April 16, 2014 – Emancipation Day, Washington DC


Celebration of the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia by the colored people, in Washington, April 19, 1866 / Harper’s weekly, v. 10, no. 489 (1866 May 12), p. 300 / sketched by F. Dielman.
Source:
Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-33937

Today marks the 152nd anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Washington, DC. Hallelujah, hallelujah!

The District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, passed by the 37th Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on April 16, 1862, abolished slavery in Washington, D.C. by paying slave owners for freeing their bondsmen. Some 3100 slaves were freed at a cost of just under $1 million in 1862 dollars. The Act represented one of many steps the Union government took toward an active antislavery policy during the war.

Emancipation Day is now an official holiday in Washington, DC. A listing of 2014 Emancipation Day activities by Rachael Cooper in About.com Washington, DC is here. Enjoy.

The Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp

Moran-Slave_Hunt_Dismal_Swamp2
Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia by Thomas Moran, 1862

The Great Dismal Swamp is a huge marshy area that stretches from the city of Norfolk in southeastern Virginia to Elizabeth City in northeastern North Carolina. The swamp was infamous (to white slaveholders) in the pre-Civil War era as a refuge for freedom seeking African Americans. Communities of so-called Great Dismal Swamp maroons, along with a number of Native Americans, made it their home. Wikipedia provides this description of the maroons:

Herbert Aptheker stated already in 1939, in “Maroons Within the Present Limits of the United States”, that likely “about two thousand Negroes, fugitives, or the descendants of fugitives” lived in the Great Dismal Swamp, trading with white people outside the swamp. Results of a study published in 2007, “The Political Economy of Exile in the Great Dismal Swamp”, say that thousands of people lived in the swamp between 1630 and 1865, Native Americans, maroons and enslaved laborers on the canal. A 2011 study speculated that thousands may have lived in the swamp between the 1600s and 1860.

While the precise number of maroons who lived in the swamp at that time is unknown, it is believed to have been one of the largest maroon colonies in the United States. It is established that “several thousand” were living there by the 19th century. However, fear of slave unrest and fugitive slaves living among maroon population caused concern amongst local whites.

A militia with dogs went into the swamp in 1823 in an attempt to remove the maroons and destroy their community, but most people escaped. In 1847, North Carolina passed a law specifically aimed at apprehending the maroons in the swamp.However, unlike other maroon communities, where local militias often captured the residents and destroyed their homes, those in the Great Dismal Swamp mostly avoided capture or the discovery of their homes.

The theme of the Swamp as a place of escape and refuge was seen in several 19th Century works of art. One of the more well-known is the painting Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia by Thomas Moran. The picture, shown above, is centered around a slave family – father, mother, and child – that is on the run from slave catchers. The father holds a bloody knife, having killed a chasing dog. But two other dogs are shown in pursuit, and two slave-catchers loom in the dark background. The family seems frozen in time, as they look up at the on-coming dogs; freedom will not come easy, if it comes at all. The only thing we know for sure is that this family will put up a fight.

The painting was completed in 1862, in the early years of the Civil War. According to the book The Civil War in American Art, edited by Eleanor James Harvey, the picture was commissioned by an abolitionist, and may be based in part on a literary work by the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow, partially at the request of the ardent abolitionist Charles Sumner, Longfellow wrote a group of pieces in his collection Poems on Slavery. One of those works, The Slave in the Dismal Swamp, talks of the harsh life in the marsh:

The Slave in the Dismal Swamp
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In dark fens of the Dismal Swamp
The hunted Negro lay;
He saw the fire of the midnight camp,
And heard at times a horse’s tramp
And a bloodhound’s distant bay.

Where will-o’-the-wisps and glow-worms shine,
In bulrush and in brake;
Where waving mosses shroud the pine,
And the cedar grows, and the poisonous vine
Is spotted like the snake;

Where hardly a human foot could pass,
Or a human heart would dare,
On the quaking turf of the green morass
He crouched in the rank and tangled grass,
Like a wild beast in his lair.

A poor old slave, infirm and lame;
Great scars deformed his face;
On his forehead he bore the brand of shame,
And the rags, that hid his mangled frame,
Were the livery of disgrace.

All things above were bright and fair,
All things were glad and free;
Lithe squirrels darted here and there,
And wild birds filled the echoing air
With songs of Liberty!

On him alone was the doom of pain,
From the morning of his birth;
On him alone the curse of Cain
Fell, like a flail on the garnered grain,
And struck him to the earth!

Many historians today situate the Dismal Swamp maroon communities as part of the larger Underground Railroad network and African American anti-slavery resistance. There is a lot of material about the maroons in books and on the Web. I found this document, which is a general/pictorial history of the Swamp, quite interesting and it spurred me to do further reading on the subject.

President Kennedy Unveils Stamp to Commemorate the Emanicpation Proclamation, 1963

JFK-Unveils-Emancipation-Proclamation-Stamp-Part-1
President John Kennedy unveils the commemorative stamp for the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The picture was taken in the White House in May 1963. The persons in the photo are, L-R, Berl Bernhard, Staff Director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission; Georg Olden, designer of the stamp and Vice President of McCann-Erickson advertising firm; Postmaster General J. Edward Day; and President Kennedy.
Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

JFK-Unveils-Emancipation-Proclamation-Stamp-Part-2
President John Kennedy, right, makes remarks after unveiling the stamp. The photo includes Georg Olden, designer of the stamp, and Postmaster General J. Edward Day.
Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

In the preceding blog post, I displayed images of two stamps commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation: the 1963 stamp that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Proclamation, and the 2013 stamp that commemorates the Proclamation’s 150th anniversary.

The 1963 stamp was unveiled on May 1, 1963, in an Oval Office ceremony held with then president John F. Kennedy. This is the draft press release for the unveiling ceremony, which is from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum:

President Kennedy today unveiled the design of an Emancipation Proclamation commemorative postage stamp that marks the 100th anniversary of President Lincoln’s executive action that brought freedom to three million Negro slaves.

The new stamp will first be issued in Chicago next August 16, opening day of the Century of Negro Progress Exposition in that city.

In a proclamation calling for national observance of the centennial, Mr. Kennedy had earlier noted that “the goal of securing equal rights for all our citizens is still unreached, and the securing of these rights is one of the great unfinished tasks of our democracy.”

Georg Olden, of New York City, designer of the stamp, was present as Mr. Kennedy and Postmaster General J. Edward Day drew aside the drapes to display an illuminated color reproduction of the new stamp. Mr. Olden in the first of his race to design a U. S. postage stamp. (Emphasis added.) He is Vice President of the New York advertising firm McKann-Erickson.

Also participating in the ceremony in the President’s office was Ashby G. Smith, president of the National Alliance of Postal Employees and Berl I. Bernhard, Staff Director, Civil Rights Commission.

The 5-cent Emancipation Proclamation commemorative stamp depicts a severed link in a massive black chain, placed against a blue background. The inscription “United States” in red appears top center of the stamp, flanked by “1863-1963″ in blue. At the bottom, also in blue, is “Emancipation Proclamation.”

The designer of the stamp, graphics designer Georg Olden, was an African American pioneer in white corporate America, as an executive at CBS and at the ad agency McCann-Erickson. Olden, who was born in Birmingham, Alabama, was the grandson of a slave; I wonder what emotions he had at that moment, and if he pondered that he himself was a living symbol of how great a distance people of African descent had traveled since the time of the Civil War?

US Postal Service Stamps Commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation

Emancipation-Proclamation-1963-Stamp
1963 stamp, commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

Emancipation-Proclamation-2013
2013 stamp, commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

These are postage stamps commemorating the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the Emancipation Proclamation.

It’s hard to imagine there was a time when stamps only cost 5¢. And I say that as someone who is over 55 years old.

The blog for the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, Pushing the Envelope, has details of the First-Day Ceremony for the Emancipation Proclamation Commemorative Stamp. It also has some interesting stories and images about Postal Service commemorations of the Emancipation Proclamation, such as this one:

http://postalmuseum.typepad.com/.a/6a01157147ecba970c017ee7726ba2970d-popup

Wisconsin Union Soldiers and Runaway Freedwoman

Wisconsin-Union-Men-and-Freedwoman
Cropped photograph of Wisconsin Union soldiers who helped a runaway teenager from Kentucky escape to freedom in 1862.
This is titled “Jesse L. Berch, quartermaster sergeant, 25 Wisconsin Regiment of Racine, Wis. [and] Frank M. Rockwell, postmaster 22 Wisconsin of Geneva, Wis.” in the Library of Congress photograph collection.
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-10940

This Civil War era image depicts a self-liberated teenaged woman (AKA runaway slave) from Kentucky who was eventually escorted to freedom with the aid of Union soldiers from Wisconsin. Recollect that Kentucky, while loyal to the Union, was a slave state throughout the course of the Civil War. (Maryland and Missouri, which were also Union slave states, abolished the institution before the war ended.)

The story behind the picture is provided at the Oxford African American Studies Center website. The two men in the photograph were part of Wisconsin’s 22nd Infantry Regiment, which was “composed of numerous sympathizers to the abolitionist cause.” They escorted the young woman in the picture from Nicholasville, Kentucky, to the home of Levi Coffin, an Underground Railroad operator in Cincinnati, Ohio, disguising her as a “mulatto soldier boy.” The picture was taken in Cincinnati. The young woman, whose name is not identified, was eventually sent to Racine, Wisconsin. An expanded version of the story is below the fold.

I want to offer a hat tip to Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthhamer for highlighting this interesting image in their book Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery.

Continue reading

New Year’s Day, 1863: Emancipation Barbecue


“’Emancipation Day in South Carolina’—The Color-Sergeant of the 1st South Carolina (Colored) Volunteers Addressingg the Reiment, After Having Been Presented with the Stars and Stripes at Smith’s Plantation, Port Royal Island, January 1.—From a Sketch by our Special Artist.—See Page 275.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 24, 1863, 276

On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Many negroes throughout the country celebrated. In South Carolina, they had a barbecue. This is from an 1863 NY Times article titled INTERESTING FROM PORT ROYAL.: A Jubilee Among the Negroes on the First– The President’s Emancipation Proclamation–How the Soldiers Enjoyed the Dar–Cultivations of the Plantations, &c. The dateline is Port Royal, SC, Jan 2, 1983. This excerpt indicates that the slaves were as cautious and circumspect as they were celebratory:

Yesterday, the first day of the new year, 1863, was an important day to the negroes here, and one of which they will long retain the remembrance as the first dawn of freedom. Upon that day President LINCOLN’S Proclamation of freedom to the negroes went into effect, and in view of this Gen. SAXTON, the Military Governor of South Carolina, issued the following:

A HAPPY NEW-YEAR’S GREETING TO THE COLORED PEOPLE IN THE DEPARTMENT OF THE SOUTH.

In accordance, as I believe, with the will of our Heavenly Father, and by direction of your great and good friend, whose name you are all familiar with, ABRAHAM LINCOLN, President of the United States, and Commander-in-Chief of the army and navy, on the 1st day of January, 1863, you will be declared “forever free.”

When, in the course of human events, there comes a day which is destined to be an everlasting beacon-light, marking a joyful era in the progress of a nation and the hopes of a people, it seems to be fitting the occasion that it should not pass unnoticed by those whose hopes it comes to brighten and to bless. Such a day to you is January 1, 1863. I therefore call upon all the colored people in this department to assemble on that day at the headquarters of the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, there to hear the President’s Proclamation read, and to indulge in such other manifestations of joy as may be called forth by the occasion. It is your duty to carry this good news to your brethren who are still in Slavery. Let all your voices, like merry bells, join loud and clear in the grand chorus of liberty — “We are free,” “We are free,” — until listening, you shall hear its echoes coming back from every cabin in the land — “We are free,” “We are free.”

R. SAXTON, Brig.-Gen. and Military Governor.

In obedience to this call, some 3,000 negroes — men, women and children — assembled at Camp Saxton, the camp of the First South Carolina Volunteers, near Beaufort, to celebrate the day with a barbecue.

The negroes were accommodated at rudely constructed tables, upon which were ranged rows of tin-ware, and were served by the officers of the regiment. The contrabands went right in for enjoyment, and their faces were soon glistening with grease and happiness. Some of them were provident, and what meat they could not eat they crammed into their pockets. They all seemed to enjoy themselves hugely, and evidently enjoyed the roast beef more than the oratory. They understood it better.

In comparison with the number of negroes here this assemblage was not large. The fact is, that most of the negroes do not understand the meaning of this jubilee; they do not realize the occasion; the future is all obscure and uncertain and they would wait before giving way to too much joy. Some of them, too, I am inclined to think, looked upon the whole affair with a shade of suspicion, and preferred to stay away.

Henry Highland Garnet’s Call to Rebellion: “…rather die freemen, than live to be slaves… let your motto be resistance!”

The African American abolitionist and activist Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882) was a religious man. And on this day, he was raising Hell.

Garnet was all of 27 years old when, in August of 1843, he addressed the National Negro Convention in Buffalo, New York. The meeting was part of the decades long National Negro Convention Movement, in which northern free blacks met to discuss strategies for achieving racial equality and civil rights for freemen in the North, and emancipation and liberty for enslaved blacks in the South. These discussions often centered on the benefits of using “moral suasion versus political action” – that is, whether or not blacks and whites should use moral persuasion to convince American society to end racial prejudice, or, engage in direct political action to gain liberty and equality for people of African descent. (The influential white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was among those who eschewed political activism.)

Garnet had a much more radical approach to the problems of those in bondage. The son of a fugitive slave (one source indicates his grandfather was a Mandingo warrior prince), the youthful Garnet and his family were always fearful of being taken by slave catchers; his father once made a narrow escape from slave hunters, and his sister was taken into slavery for a time. His life experiences may have made him more open to solutions that went beyond suasion and politics, because in August of 1843, Garnet was openly calling for a slave rebellion.

Garnet’s speech was not just some angry rant. He grew up in New York City, with acquaintances such as Alexander Crummell, Samuel Ringgold Ward, James McCune Smith, Ira Aldridge, and Charles Reason, men who are among a who’s who of early 19th century northern black leaders. He attended a free school in New York, and sailed on ships to Cuba as a cabin boy. He had theological training and served as a Presbyterian pastor. Garnet was educated and worldly, and his speech reflected that, with references to pride in African heritage, slavery policy in the colonial and Revolutionary War eras, and the global context of abolitionism. This was in addition to his speech’s major themes that slavery was anti-Christian, and resistance to slavery pro-Christian; and that manhood and honor dictated that (male) slaves use “every means” necessary to liberate themselves.

It’s probably too much to say that in tone, Garnet sounded to his contemporaries like Malcolm X did to his. But Garnet’s righteous and religious anger, and his open call for manhood-based armed resistance, was surely uncomfortable to the more pacifist natures of current day black and white abolitionists. Fellow convention attendee Frederick Douglass, who was associated with William Lloyd Garrison, made a rebuttal to Garnet’s speech; unfortunately, Douglass’ speech did not survive for us to read it today.

An abridged version of Garnet’s speech is below. More about Garnet can be found here, here, and here. More about Garnet’s speech is here, here, and here (full text).

(Notes: The phrase “Rather Die Freemen, Than Live to be Slaves” is used on the flag of the 3rd Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. The phrase “let your motto be resistance” is the title of a book and an exhibit of African American portraits.)
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This is an abridged version of Garnet’s speech to the 1843 National Negro Convention, which is often referred to as his “Address to the Slaves”:

BRETHREN AND FELLOW CITIZENS: Your Brethren of the North, East, and West have been accustomed to meet together in National Conventions, to sympathize with each Other, and to weep over your unhappy condition. In these meetings we have addressed all classes of the free, but we have never until this time, sent a word of consolation and advice to you. We have been contented in sitting still and mourning over your sorrows, earnestly hoping that before this day your sacred liberty would have been restored. But, we have hoped in vain. Years have rolled on, and tens of thousands have been borne on streams of blood and tears, to the shores of eternity. While you have been oppressed, we have also been partakers with you; nor can we be free while you are enslaved. We, therefore, write to you as being bound with you. Continue reading

Dr. John Rock, 1858: “The black man is not a coward… Of course they will fight.”


Dr. John Rock
Source: Harper’s Weekly, February 25, 1865; from Wikipedia

Dr. John Rock knew a war was coming. And he had no doubt: his people were ready to strike a blow.

John Rock was an American renaissance man. Born in 1825 to free black parents in New Jersey, he would move to Philadelphia and then Boston, becoming a teacher, dentist, doctor, lawyer, abolitionist, and orator along the way. Among his many accomplishments: he was the first black attorney allowed to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. To both blacks and whites, he was surely seen as a man of high standing.

On March 5, 1858, Dr. Rock delivered a speech in Boston as part of the annual Crispus Attucks Day observance organized by Boston’s black abolitionists in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision. That decision infamously stated that the black race was “so far inferior they… had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” But John Rock felt inferior to no man.

Rock shared the platform that day with William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Theodore Parker, leading figures of the American abolitionist movement. Many abolitionists eschewed violence as a means of challenging slavery, and avoided references to violence in their writing and speeches. But the language of the Dred Scott decision amounted to fighting words, and Rock would have his say.

Rock’s speech is notable for its prediction of a civil war, and the prominent role that blacks would play in it; its expression of black pride; its call for black self-improvement; and its subtle or overt wit and humor. But mainly, it rails against the idea that the negro lacked the courage and will to seek his own freedom; this was a degradation that Rock could not tolerate. His talk appears below, with a minor abridgment. The whole speech is here.
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Ladies and Gentlemen: You will not expect a lengthened speech from me tonight. My health is too poor to allow me to indulge much in speechmaking. But I have not been able to resist the temptation to unite with you in this demonstration of respect for some of my noble but misguided ancestors.

White Americans have taken great pains to try to prove that we are cowards. We are often insulted with the assertion, that if we had had the courage of the Indians or the white man, we would never have submitted to be slaves. I ask if Indians and white men have never been slaves? The white man tested the Indian’s courage here when he had his organized armies, his battlegrounds, his places of retreat, with everything to hope for and everything to lose.

The position of the African slave has been very different. Seized a prisoner of war, unarmed, bound hand and foot, and conveyed to a distant country among what to him were worse than cannibals; brutally beaten, halfstarved, closely watched by armed men, with no means of knowing their own strength or the strength of their enemies, with no weapons, and without a probability of success. But if the white man will take the trouble to fight the black man in Africa or in Hayti, and fight him as fair as the black man will fight him there—if the black man does not come off victor, I am deceived in his prowess. But, take a man, armed or unarmed, from his home, his country, or his friends, and place him among savages, and who is he that would not make good his retreat? “Discretion is the better part of valor”… but for a man to resist where he knows it will destroy him, shows more fool-hardiness than courage.

There have been many Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Americans enslaved in Africa, but I have never heard that they successfully resisted any government. They always resort to running indispensables. The courage of the Anglo-Saxon is best illustrated in his treatment of the negro. A score or two of them can pounce upon a poor negro, tie and beat him, and then call him a coward because he submits. Many of their most brilliant victories have been achieved in the same manner.

Our true and tried friend, Rev. Theodore Parker said, in his speech at the State House, a few weeks since, that “the stroke of the axe would have settled the question long ago, but the black man would not strike.” Mr. Parker makes a very low estimate of the courage of his race, if he means that one, two or three millions of those ignorant and cowardly black slaves could, without means, have brought to their knees five, ten, or twenty millions of intelligent brave white men, backed up by a rich oligarchy. But I know of no one who is more familiar with the true character of the Anglo-Saxon race than Mr. Parker. I will not dispute this point with him, but I will thank him or any one else to tell us how it could have been done. His remark calls to my mind the day which is to come, when one shall chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight.

But when he says that “the black man would not strike,” I am prepared to say that he does us great injustice. The black man is not a coward. The history of the bloody struggles for freedom in Hayti, in which the blacks whipped the French and the English, and gained their independence, in spite of the perfidy of that villainous First Consul, will be a lasting refutation of the malicious aspersions of our enemies.

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The Anti-Slavery Alphabet: a pamphlet from 1846


Source: Image from The Anti-Slavery Alphabet pamphlet at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History

The Anti-Slavery Alphabet was a poem-based pamphlet that was produced for an 1846 Anti-slavery Fair in Philadelphia. As noted by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History,

In the January 1847 Pennsylvania Freeman, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society reported profitable sales at its December 1846 fair of “an Anti-Slavery alphabet, written and presented to the Fair by Hannah and Mary Townsend, of this city.” The slim volume targeted young readers, with the hope of inspiring a new generation of abolitionists.

The Alphabet consists of sixteen leaves, printed on one side, with the printed pages facing each other and hand-sewn into a paper cover. Each of the letter illustrations is hand-colored.

Despite its simplicity – the poem was clearly made to be memorized by children – the Anti-Slavery Alphabet is a compelling and comprehensive condemnation of slavery. It discusses all the critiques of the institution: the separation of family members; its use of physical cruelty; and the overall unfair treatment of slaves, who are “Brothers with a skin of… darker hue” but nonetheless “dear” in the eyes of God.

Notably, the poem takes Northerners to task, saying, “M is the Merchant of the north, Who buys what slaves produce— So they are stolen, whipped and worked, For his, and for our use.”

The pamphlet begins with another poem titled To Our Little Readers which tells the young, “there’s much that you can do… plead with men that they buy not slaves again.” It also suggests that young people boycott slave produced goods.

A variant of the poem is presented in this YouTube video, titled “The Alphabet of Slavery”:
 

 
The text of the pamphlet is shown below, and taken from the EBook version from Project Gutenberg; see the note at the bottom of this blog entry. The pamphlet is also available for browsing at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History as a slideshow of images of each page.
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TO OUR LITTLE READERS.

Listen, little children, all,
Listen to our earnest call:
You are very young, ’tis true,
But there’s much that you can do.
Even you can plead with men
That they buy not slaves again,
And that those they have may be
Quickly set at liberty.
They may hearken what you say,
Though from us they turn away.
Sometimes, when from school you walk,
You can with your playmates talk,
Tell them of the slave child’s fate,
Motherless and desolate.
And you can refuse to take
Candy, sweetmeat, pie or cake,
Saying “no”—unless ’tis free—
“The slave shall not work for me.”
Thus, dear little children, each
May some useful lesson teach;
Thus each one may help to free
This fair land from slavery.

 

A
A is an Abolitionist—
A man who wants to free
The wretched slave—and give to all
An equal liberty.
B
B is a Brother with a skin
Of somewhat darker hue,
But in our Heavenly Father’s sight,
He is as dear as you.
C
C is the Cotton-field, to which
This injured brother’s driven,
When, as the white-man’s slave, he toils,
From early morn till even.

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the Big Stage

We commonly think of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a literary phenomenon. But it was on the big stage that this story had some of its greatest impact.


Uncle Tom at the whipping post
Scene from the stage production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
All photos in this post are by Joseph Byron, N.Y., c1901
Source: Library of Congress (click on the link for identification and other information)

In 1860, at the eve of the Civil War, there were 18 free states, where slavery was prohibited. Those states had roughly 18.5 million whites, and 225,000 free blacks. So, only 1% of the free state population was African American. 168,000 of those free blacks lived in just four states: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio. Millions of northern whites saw ‘real live’ black people only a handful of times in their entire lives, if at all. And as unlikely as it was for them to see a black person, it was even less likely that they would ever see a slave.

There was, of course, no radio, television, telephones or Internet. The kind of immediate, in your face journalism that’s enabled by today’s technology did not exist. Slavery was certainly not an uncommon subject for the press, or other forms of paper communication. But for many northerners, the horrors of slavery were out of sight, and would have been out of mind – if not for people like Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The isolation of northern whites from slavery helps to explain the interest in Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly. The book was published in 1852, following a serialized version in an antislavery newspaper. It opened a window to a world, hidden by distance, that many northern whites never saw or knew.

The book’s negative portrayal of slavery was filled with melodrama and overt religious symbolism and appeals. It was not just a story about the grace and love of little Eva; the abuse of the devout Uncle Tom; the salvation by love of the slave girl Topsy; and the preservation of Eliza’s family. It was, as historian David Goldfield put, “a book about family, God, and redemption-surefire topics to attract a broad audience in mid-nineteenth century America.”


The Auction Scene
Source: Library of Congress (click on the link for identification and other information)

For several years, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a huge best-seller, second in popularity only to the Bible. It would become an international best-seller as well. Historian James McPherson noted that “within a decade [of its 1852 release] it sold more than two million copies in the United States, making it the best seller of all time in relation to population.”

But Uncle Tom’s Cabin was more than just a literary phenomenon. As mentioned in Wiki,

“Given the lax copyright laws of the time, stage plays based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin—”Tom shows”—began to appear while the story itself was still being serialized… Even though Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century, far more Americans of that time saw the story as a stage play or musical than read the book. Eric Lott, in his book Uncle Tomitudes: Racial Melodrama and Modes of Production, estimates that at least three million people saw these plays, ten times the book’s first-year sales… The many stage variants of Uncle Tom’s Cabin “dominated northern popular culture… for several years” during the 19th century and the plays were still being performed in the early 20th century.”

These stage productions allowed the book to be visualized and dramatized, and touched theater patrons in a way that the written word could not. Now the horrors of slavery had a human face that northern people could see. The resulting ire led Abraham Lincoln to tell Stowe in 1863 – apocryphally, it turns out – “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”


Little Eva’s death scene
Source: Library of Congress (click on the link for identification and other information)

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Was Abraham Lincoln a Racist? Three Takes

TAKE 1: Quick Take

“Everybody was racist. EVERYBODY!”
- historian Gary Gallagher, expressing his amazement and frustration that so many people don’t realize that everybody in the Civil War era was racist. (See the 29th minute of the video at the link.)

TAKE 2: All racists are not alike; and being racist is not the same as being pro-slavery.

Was Abraham Lincoln racist?

That’s like asking “do fish swim” or “do birds fly.” A distinguishing characteristic of fish is that as a class, they all swim; likewise just about all birds fly. A distinguishing characteristic of the white population in Lincoln’s time is that they were “all” racist – or perhaps 95%+ were. Of course, there are no polls from the 19th century to provide a statistically exact or even estimated number. But most historians agree that the overwhelming number of white (northern and southern) Americans of the era were racially biased against blacks, Asians, and Native Americans – not to mention ethnically biased against Irish Americans.

But it’s important to understand this: all racists are not the same. There is a difference between a racist person who will not vote for an African American, and a racist person who will kill any African American who attempts to vote (and armed attacks were made on blacks seeking the vote during the Jim Crow era). Saying that both people are “equally racist” is ridiculous. It’s much more complicated than that.

What is racism, anyway? As some people see it, racism in not merely an idea or an intent, it is a set of behaviors. Some acts of racism are “relatively” benign (“I won’t vote for blacks”), others are more dangerous (“I will kill black voters”). There is a range of racist behaviors that can be objectively or subjectively classified by the “harm” they do. And views on race change over time: keeping blacks as slaves is understood to be a horribly racist act today, but that was very much in dispute 150 years ago.

Abraham Lincoln is a case study in the complexities of 19th century views on race and slavery. He lived in Illinois, which was the most anti-black of the Northwest Ordinance states. (Most people in the lower half of the state were “butternuts” who came to the state from the South.) Appeals to racial equality, and the possibility of whites competing for jobs with black laborers – free or slave – did not sit well here. Thus, Lincoln’s positions on those issues made him an outlier in the state. In 1854, Lincoln said in Peoria, “When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government — that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that “all men are created equal,” and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.” Those kinds of statements were very progressive for Illinois in the 1850s, although Lincoln’s concept of racial equality was extremely limited based on today’s standards.

No wonder, then, that in the famous Lincoln-Douglass Illinois Senate debates of 1858, Democrat Stephen Douglas blasted Lincoln for being what would be called a “nig*** lover” in 20th century language. Lincoln, said Douglas, “believes that the Almighty made the Negro equal to the white man… He thinks that the Negro is his brother. I do not think the Negro is any kin to mine… This government… was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity, to be executed and managed by white men.” (One commonly used insult of the day was to call Lincoln’s Republican Party the “Black Republicans.”)
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Frederick Douglass: The First Black Media Star?


The Photogenic Frederick Douglass: Portrait of the Abolitionist as a Young Man

Black was not beautiful in the 19th century. An 1862 editorial in the New York Times proclaimed that any interest in the negro could not “arise from his beauty, for no writer on aesthetics has ever pretended to find either beauty or grace in the shambling African.” There was even talk that dark skin was a sign of the mark of Ham, indicating that the negro was both stained and shamed in a Biblical sense.

You couldn’t tell any of that from looking at pictures of Frederick Douglass. To use a modern phrase, he loved the camera, and the camera loved him. Perhaps the white genes he inherited from his father, which both softened and sharpened his negro features, made him more appealing to those of European heritage. Perhaps it was broad, manly look and physical presence, which film was able to capture. Perhaps it was his obvious self-confidence. Maybe it was his old-school (old century?) afro, combed down (not out, as with 60s/70s style ‘fros), which framed his face like a lion’s mane. Or maybe it was simply because he had a lot of practice in front of the camera.

Whatever the reason, Fred Douglass was one of the most – perhaps the most – photographed and depicted negroes of his time. This only added to a fame that was built on being an outstanding orator, in an era when the ability to speak before a crowd was prized; and on his writing ability, as shown in his newspapers The North Star and Douglass’ Monthly. If not a king of all media, to use a modern term, he was at least a prince.

He was the face of the black community, but he also had crossover appeal. His communication skills and presence served him well with white and black audiences – and male and female audiences – equally well. (Douglass was a woman’s suffrage supporter and spoke at women’s rights meetings.)

He aged well, no less a sight in his older days than his youth. In truth, he was a media star for the ages.

Frederick Douglass: Fighting Against a “White Man’s War”/Part 2

Part 1 of 3 of this Frederick Douglass birthday celebration is here.

“Do you not know, Mr. Langston, that this is a white man’s government; that white men are able to defend and protect it, and that to enlist a negro soldier would be to drive every white man out of the service? When we want you colored men we will notify you.”
Ohio Governor David Tod, in response to freeman John Mercer Langston’s offer to recruit black Ohioans for the Union army

The American people and the Government at Washington may refuse to recognize it for a time; but the “inexorable logic of events” will force it upon them in the end; that the war now being waged in this land is a war for and against slavery; and that it can never be effectually put down till one or the other of these vital forces is completely destroyed.
- Frederick Douglass, Douglass’ Monthly, May 1861

…four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war… One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease.

Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.
- Abraham Lincoln, Inaugural Speech, March 4, 1865
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In his second inaugural speech, which followed several years of bloody civil war, President Abraham Lincoln was in a somber and reflective mood. We thought this would be a brief war, an “easy triumph,” he admitted. But the reality was much different. Prayers made had not been answered. He seemed to be pondering, What led us to this?

Slavery, he offered, had confounded them. “All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war,” but he wasn’t more specific. And nobody, he said, expected that “the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease.”

But Frederick Dougless always knew it would come to this. Douglass believed, from the start, that the war was caused by the slave states’ desire to protect their peculiar institution. He felt that if slavery could be toppled, the Confederacy would be toppled as well. But practical, political, and even constitutional issues prevented the Union from making the Civil War into a war for black southerner’s independence. Douglass saw that as folly. Sooner or later, he believed, it would all come down to the status of the negro – as a slave in the South; and perhaps also as a soldier in the North. The “inexorable logic of events” would force the issue upon them, he said.

By mid-1862, members of Congress and Lincoln cabinet were indeed feeling the force of events. A number of bloody battles, including conspicuous losses in Virginia, established that the war would not be an easy triumph. Lincoln’s initial call for 75,000 troops was now seen as inadequate. Many, many more soldiers would be needed for what would become the bloodiest war in American history. Continue reading

Frederick Douglass: Fighting Against a “White Man’s War”/Part 1


Frederick Douglass Appealing to President Lincoln by William Edouard Scott *

This mural shows Frederick Douglass asking President Abraham Lincoln to allow black soldiers to serve in the Union army during the Civil War. Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy, and Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, are the two men standing in the back. The image surely depicts a fictional event: although Lincoln and Douglass met three times at the White House, those meetings took place after Congress approved the use of blacks as soldiers in the Union armed forces.
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We are often asked by persons in the street as well as by letter, what our people will do in the present solemn crisis in the affairs of the country. Our answer is, would to God you would let us do something! We lack nothing but your consent. We are ready and would go, counting ourselves happy in being permitted to serve and suffer for the cause of freedom and free institutions. But you won’t let us go…
- Frederick Douglass, HOW TO END THE WAR, from Douglass’ Monthly, May, 1861

1861 was a time of war, and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass knew that you had to be in it to win it. But the Union government wasn’t letting the negro in. That led Douglass, the most prominent African American of the 19th century, to fight a rhetorical war on two fronts: first, to convince the Union government to allow the negro to fight; and second, to convince blacks that they should fight what some saw as a “white man’s war.” He would do so with the passion and eloquence that made him famous.

At the start of the Civil War, African Americans were, by law, prohibited from serving as soldiers for the United States. The Militia Act of 1792, passed around the time of the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (now called Haiti), specified that enrollment in the military (state militias) was for “free able-bodied white male citizen(s).” (Although some blacks, free and slave, did fight under then Major General Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812, in the Battle of New Orleans. Historian Daniel Walker Howe notes that “Jackson addressed the blacks as ‘brave fellow citizens’ and had promised them pay and respect the equal of whites… (but when) the battle was over, Jackson ignored his promise to secure equal rewards for the black men who stood with him…” But that’s a story for another day.)

Despite the law, all throughout the North – in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, or anywhere with a sizable free black population – negroes volunteered to join the fight against the southern secessionists, but saw their efforts rebuffed. Douglass’ newspaper, Douglass’ Monthly, reported that in New York City, a group of black men was performing drills in anticipation of being called up to serve; the police told them to stop, apparently out of fear that the sight or sound of militant blacks would anger local whites and cause a riot.

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It’s Too Cold for the Negro… Just Don’t Tell Matthew Henson

This is another tale from the “what were they thinking” annals.

In 1862, when the Civil War was raging in earnest, the Republican Party faced a vexing question that would never go away: what shall we do with the negro? The Lincoln White House had floated a plan to emancipate the slaves as a means of de-stabilizing the Confederacy, but this caused some trepidation in the Union states. There were concerns that the freedmen would flee to the North, overrunning the section with negroes. It was a political issue that had to be addressed in some way.

One way was to promote colonization, a plan to relocate blacks to Africa or the West Indies. Practical considerations aside, people wondered if the negro was willing to leave his American home and take a risk on a place he had never seen. (The international slave trade was {legally} ended in the Unites States in 1808. By 1860, most African slaves were truly American.)

Have no fear, said some Republicans. Echoing an argument made earlier by Democrats, they explained that northerners had nothing to worry about because, after all, coloreds don’t like cold weather. Historian Mark Neely, in his essay Colonization, from the book Lincoln’s Proclamation, explains:

Emphasis on colonization has obscured a real argument used by Republicans to anticipate or meet criticism of the Emancipation Proclamation: they embraced isothermalism. That is, Republicans insisted that because of climate, African Americans were suited only to tropical climes and would never come north. In fact, Republicans argued, the only reason African Americans came north now was to escape slavery. Abolish slavery and no more would leave the South, and those in the North would depart for the South.

Even the radical Republican nominee for governor in New York, Gen James Wadsworth, stated the typical Republican position: “The emancipation, once affected, the Northern States would be forever relieved, as it is right that they should be, from the fears of a great influx of African laborers… This done, and the whole African population will drift to the South, where it will find a congenial climate, and vast tracts of land never cultivated.” Commenting on Wadsworth’s idea, the newspaper in Oneida, New York, observed: “This is truth and common sense… Were the institutions of the South rendered tolerant to the black man, not a person of African blood would remain in our northern climate… The way to clear the North of blacks is to guarantee freedom to them at the South.”

President Lincoln eventually embraced the isothermal argument himself, but he did not lead in devising it. In his annual message to Congress of December 1, 1862, Lincoln began to hop on the political bandwagon of soothing racism invented by other Republicans while still blending it with his old favorite, colonization. “It is dreaded,” he said, “that the freed people will swarm forth, and cover the land. Are they not already in the land? Will liberation make them any more numerous?” He went on to offer an important caveat:

But why should emancipation south, send the free people north? People of any color seldom run, unless there is something to run from. Heretofore colored people, to some extent, have fled north from bondage; and now perhaps from both bondage and destitution. But if gradual emancipation and deportation be adopted. they will have nothing to flee from. Their old masters will give them wages at least until new laborers can be procured; and the freed men, in turn, will gladly give their labor for the wages, till new homes can be found for them, in congenial climes, and with people of their own blood and race…

The embrace of isothermalism constituted the greatest reverse of principle in the history of the Republican Party to date. It had been founded back in the mid-1850s on the premise that only Congressional law could keep slavery out of unsettled territories. The northern Democrats had argued that isothermalism would keep slavery and, with it, African Americans, out of the territories, and there was therefore no need to pass laws obnoxious to proud white southerners; the climate did not suit.

Lincoln himself had once strained to answer that argument. In his Peoria speech of October 16, 1854, Lincoln had laid the ground carefully for the rejection of isothermalism: “It is argued that slavery will not go to Knasas and Nebraska, in any event. This is a palliation-a lullaby… As to climate, a glance at the map shows that there are five slave states – Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri-and also the District of Columbia, all north of the Missouri compromise line… It is not climate, then, that will keep slavery out of these territories.” “It takes the law to keep it out,” he insisted in his famous debates with Douglas in 1858.

I wonder what this man, born August 8, 1866 in Maryland, thought of all that isothermal stuff? He probably heard a lot of jokes about his ability to handle various kinds of weather in his many travels. But in the end, I think he proved he could take the cold as well as the heat.


Matthew Henson, explorer

The picture is from the Library of Congress.