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The Negro's Place in History
by Willis Boughton
1896

During the life of mankind every generation has been confronted with one or more grave social questions the solution of which seemed, at the time, to be of vital importance to the progress of civilization. So, too, every age has had its alarmists, who have preached wars and desolation and the utter destruction of existing institutions. But civilization has moved onward. Every age and every generation has indeed proved equal to its emergencies. Though the champions of a principle be tried by the crucial test of wars, though French revolutions and American rebellions enact their bloody scenes, the fittest survives, the most vigorous principle conquers, the world advances in culture. Only the extreme pessimist will deny that the world is to-day better than it has ever been before, that people are more cultured, more humane, more Christ-like. The nations of our day are better able to grapple with difficult social problems than were their ancestors. Under the most threatening portents there is no occasion for undue alarm. Regulated by the laws of universal progress, the right principle will, in the end, prevail, for mankind will not rush madly onward to the destruction of cherished institutions.

Honest agitators are necessary to the solution of any social problem; but the negro question has been the hobby of the American alarmist ever since the first cargo of black slaves was landed at Jamestown. There is, however, a bright side to the entire history of the American negro. The African is brought to our shores as a rude, uncultured savage; he is forced into the most intimate social relations with a highly civilized class of whites; he imbibes much from contact with the culture of one of the most enlightened nations of the world; the females become the mothers of numbers of half-white slave children; the race itself, under the moulding influence of peculiar environment, becomes a new race, lighter in color, stronger in intellect, superior in culture -- "the Afro-American race."

By the abolishment of slavery our country made a great stride in the line of progress. That cursed institution removed, the whole land seemed to rise from the ashes of war with phoenix-like vigor, to flourish with a lusty strength unknown under the blight of slavery, and to lead the world in enterprising undertakings. But what a great change for the negro! Just at the right moment, when the slave had risen as high in culture as he could under the restraining laws of bondage, when the dusky savage had become a new being, the fetters of servitude were stricken asunder, and a future was opened to the Afro-American whereby he might aspire to the highest attainable condition of enlightenment.

Having been made a free man and an American citizen, the progress of the negro has been phenomenal. Without original capital even to the amount of that unfortunate one talent, many individual members of this despised race are accumulating fortunes; forbidden to learn to read or write, thousands are becoming as proficient in those accomplishments as are their white neighbors; taught that laws of marriage and of morality had no place in the social creed of the slave, there are now thousands who are leading purer and more moral lives than are numbers of our own proud, superior race; born, every one of them, bastards, there is now not a greater percentage of illegitimate births among the negro population of the black belt of Alabama than there is among the inhabitants of the kingdom of Bavaria. (Mayo in Mohonk Conference Report, 1890, page 44.) Surely the alarmist must look elsewhere for material with which to intimidate the thoughtful.

But pass for a moment into details. It may be said without charge of hyperbole that the progress of these negroes during their quarter of a century of freedom has been phenomenal. "The colored people of the South," says Judge Tourgee in a recent speech, "have accomplished more in twenty-five years, from an industrial point of view, than any people on the face of the earth ever before achieved under anything like such unfavorable conditions." Biddle University, North Carolina, was built under the management of a colored master carpenter. Though both white and colored laborers were employed, he was of all by far the best workman. As a penman the negro excels. One of the two teachers of penmanship employed in the Cincinnati public schools is a colored man, and he is universally liked and respected by the white pupils who come under his instruction. There is a very successful colored physician in Nashville. In Atlanta there is a colored dentist, many of whose patrons are prominent white people. W. E. Dubois has not only won the first oratorical prize, but a three-hundred-dollar scholarship as well -- and this too at Harvard, "where the contestants are the elite students of the white race in that ancient seat of learning." But still more encouraging is the astonishing fact that there are sixteen thousand negro school teachers employed in the South in the work of educating their fellows. These are only ripples, but they harbinger the flood that is to follow, or rather prove the current that flows deep and strong beneath.

In the midst of such proofs of the progressive tendency of the race arises the question of the fitness of the negro for United States citizenship. The ballot has undoubtedly been one of the greatest educators of the colored people. In order to cast the ballot with a degree of intelligibility equal to that of the whites, numbers have been induced to sacrifice many comforts in order to learn to read and write. Others, realizing that the avenues to power are open to the educated only, have sought a preparation that would fit them, as well as members of the more favored race, for positions of honor or of power. Great numbers are now qualified intelligently to exercise the right of suffrage, while the masses are just as capable of voting as are the ruling elements in our great cities. Indeed, it can be no more galling to the white man of the black belt of the South to submit to negro rule, than it is for the truly conscientious American citizen in our great cities to realize that his precinct is controlled by the votes of the vicious from the scum of European life. The policy of our government in giving the negro the ballot has not been a mistaken one. It was best for these colored people to receive at once their freedom and the ballot; it is still best for them to remain full citizens of our country; it will ennoble their future and make them a race of men. They are deserving of the full rights of citizenship. "You cannot find one dynamiter among them, you cannot find a single socialist or anarchist among them, nor a secret society of any kind whose object is to undermine our Christian institutions. You have these classes all over your northern country. These eight million colored men are loyal to our government."

In our own country, then, the negro race has proved itself progressive without limitation. Advancement in culture has been continuous ever since the first handful was landed on our shores -- and that too under discouragements such as no other people have encountered. Thus far we can rejoice in the happy solution of one of our most difficult social problems. The hand that has guided these people has not led them astray. Their paths have been dark, but the day dawns. The alarmist, however, does not care to recall the past; he prefers to view, with a disordered imagination, the future, and his visions are painted with the gloomiest forebodings. Let us, then, look into the future. But in order to realize the capabilities of the negro race, we must fully understand the remote past history of the blacks as a race.

The question "Has the negro race at any period of time or in any country on the globe been a factor in the history-making of the world?" has, in the course of the agitation of the race question, been asked repeatedly. Most assuredly he has been an important element in the history-making of the entire globe. Though such a statement be surprising to some and contrary to the commonly accepted belief, it is nevertheless true. Whenever the above question is asked, the imagination of man forthwith pictures the naked savage in the heart of the African continent as an example of the negro at the summit of his attainments in all that goes to make what we call civilization. So even, with just as great a claim to reason, may the Chinese mandarin point to the semi-savage Galchan of the Hindu Kush region to illustrate the highest type of Aryan culture, because this child of the mountains may have redder hair and whiter skin than the ordinary representative of the Aryan race in southern Europe.

The black race has a history. In fact all history is full of traces of the black element. It is now usually recognized as the oldest race of which we have any knowledge. The wanderings of these people since prehistoric history began have not been confined to the African continent. In Paleolithic times the black man roamed at will over all the fairer portions of the Old World. Europe as well as Asia and Africa acknowledged his sway. No white man had as yet appeared to dispute his authority in the vine-clad valleys of France or Germany or upon the classic hills of Greece or Rome. The black man preceded all others and carried Paleolithic culture to its very height. But the history of all lands has been only a record of succeeding races. Old races have often been supplanted by those of inferior culture but of superior energy. More often, however, by fusion of different racial types and by the mingling of various tribes and peoples, have been evolved new races superior to any of the original types.

The blacks were a fundamental element in the origin not only of the primitive races of southern Europe, but of the civilized races of antiquity as well. History may be said to begin in ancient Egypt, and recede into the dim past just as far as records and inscriptions lend us light; still in the Nile valley we find a civilization that has drawn from all succeeding ages expressions of wonder and admiration. This first example of a civilization was an isolated one; it had evolved right there in that wondrously happy region. Surely these ancient Egyptians were a remarkable people; but who were they? The ruling tribes are called Hamites -- the "sunburnt" family according to Dr. Winchell; of Negritic origin, says Canon Rawlinson. But back of these ruling Hamites were a "light-hearted" people, -- "gay," "good-natured," "pleasant," "sportive," "witty," "droll," "amorous," -- such are the descriptive terms used in telling the story of those primitive tribes who, Dr. Taylor says, lived peaceably in those regions for two thousand years before the advent of Asiatic invaders. Suggestive as they may seem, such terms are truly descriptive of the inhabitants whom we would expect to find in the Nile valley in ancient times. They were probably as purely Negritic as are the great mass of our own Afro-Americans.

If the colored Egyptian, beginning at the zero point of culture, could independently evolve a civilization, having had no model, what can we not hope from the American negro, who has for a model the highest civilization that the world has ever seen and who has already proved himself such an apt scholar? Let no one, then, visit Egypt and view her pyramids, her obelisks, her temples, her tombs, her sphinx, and still claim that the blacks have no place in history. They furnish the almost isolated example of a civilization developed without a model, even though other racial factors may have entered into that civilization.

When the Hamites and their kindred were at the height of their power, their influence extended to far greater limits than is ordinarily supposed. They pressed toward the confines of Europe; they entered and took possession of the land. "The Iberians," says Dr. Winchell (North American Review, September, 1884), "entered by the Pillars of Hercules. They came from northern Africa at a time when the Hamitic Berbers were gaining possession. They overran the Spanish peninsula, founded cities, built a navy, carried on commerce, extended their empire over Italy, as Sicanes, when Rome was founded, long before the sack of Troy, and from Italy passed into Sicily. . . . The Pelasgic empire was at its meridian as early as 2500 B. C. This people came from the islands of the AEgean, and more remotely from Asia Minor. They were originally a branch of the sunburnt Hamitic stock, that laid the basis of civilization in Canaan and Mesopotamia, destined later to be Semitized. . . . Rome itself was Pelasgian from the fourteenth century to 428 B. C. But in Italy and Greece the Hamitic stock was displaced and absorbed by Aryan, as in Asia it had been by Semitic."

The Hellenes were the Aryans first to be brought into contact with these sunburnt Hamites, who, let it be remembered, though classed as whites, were probably as strongly Negritic as are the Afro-Americans. These Hellenes were savages or barbarians. But Aryan strength and energy were thus brought into contact with Hamitic culture. Then occurred that great struggle of centuries for social equality between the blond Aryan and the Pelasgian, the dark child of the soil. Greece thus had her race social question to settle, and it was settled by fusion. Had it not been for that mixture of dark blood in the Greek composition, that race of poets, artists, and philosophers would never have existed.

Rome, even, had her race social problem. There was also a struggle between the white and the dark races. The oppressed Plebeians finally seceded to the Sacred Mount until their wrongs were in a measure redressed. Intermarriage, or fusion, at last settled the question. Such, too, is the story that Spanish ethnology tells. "Clearly there does not exist in Europe a nation of tolerably pure ethnic character, nor do national boundaries mark the limits of such ethnic strains as remain discoverable. The figment of a German nationality or a French, in any ethnic sense, is as baseless as that of an Austrian, a British, or an American. The mixture is a conglomerate, not an alloy. Ethnic peculiarities are everywhere protrusive; they refuse to be obliterated." (Dr. Winchell, Ibid.) Those drops of cursed black blood were just as necessary to produce the ethnic character of the Spaniard or Roman as were the white, and generations probably passed away before it was noticeable as to which element predominated. Still it would be deemed the height of discourtesy sneeringly to inquire, What makes the Greek, the Italian, or the Spaniard dark in color? It is fitting that we realize, however, how great a factor the negro has been in the history-making of the world.

In our own country this race social question began under conditions somewhat different. Ignorant and even barbarous blacks, from the uncultured regions of Africa, were made the slaves of an enlightened race of whites. In slave times fusion became so rapid that, at their emancipation, there were great numbers in whose veins the blood of white and black mingled in about equal proportions. Nor has this fusion ceased. "The number of light-complexioned people of color," says the Spectator (May 25, 1889), "one sees everywhere in the South suggests painful reflections; and the fact that many of the light-complexioned are children shows that the process of miscegenation still goes on." There is nothing strange or surprising in this; it is simply God's way of creating a new race. Two races have never yet dwelt together for any length of time without commingling; and fusion will no doubt be the final solution of the race problem in our country. Though the above view of the question is unpopular and even repulsive, though some one has said that the "horror of amalgamation may be dismissed as a misbegotten goblin of folly and prejudice" (Andover Review, December, 1889), theory points to the experience of the past, while practice seems to be confirming the inevitable teachings of history. There is no occasion, however, for sounding the alarm. Fusion has thus far gone on simply at the will of those parties who have found pleasure in such mingling. It is very evident that a great many otherwise respectable white men have not found the idea of illegal fusion repulsive. Is that man who could, in slave times, so deaden the instinctive tenderness of the parent as to send his own half-breed children to the auction block, degraded by becoming the lawful companion of the negro woman whom he compelled to minister to his brutal nature? Is that man who can, shamelessly and often openly, pass his leisure in the presence of his colored mistress, too supreme a being to be that woman's legal husband? Is it more honorable for him to rear about him a brood of bastard offspring than to be the husband of the woman of his choice and the legal father of his children? Which is the more repulsive?

In this matter of fusion there is no compulsion. In a country like our own it is optional to every white man or woman to associate with the negro or not. If any one finds gratification in such an alliance, why should those who differ from him in taste become horrified at his seeming depravity? Even carrion is not repulsive to the buzzard.

Still the cry of the alarmist sounds in our ears, and he would have us believe that fusion will be complete within a generation or two. Nothing of the kind. It is a slow process; it has been in operation in southern Europe for twenty-five centuries, and still it is incomplete. Eternity is long enough to produce this result. Five centuries hence, no doubt, the census enumerator will find thousands whom he shall be obliged to designate as "black," though it is hoped that the stigma attached thereto shall have been removed. There is evolving in our land an American race -- a race that shall be the product of more peoples mingled than have ever before met in any region of the earth. Perhaps this alloy of negro blood is an essential element in our race formation, and has been placed here by the Creator to be used in producing a people that shall, in its day, be as peculiarly gifted as were the Greeks or Romans in their time. In their ignorance and foolishness those who most deplore the social degradation of the times are removing the natural barriers against fusion. In some of the southern States "there still exists an immoral and absurd law making penal the marriage of a white man with a colored woman -- immoral, because it encourages concubinage; absurd, because it utterly fails to hinder that mixture of races which it is designed to prevent." (Spectator, May 25, 1889.) The very social ostracism into which it is intended to cast these unfortunate people will operate against those who profess to despise the negro. So long as the negro race is made to feel that it is "despised and rejected of all men," so long will the colored woman feel that she is socially elevating herself and her children by association with a white man, no matter if the connection be irregular according to the dictates of our Christian institutions. So long as a "cultured Christian woman," chagrined at the knowledge that negro blood flows in her veins, can exclaim, "I would lie down and be flayed without a murmur, if I might only rise up white," so long are the whites holding out the strongest possible temptation to every colored woman, for her children's sake, to seek an alliance, however illicit, with a white man.

The barriers are being removed, though unconsciously, in other ways. The negroes are becoming, through education, fitted for all positions and departments of life. Individuals are even now attaining positions of rank and distinction. Let a colored man reach a position of influence, and the road is open at once, if he so chooses, for his marriage with a very respectable white woman. Recall, if you will, a few years since, in our national capital, the marriage of the greatest of Afro-Americans. Such examples are rare, but others of scarcely less note are known.

Were the alarmist to seek for a sign more foreboding than any other, he might find it in the rapidity with which this despised race is accumulating property. Gold will remove even the curse of blood. Let the negro become wealthy, and the doors of social equality will soon be thrown open for his entrance. Had the colored maiden a dower of a few thousand dollars, there is many a white man who would fall at her feet and offer her legal marriage. Individual negroes are rapidly accumulating fortunes, and the above conditions are extremely probable. The time may come when the American white girl, proud of her pure Teutonic lineage, will find the wealthy brunette of doubtful lineage a winning competitor in the purchase, for a husband, of a broken-down foreign nobleman. So long as money is the chief consideration, such misalliance in either case would be revolting to the true American.

Foreign immigration will have a tendency to break down the barriers between the races. The foreigner does not feel, naturally, an aversion toward such an alliance as does the American, who remembers the days of slavery. Even the English emigrant who returns to his native land with a colored bride does not seem to be socially ostracized. The Afro-American, modified by the peculiar environment of our civilization, bleached by a semi-fusion already completed, educated, enlightened, above all possessed of some property, will become a fit subject for the cupidity of the great bulk of foreigners who become immigrants to our shores. The one forms an alliance with a more highly respected race; the other obtains at once the gold for which he is so greedy.

Is there anything alarming or horrifying in this view of the question? It is simply a matter of choice on the part of every individual who forms a misalliance. Our own generation or the next will see no great change. Let the work of education and enlightenment go forward; let the negro be fully prepared for places of distinction; let all laws forbidding the marriage of whites and blacks be swept from the statute books, so that whatever unions are formed may be legal and whatever children are born may be legitimate. Then, should fusion take place, the colored element need not be totally degenerating. This great question will be solved only when all men can say with Dr. Hall (Mohonk Conference Report, 1890): "I do not care whether a man is black or white or yellow or chocolate-colored, if he has in himself the idea of Christ, of doing as Christ did when He sat by the well in this low world of ours. If he has time to visit the hungry and the weary and the sad, he is good enough for me."

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