Letters from the South
|Boston: Beacon Press. 1880.|
THE first of January, 1880, I went South and spent five months. I was two weeks in Wilmington, N. C., three in Charleston, three in Savannah and Midway, Liberty Co., three and a half in Macon, five in Atlanta, and four in Talladega, Ala. Opportunities, the very best, were afforded me in investigating the condition of the colored people and the work in their behalf, and the results were given in four letters to The Congregationalist. They are now reproduced in more permanent form.
These letters have excited considerable comment, and some excellent Northern people are slow to believe that such extreme degradation and heathenism can be found in this country of ours. I fully concede that the reality is beyond the credence and even imagining of those not witnesses to it. To know the length and breadth and depth of the degradation, it must be seen over wide extent of country, and studied everywhere. That condition is a growth, the result not only of years and generations of bondage, but of scores of years, generations on generations — two centuries and a half. It is accumulated and multiplied ignorance, destitution, and barbarism; and if some of the virtues of the white race are permeated through this mass, even more is it true that the vices of the whites have run riot through the African blood. Some things of common occurrence, and; familiar to: everybody on the ground, are unreportable in a newspaper. Since the publication of these letters, many persons who have lived at the south have spoken or written to me on the subject. A Presbyterian clergyman in New York State, who has spent years at the South, and who is a stranger to me, writes thus: "You have not told the half." And he adds; "I can furnish you 'with any amount of fact and corroborative testimony;" and he gives some items new to me. Another says: "Your letters are none too strong, for the simple reason that no words can tell it; the difficulty is in getting it strong enough." So of others. (p. 3)
THIS letter is addressed to the Christian men and women of the North, and especially the women. Would that I had the trump of the angel Gabriel, to awaken the churches to a knowledge of the facts and to an understanding of the awful reality.
The New Englander in a recent article cites the fact of 600,000 Methodists and nearly as many Baptists among the colored people as proof of their advancement in knowledge and piety. It is a knowledge and piety which may well terrify New Haven and the whole country besides.
But the homes are, if possible, a worse mockery than the religion. Since I came, the first of the year, I have visited scores and hundreds of these homes, and in many places; they are on every hand as you walk the streets, and huddle in festering heaps under every hill and down every alley; it is impossible to look out of the window in any direction and not be nauseated by them; and for hundreds of miles on your travels, these infected huts, and these alone, tell of human life and habitation. In order to realize what these homes are, one must have some well-defined apprehension of what slavery was. Any of these people will tell you tales that make the blood run cold and the hair stand on end. Two weeks ago I went to Andersonville, and there I stood and overlooked those 14,000 headstones. They are of marble, and the tongues beneath are not more voiceless; but they thundered and shook the very earth, and every inch of ground within that stockade shrieks to Heaven. I picked up the rim of an old felt hat, mildewed and water-soaked, and it burnt my fingers; and pieces of bone lapped and gnawed by those starving men, and they pierced me to the quick.
We hear sometimes that the South fought to perpetuate slavery. Perpetuate, indeed! Uncle Tom's Cabin did not destroy slavery; Northern sentiment did not uproot slavery; the war did not crush out slavery; the emancipation proclamation did not extinguish slavery; these things were but incidents, the occasion, the outcome, inevitable as judgment-day, but not one or all of them the moving cause. Slavery burst and collapsed through sheer rottenness. When it gave way it convulsed the continent from center to circumference, and deluged [p. 9] it from sea to sea with tears and blood; and when at length the terrible throes ceased, we drew a long breath and said to ourselves: "Thank Heaven, slavery is at an end; we will at once reconstruct that impoverished and stricken South, and live in peace and happiness forever after!"
But the South refused and still refuses to be reconstructed. And why? Because slavery is not dead. It should be distinctly remembered that nothing is changed but the legal relation; the social and domestic relations are infinitely deeper and more powerful, and these are still the same. All the forces and materials which went to make slavery are in vehement and fertile operation to-day as they were twenty years ago. This is why reconstruction and progress are so slow in this Southern country. The world is full of languages, and they are mighty; but not one of them, or all of them, can tell this abomination. It is simply unutterable. Something very similar can be found in the slums of our largest cities, but there it is only a few acres at most, while here it is for thousands of square miles; and what is more, there is little improvement except in those spots where the Northern missionaries are working with all their power. The missionaries of the American Missionary Association are doing more for this great country than Congress and the two-score legislatures all put together. Many excellent Northern men said: "The ballot will purify and organize, educate and elevate the freed-people; only give it time." On the contrary, it is proved here that the ballot, unsupported by the church and the school, is actually one of the most demoralizing of forces.
Let me take some of those splendid Northern women I know into some of these negro cabins. Here is one in a city. The shanty is black within and without through age and weather, but more through dirt and grime; and the decaying floor is filthier than the ground outside, though that is a sink. There is no chair or stool — nothing to sit upon but the wreck of a bedstead, which holds a nest of what was once straw, a feather pillow which trots of itself, and rags of wool and cotton which are equally smutty and frisky. The only bit of furniture besides is a small table, and three children are rubbing off the slime of it with potato skins left yesterday — for they get a meal some days — and these parings furnish their only meal to-day. Under the table is a battered wash-dish in which they stir their hoe-cake, when they can get any, and a broken skillet in which to bake it; but wood is scarce to them, and only now and then can they steal a bit. A black woman sits on a log, with half-a-dozen small specimens of [p. 10] humanity about her, and of all shades of black, brown, and yellow. She has eight children, and was married once, but only two of the children belonged to her husband. "Where is your husband? Is he living?" you ask. "Dunno, missis, don't care; he may go to de debbil fur all I knows or cares." Two of the children are partially blind through measles, and a third is a cripple. The oldest daughter is married, and with her husband and child lives at home; and the second daughter, a very black and bright girl of fifteen, has a yellow baby, which knows no father; and all this numerous family live in one small room, and all sleep together. The three mothers are all members of the Methodist church. Christian women from the North are transfixed with amazement and horror!
This is but one out of hundreds of homes in the same city. And how many missionaries have the Northern churches sent for all this heathenism in this city? Just one — a delicate woman, who feels herself almost paralyzed as she stands before this gigantic work; and these homes are everywhere. The cities are wallowing in them, and the country is juiceless, beggared and blasted because of them; they are numbered by thousands and thousands, while the missionaries are numbered only by tens.
From these homes children go to the mission schools, and, though mere infants, are sensual through and through. The teachers do the best they can, but they have the children only five or six hours out of the twenty-four; they are educated three quarters by the home or street. Not unfrequently a bright and promising girl is in school. The missionaries help her to clothing schooling, and they love her and are proud of her; she is fine-looking, studious, obedient, and generous. What a power for good she will be to her own people if she can but be kept on a high plane! But before they know it she is ruined, and by a white man, and he may be one of the leading men of the city. Does he suffer socially? Never. But he is the chief sinner. He has taken advantage of her affectionate nature, her strong passion and weak principle, and, most of all, of her wretched home; he offers her a better, and she gives her body and soul for it; but who shall blame her as long as we permit such homes to pollute the land?
A young colored minister, who is a graduate of a college and a theological school, told me that with all his education, his cultivated tastes and Christian principle, he had all he could do — and but for grace he never could do it — to resist the temptation to fall back to the plane of the people of his parish; and some have gone back to the old way after years of admirable schooling. It is the home and the [p11]
mother that make and unmake the child, though the church and the school do all they may. If a colored man at the South feloniously assaults a woman, he is hung for it, as he should be; but the colored girl has almost no protection from the lust of the white man. There is no law, no sentiment, no principle to protect her. It is unsafe for her to go out by herself after dark; but if employed as a day-servant she is often obliged to, and of the outrages there is no end. She may be as true and devout a Christian as the most tenderly-reared woman at the North, but she is helpless; and there is no remedy but to raise the freed-people to the point of self-protection, so that they can make laws and create a sentiment and develop a principle which shall defy the arch-fiend himself. With just one exception, which holds in it the germ of New England Puritanism, I know of no community of freed-people that has self-recuperating energy. The impetus must come from the Northern church.
I was born and bred in a town known from the beginning for its fine schools; I have visited often the public and private schools of Boston, which claim to lead the country, if not the world; and I am familiar with the inner workings of the foremost educational institutions of New England, but I never saw any better schools than those of the American Missionary Association at the South. They are better than public schools at the North, because religious, and for that reason on a basis broader and deeper. They are doing noble work, and, so far as the colored people are reached, they are rising grandly; but these schools need to be multiplied twenty, thirty, fifty-fold, and especially, if they are to hold their effectiveness, they must be supplemented by missionaries who shall aim to regenerate the homes, and these missionaries must be women. They are in all our churches — wise, pure, self-denying, and earnest, and they are ready to come. Who will send them? Say, rather, who can refuse to send them?