The Perils and Prospects of Southern Black Leadership: Gordon Blaine Hancock, 1884-1970by Raymond Gavins
The Perils and Prospects of Southern Black Leadership fills an important gap in uncovering the history of southern black leaders between the death of Booker T. Washington and the rise of Martin Luther King, Jr. Originally published to critical acclaim in 1977 (Duke University Press), and now available in paperback with a new preface by the author, this book provides an intellectual biography of Gordon Blaine Hancock, a Virginia educator, journalist, and minister whose writings and speeches on race relations were widely influential in the South in the thirty years prior to the Brown decision of 1954. In showing how Hancock faced his generation's main dilemma—how to end Jim Crow and ensure integration without abandoning ideals of black identity, independence, and solidarity—Raymond Gavins's biography illuminates the history of African Americans and race relations in America.
"Gavins is the quintessential intellectual historian. . . . [His] biography has a currency rarely found in scholarly studies."—John Blassingame, Yale University
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The Perils and Prospects of Southern Black Leadership
Gordon Blaine Hancock, 1884â"1970
By Raymond Gavins
Duke University PressCopyright © 1977 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Formative Years and After
People who talked with Hancock during the 1960's found him to be a nostalgic old man. Like the proverbial African griot, he never tired of recounting past Negro strivings in the South, almost as though he had withdrawn to an earlier era. Hancock's sense of history, of roots, embraced not only his childhood, development and training, but frequently revealed an assertive, altruistic personality. It is in the context of those recollections, together with other evidence and parallel testimony, that one finds the sources of his subsequent thought.
Although prejudice and discrimination in rural South Carolina affected Hancock, the black community, particularly growing up in a family which idealized education and Christian service, made lasting impressions on him. Formal study at Benedict, work as a preacher and a principal, increasing personal dissatisfaction, and the broadening social and intellectual influence of Colgate and Harvard were also very important in the shaping of his racial philosophy.
An early awareness of black deprivation and a strong sense of racial responsibility motivated Gordon Blaine Hancock to become a champion of the Negro's cause. Born June 23, 1884, in Ninety-Six township, Greenwood County, South Carolina, he grew up in an era when the Palmetto State maintained "the subordination of the Negro by a caste system based on race under which black and white seldom came into personal contact except in the relationship of employer and laborer." A visitor to Ninety-Six in Gordon's boyhood days would have found no signs of a New South trend toward industrial and commercial development. The worn-out post office and train stop were its most important contacts with the outside world, and served as favorite gathering places for local cronies. The small grocery store of William Pressley and Company, "the first and only colored enterprise of the kind ever started in 96," lent some dignity to the otherwise demoralized Negro quarters. Besides a few churches and schools, all strictly segregated, there were no other places of public assembly, recreation, or culture. A moderate contrast to Greenwood, the county seat about fourteen miles west, which had mills, stores and a newspaper, the town remained rural to the core, backward, and a bastion of white supremacy.
The economic status of blacks in Ninety-Six and its environs was deplorable. A cotton and subsistence farm area, it could have easily been a microcosm of the Old South. In 1900 it had 2,395 residents, of whom 1,545, or 65 per cent, were Negroes. Greenwood County, reporting a comparable ratio, had a population of 28,343, of whom 18,906, or 66.7 per cent, were Negroes. The county's total population rose to 34,225 in 1910, including 12,923 whites and 21,302 Negroes, with Negroes comprising 62.2 per cent of the population. Although blacks far outnumbered whites, the whites owned over 95 per cent of the 288,949 acres of farm land in 1910. Of the 2,932 Negro farmers in 1910, only 112 owned their farms free of debt. There were 95 who operated mortgaged farms, 68 part owners, 2,568 tenants, and 89 not specifically designated. A similar pattern prevailed in Negro home ownership. Negroes had 4,438 farm and other homes in 1910, 439 debt free, 192 mortgaged, 3,609 rented, and 198 unclassified. Outside of farming or sharecropping most black men worked as wage hands, while black women were primarily domestics. Clearly, they lived within the shadow of the plantation.
Besides economic captivity, blacks suffered political and social isolation as well. After 1877 they strove to overcome the heritage of slavery and protect their gains, particularly the rights of suffrage and office holding, but reactionary elements thwarted the effort and made white domination absolute. Indeed, if fraud and chicanery failed, intimidation and violence were used to control blacks. Proscriptions were rampant. An act of 1879 prohibited interracial marriage, while the Eight Ballot Box Law of 1882 neutralized the black vote by, in effect, imposing a literacy test. Other statutes in 1889 repealed the civil rights and public accommodations laws enacted during Radical Reconstruction and virtually legalized black economic serfdom. In 1890, when Ben Tillman captured the governorship with strident appeals to agrarian discontent and Negrophobia, the movement to eliminate Negroes from South Carolina politics reached flood tide. The Tillmanite constitutional convention of 1895, over the futile protest of six lone Negro delegates, disfranchised blacks and paved the way for rigid segregation. Greenwood County, like the other forty-three counties where blacks constituted a numerical majority, became a crucible of racial conflict and fear.
Denied equal citizenship and excluded from politics, blacks turned to their own churches, schools, lodges, burial and secret societies for a meaningful existence. Having antecedents in Africanisms, which scholars have found in even greater abundance among Sea Island blacks, these institutions nurtured pride and solidarity. Baptists and African Methodists, schoolmarms and masters, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Colored Knights of Pythias, the Future Progress Society, and the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, among others, were integral parts of this infrastructure. Their projects in mutual aid, singing bees, public orations, picnics, banquets, excursions, parades and ceremonies involved every stratum within this small Negro world. Despite poverty, black families were generally stable. A network of supportive relationships, knotted in the churches and fraternal clubs, kept desertions, illegitimacy, and crime low. Unlike the cities of Charleston and Columbia, the county did not have a burgeoning black intellectual and professional elite. Leadership usually came from a handful of ministers and teachers, at times poorly trained, who rejected class distinctions and identified with the masses.
If blacks knew their place, they did not always stay in it. Nor did they accept injustice without complaint. Race relations were invariably paternalistic and strained by an endemic violence. According to Tuskegee Institute, for years a national clearinghouse on Negro statistics, 142 black Carolinians died at the hands of lynch mobs between 1882 and 1920. The most diabolical local lynchings occurred in the 1890's. For example, an undetermined number of blacks died in the infamous Phoenix Riot of November 8-11, 1898, resulting from a dispute between Democrats and Republicans over black voting rights. For several days an armed white mob, allegedly searching for "niggers" who had signed an affidavit to vote and murdered a white man, moved through black neighborhoods, butchering all who resisted. One group of blacks with guns ambushed the whites, seriously wounding several of the mobsters, but they soon fled. The terror subsided when eleven black men were captured and taken to the grounds of Rehoboth Church in Phoenix, near Ninety-Six, for "trial." Forced to make "confessions," four of the eleven were killed and the others permitted to escape. The whites brought another Negro to the scene the next day and riddled his body with bullets, and the bloodshed finally ended. There were rumors that over thirty-five Negroes lost their lives. However, because of insufficient and conflicting reports and the wide area over which the mob ranged, no one ever knew the precise number of victims. But the fear bora of this ordeal smothered the open political aspirations of the black community.
This repressive, closed society had a powerful shaping influence on Hancock. As he recalled in an interview, at least three childhood incidents sparked his consciousness of color—hearing white ruffians in a country store voice "their low opinion of niggers," having his parents rebuke him for playing with a white boy, and trudging "down the same dusty road" with white children to a separate school. He was fourteen years old when the Phoenix Riot broke out; later he noted in an autobiographical sketch that "it caused great travail and trembling among the Negroes." One black man was "shot to death on the main road, and no Negro in Ninety-Six went to town for weeks." He once told his wife, "Negroes were taken into the woods and chained to logs, the white men beat them, and many died." Benjamin E. Mays, former president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, at the time lived in Epworth, ten miles from Ninety-Six. He described the Phoenix episode as his earliest memory, recollecting that a crowd of white men carrying rifles "cursed my father, drew their guns and ... made him take off his hat and bow down to them several times." For Hancock and Mays, then two precocious youths, the shock of mob violence had a lasting effect. Their eloquent appeals for nonviolence more than a generation later, no doubt, stemmed from that fateful November in 1898.
Close family ties, a protective medium against the hostile environment, gave Hancock positive direction. Anna Mark, his mother, came up from slavery. Born in 1863, one of twelve children, she attended freedmen's schools after the Civil War and at age sixteen, encouraged by her Yankee mentor, passed the county examination to become "the first colored teacher in Ninety-Six." A personable, attractive woman, she married Robert Wiley Hancock in 1881 and bore him two children, Edith and Gordon. She worked in the colored school, "was active in Bethlehem Baptist Church at 96, and helped out in the fields." At the age of twenty-three in 1886 she died suddenly, probably from hypertension. Only two when this happened, Gordon never really knew his mother. Yet, under the careful tutelage of a loving father, he came to know her will to achieve and her "great desire to help her people."
With Anna gone, Robert Wiley Hancock became the paramount influence on his son. The elder Hancock was born September 10, 1862, in nearby Abbeville County. His slave "mother died when he was quite young," and his father, believed to be a white man, did not claim him. His maternal grandmother, Annie, "cared for him ... the best she could." He attended school in Jamaica Plains, Massachusetts, where she lived. After graduating in 1876, he worked in Pressley's store in Ninety-Six and took a night course in bookkeeping "under the Honorable W. J. Brodie of Charleston who ... was the public teacher at 96." He went to Alabama in January 1880, "having secured a job weighing ore in the Woodstock furnace in Anniston." He returned within nine months, began farming, married, and started a family. Bethlehem Baptist of Ninety-Six licensed and ordained him for the ministry, but Anna's sudden death made his itinerary quite lonesome.
Between 1888 and 1901 the Reverend Robert Hancock held pastorates in Mills Way, Flint Hill, Phoenix, Parksville, Laurens, and Newberry. Because he recognized "the great need for education and charity among his entire people," schools and missionary circles were established in all of his churches. In 1890, determined to better himself, he attended Benedict College at Columbia, which enhanced his reputation as a preacher. He also wed his second wife, Georgia Anna Scott, the daughter of a sharecropper. A fine stepmother to Edith and Gordon, she bore him four girls and two boys. In 1902 Robert Wiley Hancock succumbed to a heart attack, "stricken in his pulpit." For the family, bereaved and distressed, this was an irreparable loss. Only the help of relatives kept them from becoming destitute. Gordon moved into the home of a great uncle. Some of the children went to their half-sister Edith, then Mrs. Ezra Gilchrist, while Georgia and the others were cared for by her father. Intermittently ill, Georgia died in 1906. "She was unlearned," Hancock declared of her in 1934, "but she taught me in the ways of the Master."
In spite of the oppressive milieu, Gordon exemplified vitality, curiosity, and a sense of purpose. Together with his brothers and sisters, he chopped wood for the fire and weeds from the field and went to a one-room, weather-beaten schoolhouse. The teachers told him that faith in God, knowledge, and self-reliance were prerequisites for life, lessons he never forgot. Among the Reverend Mr. Hancock's books on history and theology, he commented, "I learned to read unusually well." Under the instruction of S. A. Neeley of Ninety-Six he delved into the classics and developed the flair for metaphoric expression which would permeate his oratory and journalistic writing. Almost every Sunday morning, moreover, he heard his father preach bold sermons on Christ, thrift, and racial advance. These values, as well as his father's role in religious and educational affairs, made indelible impressions on him. From them he derived courage, pride, idealism, and a tenacious faith. This rich spiritual heritage, deepened by tragedy and poverty, found outlet in his efforts to solve race problems.
After scoring a high mark on the test for prospective teachers in 1902, Gordon earned a first-class certificate and began teaching. For two years in China Grove and Edgefield, twelve and five miles from home respectively, he encountered the grim realities of dilapidated buildings, a two-month term, too few books, inadequate instruction, indolence, underpaid personnel, and general invisibility. To counteract these invidious conditions, he urged blacks to petition the county and consolidate their limited financial resources. At China Grove he rallied the people behind a statement to the county board, raised money, and had the term extended to five months, no ordinary feat in a decade when black attendance averaged sixty days per year.
Nowhere did Hancock confront racial discrimination more consistently than in Negro schools, and he felt that much more could be done to correct abuses. Throughout the Southern states appropriations for black pupils and teachers were uniformly low. In 1900, South Carolina's expenditures amounted to $1.30 per black pupil and $5.55 for each white one, even though well over half the children in public schools were black. The $202,171 spent on Negro education that year represented a meager 22 per cent of the total fund. The black teacher's annual salary was $80.68, approximately 46 per cent of what his white counterpart received. Not a single four-year high school for Negroes existed, and the South Carolina Department of Education labeled the more than nineteen hundred Negro schools as third-class institutions, the lowest possible rating. There were not twenty-five upper-level students in the combined enrollments of Columbia's Benedict College and Orangeburg's Claflin University, the only places where blacks came close to having bona fide college courses. Unhappily, 52.8 per cent of South Carolina's 782,321 blacks ten years old and over were illiterate, and the educated Negro remained a rare breed. Surrounded everywhere by such willful neglect, Hancock was inevitably moved "to seek training to help Negro people."
In 1904 he matriculated at Benedict College, founded during Reconstruction by the American Baptist Home Mission Society and the philanthropy of Bathsheba Benedict of Providence, Rhode Island, and incorporated under South Carolina law in 1894. The Home Mission Society, six white and three black trustees, a white president, and a largely white staff governed its operations. By 1895 it had eleven faculty members, all churchgoers in good standing, a 20-acre campus, 4 attractive buildings, and a library which housed 2,300 books and 1,000 pamphlets. Twenty years later there were 12 blacks among 30 teachers, and its registration of 507 included 254 elementary, 205 secondary, 45 college, and 3 divinity students. The curriculum combined the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic with the classics, history, science, and handicrafts. Each student worked an hour each day for the school in order to learn "that an education puts no man or woman above work," participated in daily devotional exercises, and cultivated "habits of virtue, morality and godliness, and the highest type of Christian manhood and womanhood." Failure to live up to these requirements resulted in certain expulsion.
Twenty years old and quite serious, Hancock readily adjusted to the new setting, deporting himself much like a black puritan in the devout academic climate. Working to pay his keep, he studied three years in the academy and went on to complete his A.B. in 1911 and B.D. in 1912 summa cum laude, excelling in philosophy, history, rhetoric, and religion. "The struggle to get an education was the best part of my education," he stated reminiscently in 1959. "I had the good fortune to earn every dollar of it."
The capital city, located seventy-five miles east of Ninety-Six, made its impact on Hancock too. The state's second most populous urban area, Columbia had 11,250 white and 9,858 black inhabitants in 1900, and a harsh color line. When the city council adopted an ordinance requiring Jim Crow seating on passenger cars in 1903, Negroes retaliated with a boycott. But the enthusiasm for it soon dissipated and street cars and trains remained segregated. Black life in Columbia alternately depressed and inspired Hancock. The Negro masses lived in overcrowded and unsanitary slums where petty thieves, confidence men, prostitutes, bootleggers, and other charlatans preyed upon the innocent. To find Negroes living in squalor and apathy on such a large scale disturbed Hancock, as did the fact that neither whites nor respectable blacks cared. A farm boy himself, he naturally assumed that opportunities for land ownership, cohesive families, and good health among rural Negroes, by contrast, made them better off. Even though these somewhat romantic agrarian notions posed a conflict with his own attachment to the city, he would someday popularize them under the caption of "Back to the Farm." On the bright side, Hancock saw that black Columbians were enterprising. In 1905, they operated 23 of the 29 barber shops, 50 of 200 grocery stores, and 13 of 21 shoemaking firms. There were 22 Negro eating houses, 2 newspapers, and myriad other businesses, artisans and professionals, including a coterie of teachers, ministers, physicians, lawyers, and funeral directors. This small though significant middle class embodied the race's highest potential, in Hancock's view; its chief mission, he felt, was to help Negroes in the streets. He never departed from this position.
Excerpted from The Perils and Prospects of Southern Black Leadership by Raymond Gavins. Copyright © 1977 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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