at all. While wishing to live in racial harmony with their fellow whites, they asked only that the relationship henceforth be based on legal equality. While asking no indemnities for the past and expressing a willingness to forgive whites for the sins of slaveholding, they did insist upon security for the future. That consideration, more than any other, informed the attitude toward southern reconstruction developed in the immediate postwar years by a coterie of black leaders, many of whom would subsequently play a significant role in the political life of their respective states. Revealing at times a fine grasp of political strategy, they viewed the various proposals regarding amnesty for former Confederates as inseparable from their own claims to be admitted to all political privileges. That is, white men who had committed treason (as defined by the Constitution) by waging war against the United States could obviously not be trusted again with political power, unless they shared that power with blacks who had proven their loyalty to republican principles and to the sanctity of the Union. Nor could such power be safely reposed in the exclusive hands of southern Unionists, as President Lincoln envisioned, for their love of the Union reflected a desire to return to the past and their forced acceptance of the Emancipation Proclamation indicated no real concern for the condition or future of the ex-slave.44
Whatever might be done with the “political criminals” who had led the South out of the Union, the New Orleans Tribune, voicing the usually more radical position of the city’s mulatto community, insisted that any magnanimity be within well-defined limits and acknowledge the need for a different organization of southern society.
We are not enemies of amnesty, and we do not ask to visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that have Union and freedom. We are strong and generous enough to disdain retaliation, and let the assassins of Fort Pillow expiate their crime by a long and miserable existence. Although wronged to the last and deprived of our best blood by this unholy rebellion, we do not ask for the lives of the bloodthirsty foes. An amnesty sparing the lives of the culprits will be something magnanimous, and worthy of our great and generous Republic. But at the same time that we spare the lives of our vanquished foes, let their property be forfeited.
Considering the punishments usually meted out to a people defeated in war, the editor’s amnesty proposal seemed eminently fair. Rather than execute or imprison the men who had betrayed the country, he suggested only that the wealthy among them be reduced to poverty—that is, to a condition already shared by millions of people who had stood by their government and had fought and sacrificed their lives to preserve it. If many whites who knew little of labor were thereby forced to work, that would also be a most constructive form of rehabilitation.
Let them go to work; let them handle the spade or the hoe, for their own benefit, as free laborers—we mean really free;—give them a chance for retrieving their fallen fortune. To work is holy, honorable and noble. Let them have a taste of it.… It is enough for the republic to spare the life of the rebels,—without restoring to them their plantations and palaces. The whole world will applaud the wisdom of the principle: amnesty for the persons, no amnesty for the property.45
Although large numbers of blacks—both the politically articulate and the masses—might have sympathized with such “radicar” notions of amnesty and reconstruction, few black spokesmen publicly embraced a position they deemed politically untenable. In subsequent years, in fact, black leadership, although united in the determination to preserve the gains of Reconstruction, sharply divided over the wisdom of removing disfranchisement from ex-Confederate leaders. To permit them to return to active political participation seemed like the best way to win their approval of the work of black reconstructionists. But the democratic propensities of black leaders in this respect would also prove to be their undoing. The New Orleans Tribune clearly anticipated as much more than two years before the advent of Radical Reconstruction. Neither the Civil War nor emancipation, that newspaper argued, had really altered the mentality of the old slaveholding class, nor should blacks expect any genuine conversion to racial egalitarianism and democratic principles.
We must despair of this generation; for this generation has handled the whips and sold human flesh in the market; and they are corrupt. Let them die in peace. But, for God and the country’s sake, do not make of them Governors, Lieutenant Governors, Judges, Mayors, Sheriffs, Senators and Ministers to foreign countries.… We have had enough of shame and humiliation. The nation has washed out the black spot on her escutcheon. Shall we honor and obey, now, the very men who made the blot?46
Since the policies of Presidents Lincoln and Johnson seemed calculated to produce precisely that result, the warning had been well grounded.
Despite the disappointment over Lincoln’s lenient amnesty program, his misplaced confidence in southern Unionists, and his “moderate” experiments in state reconstruction, the assassination of the President silenced his black critics and threw a stunned black community into deep mourning, as though it had lost its only white friend and protector. The President’s initial doubts about the wisdom of emancipation and the enlistment of blacks were now forgotten, his equivocations on civil rights ignored, his schemes of colonization, expatriation, and reconstruction forgiven. Even the cold language and forced nature of his Emancipation Proclamation no longer seemed relevant, giving way to the legend of the Great Emancipator. “Hereafter, through all time,” prophesied one black newspaper, “wherever the Black Race may be known in the world; whenever and wherever it shall lay the foundations of its power; build its cities and rear its temples, it will sacredly preserve if not deify the name of ‘Abraham, the Martyr.’ ” In heaping their praise on the fallen President, black clerics, editors, and common laborers tended to repeat the same themes and evoke the same images. He had completed the noble work begun by John Brown—“two martyrs, whose memories will live united in our bosoms.” He was “the only President who ever had the courage to acknowledge the true manhood of the negro.” He had been “the greatest earthly friend of the colored race,” “a Martyr to his cause, and a Sacrifice to his country.”47 In a church on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, freedmen prayed for Lincoln as they would have prayed only for the Saviour himself. Christ had saved them from sin, Lincoln had rescued them from slavery, and more than one freedman thought them indistinguishable: “Lincoln died for we, Christ died for we, and me believe him de same mans.” The manner of his death made him a logical black hero, victimized by the same spirit of malice and hatred that had brutalized black people for generations. For that very reason, the South could not escape responsibility by ascribing the act to “individual insanity,” at least not in the view of numerous black spokesmen. To treat the assassin as a madman, they argued, would be to ignore the record of deliberate and rational oppression from which four million black men and women had only begun to emerge.48
Among substantial numbers of freedmen, the initial shock of Lincoln’s death was compounded by apprehension over the future. If the President (“Massa Sam”) and the government were one and the same, as some blacks assumed, the results of the war, including emancipation, appeared to be jeopardized. “We going to be slaves again?” more than one freedman thought to ask. To Jack Flowers, who had made a spectacular wartime escape to the Union lines in South Carolina, the assassination threatened to undo his exploit. “I ’spect it’s no use to be here,” he said dejectedly. “I might as well stayed where I was. It ’pears we can’t be free, nohow. The rebs won’t let us alone. If they can’t kill us, they’ll kill all our friens’, sure.” Former slaveholders had seized upon the President’s death to taunt the freedmen about the suddenly dim prospects of freedom, a concerned missionary wrote from Florida, “and some of our people began to talk of going north to escape enslavement again, for as Massa Lincoln was gone they feared their hope was gone too.” More typical may have been the many whites who expressed immediate concern over how the freed slaves would react to the assassination. Not unexpectedly, new rumors of insurrectionary conspiracies circulated and the white residents of a number of towns implored Federal authorities to double their precautions to keep the blacks quiet and orderly.49
To black spokesmen who had been openly critical of President Lincoln’s reconstruction and amnesty programs, and to those who had repressed their misgivings, the significance of the assassination seemed abundantly clear. The President had been victimized by his own magnanimity. His confidence in southern redemption and repentance had been rewarded with an assassin’s bullet. The New Orleans Tribune, which had been highly critical of the President, used the assassination to demonstrate that the nation’s enemies had not yet been vanquished.
Abraham Lincoln, the honest, the good, the religious man, who did not understand—be it said to his honor and glory—duplicity and trickery, believed in the protestations and solemn oaths of rebels. He was too confident, too lenient, and too mild. He was repaid with a pistol’s bullet. He did not know—as we do—what chivalry is.
Upon hearing of the assassination, black clergymen attending a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore reacted in virtually the same manner, praising Lincoln’s good works, forgiving his sins (“His errors were errors of the head, not of the heart”), and, most importantly, urging “a sterner course” and the application of “more rigid principles” toward the defeated South. If the American people heeded the obvious lesson of this event, black spokesmen declared, they would realize soon enough that most white Southerners remained “incorrigible rebels” who willingly and deceitfully took the oath of allegiance to recover their property and political power; the Rebels expected to win at the ballot box what they had lost on the battlefield, and President Lincoln had been naïve enough to believe their protestations of loyalty. Fortunately, his successor knew better. The future lay in good hands, most of these same black spokesmen agreed, for the new President understood “Southern pretenses and Southern excesses” from his own experience and he would now do his duty. “Agag is to be hewn into pieces,” a confident black cleric proclaimed, “and Samuel must come forward and wield the sword of destruction—that man is Andrew Johnson.”50
Despite the grievous loss of Lincoln, then, black spokesmen were almost unanimous in their belief that Providence had chosen “a second Moses” to guide them to “the land of promise.” None other than Andrew Johnson himself made that solemn pledge, in addressing the black people of Nashville: “Humble and unworthy as I am, if no other better shall be found, I will be your Moses, and lead you through the Red Sea of War and Bondage to a fairer future of Liberty and Peace.” The New Orleans Tribune, with its own radical notions of reconstruction, thought well enough of the new President to predict that his previously expressed hostility to concentrations of political and economic power in the South presaged a vigorous policy of land confiscation and redistribution. Like Lincoln, Johnson was perceived as a man who exemplified the genius of democratic institutions, having risen from a humble station to the highest office in the land. He had proven his loyalty to the Union, and surely no man who had suffered “the malignity of the Rebels,” as had Johnson, would seek to restore those “traitors” to power. Where Lincoln had equivocated, Johnson could be expected to be decisive. Where Lincoln had been overly magnanimous in his treatment of the ex-Confederates, Johnson, who knew these people far more intimately, would be firm and unyielding.51
The assessment of Johnson’s personality traits proved accurate enough, but blacks had badly misjudged his politics and racial views. In upholding the principles of white supremacy, in expediting the pardon of ex-Confederate leaders, in seeking to restore political and economic power to the old ruling class, President Johnson would act all too decisively. And in opposing even minimal civil rights for blacks, he would be firm and unyielding. For some blacks, the disillusionment came earlier than for most. Even as black newspapers and leaders still voiced their confidence in the new President, field hands forced off the lands of pardoned Rebels suspected that the battle had already been lost. At least, that was the conclusion reached by a white teacher in the Sea Islands, as former masters returned to claim their lands.
The people receive the rebels better than we expected, but the reason is that they believe Johnson is going to put them in their old masters’ power again, and they feel that they must conciliate or be crushed. They no longer pray for the President—our President, as they used to call Lincoln—in the church. They keep an ominous silence and are very sad and troubled.52
For black spokesmen, the President’s decision to pursue a “moderate” reconstruction plan, permitting the white South to reconstruct herself without black participation, prompted an initial disappointment that soon gave way to disbelief. What blacks had viewed (on Johnson’s assurance) as an “experimental” policy, designed to test white loyalty and intentions, turned into a nightmare of repression, Black Codes, and unequal justice. But rather than give up the “experiment” as a failure, which black leaders had confidently expected, the President insisted that the new state governments be legitimized. And blacks were left to contemplate still again the betrayal of their expectations by a man they had only recently praised so unrestrainedly. “Johnson has sold us,” Frederick Douglass wrote the publisher of the New Orleans Tribune in October 1865, but it remained for Congress “to pass upon the bargain.” Two months later, as Congress prepared to convene, the Tribune voiced the now deepening black disillusionment with the President’s policies. The editor urged Congress to assume control of reconstruction, to make “no compromises with a conservative and exclusively white-man loving administration,” and to hold the President to his initial commitments. If treason were to be made “infamous,” as Johnson had so often promised, the mode of punishment would have to be severer than the rapidly accumulating stack of executive pardons of former Confederate leaders suggested.53
The President’s response to a delegation of black leaders in February 1866 did little to reassure the few blacks who still retained faith in him. At this none too harmonious exchange of views in the White House, Johnson introduced himself as “a friend of humanity, and especially the friend of the colored man.” He offered once again, if they wished, to serve as their Moses to lead them from bondage to freedom. But he made it clear that he would not lead them to the ballot box, for that would only endanger their freedom and invite race war. Reaffirming his belief in government by consent of the governed, he interpreted that principle to mean that the white people in each state should determine the question of black suffrage. The President pointedly ignored the delegate who asked him if he would apply the principle of majority rule to states like South Carolina, where blacks comprised a majority of the population. Nor did he take kindly to Frederick Douglass’ argument that blacks needed the vote to protect themselves from the already rampant violence which the President thought would be unleashed in the event of black suffrage. As the exchange became increasingly acrimonious, both sides thought it best to terminate the meeting, and Douglass told his fellow delegates: “The President sends us to the people, and we go to the people.” After the “darkey delegation” left, President Johnson reportedly turned to a private secretary and exclaimed, “Those damned sons of bitches thought they had me in a trap! I know that damned Douglass; he’s just like any nigger, and he would sooner cut a white man’s throat than not.” Whether the President actually made that remark, he proceeded to act in its spirit.54
Within months after the White House meeting, the break between the President and black leadership would be complete. James Lynch had acclaimed Andrew Johnson on July 4, 1865, as a firm champion of the African race, but by March 1866 he thought the President was “more to be pitied than feared.” Henry M. Turner was less charitable, deeming the President dangerous as well as pitiful. “I charge Mr. Johnson with the murder of thousands of our people; for though he does not kill them personally, yet he abets, or gives aid to these murderers, so that it actually amounts to a direct encouragement.” No longer the noble successor to the martyred Lincoln, Johnson now loomed for blacks as the new Jefferson Davis. Presuming to be a second Moses, he acted more like “a very excellent type of Pharaoh.” Pretending to sympathize with the ex-slaves in their new freedom, he vetoed the legislation blacks deemed essential to preserve that freedom. And when he advised the states to reject the Fourteenth Amendment, blacks turned to Congress for an alternative to the callous disregard of human rights that distinguished the occupant of the White House. “The future looks dark,” a black newspaper observed, “and we predict, that we are entering upon the greatest political contest that has ever agitated the people of the country—a contest, in which, we of the South must be for the most part spectators; not indifferent spectators, for it is about us that the political battle is fought. The issue is fairly joined.”55
WITH THE ISSUE “fairly joined,” the same urgency that prompted black leaders to look to Congress for relief also moved equal suffrage to the forefront of their demands. The initial hesitation to press that issue, as at the Freedmen’s Convention in North Carolina in 1865, proved short-lived, particularly after the conciliatory appeals to the constitutional conventions and state legislatures had yielded only oppressive Black Codes and not even a hint of future political participation. For black leadership, the suffrage issue quickly assumed a significance that rivaled the emotional investment tens of thousands of black laborers had made in the idea of “forty acres and a mule.” Both suffrage and land came to be regarded, albeit with sharply contrasting emphases by different classes of the black population, as indispensable to freedom. Only by winning the vote, black leaders told their people, would the other aspirations they cherished have a chance for fulfillment. “The only salvation for us besides the power of the Government,” Virginia freedmen declared, “is in the possession of the ballot. Give us this, and we will protect ourselves.”56
Political realism and the middle-class economic outlook of black leadership helped to determine the ordering of priorities. Predictably, then, the suffrage issue, not “forty acres and a mule,” came to dominate the black conventions, newspapers, and oratory. While the demand for land raised the ugly specter of confiscation and the abrogation of the rights of property, the demand for the vote simply reaffirmed traditional American principles of equal opportunity, fair play, and government by the consent of the governed. To make this absolutely clear, black spokesmen invoked on every possible occasion the revolutionary traditions of the American nation and appealed to whites on the basis of their most cherished freedoms. If taxed to support national and state government, blacks demanded the right to participate in choosing the men who imposed and spent the taxes. If subjected to the laws of the land, blacks demanded a voice in selecting those who would make and administer the laws. “I tell you, sah,” a North Carolina freedman explained to a northern visitor, “we ain’t noways safe, ’long as dem people makes de laws we’s got to be governed by. We’s got to hab a voice in de ’pintin’ of de law-makers. Den we knows our frens, and whose hans we’s safe in.” Few white Americans could quarrel with those sentiments without violating their own history and traditions. But if they did, blacks grounded their demand for suffrage on an even more direct appeal to the patriotic instincts of the American people.57
If blacks could be trusted with the musket, they could be trusted with the ballot, and the nation owed at least as much to those who had helped to defend it as to those who had tried to destroy it. Their claims to the suffrage, blacks maintained, had already been validated by the martyrdom of Crispus Attucks in the American Revolution, by the valor of black soldiers at the Battle of New Orleans in 1812 and most recently on the battlefields of the Civil War. This patriotic appeal was made frequently, if only because it seemed calculated to win sympathy in the North, where black leaders were now certain the final decision would be made. At the same time, blacks pressed their case on the basis of whites already permitted to vote. If men who had fought against the government could vote, why not loyal Americans who had remained steadfast in their support of the government? If “the very poorest and meanest of white men” and foreign immigrants barely acculturated to American values and principles (such as the “lowly” Irish) could be trusted to exercise the franchise, why not blacks whose roots were as deep as those of any American, including the President himself?58
By citing the admission of immigrants to political privileges, black leaders sought to make two important points. The case of the Irish suggested to them that wealth and literacy were not considered valid criteria for depriving any person of the suffrage. The fact that distinct ethnic groups like the Jews voted without restriction further suggested that political equality need not lead to social mixing, as some whites feared. “They enjoy all the privileges that any white American enjoys in this country,” a black newspaper said of the Jews, but “there is not as much social commingling between the Jew and the white American as between the white American and the black man.” In the view of the Colored American, a black newspaper in Augusta, Georgia, only three classes of the population could be properly deprived of the right to vote: foreigners, children, and women, whose “sphere is anywhere but in the arena of politics and government.”59 Although some black leaders were less dogmatic on the question of extending the vote to women, the issue was seldom raised lest it confuse and undermine the more urgent cause of black suffrage.
In petitioning the Constitutional Convention for suffrage rights, a black meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, frankly admitted the “deplorable ignorance” of the majority of their people. Nor did they expect “the ignorant” to be admitted to the exercise of privileges “which they might use to the injury of the State.” While conceding this point, however, blacks in Charleston and elsewhere insisted that ignorance was not a deficiency peculiar to Afro-Americans but characterized large numbers of whites—North and South. If “the ignorant” were to be deprived of the vote, then, consistency demanded the disfranchisement of tens of thousands of whites. If, on the other hand, ignorant whites voted without undermining American institutions, ignorant blacks could be trusted as well. Although preferring universal manhood suffrage, black leaders were willing to accept educational and property tests, but only if they were applied honestly and equally to both races.60 That would immediately enfranchise literate and propertied blacks, while encouraging others to emulate them. In the 1890s, black leaders would advance a similar proposal as a way of forestalling total disfranchisement. But whether in the 1860s or in the 1890s, black support for conditional suffrage rested on the false assumption that their white opponents objected only to ignorant and poor blacks voting and on the naïve belief that whites would disfranchise some of their own people. Actually, most black leaders knew better and suggested conditional suffrage only as a way of unveiling white hypocrisy and obtaining full suffrage. “Is a white voter required to know how to read and write?” a black newspaper asked. “To be a moral, a religious or a temperance man? Not in the least.… He enjoys his political rights simply because he is a man and a citizen.” The black man asked for no less than that.61
To admit ignorant blacks to political privileges, white critics charged, would inevitably produce a massive pool of voters that could be easily manipulated by the employers who commanded their labor and by unscrupulous politicians who would play upon their expectations. Somehow, the black man as a voter could never be perceived as acting in his own best interests. Seeking to reject that stigma, black spokesmen, in addition to citing a wartime record of service to the Union, suggested that even under the most oppressive conditions of slavery, the black man had not necessarily been unmindful of what was best for himself and his family.
Now, every candid minded man knows full well that the former slaves have always done just what their masters never wanted them to do. The master never wanted his slave to run away, or to eat his swine and cattle, no matter how injustly or inhumanly he was treated or how near starvation he might be. Yet it was done in both of these instances. In fact, to “fool and worry old massa” had become second nature to the slave.62
To the suggestion that the “superior knowledge and cunning” of the whites would overawe them at the polls, a black meeting in Virginia responded that unlike many enfranchised whites they could be depended upon not to vote for “traitors” or at the dictation of “the mitred priest” or the “rich rumseller.” Nor would they ever abuse suffrage by voting to take their states out of the Union. “Mr. Judge, we always knows who’s our friends and who isn’t,” a black preacher in Georgia assured a skeptical northern dignitary.
We knows the difference between the Union ticket and the Rebel ticket. We may not know all about all the men that’s on it; but we knows the difference between the Union and the Rebel parties. Yes, sir; we knows that much better than you do! Because, sir, some of our people stand behind these men at the table, and hear ’em talk; we see ’em in the house and by the wayside; and we know ’em from skin to core, better than you do or can do, till you live among ’em as long, and see as much of ’em as we have.63
With equal disdain, blacks dismissed the contention that they would necessarily vote for the old ruling class by virtue of the economic power it still wielded. “Have the employers of white voters always controlled their votes?” one black petition queried. “Let the history of elections answer.” If former slaves voted the same way as their former masters, that would only suggest that their former masters had become enlightened enough to accept new ideas and political principles.64
The only legitimate test for suffrage, most blacks agreed, lay not in a person’s literacy or economic well-being but in his loyalty to the government and democratic principles. The Civil War demonstrated to them the absence of any necessary correlation between property holding, literacy, and loyalty to the government; indeed, said one black newspaper, “the errors of ignorance have done less harm than have the graft and venality of the better informed.” Having taken this position, blacks rejected the popular suggestion that they needed to be prepared for suffrage and should only be gradually introduced to political privileges. That, said the New Orleans Tribune, smacked too much of the calculated deceit whites had employed before the war to rationalize the perpetuation of slavery. “They talked of preparing and educating the blacks, so as to qualify them for liberty; but at the same time they were careful that the slaves should not educate or elevate themselves. If we admit the objection, it will hold good forever.… The actual enjoyment of new rights is the only way to get accustomed to and become fit for their exercise.” Besides, to postpone suffrage until blacks acquired an education penalized them for previous restrictions over which they had no control and deprived the Union of their much-needed support at the polls.65
If whites required more than verbal assurances that blacks could exercise the vote responsibly, black leaders in some regions organized mock elections, scheduled them to coincide with the regular elections, and told their people to register and cast their ballots. As early as May 1865, blacks in Norfolk, Virginia, participated in the election of state legislators. Excluded from the regular political process, they held their own ward meetings, conducted a registration drive, improvised a polling place in the local African Methodist Episcopal Church, and on election day voted their preference among the regular candidates. After tabulating the results, making certain to add to them the votes of the black voters, they appealed to both the state legislature and the United States Congress to recognize the legitimacy of their actions and the validity of their ballots. To no one’s surprise, they had voted almost unanimously for the “men of tried fidelity to the Union, and of liberal sentiments.”66 Similar elections were reported in places like Beaufort, South Carolina (November 8, 1864); Fernandina, Florida (where black votes were counted in a mayoralty election); and New Orleans.67
With the presence of an outspoken black press and an articulate, well-organized leadership drawn from the free colored community, the situation in New Orleans was unusual. Although slaves constituted more than half the black population, the well-entrenched mulatto “aristocracy” quickly assumed a dominant influence after Union occupation in April 1862. The tens of thousands of field hands who poured into the city from the outlying rural districts during and immediately after the war might have found this colored leadership both bewildering and alien. Enjoying privileges not available to the slaves, such as the right to acquire property (including slaves), they tended to be light-colored mulattoes, quadroons, and octoroons, proud of their Creole heritage, literate and educated, and occupying skilled and professional positions. Within this exclusive group, moreover, classes existed, based upon gradations of wealth and color, ancestry, cultural pretensions, education, and church affiliation.68
No sooner had Union troops entered New Orleans than the demand for full admission to political privileges surfaced in the colored community. Obviously, the usual objections to extending the vote to poor and ignorant blacks could hardly be sustained against such an educated, propertied, and politically conscious colored population. When these blacks called for an end to taxation without representation, as they immediately did, they were not referring to future expectations of taxable property but to an already prevailing condition. Hard-pressed as to how to respond to the demand for voting privileges, whites ultimately came up with a solution that would neatly resolve the difficulty while at the same time split the mulattoes from the black freedmen and uphold the essential principles of white supremacy. The so-called Quadroon Bill introduced into the state legislature in 1864 defined as a “white person” anyone possessing no more than one fourth of Negro blood and admitted such individuals to the same privileges enjoyed by other whites, including the suffrage.
Not only was the proposition inviting but it promptly brought to a head the charge that the mulatto community acted indifferently toward the mass of black people in Louisiana, most of whom resided outside of New Orleans and were only beginning to emerge from the degradation of slavery. But the response to the Quadroon Bill contradicted that assumption soon enough. Neither the New Orleans Tribune, the principal voice of the colored community, nor the colored leaders would lend any support to the proposal; instead, they denounced it as divisive (creating distinctions of “white, white-washed and black”) and preposterous (“If a quadroon has a right to vote, why not a mulatto? … If we take one-half or one-third of the colored population, to make citizens and voters, why not two-thirds or three-fourths?”). Not content with denouncing the bill, colored leaders thought this an ideal time to call for a coalition of blacks, regardless of color or previous condition, that would demand the immediate admission of all citizens on an equal basis to political and civil rights.
The colored men of this country fully understand their position at the present time; they know that, in the Union there is strength; they are determined to be all emancipated from this absurd prejudice of caste; or perish as one man under its weight. Those that imagine that they are divided are much mistaken.
The Quadroon Bill went down to defeat, in part because many white legislators objected to any “black” people voting. But the debate had gone far to allay the freedmen’s apprehensions about the motives and priorities of the free colored community.69
With their pleas for equal suffrage rejected, blacks in Louisiana coordinated their activities to participate in the November election of 1865. Whether their votes would be recognized or not, the Tribune urged every black man to register to vote and to preserve his certificate “as a testimony that he can in after-time bequeath to his children. It will show that in 1865 he was wide awake to the importance of obtaining his rights.” Even as the Republican Party began to organize in Louisiana that same year, the Tribune, although designated the official party organ, implored the black population not to submerge themselves or their aspirations beneath the dictation of political expediency. “Let us be the allies of the Republicans, not their tools; let us retain our individuality, our banner, and our name.”70
Elsewhere in the South, blacks also mounted campaigns to win the right of suffrage and to erase racial distinctions from the statute books. Whether that agitation took the form of Equal Rights Leagues, petitions, or mock elections, it attested to a growing political consciousness, particularly in the urban centers. But although blacks thereby gained valuable political experience, the impact of their meetings, petitions, and appeals on state and Federal legislative bodies and on white public opinion remained minimal. No matter how eloquently or forcefully they made known their grievances and demands, their political status rested ultimately on the fluctuating moods and machinations of white politicians in Washington and on the rapidly growing confrontation between President Andrew Johnson and the United States Congress. What helped to make possible the extension of the suffrage and civil rights to black Americans was not the activities of black activists (who lacked the necessary power to give force to their appeals), or the northern abolitionists (many of whom rested content with the achievement of emancipation), or even the Radical Republicans (most of whom would have stopped short of enfranchising blacks), but the insistence by the white governments in the South that the essentials of the old order be maintained without a modicum of concession and the equally unyielding determination of the President to validate the work and the spirit of those governments.
In adversity and defeat, blacks found the makings of their eventual triumph. Nor did the irony of the situation escape them.
The unexpected policy of our anomalous President may be just as necessary to the great work of our enfranchisement in this country as were the defeats sustained by McClellan to the employment of colored soldiers and the recognition of our citizenship.… The brakes on the railroad car are often of more service than the locomotive. We often need the cloud more than the sunshine.… Paradoxical as it may seem, President Johnson’s opposition to our political interests will finally result in securing them to us.71
Few political analysts could have been more discerning. Although some blacks claimed to regret the clash between the President and Congress, and even as most of them condemned the actions of the Johnson governments in the South, they were hardly averse to profiting from the blunders of their enemies. When ten of the eleven former Confederate states, at the urging of the President, rejected ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, none expressed greater relief or joy than black leaders and newspapers. “Thank God, the Southern oligarchy are blind,” the New Orleans Tribuneobserved. “This stubbornness of the conquered to refuse the mild and generous terms offered by the conqueror, can only bring the latter to exact stronger guaranties.” Had the amendment been ratified, the Tribune noted, Congress would have been “morally obliged” to recognize the new southern governments and admit their “unpatriotic and illiberal” representatives. “But, thank God, the governing class of the South has not learned prudence yet.… Their folly will save us and save our liberties for the future. It is better for us that the work of reconstruction be protracted. Let the rebels do our work.”72
To win the Civil War and preserve the Union, President Lincoln had been forced to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and to authorize the enlistment of black soldiers. To secure the peace and preserve the gains of the war, black leaders now believed, Congress would be forced to admit them to full participation in political life and to guarantee their civil rights. Confident of precisely that outcome, James Lynch told a state convention of Tennessee blacks in August 1865 to prepare themselves for political power.
In the past struggle, when the nation stood trembling upon the verge of the precipice, the black man came to the rescue, his manhood was recognized in that hour of national trial, and why? From necessity … We were needed to fill up the army, we were needed to supply the place of copperhead conscripts who had no stomach for the fight.… And the question of political power in this country will soon present another necessity which will give us the ballot box.
The return of the South to the Union with enhanced political representation, made possible by abrogation of the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, made this matter all the more urgent, and black spokesmen and newspapers never tired of reminding the North what it might expect if it refused to extend the vote to the former slaves. The “safety and protection” of the nation demanded no less. “Let us help you fight the rebels at the ballot-box,” Tennessee blacks pleaded.73
With every blundering step made by President Johnson, black people came closer to a full recognition of their rights. But the victory, when it came, would be something less than a triumph of democratic principles. That is, Congress would yield to political necessity, not to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence or to black arguments about patriotic service to the country, taxation without representation, and the natural rights of man. Understandably, blacks would celebrate the triumph, while ignoring the mixed motives that made it possible. If they exuded a certain confidence, however, that may have reflected the experience of the past two years, in which they had prepared themselves for this eventuality. Few could contend, at least, that the privileges of voting and holding political office had suddenly been thrust upon a people who had previously given little or no consideration to political matters. By 1867, the issues had been clarified, leaders had emerged, and organizations were being formed to mobilize the mass of blacks who may not have been reached by the convention movement and the black press.
NEARLY A HALF CENTURY after emancipation, W. E. B. Du Bois grappled with the problem of black identity. The Negro appeared to him as “a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world.” Forced to view himself through the eyes of white men, to calculate his every move and word in terms of their expectations and demands, his vision permitted him no “true self-consciousness” but rather exposed him to a myriad of conflicting images.
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
The history of the Afro-American, Du Bois contended, revolved around this perennial conflict—“this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.” What seemed essential, however, was that blacks, while seeking admission to white society, not sacrifice their racial heritage and individuality.
He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.74
Without the advantage of Du Bois’s hindsight on Reconstruction and its tragic aftermath, blacks in the postwar years confronted the paradox of racial identity—how to define themselves as a people and as a race in relation to a society made up largely of whites who viewed themselves superior by virtue of the color of their skin, their Anglo-Saxon heritage, their mental endowments, and their future prospects. Since they aspired to the same rights exercised by white citizens, some blacks thought it imperative to underscore their Americanism, to demonstrate the ardor of their national loyalty, to disprove current theories of racial inferiority, and to show how much more acculturated they were to American ways and values than the recent arrivals from Europe. “We want to understand that we are no longer colored people, but Americans,” John Mercer Langston told a black gathering in 1866.
We have been called all manner of names. I have always called our people negroes. Perhaps you don’t like it—I do. I want it to become synonymous with character. We are no longer negroes simply—no longer colored people simply, but a part of the great whole of the mighty American nation.75
To affirm their American identity, blacks noted the various cultures that made up the civilizations of the world and the emergence of a new “race” in the United States. Whether descended from Europeans or Africans, they suggested, Americans—white and black—were in the process of developing racial characteristics “as severely individual” as those of Europeans, Asians, and Africans. Surely, the voice of the AME Church would argue, no one could expect black people in the United States to be Africans after their lengthy residence in this land.
To say that we could have preserved our African characteristics after dwelling for almost three centuries upon this continent, is most unphilosophical. Were it true we would be the most stolid race of the world—but whoever credited the negro for stolidity! The fact is, we are thoroughly Americans, and by reason of the fact that we have been here longer than the majority of the new American race, we have developed more fully than they, the characteristics by which it is to be known.
If the “negro character” differed in any respect from that of other citizens, the editorial concluded, the reason seemed abundantly apparent—“their character, is not American. Ours, is.”76
So intent were some blacks on demonstrating their identification with American values that they contrasted the advantages they enjoyed by virtue of their long exposure to white Americans with their less fortunate brethren in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Negroes of the Spanish West Indies and Brazil were singled out, in particular, as “the lowest of our race on the American continent,” largely because most of them were African-born and had not yet thrown off “its barbaric usages.” Even the Haitians, although “a noble race” with a proud history, lacked “those elements of order, of cool deliberation, of submission to authority” necessary for good government. But blacks in the United States had learned their lessons from the best possible teachers.
The American Negro, unlike his brethren, has been the pupil of the cool, aspiring, all conquering Saxon, and in no little measure he has partaken of all the greatness of his master. From him has he learned that form of government that is as surely destined to prevail the world over, as there is absolute worth in man …
Having resided by the side of their white brethren, blacks had imbibed the principles of republican government and Protestantism. “And being the most imitative of men, as saith his enemies, he bids fair to rival his great teacher.”77
Even as blacks emphasized their American roots, they could not agree on whether they were Negro, colored, black, or African Americans. The ongoing debate over how they should be addressed revealed at the same time differences over how they conceptualized themselves as a race and a regard for how whites employed the various terms. The objections to “negro,” for example, rested partly on its association with slavery and the tendency of whites to use it as a term of reproach. “We call each other colored people, black people, but not negro because we used that word in secesh times,” a South Carolina freedman testified in 1863. Both “negro” and “black” also suggested unmixed ancestry and hence excluded large numbers of colored people. “Is your Chairman a negro?” James Lynch asked the delegates to a Convention of the Colored People of Tennessee. “Or your Secretary, or any of your officers, or your other members or those sergeants sitting over there? They are all mixed blood. We are not ashamed of the term ‘negro,’ but to call it a ‘negro convention’ is a lie.… It is very hard to tell whether there is any pure blood or not, because white men used to love colored women very much.” Nor did “African” fare very well, particularly at a time when black leaders sought to educate their people to their Americanness. Henry M. Turner, a leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, agreed with several of his ministerial colleagues that the term “African” should be stricken from the title, if only because it suggested exclusion; on the other hand, “unlike the most of my race,” he claimed pride in being called a Negro. “When I am walking the streets of a city, and hear some one say, there goes a negro preacher, or a negro chaplain, I feel a peculiar exaltedness.” By the 1870s, the issue was far from settled, though “colored” seemed the most acceptable term, and a Louisiana newspaper indicated a willingness to accept “Negro” as long as it was capitalized, like any other nationality. “The French, German, Irish, Dutch, Japanese and other nationalities, are honored with a capital letter but the poor sons of Ham must bear the burden of a small n.”78
Whatever terminology they used to describe themselves, some blacks preferred to look, act, and sound as little Negro, colored, or black as possible. By adopting the fashions, the life styles, the manners, and even the color of white society, they would be absorbed into the dominant society that much sooner. The advertisements appearing in black newspapers, for example, not only acknowledged the premium placed on whiteness but sought to place that aspiration within everyone’s reach; if they could not turn white, they could purchase various devices calculated to bring them to the threshold of whiteness.
There cometh glad tidings of joy to all,
To young and to old, to great and to small;
The beauty which once was so precious and rare,
Is free for all, and all may be fair.
BY THE USE OF CHASTELLAR’S WHITE LIQUID ENAMEL
Still other advertisements promised scientific treatments that would enable black women to excel “the famed beauty of the Caucasians.”79
What they could not achieve with skin whiteners or hair treatments, some blacks hoped to attain by modeling their social functions and attire on white society. If they could not be absorbed into that society, they would establish their own society within a society—a replica of that from which they were excluded. Such pretentiousness, however, particularly when it manifested itself in lavish expenditures, provoked bitter responses in the black community. William J. Whipper, a northern-born black who settled in South Carolina after the war, berated the “worshippers of false gods” he found among his own people. “Fashion rules the hour,” he wrote in 1866, “and, like menial slaves, we do its bidding.… The street, the church, and the ball-room are the theatres for its display of presumptive impudence.” It simply made no sense. To obscure their lowly station in life, blacks were expending money on luxuries which they could ill afford, thereby compounding their poverty in a vain effort to hide it.
Our real condition is obscured by falsehood. In our attempts to cheat others, we cheat ourselves. We wear fine clothing, silks, satins, broadcloth, and trinkets, for the purpose of representing our wealth, while every person possessing a grain of common sense thinks quite to the contrary.
In their attempts to emulate whites, Whipper concluded, black people were totally ignoring the system of economy and industry that would ultimately enable them to achieve that objective. Making that point even more explicit, a black newspaper in Louisiana suggested that only the ownership of land would bring to blacks the respectability they now sought by indulging themselves in the white man’s fashions and follies.
Because we had to put up with a home-spun suit before emancipation we are determined to wear a silk one now no matter at what cost to our stomachs or our landlords. We are a poor people: everybody knows it: we are an ignorant people, the fact speaks for itself; we are an inexperienced people as every day’s transactions will prove, and yet it is a painful fact that we will spend more time and money to appear what we are not, than it would cost to be what we pretend to be.
And yet this same newspaper that scorned lavish dress and entertainments featured articles describing fancy balls of colored people, the finery of their clothes, and the excellence of their repasts; indeed, in the very same issue and on the same page as the editorial on “Extravagance Among Colored People” appeared “The Fashion Department,” with tips on “Summer Styles and Novelties.” Similarly, the same newspapers that extolled the virtues of blackness and eloquently appealed to race pride often included advertisements on how black people could make themselves more white.80
The paradox did not lend itself to any easy or immediate resolution. But the frank discussion of such questions did force blacks to examine critically who they were and the nature of their relationship to white society. If some were naturally drawn toward the models and values of that society, still others thought the loss of racial distinctiveness too heavy a price to pay for admission. To ape the ways of a people who mocked, degraded, and ostracized them, moreover, in the expectation they could gain the respect of such people, would most likely be an exercise in futility and reinforce their feelings of inferiority. To shed their Negroness, whitewash their culture, and deny their ancestral homeland would result in still more self-hatred and self-deprecation. “They seemed to think that by repudiating the word ‘colored’ they would become white,” a veteran black abolitionist observed; “that though they were as black a man as I, they, by rejecting that word colored would directly become as white as the natives of this country.” James Lynch, before embarking on his political career in Mississippi, thought he understood the type all too well—those who placed no value on the ability of men of their own race, who adopted the opinions respecting them that most whites held, who preferred white men as religious instructors, teachers, physicians, and lawyers because they were white, who disparaged their own color and thereby paid homage to the alleged superiority of the Anglo-Saxon. And invariably, if such individuals should be flattered, feted, or rewarded by whites, “they will kiss the hands of the oppressor and ally themselves with the enemies or disparagers of their race.”81
To counter the self-debasing images with which their people had been inculcated, black spokesmen needed to confront their cultural and national origins. While almost unanimously rejecting emigration and affirming their American heritage and identity, they might have been expected to harbor ambivalent feelings about their relationship to Africa. To identify with Africa raised the specter of a separate nationality, as well as awkward questions about backwardness and semi-barbarism, and might encourage those whites who still wished to return them there. For some blacks, in fact, the remoteness of Africa, both geographically and culturally, and the effects of race mixing in the United States only served to accentuate their Americanness. “We are not Africans,” one black leader proclaimed, “but a mixed race, mingling Saxon, Indian, and African blood.” Rather than deny the past, however, numerous black spokesmen preferred to embrace it as a source of racial pride. To reject emigration did not require blacks to reject Africa as their ancestral homeland, any more than English, Irish, and German Americans felt compelled to dissociate themselves from their national origins.
Should a man despise his mother because she is black, or an African? All Africans are not black. If being born in Africa makes a man an African, then we are not Africans; but no matter where the place of our birth, we are still the descendants of Africans, and, of course, belong to that race.82
Nor did blacks necessarily subscribe to the prevailing image of Africa as a hopelessly backward, semi-barbaric Dark Continent with neither a past nor a future; on the contrary, the impressions conveyed in the black press tended to emphasize the rich and varied cultures and the ancient Negro empires from which they were descended. Africa had been the very cradle of civilization, with the black race acting as “the promoters and the originators of social progress.” The first significant and “brilliant” culture in the world had been founded by the Egyptians, a mulatto people who had been instructed in the rudiments of art and industry by Ethiopians, a pure-black people. If portions of Africa now resembled a Dark Continent, for which the barbaric slave trade conducted by Europeans bore partial responsibility, that same darkness had once engulfed the Caucasian race and vestiges of it still existed among whites. “What should we think of the Caucasian race if we had to judge that race from the wild and naked brutes of Andaman, or even from the ‘lazzaroni’ of Naples?” Scoffing at the notion of African inferiority, a black leader in North Carolina noted that the Anglo-Saxon had once worn a “brass collar on his neck and the name of his Norman master marked on it.” With equal cogency, the New Orleans Tribune asked, “Who are you that boast yourselves over the descendants of Africans? A few centuries ago, your forefathers were savages, in the wilds of Britain, Germany or Gaul; we Americans, of whatever nationality, are all alike descended from barbarians.” The extent to which the black press and leadership reflected the conceptions of Africa that reposed in the great mass of Afro-Americans remains difficult to determine; many exslaves were no doubt too preoccupied with survival in the United States to concern themselves with such matters, while others may have been the subject of a caustic observation by the official voice of the African Methodist Episcopal Church: “It is possible, even now, for a negro to say, ‘What have I to do with Africa?’ and not be frowned down; nay, it is somewhat popular.”83
What admittedly compounded the problem of identity and conceptions of Africa was the extent to which Americans, including many blacks, had been inculcated with the notion that whiteness was not only more acceptable but more beautiful and alluring. The slaves who thought they would turn white with emancipation were very few but those who resorted to artificial devices to approximate white features numbered in the thousands and laid the basis for several commercial fortunes in black cosmetology at the end of the century. Recognizing the importance of developing self-pride and racial consciousness in their people, some black spokesmen thought the aftermath of slavery a propitious time to question the premium placed on white, Western standards of beauty. Rather than view their blackness as a badge of degradation, they should be encouraged to embrace it as a symbol of strength and beauty, superior in many respects to the pale, pasty-complexioned Caucasians. Not only was blackness a color borne by their ancestors in Africa who had erected ancient and noble civilizations but it characterized a majority of the peoples of the world. Through their color, Afro-Americans could thus identify with the mass of mankind, “and who shall dare say that the time will not come, when the idea of wealth, power and intelligence will be associated with a dark skin, as it is now associated with a white one?”
We are in the minority here, but we are the most numerous in the world as a whole.… Of the so-called white [race] there are three hundred and fifty million; of the brown there are five hundred and fifty million. So you see that we thus have a majority of two hundred million. If we were to raise the battle-cry of “Brown earth for brown men!” we could VOTE them out of this mundane sphere, and send them to the ghostly world, as not fit to live here.84
If the call for “Brown earth for brown men!” was as yet premature, the reality of black political power and even black majorities in the South was not. Although blacks remained a numerical minority in all but two of the ex-Confederate states, the acquisition of the ballot converted them instantly into a potent political force. Emboldened at the same time by a growing sense of racial and community identity, blacks prepared to become full partners in the remaking of southern society—in a reconstruction that promised to broaden the base of political participation and enable even an ex-slave to aspire to the “wealth, power and intelligence” long monopolized by a coterie of white-skinned natives.
THE LARGELY BLACK AUDIENCE that gathered in Savannah on April 2, 1867, listened as a prominent white Georgian advised them to be skeptical of any politician who tried to win their votes by telling them they were the equals of the white race. “Politicians have been the bane of all people,” he warned, “and they will be your bane if you fail to act wisely and well in your new relations to the race which always has and always will be the predominant race in the world we live in. To fit you for the exercise of political rights you must be politically educated.” If the audience received these remarks with a discernible lack of enthusiasm, they may have been both troubled by the content and anxious to hear the next speaker, James M. Simms, a preacher and former slave. No sooner had the former governor of Georgia introduced him than the Reverend Simms proceeded to set matters straight. White men, he declared, knew nothing of his people. Under slavery, most blacks had learned to dissimulate in the presence of their master, and he claimed to be no exception. But now, “for the first time,” he no longer felt compelled to mask his views. No matter how illiterate or politically uneducated black people might be, he assured the crowd, they were not fools. As prospective voters, they knew enough to cast their ballots for a party which had always advocated principles of liberty and justice. Nor did they need to be “politically educated” to know not to elect “a rebel mayor” who tolerated the presence of “brutal policemen.”
With considerable pride, the Reverend Simms alluded to the notable changes of the last decade. His audience no doubt suspected what lay behind the ardor with which the speaker now underscored his words. Nearly sixteen years earlier, Thomas Simms, his brother, had been returned in chains from Massachusetts as a fugitive slave and dragged through the streets of Savannah to the jail. Not far from that site, James Simms now stood, sharing a platform with white dignitaries and advising an assemblage made up largely of former slaves how to exercise their newly won rights as free men and citizens. The transition in the lives of the Simms brothers was no more extraordinary, however, than the political era which this and scores of similar meetings helped to launch. Neither white nor black spokesmen were oblivious to the implications. “Yes, we will be a power that will be felt in this country for all time to come,” a black newspaper proclaimed, while a former Confederate official admitted as much as he surveyed the dim political scene: “The registration of voters shows that the political power will be in the hands of our late slaves. What shame! What humiliation for us. Would it not be better to take up arms and defend ourselves to the last against such infamy.”85
With the passage of the Reconstruction Acts in March 1867, what came to be known as Radical or Congressional Reconstruction was under way. Until a popularly elected convention had framed a constitution acceptable to Congress, each of the unreconstructed southern states would remain under military rule. What made this proposed reconstruction “radical” was the stipulation that both races would vote for delegates to the conventions and no constitution would be acceptable unless it provided for black suffrage. Throughout the South, boards of registrars, usually composed of two whites and one black, began the process of enrolling qualified voters. With thousands of whites unable to qualify because of their roles in the Confederacy and still others refusing to register, the results were expected but no less startling. Of the 1,363,000 registered voters in the forthcoming elections, more than half of them—703,000—would be blacks, and they formed a majority of the electorate in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. When these figures were translated into local and county statistics, the results were sufficient to drive whites into even deeper despair. “Registration has closed here placing the negroes in a majority,” a white resident of Savannah informed a business client, who was traveling in Europe. “I hope we shall be able to control them. If not, what a terrible prospect! You will probably find us in the throes of that revolution when you return.”86
While canvassing Georgia and South Carolina for the Republican Party, Henry M. Turner expressed grave concern over how many of his people would exercise their new political power. The problem, as he discerned it, was not so much political apathy as the “foolish idea” that political involvement might compound their already precarious economic situation. Rather than take such risks, they would leave political matters to their “white friends and colored leaders.”
The result is that hundreds declare they will not register; others say, they do not care to either register or vote until things are more settled; others, again, say they cannot lose the time just now, crops are being laid by, and for every day they lose, from three to five dollars are deducted from their wages; while still others declare it is useless to register, for they have already been told that if they ever vote in harmony with Congress, or old Joe Brown, their throats will be cut from ear to ear …
To encourage full participation in the forthcoming elections, the Reverend Turner framed an urgent appeal to the “colored citizens” of Georgia and ordered that it be read in every AME church. More importantly, he proposed that the newly emerging black leadership in the state traverse the countryside in an effort to mobilize and register the thousands of freedmen not reached by urban rallies and newspapers. “What will it avail us for the larger cities to go right if we are to be dragged down to infamy and shame by the rural districts.” And if the men remained indifferent to these appeals, Turner urged black women, though disfranchised, to organize themselves to help get out the vote.87
From the outset of registration, black leaders had recognized the need to educate their people to the uses of political power. With that objective in mind, black activists canvassed their respective counties and states, discussed with prospective voters the issues that should determine their selection of candidates, warned them that a failure to exercise their newly acquired rights might result in the forfeiture of those rights, and explained to them the mechanics of voter registration. Everywhere he traveled in the interior of South Carolina, Benjamin Franklin Randolph reported, he came across hundreds of his people who were at a loss to know how to register or vote, some of them the victims of “bad advice” and threats from their employers. “A short comprehensive lesson will any where satisfy them,” he added, though local whites often made it difficult if not perilous for him to impart such instruction. (While canvassing these same districts the following year, Randolph was assassinated.) In urging blacks to register, a newspaper in Georgia framed its appeal in terms of black indebtedness to the North and the Republican Party. But the New Orleans Tribune, which no doubt would have seriously questioned any such obligations, chose to frame the issues so that few freedmen could afford to ignore them. “The vote is the means to reach the composition of juries, the dispensation of education, the organization of the militia and the police force, in such a manner that the interests of all races be represented and protected.”88
Few prospective black voters needed any “political education” to recognize that their best interests lay with the party which had made possible their citizenship and franchise. But the candidates who might best advance Republican principles while acting on issues of daily concern to blacks were not so easily discerned. “They see clearly enough that the Republican party constitutes their political life boat,” the Tribune observed. “But they claim the right to select the captains whom they can trust.” In the many meetings called to mobilize support for the party, participants often utilized such occasions to define their concerns and to draw up a platform on which they expected candidates to run. Invariably, the demands included state-supported public schools (preferably without racial distinctions), unrestricted right of testimony, representation on juries, equal access to public facilities, and legislation that would ameliorate the plight of landless agricultural laborers.89 Reflecting regional concerns, a former slave asked a political meeting in New Orleans to condemn the imminent introduction of Chinese coolie labor into the cotton and sugarcane fields, warning that such an immigration “will fill our jails, our lunatic asylums and our State prisons.” In South Carolina, a black candidate coupled his opposition to confiscation with a promise to tax lands in such a way as to force the owners of large tracts to make some of that land available for purchase by freedmen. And when a black candidate in Georgia vowed to repeal taxes which discriminated against small farmers, he had only to share his personal experience with the audience. “Last year I rented a small farm of Dr. Simmons, of this county. After paying him the rent, I had 5 bales of cotton. On them I paid a tax of $15 a bale, making $75. It is needless for me to tell poor men how much I have needed that money this year. It would have breaded my family the whole year. I have felt its hardness.”90
Not since the weeks preceding secession had the South witnessed as much intensive and enthusiastic political activity. But this time the participants were people who had been politically voiceless, most of them only a few years removed from slavery. When the Virginia Republican convention got under way in the African Church in Richmond, more than three thousand blacks waited outside to gain admittance, forcing party leaders to move the next day’s session to Capitol Square. More important than any head counts, however, was the spirit in which black participants entered into these meetings, resembling in many instances the emotional fervor and call-and-response techniques they brought to their religious gatherings. More often than not, they heard what they had come to hear and cheered their avowed champions, while making certain the candidates understood their concerns. But if necessary, they revealed a political shrewdness capable of unmasking any candidate, white or black, old friends and professed converts alike. In Lebanon, Tennessee, a white Republican candidate and former slaveholder found his talk interrupted by a freedman who demanded to know if he had freed his slaves unconditionally. No less insistent was a freedman in Charlottesville, Virginia, who found unconvincing a candidate’s recital of his Unionist record and opposition to secession. “While I believe a white man instantly who comes out flat-footed and says he was for the war, when there is no profit nor advantage in his saying so; when I hear another say that he was against the war … I cannot help suspecting him instantly.” And in Washington County, Georgia, a white candidate quickly discovered that he had stretched the credulity and patience of his audience too far when he sought to win them over by advocating social equality even if that resulted in intermarriage; the blacks shouted him down and refused to listen to the remainder of his speech. With slightly more toleration, an assemblage made up largely of freedmen listened to “a very intelligent, educated Negro” tell them that most of his people were not yet prepared to exercise the suffrage and he feared they would vote with their old masters as a way of gaining their good will. Before the speaker could proceed, an elderly freedman asked to be heard. “Every creature has got an instinct,” he explained, punctuating each of his words. “The calf goes to the cow to suck, the bee to the hive. We’s a poor, humble, degraded people, but we know our friends. We’d walk fifteen miles in war time to find out about the battle; we can walk fifteen miles and more to find how to vote.”91
The overwhelmingly black participation in these meetings raised the inevitable cry that the Republican Party in the South had become a “black man’s party” in fact as well as in spirit. When Laura Towne, the white schoolteacher, attended “a mass meeting of Republican citizens” in the Sea Islands, she was surprised to find only one white man on the platform and few if any whites in the audience. Even white Republicans did not attend, she noted; “they are going to have a white party, they say.” When one black speaker indicated he wanted no whites on the platform, the others took him to task for his intolerance. “What difference does skin make, my bredren, I would stand side by side a white man if he acted right. We mustn’t be prejudiced against their color.” After some further verbal exchanges of this kind, the assembled freedmen agreed that men should be judged by their acts, not by their color, and they invited whites to join them at their next meeting. When talk of a “black man’s party” began to circulate in Louisiana, no doubt inspired by the aggressive stance of the New Orleans colored community, the black newspaper in St. Landry Parish recoiled at such a prospect and suggested it would be tantamount to political suicide. “Not only would we be crushed in the attempt, in most of the Southern States; but we may be sure the Northern States would not countenance our plan.”92
With white men—both Northerners (Carpetbaggers) and natives (Scalawags)—assuming the prominent positions in the Republican Party, while remaining dependent on their overwhelmingly black constituencies, certain questions were bound to surface, and the talk of a “black man’s party” only begins to suggest the dimensions of the problem. Forced in every state to coalesce with whites, what price would black leaders be willing to pay to maintain that coalition? Would the political influence they wielded, the posts they held in the party, and the number of elective and appointive offices they filled be commensurate with the electoral strength of their people? On the eve of Radical Reconstruction, black leaders in some instances acknowledged the need to defer to their more experienced and better-educated white allies. If nothing else, the fear persisted that if blacks pushed themselves too quickly into the center of the political arena, they would confirm the worst fears of native whites, fracture the party, and provoke a backlash in northern public opinion. When a leading clergyman in the AME Church advised blacks to restrict their political aspirations, he warned that “a colored ticket” would most likely turn thirty million white people against them. And when one overly enthusiastic abolitionist suggested that a Negro be nominated for Vice-President of the United States, many black leaders thought the proposal ill-timed and counterproductive. While he wished “to see black men (or colored, if you prefer the term) in every position socially and politically, attainable,” Martin Delany wrote from South Carolina, such objectives need not be achieved at the cost of destroying the Republican Party and uniting “the conservative Negro hating elements North and South.” Like Delany, black leaders found initially acceptable the maxim “Let us not attempt to reach the top of the tree without climbing by means of the lower branches,” and thought it best to curb their political aspirations, leaving the more prestigious and conspicuous places to their white allies. “What fuel that would be to feed the flame of prejudice!” James H. Harris of North Carolina would declare in refusing a nomination to Congress in 1868. “I am not willing to sell out my race, for such a sale would my acceptance virtually be.”93
Whatever considerations prompted some blacks initially to refuse nominations to public office, the projected political apprenticeship would be short-lived. Within two years of the elections to the constitutional conventions, Martin Delany himself told a political rally in Congo Square, New Orleans, that in every state in which blacks comprised a substantial portion of the electorate, “a pro rata of positions and places belong to them.” That stand must have gratified those black spokesmen who from the very outset had advocated proportional representation and had warned their people not to concede anything to which their political strength entitled them; in Louisiana, in fact, where the population was nearly evenly divided between whites and blacks, the Republican Party in 1867 pledged itself to reserve half of all nominations and appointive offices for blacks. “That plank is our protection against absorption and intrigue,” said the New Orleans Tribune. “It is the safeguard of the destinies of the African race in the State.” Nor did the Tribune have much patience with those who argued for a delay of black political ambitions until they had acquired more education and experience. No people possessed more experience and education in the meaning of oppression than former slaves, the Tribuneeditor noted, and that fact alone would ensure democratic safeguards in any constitution they helped to frame.94
With the elections approaching, black canvassers and newspapers cautioned black voters about the critical importance of their political debut. If the “black vote” became the means by which “unscrupulous renegades” and “political vagrants” were elevated to office, the very legitimacy of this experiment in biracial democratic government might be jeopardized. Without wishing to reject the friendship and assistance of northern whites, the New Orleans Tribune, among other black spokesmen, found little reason to place any dependency on politicians who “cannot be so well informed as to our wants as we are ourselves.” All too often, that same newspaper warned, their “good friends” from the North came to them “not through philanthropy, not for the affection they have for black men, but for the love of power and spoils which is devouring them.” Such individuals invariably took credit for emancipating the slaves, offered blacks a “tutorage” that only perpetuated the dependency of slavery, and lavished praise on black people only when able to control them. If a Union officer came to them claiming their votes on the basis of his service in the war, the Tribune asked black voters to “unbutton his uniform coat and feel the heart throbs of the man within it.” If, on the other hand, a former Confederate officer came to them professing to believe in Republican principles, the Tribune advised black voters to be skeptical of such sudden conversions. “After a five years’ struggle we do not choose to join the Confederates today.” And finally, the Tribunesuggested that if any candidate replied to their demands with the familiar refrain of “too soon,” it was to be interpreted as “a lack of courage” to carry out the reform at any time.
When will the right time come? Is it, per chance, after we will have separated for ten or twenty years the two races in different schools, and when we shall have realized the separation of this nation into two peoples? The difficulty, then, will be greater than it is today. A new order of things, based on separation, will have taken root. It will, then, be TOO LATE.95
Despite the emphasis placed on racial unity, black leaders were hardly immune to the usual political vices of sectarianism, dissimulation, and unbridled ambition. Nor did they necessarily agree on what relations they should sustain with the former slaveholding class or with their friends from the North. The extent to which they intended to act as “race men” if elected also tended to vary. Elick Mahaly, an ex-slave who ran for office in Crawford County, Georgia, demonstrated little of the moral fervor that could be found in the pages of the New Orleans Tribune or in the speeches of such Georgia blacks as Henry M. Turner and Tunis G. Campbell. He addressed himself almost exclusively to local agricultural problems and pledged himself to reconcile the interests of his own race with the need to ease the economic plight and political disabilities of the former slaveholding class. In offering himself to the voters in 1867, he played upon the theme of reconciliation.
I was born a slave on the plantation of Benjamin Lockett, Warren county, Miss. I remained with my old master until 1864, when I was brought to Georgia and sold to Mr. Isaac Dennis. My old master raised me as well as slaves are usually raised, giving me the rudiments of a common English education, and instilling into my youthful mind the principles of honesty and virtue. And I will say here, that I have never departed from them.… I am in favor of reconstruction under the military bills; though, if I am elected, I shall use my influence to have the disqualifications removed from all.96
But to have listened to the anguished cries of southern whites, the disaster they anticipated could best be summed up in an individual like the Reverend Nick Williams. This black preacher reportedly stormed through the interior of South Carolina in 1867, inculcating the minds of the freedmen with ideas subversive of the political and social order and bound to provoke a racial conflagration. Although skeptical of Reconstruction (“Will it put muskets in your hands or mine?”), he urged blacks to vote for none but their own color. The rights of the planter class to their lands, he declared, were no more legitimate than the previous rights they had claimed to their slaves. “Land we must have or we will die,” and he expected no help in this regard from the North. Any agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau could be easily bought—for as little as $2.50. The Negro in the North was treated no better than the slave in the South, perhaps even worse, and he advocated a massive exodus of northern blacks to the southern states, where they would combine with the freedmen to establish their own nation. That was the Reverend Williams’ message, at least as white witnesses reported it. “No one can imagine, unless he was present among us,” one such observer wrote, “the extent and character of the excitement among the negroes. All labour is suspended; our fodder withers in the fields; whilst crowds attend the reverend gentleman everywhere he goes.” The district Freedmen’s Bureau office was sufficiently alarmed to dispatch a detail of soldiers to arrest the Reverend Williams.97
If Elick Mahaly and Nick Williams pointed up the broad spectrum of black leadership and thought, the distinctions blurred in the minds of many southern whites. The quality and opinions of the individual were far less important than the nature of his aspirations. Whatever the range of views expressed, the spectacle of freedmen deliberating, nominating candidates, organizing politically, and preparing to cast ballots was enough to conjure up fearful images. “All society stands now like a cone on its Apex, with base up,” a former governor of South Carolina observed on the eve of Radical rule. After Josiah Gorgas viewed his first freedmen’s meeting, the first black policeman in Selma, and blacks being sworn in as voters, this prominent Alabaman and former Confederate officer could only brood about the extraordinary effort “to convert the Southern States into a Jamaica.” No less alarmed and incredulous were those southern whites who saw in every political gathering of freedmen the specter of insurrection. “Threats of an incendiary & seditious character have been made by them,” the mayor of a North Carolina town dutifully reported to the Freedmen’s Bureau. “I am no alarmist, but I tell you in all sincerity that sooner or later, I fear a conflict will occur between the two races down here.” Usually, as in this case, the Bureau agent reported that his investigation had failed to substantiate the charges.98
When Republicans gathered for a state convention in Richmond, the black workers in the tobacco factories informed their employers that they intended to stop work in order to attend the proceedings. About the same time, John H. Bills, the Tennessee planter, watched his laborers leave the fields to listen to Radical speakers in town; every one of them, he noted, had registered to vote, black registration in the district exceeded that of whites, and he wondered “to what depths of humiliation are we Comeing.” Like Bills, many planters who had barely survived the transition to free labor now faced still further disruptions. After the freedmen had finally been persuaded not to expect any land redistribution or forty acres and a mule, the approach of the elections and constitutional conventions renewed precisely that kind of speculation. “You cannot be sure of any thing when Negro rule commences,” a South Carolina planter wrote two months after passage of the Reconstruction Acts, “and I am making friends of the Mammon of unrighteousness as fast as possible. I still believe we can hold our own but the negroes will have to enjoy more of the fruits than before.”99 Once again, the Freedmen’s Bureau dispatched its agents to the plantations to make clear to the laborers that the forthcoming constitutional conventions were powerless to effect any changes in the ownership of land. Still, despite even the denials of black leaders, many freedmen revived their hopes, and the idea persisted among them that the conventions they were helping to elect would take steps to ease their plight by making land available to them, whether through confiscation or taxation.100 Some planters, in fact, may have been uncertain whether they had more to fear from the reactions of freedmen to still another betrayal of expectations or from the possible attempts by the new governments to gratify the demand for land.
Anticipating bad times, some whites appeared to invite the very worst times, as if their only chance for salvation lay in some plunge into the very depths of degradation. “Having reached bottom,” Henry W. Ravenel confided to his diary in March 1867, “there is hope now that we may rise again to the surface in course of time.” To expedite that ultimate triumph, some were content to allow their assumptions about black inferiority to work themselves out in public view. “Let the negroes alone,” a prominent Charleston attorney advised, “give them the necessary amount of rope, let them have their representatives, all black, in the Convention, let their ignorance, incapacity, and excesses have full scope and accomplish its ends; dont attempt to modify it, with white sauce; let it be all black, and it will soon cure itself.” The day the first black men entered the halls of Congress, William Heyward agreed, “then comes the revulsion,” and the Yankees would no doubt be the first to deprive them of the ballot. “Such a Government as this cannot stand, and if when the next trial of the strength of parties comes on, they are nearly equal, neither will be disposed to yield to the other, then we may see another revolution.”101
Before Radical Reconstruction had even begun, before a single black person had announced his candidacy for any office, the white South rushed to pronounce the entire experiment in biracial democratic government a total failure. It made no difference how blacks might choose to use their political power, even if they succeeded in establishing the most virtuous and competent governments in the history of the South. The sentence had already been handed down: this would be “the most galling tyranny and most stupendous system of organized robbery that is to be met with in history.” Nothing that any Radical legislature or constitutional convention did in the next decade could have reversed this initial judgment. If the white South feared anything, in fact, it was not the likelihood of black failure but the possibility of black success. “There was one thing that the white South feared more than negro dishonesty, ignorance, and incompetency,” W. E. B. Du Bois would write, “and that was negro honesty, knowledge, and efficiency.” Neither at the outset nor at the end of Radical Reconstruction did whites deem corruption to be the essential issue. If they could barely distinguish between one black leader and another, they cared even less to distinguish between a corrupt government and an honest government. The issue was the right of black men to participate in any government on any level. And the most terrifying prospect of all remained the possibility that these people might actually learn the uses of political power. “If the negro is fit to make laws for the control of our conduct and property,” a southern educator would warn some years later, “he is certainly fit to eat with us at our tables, to sleep in our beds, to be invited into our parlors, and to do all acts and things which a white man may do.”102
The fears and despair which gripped portions of the white population drove them into the kinds of defensive preparations once associated with rumors of slave insurrections. “No man lives now at his ease,” a resident of Rockingham, North Carolina, confessed. “When he lies down at night, although his doors and windows are locked and bolted, he puts his gun and pistol, in readiness, not knowing at what hour he may be called upon to use them.” For those who lived in counties or states with a preponderance of blacks, the prospect of black majorities and black mayors, black legislators, black magistrates, and black jurors was almost impossible to grasp and precipitated frantic talk about migration. “What future can we look forward to for our children, different from what they would have, if they were in Jamaica?” a resident of Winnsboro, South Carolina, asked. “To live in a land where Free Negroes make the majority of the Inhabitants, as they do in this unfortunate State of ours, is to me revolting.”103
But most whites neither migrated nor panicked. Since they had once guided the lives and thoughts of blacks as slaves, the assumption prevailed in some circles—albeit uneasily—that they could now exploit the “old ties” and the economic dependency of the freedmen to control them politically. If black suffrage was forced upon whites, a newspaper in Augusta, Georgia, warned, “we will take care to turn the African suffrages to other purposes than those designed by the Republican agitators. The negroes will be in our employ, under our care, and, if controlled by any, under our control.… We give fair warning that we stoop to conquer.” With a certain degree of confidence, then, some white Democrats addressed themselves directly to the blacks in their vicinity, urging them not to abandon those who had always cared for them, those who knew them intimately, and those with whom their destiny lay. If they persisted in their political claims, however, they should at least know the futility of it all.
It is impossible that your present power can endure, whether you use it for good or ill.… Let not your pride, nor yet your pretended friends, flatter you into the belief that you ever can or ever will, for any length of time, govern the white men of the South. The world has never seen such a spectacle, and its whole history, and especially the history of your race, gives no ground for the anticipation.… Your present power must surely and soon pass from you. Nothing that it builds will stand, and nothing will remain of it but the prejudices it may create.
Although some black spokesmen derived satisfaction from the sight of former slaveholders trying to win over the votes of former slaves, they did not minimize the seriousness of the effort. “They basely flatter us in order to better betray us,” the New Orleans Tribune warned. “The deeper they bow, the more their detestation and desire for revenge are growing in their bosom.”104
To consolidate any gains they might make among the freedmen, white Democrats even urged groups of “conservative colored men” to organize among themselves. Typical in this respect was a meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, in which black speakers pledged themselves to support in the forthcoming election “the policy of our own tried people, neighbors and friends, whose capital furnishes us employment and whose roofs shelter us, in preference to that inaugurated by strangers and their allies.” The ways in which whites could assess the results of these efforts were easy enough. If the blacks voted with them on election day, that would be a triumph. But if they chose to remain at home, that would be sufficient. Less than a month after noting that most of his laborers had registered to vote, a planter in St. Martin Parish, Louisiana, exulted in what happened on election day: “Not one of the negroes left here to go and vote today. This has been a glorious day—All White!!!”105
If verbal appeals failed to achieve the desired results, as so often happened, southern whites fell back on the more effective weapons of economic coercion, intimidation, and violence. Within weeks after the passage of the Reconstruction Acts, for example, a Freedmen’s Bureau agent in Sparta, Louisiana, requested a detachment of troops to protect the right of laborers to register to vote. Far less could be done, however, to counter the actions of employers who suddenly found they had no work for blacks who evinced any active interest in politics.
This morning I discharged 3 of my hands.… I gave them from last Monday until Saturday night to decide as to whether or not they would vote. They being unwilling to give me a positive answer, I thereupon told them I would dispense with their services.… I retain two who promised me last week without any parley that they would stay at the mill & attend to their work.
With negotiations for new contracts coming in the wake of the first elections, employers like William Gamble of Henry County, Alabama, simply inserted a new clause which forbade the laborers to “attend elections or political meetings” without his consent. The beatings meted out to black voters, the assassination of black leaders, the intimidation of black candidates, and the breaking up of meetings suggested in 1867 some of the techniques of terrorism that would be embellished in the next few years to expedite the political emasculation of the freedmen.106
Despite the threats and economic coercion, blacks voted in overwhelming numbers in their first exercise of political power. On the eve of the election, laborers from the surrounding countryside began to pour into the towns, filling up the streets, attending last-minute rallies, marching in torchlight parades—partaking, in other words, of the traditional election eve festivities they had once watched from a distance. The next morning, lines formed outside the polling places as freedmen waited anxiously for the moment when they would cast their first vote. With rumors circulating that blacks expected to return from the polls with a mule and a deed to a forty-acre lot, a reporter in one town thought to ask a freedman waiting to vote whether he shared that expectation. “No Sah,” he replied scornfully. “I spect to get nuffin but what I works hard for, and when I’se sick I’ll get docked.” If the lines were long and the process time-consuming, many freedmen seemed in no hurry, as though they wished to prolong the experience, some of them loitering around the polls long after they had voted. Seldom did the freedmen standing in line speak to each other, a reporter noted, apparently deeming silence more appropriate to the solemnity and “sacred importance” of the occasion. Noticing one of his laborers in line, an employer in Montgomery, Alabama, discharged him on the spot; the freedman smiled, looked down, said nothing, and voted.107
Except for a few sporadic skirmishes, election day in most of the South passed quietly—and with it, some mistakenly thought, the old political and social order.