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To Save My Race from Abuse
The Life of Samuel Robert Cassius
By Edward J. Robinson
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2007 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
"I Am What I Am"
The Formative Years
But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. — 1 Corinthians 15:10
Meadow Farm, a nine-hundred-acre verdant and luxurious estate, lay a few miles outside Gainesville in Prince William County, Virginia. Consisting of well-watered fields, sprawling meadows, bluegrass, and plentiful fruit trees, this plantation with its country stores nourished a comfortable and convenient life for the estate's white owner and his family. Twenty-three black slaves maintained the property, cultivating the crops, grooming the livestock, manicuring the lawn, caring for the owner's children, cleaning the Big House, and cooking for both the white owners and for fellow black bondsmen. A local newspaper praised Meadow Farm as "unsurpassed by any in the State for health, and affords the Best Society."
In the fall of 1852, James W. F. Macrae, Meadow Farm's owner, a powerful politician, an influential physician, and a chronic alcoholic, cornered one of his young, vibrant, and intelligent house slaves, Jane, and raped her. Nine months later this illicit union, altogether typical of life in the Old South, produced a mulatto baby boy, Samuel, one of the half-million "new people" in the United States. The infant's first name reflected his mother's religious piety and devotion to God, while his middle and last names, Robert and Cassius, were probably self-bestowed after emancipation. An active toddler on Macrae's plantation, precocious Samuel felt the rumblings that the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Brooks-Sumner affair, the Dred Scott case, and John Brown's raid stirred in the 1850s. These events dramatically impacted Cassius's life and symbolically presaged the turmoil which engulfed his adult career.
Because of his debauchery and the impending Civil War, the brutal Macrae sold Cassius and his mother. According to Cassius's description, "It hurt [Macrae] so much to think that there was a possibility of losing his slaves, 'he got on a drunk,' and made such a debt that my mother and myself had to be sold ahead of the time of sending slaves South." Cassius claimed that Macrae's relative Gen. Robert E. Lee, "not wanting my mother and myself sold to an outsider, bought us in on the day of the sale. We were sold from the block at the Court House in Warrenton, Virginia in the summer of 1860." Cassius's assertion is difficult to verify, since Lee never owned slaves until his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, died in 1857, bequeathing him an estate that included 196 slaves and instructing him to free them within five years. Lee fulfilled Custis's wishes and manumitted his slaves in the winter of 1862-63, and neither Cassius nor his mother was named among the slaves Lee inherited and freed.
Despite the ambiguity and mystery surrounding Cassius's claim, his literate mother gave him emotional strength and a sound intellectual foundation in his formative years. Unlike many slaves who never knew their birth date, Cassius was certain of his own, confidently stating, "I was born a slave, in Prince William Co., Virginia, May 8, 1853." Knowing when he entered the world endowed Cassius with a sense of pride throughout his life, especially in his declining years. In 1926, he proffered the following poem in honor of his birthday:
I AM THE QUEEN OF MAY
Now sit down dear brother.
And listen to what I say.
I am going to have a birthday
On Saturday, the eighth of May.
Don't ask how old I am, brother.
For that I don't recall.
But I was born when folks say
The stars were going to fall.
Now listen to my story, brother:
I look forward to the day
That I have lived in this world
To see the eighth of May.
The staunchly anti-Catholic Cassius perhaps unknowingly embraced a tradition of Catholicism which extolled the Queen of England in the month of May. Knowledge of his birthday gave Cassius a sense of strength and pride, yet his excessive, Catholic-like emphasis on his special day in May was one of many paradoxes that would mark his life.
From his house-servant mother, Cassius learned how to read. Even though an 1831 Virginia law forbade white Virginians from instructing slaves, mistresses in the Macrae household, Amanda the wife and Susan the daughter, displayed courage, defiance, and humanity in tutoring Cassius's mother, who, Cassius later wrote, "in turn taught me to read in a John Comly Speller." Comly, a Philadelphia teacher, compiled this popular textbook for a Pennsylvania boarding school. His English Grammar, replete with moral advice and biblical references, enjoyed numerous editions and furnished Cassius with a ready command of the English language and English prose as well as a working knowledge of Scripture. Cassius credited his mother for his training, his knowledge, and his confidence. "I am what I am," he averred, "because of my mother, and for her sake I have tried to make good." Cassius honored his mother and his blackness, but rejected his debased father and his whiteness. Indeed, much of Cassius's aversion to racial and sexual mixing in his adult life stemmed from his racially mixed childhood in the Old South.CHAPTER 2
The Three Emancipators
Encounters in the Nation's Capital
And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. — Exodus 14:21
When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, ten-year-old Cassius and his mother joined scores of "hungry, naked and sick" ex-slaves who crossed the long bridge over the Potomac River, flocking from Virginia to Washington, D.C. From 1860 to 1863, the black population in the nation's capital increased by ten thousand. By 1865, approximately forty thousand black newcomers had taken up residence in Washington. Cassius and his mother numbered among the black "contrabands," former slaves whom Union forces divided into family groups, using the men as ditchdiggers and road and bridge builders and the women as cooks and laundresses. These black refugees received regular soldiers' food with a half ration for each family member. While acknowledging that he was a contraband during the Civil War, Cassius never specified the tasks, if any, he carried out.
Notwithstanding Cassius's silence about his work in the District of Columbia, three important people and events there forever changed his life. First, Cassius encountered a white female educator who profoundly shaped his intellect. "It was a white Christian woman who molded my young mind into what it is to-day. I came in contact with her in the first public school opened for negro children in the District of Columbia." Young Cassius probably attended the tax-supported school at Ebenezer Church on Capitol Hill, which the Board of Trustees of Public Schools opened on March 1, 1864, for African Americans. Its lead teacher was Emma V. Brown, a black woman, assisted by Frances W. Perkins, a white woman supported by the New England Freedmen's Aid Society. Miss Perkins was evidently the white teacher who made an indelible imprint on Cassius's formative mind.
Frances W. Perkins, a native of Middlefield, Connecticut, received monetary support from the New England Freedmen's Aid Society to teach black students in Washington, D.C. Her father, George W. Perkins, a "fiery advocate of immediate emancipation," pastored a Congregational church. As an adolescent, Frances recalled her father helping runaway slaves escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad. At age twenty-five in 1864, Frances Perkins obviously imbibed her father's abolitionist fervor and worked to liberate the minds of young black scholars. Emma V. Brown valued Perkins as a "faithful friend and an excellent teacher." In a letter to a colleague named Miss Stevenson, Brown expressed her delight over Perkins's arrival in Washington. "Perhaps you have struggled alone, month after month, hoping that you were doing good; perhaps after looking for a time, you received aid; if this is your experience, you know something of the joy I felt at the arrival of Miss Perkins. I had no friend in Georgetown; Miss Perkins came, and I was no longer alone and friendless."
Perkins not only brought joy to Brown, but she also gladdened the hearts of her black pupils. On the first day of school, Perkins reported teaching "thirty-two scholars," and within three days attendance had increased to almost one hundred. "To-day, in a pouring rain," Perkins explained, "we had ninety; others want to come, but we doubt about receiving them, lest we should have more than we can do justice to. I have in the primary department already nearly seventy, — as many as I can well manage; but I cannot find it in my heart to refuse any that are anxious to come." The population surge in the nation's capital affected the rapid increase in the student-body matriculation.
Furthermore, students often increased a school's enrollment by recruiting children from their neighborhoods. Perkins singled out one student, "a thoroughly wicked fellow and very hard to control," who moved into a neighborhood where children were without schools. The student, acting as a "decoy duck," brought a "new pupil nearly every day, for whose reception he pleads in such a manner that I have hitherto been weak-minded enough to yield, though I have made very good resolutions for tomorrow in case he appears with another." The teacher found humor, however, in the pupil's chicanery. "I cannot help laughing, when he is seen advancing upon us with his train each morning." The mischievous boy could well have been young Cassius, who in later years displayed an indomitable will to educate other black youth. Perkins's story reveals how determined some black children were to acquire an education, and it further attests to the difficulty many teachers had controlling overcrowded classes with limited resources. Thus, by 1866, Perkins's "arduous labors" had emotionally exhausted her, and she returned temporarily to Connecticut to recuperate.
Even though Cassius failed to remember his teacher's name, he believed that she belonged to the Stone-Campbell Movement. "I am sure she was one of the early disciples of Christ, brought in through A. Campbell's reformation movement, because she came into my life with the New Testament in one hand and the school books in the other, and while she taught me the three R's, she also led me into paths of righteousness for his name's sake by ever keeping before me what the will of the Lord was." Frances Perkins indeed instructed her students in "reading the Testament," although she apparently gained her religious heritage outside the Restoration Movement.
Cassius lauded her for the secular knowledge she dispensed, but he valued even more the religious guidance she provided. "So far did she shape my religious thoughts that when I came to myself I naturally entered the Church of Christ as my only home." Cassius also credited Perkins with steering him toward spiritual rather than political and material pursuits. "The early training of that Christian woman," Cassius later reflected, "turned my mind in the trend of religious work instead of along the lines of political and worldly paths." The young white instructor helped move Cassius into spiritual realms, unlike the path taken by his much-admired co-laborer Booker T. Washington. "Therefore, under the training of that Christian woman I have done as much for my race in a gospel way as Booker T. Washington has done in a worldly way. I am doing what spiritual knowledge has taught me to do." Cassius believed that the public school system of the District of Columbia providentially steered him toward the ministry and into the Stone-Campbell Movement.
While living in the capital Cassius also met President Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln's 1864 reelection, crowds thronged the streets of the city to congratulate the Emancipator, Cassius and his mother among them. The president opened his receptions to ex-slaves, and Cassius recalled "my mother taking me by the hand and going to the White House to see the negroes' Moses. I shook hands with Mr. Lincoln, and remember the scene as though it was yesterday. I saw old, gray-headed men and women not only shake hands with President Lincoln, and weep tears of joy as they kissed his hand." This brief encounter with the sixteenth president of the United States indelibly impressed Cassius, and he installed Lincoln in his pantheon of heroes.
If Lincoln's life of courage and heroism inspired African Americans, his assassination stunned them into "voiceless sorrow." For most black freed-men, Lincoln's death was unforgettable. James Lucas, a Mississippi slave, recalled, "I never knowed Marse Lincoln, but I heard he was a powerful good man. I 'members plain as yesterday when he got kilt and how all de flags hung at half mast." Similarly, Wylie Nealy, a South Carolina bondsman, reflected, "I remembers when Lincoln was made the President both times and when he was killed. I recollects all that like yesterday." Although Cassius lived in Washington when John Wilkes Booth murdered the president, he never mentioned the tragic event. Rather than dwell on Lincoln's death, Cassius honored the slain Emancipator by naming one of his sons after him. Amos Lincoln Cassius (1889-1982) worked as a reputable evangelist in twentieth-century Churches of Christ.
Cassius met four other presidents while in Washington: Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and James A. Garfield. Cassius wrote that "Even Andrew Johnson received colored people at his reception. I shook hands with him, and Grant, and Hayes, and Garfield. Every one of those men have made no distinction in color, and the only comment ever made on it was one of commendation." Cassius later pointed to his brief meetings with these chief executives to argue for societal equality and inclusion for African Americans. Throughout his life Cassius stayed abreast of America's political currents, viewing political and racial issues as inseparable. His merging of politics and religion prompted conflict with many white leaders in the Stone-Campbell Movement who tended to be antipolitical. From Cassius's perspective, however, the treatment of black Americans was the best measure of any politician's quality.
Prominent black politicians also worked in the capital while Cassius lived there. Frederick Douglass served as U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia, and ex-slaves Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce, both preacher-politicians and both United States senators from Mississippi, worked in Washington. John M. Langston, as professor, dean, vice president, and president of Howard University, represented blacks in the educational field. Cassius recognized such men as role models and mentors since he "lived contemporaneous with such men of my race as Fred Douglass, Revels, B. K. Bruce, John M. Langston and many others, with all of whom I have been on intimate terms. The above men were my ideals of negro statesmanship." These African Americans instilled in Cassius a sense of pride as he looked to them as symbols of black promise and black advancement. Writing several decades later, he expressed that their rise from slavery to freedom, from bondage to statesmanship, from obscurity to prominence presaged an "optimistic future" for himself and other young black Americans.
Excerpted from To Save My Race from Abuse by Edward J. Robinson. Copyright © 2007 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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