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The silent South, together with the freedman's case in equity and the convict lease system online

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master retaining the exclusive right to define the
bounds of his freedom. Many everywhere have
taken up the idea that this state of affairs is the
end to be desired and the end actually sought in
reconstruction as handed over to the States. I
do not charge such folly to the best intelligence
of any American community; but I cannot ignore
my own knowledge that the average thought of
some regions rises to no better idea of the issue.
The belief is all too common that the nation,
having aimed at a wrong result and missed, has
left us of the Southern States to get now such
other result as we think best. I say this belief is
not universal. There are those among us who
see that America has no room for a state of so-
ciety which makes its lower classes harmless by
abridging their liberties, or, as one of the favored
class lately said to me, has "got 'em so they don't
give no trouble." There is a growing number
who see that the one thing we cannot afford to
tolerate at large is a class of people less than citi-
zens ; and that every interest in the land demands


that the freedman be free to become in all things,
as far as his own personal gifts will lift and sus-
tain him, the same sort of American citizen he
would be if, with the same intellectual and moral
calibre, he were white.

Thus we reach the ultimate question of fact
Are the freedman's liberties suffering any real
abridgment? The answer is easy. The letter
of the laws, with a few exceptions, recognizes
him as entitled to every right of an American
citizen ; and to some it may seem unimportant
that there is scarcely one public relation of life
in the South where he is not arbitrarily and un-
lawfully compelled to hold toward the white man
the attitude of an alien, a menial, and a probable
reprobate, by reason of his race and color. One
of the marvels of future history will be that it was
counted a small matter, by a majority of our na-
tion, for six millions of people within it, made by
its own decree a component part of it, to be sub-
jected to a system of oppression so rank that
nothing could make it seem small except the fact
that they had already been ground under it for a
century and a half.

Examine it. It proffers to the freedman a
certain security of life and property, and then
holds the respect of the community, that dearest
of earthly boons, beyond his attainment. It gives
him certain guarantees against thieves and rob-
bers, and then holds him under the unearned


contumely of the mass of good men and women.
It acknowledges in constitutions and statutes his
title to an American's freedom and aspirations,
and then in daily practice heaps upon him in
every public place the most odious distinctions,
without giving ear to the humblest plea concern-
ing mental or moral character. It spurns his
ambition, tramples upon his languishing self-
respect, and indignantly refuses to let him either
buy with money, or earn by any excellence of in-
ner life or outward behavior, the most momentary
immunity from these public indignities even for
his wife and daughters. Need we cram these
pages with facts in evidence, as if these were
charges denied and requiring to be proven?
They are simply the present avowed and de-
fended state of affairs peeled of its exteriors.

Nothing but the habit, generations old, of en-
during it could make it endurable by men not in
actual slavery. Were we whites of the South to
remain every way as we are, and our six million
blacks to give place to any sort of whites exactly
their equals, man for man, in mind, morals, and
wealth, provided only that they had tasted two
years of American freedom, and were this same
system of tyrannies attempted upon them, there
would be as bloody an uprising as this continent
has ever seen. We can say this quietly. There
is not a scruple's weight of present danger.
These six million freedmen are dominated by


nine million whites immeasurably stronger than
they, backed by the virtual consent of thirty odd
millions more. Indeed, nothing but the habit
of oppression could make such oppression pos-
sible to a people of the intelligence and virtue
of our Southern whites, and the invitation to
practice it on millions of any other than the
children of their former slaves would be spurned
with a noble indignation.

Suppose, for a moment, the tables turned.
Suppose the courts of our Southern States, while
changing no laws requiring the impaneling of
jurymen without distinction as to race, etc.,
should suddenly begin to draw their thousands
of jurymen all black, and well-nigh every one of
them counting not only himself, but all his race,
better than any white man. Assuming that their
average of intelligence and morals should be not
below that of jurymen as now drawn, would a
white man, for all that, choose to be tried in one
of those courts? Would he suspect nothing?
Could one persuade him that his chances of even
justice were all they should be, or all they would
be were the court not evading the law in order
to sustain an outrageous distinction against him
because of the accidents of his birth ? Yet only
read white man for black man, and black man for
white man, and that I speak as an eye-witness
has been the practice for years, and is still so to-
day ; an actual emasculation, in the case of six


million people both as plaintiff and defendant, of
the right of trial by jury.

In this and other practices the outrage falls
upon the freedman. Does it stop there? Far
from it. It is the first premise of American prin-
ciples that whatever elevates the lower stratum
of the people lifts all the rest, and whatever holds
it down holds all down/ For twenty years, there-
fore, the nation has been working to elevate the
freedman. It counts this one of the great neces-
sities of the hour. It has poured out its wealth
publicly and privately for this purpose. It is
confidently hoped that it will soon bestow a
royal gift of millions for the reduction of the
illiteracy so largely shared by the blacks. Our
Southern States are, and for twenty years have
been, taxing themselves for the same end. The
private charities alone of the other States have
given twenty millions in the same good cause.
Their colored seminaries, colleges, and normal
schools dot our whole Southern country, and
furnish our public colored schools with a large
part of their teachers. All this and much more
has been or is being done in order that, for the
good of himself and everybody else in the land,
the colored man may be elevated as quickly as
possible from all the debasements of slavery and
semi-slavery to the full stature and integrity of
citizenship. And it is in the face of all this that
the adherent of the old regime stands in the way


to every public privilege and place steamer
landing, railway platform, theatre, concert-hall,
art display, public library, public school, court-
house, church, everything flourishing the hot
branding-iron of ignominious distinctions. He
forbids the freedman to go into the water until he
is satisfied that he knows how to swim, and for
fear he should learn hangs mill-stones about his
neck. This is what we are told is a small matter
that will settle itself. Yes, like a roosting curse,
until the outraged intelligence of the South lifts
its indignant protest against this stupid firing into
our own ranks.



I say the outraged intelligence of the South ;
for there are thousands of Southern-born white
/ men and women, in the minority in all these
/ places in churches, courts, schools, libraries,
theatres, concert-halls, and on steamers and rail-
way carriages, who see the wrong and folly of
these things, silently blush for them, and with-
hold their open protests only because their belief
is unfortunately stronger in the futility of their
counsel than in the power of a just cause. I do
not justify their silence; but I affirm their sin-
cerity and their goodly numbers. Of late years,
when condemning these evils from the platform
in Southern towns, I have repeatedly found that
those who I had earlier been told were the men


and women in whom the community placed most
confidence and pride they were the ones who,
when I had spoken, came forward with warmest
hand-grasps and expressions of thanks, and
pointedly and cordially justified my every
utterance. And were they the young South ?
Not by half. The gray-beards of the old
times have always been among them, saying
in effect, not by any means as converts, but
as fellow-discoverers, " Whereas we were blind,
now we see."

Another sort among our good Southern people
make a similar but feeble admission, but with the
time-worn proviso that expediency makes a more
imperative demand than law, justice, or logic, and
demands the preservation of the old order. Some-
body must be outraged, it seems; and if not the
freedman, then it must be a highly refined and
enlightened race of people constantly offended
and grossly discommoded, if not imposed upon,
by a horde of tatterdemalions, male and female,
crowding into a participation in their reserved
privileges. Now, look at this plea. It is simply
saying in another way that though the Southern
whites far outnumber the blacks, and though we
hold every element of power in greater degree
than the blacks, and though the larger part of us
claim to be sealed by nature as an exclusive up-
per class, and though we have the courts com-
pletely in our own hands, with the police on our


right and the prisons on our left, and though we
justly claim to be an intrepid people, and though
we have a superb military experience, with ninety-
nine hundredths of all the military equipment and
no scarcity of all the accessories, yet with all these
facts behind us we cannot make and enforce that
intelligent and approximately just assortment of
persons in public places and conveyances on the
merits of exterior decency that is made in all
other enlightened lands. On such a plea are
made a distinction and separation that not only
are crude, invidious, humiliating, and tyrannous,
but which do not reach their ostensible end or
come near it ; and all that saves such a plea from
being a confession of driveling imbecility is its
utter speciousness. It is advanced sincerely; and
yet nothing is easier to show than that these dis-
tinctions on the line of color are really made not
from any necessity, but simply for their own
sake to preserve the old arbitrary supremacy
of the master class over the menial without re-
gard to the decency or indecency of appearance
or manners in either the white individual or the

See its every-day working. Any colored man
gains unquestioned admission into innumerable
places the moment he appears as the menial at-
tendant of some white person, where he could
not cross the threshold in his own right as a well-
dressed and well-behaved master of himself. The


contrast is even greater in the case of colored
women. There could not be a system which
when put into practice would more offensively
condemn itself. It does more : it actually creates
the confusion it pretends to prevent. It blunts
the sensibilities of the ruling class themselves.
It waives all strict demand for painstaking in
either manners or dress of either master or me-
nial, and, for one result, makes the average South-
ern railway coach more uncomfortable than the
average of railway coaches elsewhere. It prompts
the average Southern white passenger to find less
offense in the presence of a profane, boisterous, or
unclean white person than in that of a quiet, well-
behaved colored man or woman attempting to
travel on an equal footing with him without a
white master or mistress. The holders of the old
sentiments hold the opposite choice in scorn. It
is only when we go on to say that there are re-
gions where the riotous expulsion of a decent and
peaceable colored person is preferred to his inof-
fensive company, that it may seem necessary to
bring in evidence. And yet here again it is
prima facie evidence; for the following extract
was printed in the Selma (Alabama) "Times" not
six months ago, 1 and not as a complaint, but as a
boast :

" A few days since, a negro minister, of this city, boarded the
east-bound passenger train on the E. T., V. & G. Railway and

1 In the summer of 1884.


took a seat in the coach occupied by white passengers. Some of
the passengers complained to the conductor and brakemen, and
expressed considerable dissatisfaction that they were forced to
ride alongside of a negro. The railroad officials informed the
complainants that they were not authorized to force the colored
passenger into the coach set apart for the negroes, and they would
lay themselves liable should they do so. The white passengers
then took the matter in their own hands and ordered the ebony-
hued minister to take a seat in the next coach. He positively
refused to obey orders, whereupon the white men gave him a
sound flogging and forced him to a seat among his own color and
equals. We learned yesterday that the vanquished preacher was
unable to fill his pulpit on account of the severe chastisement in-
flicted upon him. Now [says the delighted editor] the query
that puzzles is, 'Who did the flogging? ' "

And as good an answer as we can give is that
likely enough they were some of the men for
whom the whole South has come to a halt to let
them get over the " feelings engendered by the
war." Must such men, such acts, such senti-
ments, stand alone to represent us of the South
before an enlightened world ? No. I say, as a
citizen of an extreme Southern State, a native of
Louisiana, an ex-Confederate soldier, and a lover
of my home, my city, and my State, as well as of
my country, that this is not the best sentiment in
the South, nor the sentiment of her best intelli-
gence ; and that it would not ride up and down
that beautiful land dominating and domineering
were it not for its tremendous power as thejfm-
ditional sentiment of a conservative people. But
is not silent endurance criminal ? I cannot but
repeat my own words, spoken near the scene and


about the time of this event. Speech may be
silvern and silence golden ; but if a lump of gold
is only big enough, it can drag us to the bottom
of the sea and hold us there while all the world
sails over us.

The laws passed in the days of compulsory
reconstruction requiring " equal accommoda-
tions," etc., for colored and white persons were
freedmen's follies. On their face they defeated
their ends ; for even in theory they at once re-
duced to half all opportunity for those more rea-
sonable and mutually agreeable self-assortments
which public assemblages and groups of passen-
gers find it best to make in all other enlightened
countries, making them on the score of conduct,
dress, and price. They also led the whites to
overlook what they would have seen instantly had
these invidious distinctions been made against
themselves: that their offense does not vanish at
the guarantee against the loss of physical com-
forts. But we made, and are still making, a mis-
take beyond even this. For years many of us
have carelessly taken for granted that these laws
were being carried out in some shape that re-
moved all just ground of complaint. It is com-
mon to say, " We allow the man of color to go
and come at will, only let him sit apart in a place
marked off for him." But marked off how ? So
as to mark him instantly as a menial. Not by
railings and partitions merely, which, raised


against any other class in the United States with
the same invidious intent, would be kicked down
as fast as put up, but by giving him besides, in
every instance and without recourse, the most
uncomfortable, uncleanest, and unsafest place ;
and the unsafety, uncleanness, and discomfort of
most of these places are a shame to any com-
munity pretending to practice public justice. If
any one can think the freedman does not feel the
indignities thus heaped upon him, let him take
up any paper printed for colored men's patronage,
or ask any colored man of known courageous
utterance. Hear them :

"We ask not Congress, nor the Legislature, nor any other
power, to remedy these evils, but we ask the people among whom
we live. Those who can remedy them if they will. Those who
have a high sense of honor and a deep moral feeling. Those
who have one vestige of human sympathy left. . . . Those are
the ones we ask to protect us in our weakness and ill-treatments.
... As soon as the colored man is treated by the white man as
a man, that harmony and pleasant feeling which should charac
terize all races which dwell together, shall be the bond of peace
between them."

Surely their evidence is good enough to prove
their own feelings. We need not lean upon it
here for anything else. I shall not bring forward
a single statement of fact from them or any of
their white friends who, as teachers and mission-
aries, share many of their humiliations, though
my desk is covered with them. But I beg to
make the same citation from my own experience


that I made last June 1 in the far South. It was
this: One hot night in September of last year 2 I
was traveling by rail in the State of Alabama.
At rather late bed-time there came aboard the
train a young mother and her little daughter of
three or four years. They were neatly and taste-
fully dressed in cool, fresh muslins, and as the
train went on its way they sat together very still
and quiet. At the next station there came aboard
a most melancholy and revolting company. In
filthy rags, with vile odors and the clanking of
shackles and chains, nine penitentiary convicts
chained to one chain, and ten more chained
to another, dragged laboriously into the com-
partment of the car where in one corner sat
this mother and child, and packed it full, and the
train moved on. The keeper of the convicts told
me he should take them in that car two hundred
miles that night. They were going to the mines.
My seat was not in that car, and I staid in it but
a moment. It stank insufferably. I returned to
my own place in the coach behind, where there
was, and had all the time been, plenty of room.
But the mother and child sat on in silence in that
foul hole, the conductor having distinctly refused
them admission elsewhere because they were of
African blood, and not because the mother was,
but because she was not, engaged at the moment
in menial service. Had the child been white, and
the mother not its natural but its hired guardian



she could have sat anywhere in the train, and no
one would have ventured to object, even had she
been as black as the mouth of the coal-pit to
which her loathsome fellow-passengers were being
carried in chains.

Such is the incident as I saw it. But the illus-
tration would be incomplete here were I not
allowed to add the comments I made upon it
when in June last I recounted it, and to state the
two opposite tempers in which my words were
received. I said : " These are the facts. And
yet you know and I know we belong to com-
munities that after years of hoping for, are at last
taking comfort in the assurance of the nation's
highest courts that no law can reach and stop
this shameful foul play until we choose to enact
a law to that end ourselves. And now the east
and north and west of our great and prosperous
and happy country, and the rest of the civilized
world, as far as it knows our case, are standing
and waiting to see what we will write upon the
white page of to-day's and to-morrow's history,
now that we are simply on our honor and on the
mettle of our far and peculiarly famed Southern
instinct. How long, then, shall we stand off from
such ringing moral questions as these on the
flimsy plea that they have a political value, and,
scrutinizing the Constitution, keep saying, ' Is it
so nominated in the bond? I cannot find it ; 'tis
not in the bond.' "


With the temper that promptly resented these
words through many newspapers of the neigh-
boring regions there can be no propriety in
wrangling. When regions so estranged from the
world's thought carry their resentment no fur-
ther than a little harmless invective, it is but fail-
to welcome it as a sign of progress. If com-
munities nearer the great centers of thought
grow impatient with them, how shall we resent
the impatience of these remoter ones when their
oldest traditions are, as it seems to them, ruth-
lessly assailed ? There is but one right thing to
do : it is to pour in upon them our reiterations
of the truth without malice and without stint.

But I have a much better word to say. It is
for those who, not voiced by the newspapers
around them, showed both then and constantly
afterward in public and private during my two
days' subsequent travel and sojourn in the re-
gion, by their cordial, frequent, specific approval
of my words, that a better intelligence is long-
ing to see the evils of the old regime supplanted
by a wiser and more humane public sentiment and
practice. And I must repeat my conviction that
if the unconscious habit of oppression were not
already there, a scheme so gross, irrational, unjust,
and inefficient as our present caste distinctions
could not find place among a people so generally
intelligent and high-minded. I ask attention to
their bad influence in a direction not often noticed.



In studying, about a year ago, the practice of
letting out public convicts to private lessees to
serve out their sentences under private manage-
ment, I found that it does not belong to all our
once slave States nor to all our once seceded
States. 1 Only it is no longer in practice outside
of them. Under our present condition in the
South, it is beyond possibility that the individual
black should behave mischievously without offen-
sively rearousing the old sentiments of the still
dominant white man. As we have seen too,
the white man virtually monopolizes the jury-box.
Add another fact : the Southern States have en-
tered upon a new era of material development.
Now, if with these conditions in force the public
mind has been captivated by glowing pictures of
the remunerative economy of the convict-lease
system, and by the seductive spectacle of mines
and railways, turnpikes and levees, that every-
body wants and nobody wants to pay for, grow-
ing apace by convict labor that seems to cost
nothing, we may almost assert beforehand that
the popular mind will not so maliciously as un-
reflectingly yield to the tremendous temptation
to hustle the misbehaving black man into the
State prison under extravagant sentence, and sell

1 See " The Convict Lease System in the Southern States," in
this volume.


his labor to the highest bidder who will use him
in the construction of public works. For ignor-
ance of the awful condition of these penitentiaries
is extreme and general, and the hasty half-con-
scious assumption naturally is, that the culprit
will survive this term of sentence, and its fierce
discipline " teach him to behave himself."

But we need not argue from cause to effect
only. Nor need I repeat one of the many pain-
ful rumors that poured in upon me the moment
I began to investigate this point. The official
testimony of the prisons themselves is before the
world to establish the conjectures that spring
from our reasoning. After the erroneous tak-
ings of the census of 1880 in South Carolina
had been corrected, the population was shown to
consist of about twenty blacks to every thirteen
whites. One would therefore look for a prepon-
derance of blacks on the prison lists ; and inas-
much as they are a people only twenty years ago
released from servile captivity, one would not
be surprised to see that preponderance large.
Yet, when the actual numbers confront us, our
speculations are stopped with a rude shock ; for
what is to account for the fact that in 1881 there
were committed to the State prison at Columbia,
South Carolina, 406 colored persons and but 25

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Online LibraryGeorge Washington CableThe silent South, together with the freedman's case in equity and the convict lease system → online text (page 2 of 13)