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The Mind of the Negro
As Reflected in Letters During the Crisis 1800â"1860
By Carter G. Woodson
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
LETTERS TO THE AMERICAN COLONIZATION SOCIETY
The following letters are not all of the correspondence which the American Colonization Society had with Negroes presenting themselves as prospective emigrants to Liberia. Letters of various sorts typical of a large number of like import have been selected. Although these letters show the methods of colonization, the effect of the movement on the Negro, the hopes that it stimulated, and those that it blasted, the purpose of selecting these documents is not primarily to facilitate the study of colonization but to illuminate the study of the free Negro in the United States. Most of these persons who corresponded with the American Colonization Society were free or became free thereafter on the condition that they should emigrate to Liberia. The value here lies in what is said about the social and economic conditions of the free Negro, about whom such a little is known. These communications, then, constitute a valuable source for determining what this group was thinking, feeling, attempting, and accomplishing at that time.
The Negroes herein represented were largely in the South, where as slaves they had only such opportunities as they could snatch from begrudging masters, or when free only such as a hostile environment occasionally permitted them to enjoy. The Southern Negroes were easily influenced by the American Colonization Society and more easily reached because of the interest of certain whites of that section in the deportation of the free Negroes there and of such others as might be liberated by conscience-stricken slaveholders. Wherever the Negroes had enjoyed freedom in the North, they did not easily embrace the idea of expatriating themselves. The Northern Negroes usually took the position that here their fathers fought, bled, and died for the country, here they were born, and here they intended to die. Occasionally, however, the American Colonization Society received letters from prominent Negroes of the North expressing interest in colonization and seeking opportunities to go to Liberia. This was especially true during the fifties when the heel of oppression upon the Negro in the North was becoming heavier and heavier. In writing about the particular thing they had in mind these seekers mentioned other important facts as to what was going on in most parts of the country.
These letters in themselves are more than interesting. They give evidence especially of the mental development of the Negroes in spite of their handicaps. Most of them are written in the poor English characteristic of the Negroes of that time; but the chirography, which unfortunately cannot be reproduced here, was sometimes very artistic, although the orthography was too often unintelligible. Excellent penmanship appears especially in the letters written by S. Wesley Jones, J. B. Jordan, Benjamin S. Bebee, J. Theodore Holley, Nathaniel Bowen, and John F. Cook.
From Abraham Camp
This is an extract of a letter from one of the free Negroes mentioned in the letter of Mr. McIntosh to the American Colonization Society, and confirms the statement therein given.
Lamott, Illinois Territory, July 13th, 1818.
I am a free man of colour, have a family and a large connection of free people of colour residing on the Wabash, who are all willing to leave America whenever the way shall be opened. We love this country and its liberties, if we could share an equal right in them; but our freedom is partial, and we have no hope that it ever will be otherwise here; therefore we had rather be gone, though we should suffer hunger and nakedness for years. Your honour may be assured that nothing shall be lacking on our part in complying with whatever provision shall be made by the United States, whether it be to go to Africa or some other place; we shall hold ourselves in readiness, praying that God (who made man free in the beginning, and who by his kind providence has broken the yoke from every white American) would inspire the heart of every true son of liberty with zeal and pity, to open the door of freedom for us also.
I am, &c.
Elias B. Caldwell, Esq.
Secretary of the Colonization Society of the United States.
From John B. Russwurm
Rev. R. R. Gurley.
Russwurm was the first Negro in the United States to receive a degree from a college. He was graduated at Bowdoin in the class with John P. Hale who served later as United States Senator from Maine. Russwurm was not at first interested in African colonization, but later emigrated to Liberia and became one of the most prominent functionaries there.
New York, Feb. 26, 1827.
Owing to an absence of many weeks from Boston, your interesting letter of the 25th December, never came to hand until some weeks after its date. Sometime since then, has been occupied in transmitting its contents to distant friends, and awaiting their answers. All whose advice I have consulted on the subject, are of the opinion, that at present, it would not be advisable to accept the liberal offer of your Board of Managers. Many reasons are brought forward, by them, which are not necessary to be here inserted. I can assure you that among the number consulted is Mr. C. Stockbridge of Maine; whose views are considerably altered, since his address to you.
With a high sense, of the liberal offer of your Board of Managers
I remain yours, Rev. Sir with respect, Jno. B. Russwurm.
From a Free Negro in Savannah
The following is an extract from a letter from a free man of color in Savannah, highly esteemed for his intelligence and piety, according to the American Colonization Society.
"I have always viewed the principle on which the Society was grounded, as one of much policy, though I saw it was aided by a great deal of benevolence. And when viewing my situation, with thousands of my coloured brethren in the U. States, who are in a similar situation, I have often wondered what prevented us from rising and with one voice, saying, we will accept the offer made us at the risk of sacrificing all the comforts that our present situation can afford us. I have often almost come to the conclusion that I would make the sacrifice, and have only been prevented by the unfavourable accounts of the climate. I have always heretofore, viewed it as a matter of temporal interest, but now I view it spiritually. According to the accounts from Liberia, it wants help, and such as I trust I could give, though ever so little. I understand the branches of a Wheelwright, and Blacksmith, and Carpenter, I also have good ideas of Machinery and other branches. I trust also, were I to go there, I would add one to the number of advocates for Religion. I will thank you to inform me what things I should take for the comfort of myself and family. I dont expect to go at the expense of the Society, and therefore hope to be allowed to take something more than those who do not defray their own expenses."
Opinions of a Free Man of Color in Charleston
This letter was published in the African Repository in October, 1832, with this comment by the editor:
We have received a communication from a respectable free coloured man, of Charleston, which contains some thoughts which merit the serious consideration of all his brethren. May the noble spirit of devotedness which he manifests to the good of mankind, soon animate ten thousand of his coloured brethren, that they may go forth, not merely to improve their own condition, but to relieve and bless the long afflicted and degraded children of Africa. We have omitted some sentences in this article, and made some slight corrections; not affecting materially the sense of the writer. His remarks have reference to the three following heads:
I. A Brief Inquiry into the propriety of the Free People of Colour migrating to Liberia, or elsewhere.
II. The objections urged by many of the Coloured People against emigration.
III. The good likely to result to those who may determine to emigrate.
1st. When we reflect upon the laws of Ohio, that expel from her territory our Brethren—when we look to Virginia, to Maryland, to Alabama and to Tennessee, we must candidly confess, that we have much fearful apprehension, in regard to the laws that may be enacted, bearing heavily upon us, even in our own dear Carolina, which generously cherishes all her inhabitants and gives them support and employment, in all of the various and useful branches of mechanism, without regard to colour or condition. There are many callings, in which the coloured people in Carolina have a decided preference; in some cases they have no competitors; how long this favorable state of things will remain, we are not prepared to say—time alone can correctly decide in this matter. This is an era, however, in our affairs, that we cannot shut our eyes to, and it must appear to the philosopher, the Christian, and the sagacious politician, a period of deep and anxious solicitude, as regards the future prospects, hopes and interests of a people little known, but as a nuisance—mere laborers in the most menial capacity; at best a people who seldom deserve notice, or the exercise of charitable acts bestowed on them. Their friends and their foes both desire the removal of the free people of colour; although it is a fact not denied but by a very few, that the descendants of Africa, when transplanted in a country favorable to their improvement, and when their advantages are equal to others, seldom fail to answer all of the ends suited to their capacity, and in some instances rise to many of the virtues, to the learning and piety of the most favored nation. Yet, alas! the prevalence of popular prejudice against our colour, (which is the more surprising, as it is well known that God alone creates different classes of men, that he may be adored and worshipped by all in the spirit of truth, without regard to complexion) has almost invariably stood as a barrier to our advancement in knowledge. Hence some of us appear to be useless, and when it is considered that we are a large body of people, growing rapidly every day, without that improvement which the present age seems to require, in moral virtue and intellectual attainments; indeed, when we examine our own conduct, and that of our brethren, and compare the advantages we do actually possess, with so many bright examples before us of christianizing and improving the condition of mankind, both far and immediately under our eyes, we cannot but enquire "how can these things be?" My friends, if we will venture to look around us, we will behold the most encouraging proofs of happiness in the emigrants from Europe to this country. You have no call to look farther than our city (Charleston) to witness the most lively encouragements given to emigrants. Many who arrive here very poor, are soon made rich: (and so it will be with us in Liberia) enterprising, industrious individuals, also families incorporating themselves in the community, enjoying all the blessings peace can confer on society, and soon successfully advancing on the high road to wealth and respectability, whilst we sink daily in the estimation of all.—Our apparently inactive habits may, in a great measure be attributed to this reason—"That we have no opportunity for the cultivation of our minds by education." As a matter of course, generally speaking, we lose all regard for any, but our individual self ********—satisfied with every moral privation, with this certain conviction in our hearts, that our children are likely to be much worse situated than we are—as we ourselves are not as well situated in many respects as our parents were. The next enquiry is, what are we to do? I answer honestly and without hesitation, migrate to Liberia, in preference to any other country, under the protecting hand and influence of the Colonization Society. Here comes my second proposition; a consideration of the objections many have to emigrating to a country whose inhabitants are shrouded in deep ignorance—whom long and deep-rooted custom forbids us to have social intercourse with in the various relations of civilized life upon fair and equal terms of husband and wife, and whose complexion is darker than many of ours. But in all this, my friends, there is no reasonable ground of objection to your removal to a country more adapted to promote your interests, because a very plain reason presents itself for such removal—and that is, in Liberia you will enjoy moral and political liberty. Besides, the heralds of the cross who first preached salvation to the benighted sons of Africa, were white men, and numbers of ladies also withdrew themselves from the beauties of highly polished circles in Europe to accompany their husbands in spreading the light in dark places. Those who contribute in money to carry on the splendid work of colonization and religion, who sacrifice their health on the shrine of humanity and deprive themselves of all earthly comforts, even stare death in the face, and prefer to die in the attempt, rather than relinquish the spread of virtue and religion amongst this very people you affect to despise—they are white. Who are they at this very period, rearing up an establishment at Liberia, that bids fair under the protecting smiles of Providence, to crush for ever the monster (the slave trade) that has led to captivity, and chains, and perpetual disgrace, our brethren, who, although formed in the image of God, are doomed in most countries, Liberia excepted, to degradation and servitude? They are white men. Surely this is at least one strong reason that should induce you, cheerfully to migrate to a country, where you can possess all of the importance of free citizens; in fact, all your objections dwindle into insignificance, in view of this one fact stated above. Besides, locating in Liberia, does not necessarily compel you to form private alliance in families, that you dislike; on the contrary, there is no country where you could indulge your own opinions in this respect with more freedom, than in that land of equality.—If you do go, and I hope in my heart all of us may speedily go—will we not go with our families and friends; cementing more strongly the bond of our connections, our customs, and our habits. Look for example to the Jews and other ancient people; scattered all over the world; look at our own situation, wherever we are placed: we see no innovation, nothing likely to break in and change the existing face of society.
III. Much good is likely to result to those who are meek and humble, who can see the advantages of liberty and equality, with the courage to embark in an enterprise, under such favorable circumstances. This is the truth, which is useful for all of us to know, and I have endeavored briefly to lay it before you, for your reflection, and if you once bring your minds to serious reflection, your friends will never blush—no—never under any circumstances, on account of dissensions on your part. Surely, my brethren, there are very strong reasons for us to go—yes go—and invoke Jehovah for his favorable protection to you, and to that country which holds out to us, and to our children, forever, protection, in life, liberty, and property—beside every honor of office, within the gift of a free people. He who holds in the hollow of his hand the destiny of nations, will be with you, and will bless you, with health and vigor, to contribute your personal services of pious example, to improve the country that invites you to possess its soil. Moreover, you will have the great privilege of sharing in your own government, and finally of becoming a perfectly free and independent people. And where would you go (go you must, sooner or later) to look for this noble privilege—the power of electing your officers or removing them when need requires. Yes, my brethren, perhaps much depends on your present zeal and activity for success—and if God be with us, and I have a lively hope that he influences and directs you in this matter, before long the emigrants to Liberia, will become a distinguished nation; and who can prophesy and foretell the future destiny of Liberia. The day, however, may not be far distant, when those who now despise the humble, degraded emigrants to Liberia, will make arrangements with them, to improve navigation, to extend commerce, and perhaps we may soon conduct and carry on our trade with foreign nations in our own bottoms without molestation or fear. Such, my brethren, are some of the high expectations to be derived from a well established colony in Liberia, and to you Carolinians, all eyes are directed, all hearts are uplifted to God in prayer, to know what course your good sense will induce you to pursue, under existing circumstances. Your reputation as a body of first-rate mechanics, is well known; distinguished for your industry and good behaviour, you have with you, carpenters, millers, wheelwrights, ship builders, engineers, cabinet makers, shoe makers, tailors, and a host of others, all calculated at once to make you a great people. In Liberia you can erect a temple to worship God, in the beauty of holiness; without fear you can set up, and protect your sacred altars, and pour out the orisons of the devout and pious heart before them, in praise and thanks-giving to God. In Liberia, you can establish Academies and Colleges, to instruct youth in Theology, in Physic, and in Law. You will there know no superiors but virtue, and the laws of your country—no religion but the revealed revelation of God—and recollect all of this is for you yourselves.
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