The American Indian at Hampton Institute, Virginia

“Louis Firetail (Sioux, Crow Creek), wearing tribal clothing, in American history class, Hampton Institute, Hampton, Virginia”; late 1890s. From the Library of Congress.

The grace, dignity, and poignancy of the photos in this blog entry belie a bitter memory for many Indigenous people: Indian boarding schools, such as the one at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which is now called Hampton University.

The abolitionist Frederick Douglass, in response to a question he often heard from whites – “What shall we do with the Negro?” – said “Do nothing with us!” Leave us alone, he said… haven’t you done enough to us already?

Those comments were probably echoed by the American Indian of the day. The 1800s were a century long battle between Indigenous and European-descent peoples for American land. Whether destined or not, the European peoples would have the land, and control it from sea to sea by the end of the century.

One solution for dealing with Indigenous peoples was to “civilize” them. Reservation schools were created with funding from the US government and often the support of Christian missionaries. Their purpose was to inculcate the Indian with white culture and prepare him for life among European Americans – to “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” In addition, numbers of Indigenous young were placed in boarding schools where they were educated and acculturated away from their families.

Hampton Institute seemed a good fit for them. It was founded in 1868 by General Samuel Armstrong, who commanded colored troops during the Civil War. Armstrong had proposed the Institute as a way to “to prepare colored teachers for southern schools; teachers who will cost less than white; who can live the year through in one place, thus saving expense of transportation; who, in fact, can make a living out of their schools, and after being started, support themselves [through augmenting their low salaries with money earned through manual skills learned at school]; who will penetrate the country and, singly, occupy isolated remote places where our [northern white] ladies could never go.”

The United States’ Indian policy eventually funneled Indigenous students to the Institute. As noted here, “Armstrong’s dual mission at Hampton quickly became clear – ‘uplift’ the Negro from his state of degradation; ‘civilize’ the savage and teach him how to work. Members of both races would be taught to dress, speak, work, behave as whites– despite the fact that they were offered no guarantee that they would ever be offered powers and privileges equivalent to those enjoyed by whites.”

“Hampton Institute, Hampton, Va. – before entering school – seven Indian children of uneducated parents 1897.” The caption indicates these are Sioux children. From the Library of Congress.

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Off Topic Saturday: Big Mama Thornton Sings the Blues

Big Mama Thornton was a blues woman. And she could rock. This is from a live show in Oregon in 1971.

Willie Mae Thornton, aka Big Mama Thornton, was born in 1926 in Montgomery, Alabama. Like many black musicians, she started out singing gospel at her church. At the age of 14, she left home to join a chitlin circuit music troupe in Georgia named the Hot Harlem Revue. She went on to tour and do musical dates with a number of blues and R’n’B figures.

Her biggest hit was “Hound Dog”, which was released in 1952, along with the B side tune “They Call Me Big Mama.” The song was #1 on the Billboard R’n’B charts for seven weeks, and sold almost two million copies.

Three years later, Elvis Presley recorded his own version of the song, and it became an even bigger hit; few people today remember that Big Mama was the first to do the song.

Big Mama was not a beauty queen. And she was big, getting to as much as 350 lbs, although illness later in life made her lose her size. On the above video, she looks almost lean.

But no matter, she could still carry a tune and then some. Blessed with gravelly sounding, booming voice, Big Mama belted people with the blues. She taught herself the harmonica, and that added some depth to her performances, especially live.

She died at the age of 57, due to heart and liver problems that many attribute to her hard drinking lifestyle.

She left us too early, but her music lives on.

This is the studio version of Hound Dog
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Links of Interest, 2/26/2011

Some links of interest:

• Is it wrong for me to think this is funny?

• It’s Oscars weekend! Historian Gary Gallagher offers his thoughts on Civil War movies here and here. These are based on his book Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War.

• If you want do some reading about the US Colored Troops, The Sable Arm blog offers several suggestions in Top 12 Books: USCT Edition.

• Andy Hall’s Dead Confederates blog has an interesting post about a female African American member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

• Last but not least: the 6TH Regiment Infantry United States Colored Troops, Reenactors Inc. has an online photo album of reenactment activities that’s worth a quick look. Two groups of pictures caught my interest.

This is from a set of phots titled “Three Centuries of Black Soldiers.” (See the Announcement below.)

This is from a set of photos titled “Battle of Pensacola.” This appears to be a reenactment of the Revolutionary War’s Siege of Pensacola in 1781, (see picture 9 of 9), not the Battle of Pensacola that took place during the War of 1812.

Announcement: If you’re in the Trenton, NJ area on February 26-27, there will be a “Three Centuries of Black Soldiers” event at The Old Barracks Museum. Follow the link for more details.

Was Abraham Lincoln the Black Man’s “Friend?”

The enemy of my enemy is my “friend.”

The man who keeps me a slave is my “enemy.” Anybody who works to set me free is my ally, whether he “likes” me or not.

Was Lincoln the black man’s friend? He was compared to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Was Lincoln the black man’s friend before the Emancipation Proclamation? Nope.

Didn’t Jefferson Davis become the black man’s friend when the Confederacy passed a law enabling negroes to serve as soldiers in exchange for their freedom? Not as much as Lincoln was their friend. Davis’ “befriending” was too late regardless.

Is it really that simple? No, but it’s close.

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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Brer Possum Makes a Visit

Disney’s Brer Possum

I don’t know how it happened, but late last year, an opussum got in our house. How it got in, we don’t know. The screen on the backdoor to our basement has a hole in it, and the backdoor had been open all day; maybe that’s how brer possum snuck in. Anyhow, I spotted him in the kitchen, and that caused a minor panic. My daughter and 10 month-old granddaughter were visiting, and I didn’t want some varmint foraging through our place. I called animal control, and they said they would show up… sooner or later.

I was able to corner the animal in the back of the kitchen, at which point it got real quiet. Had it gone into “playing possum” mode? I started to get antsy. I didn’t want to spend all night watching this poor animal and waiting for the animal control people to come. Now, I love animals as much as anybody. But I was seriously thinking about going “old school” on this critter. Like anyone with an interest in history, I looked in one of my dusty tomes for inspiration or help – in this case, Eugene Genovese’s masterwork Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made:

In more general terms, Lizzie Davis of South Carolina proclaimed, “Yes, child, de slavery people sho had de hand to cook.” Children, both male and female, learned to cook before they grew large enough for field work. Their mothers taught them when they could, and when they could not or would not, some old slave usually stepped in.

The slave recipe that has come down to us most prominently is for opossum-significantly, a food they (the slaves) obtained for themselves. “The flesh of the coon is palatable,” wrote Solomon Northup, “but verily there is nothing in all butcherdom so delicious as a roasted ‘possum.” Raccoon, ground hog, and other self-procured foods had their supporters. Anthony Dawson, an ex-slave from South Carolina declared, “I love ‘possum and sweet ‘taters, but de coon meat more delicate, and de hair don’t stink up de meat.” But opossum remained the favorite of the great majority.

From one end of the South to the other, the slaves prepared opossum in roughly the same way: parboiled and then roasted with lard or fatback. They used locust or persimmon beer to wash the meat down, and roasted it with sweet potatoes. For variety, the slaves might dry and smoke possum as they would hams. If the animal was young, they had the option of frying it, but frying was, for the most part, reserved for young rabbits, which were considered especially tender. Prepared one way or the other, opossum inspired the slaves to sing:


Well, ‘possum meat’s so nice and sweet,
Carve ‘im in de heart;
You’ll always find hit good ter eat.
Carve ‘im in de heart.

Refrain: Carve dat ‘possum,
Carve dat ‘possum, chillun.
Carve dat ‘possum,
Oh, carve ‘im in de heart.


De way to cook de ‘possum nice,
Carve ‘im in de heart.
First parbile ‘im, stir ‘im twice,
Carve ‘im in de heart.


Den lay sweet taters in de pan
Carve ‘im in de heart.
Nuthin’ beats dat in de lan,
Carve ‘im in de heart.

I couldn’t get those lyrics out of my head: “Carve ‘im in de heart… Carve ‘im in de heart…” And I knew that as the man of the house, it was my duty to protect my family. I was starting to convince myself, “it’s him or me.” But for some reason, I was salivating.

Just then, there was a knock on the door. Much to my surprise, a guy from animal control had come, and I hadn’t waited more than 50 minutes. It took him all of 30 seconds to grab brer possum and place the animal in a small cage. He left before my other family members even knew he arrived.

A little bit later, I asked my wife if she was cooking anything for dinner. “I’m going to roast some chicken,” she said. Darn, I thought. Chicken. The same-old same-old.

“I’m going out,” I told her. “I need some supplies for the printers.” But actually, I thought I’d take a drive through the park.

Frederick Douglass: Fighting Against a “White Man’s War”/Part 3

Part 2 of 3 of this Frederick Douglass birthday celebration is here.

President Lincoln recruiting the Negro: One good turn deserves another, London Punch, 1862.

The caption reads, “Why, I du declare, it’s my dear old friend Sambo. Course you’ll fight for us, Sambo. Lend us a hand, old hoss, du.” This cartoon was published a month before Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. More details on the cartoon are here.

One notable aspect of the cartoon is that the black character is depicted realistically, while the Lincoln figure is caricatured. In American cartoons, it was common to show blacks as having exaggerated and buffoonish facial features, such as huge lips.

I congratulate you, upon what may be called the greatest event of our nation’s history (issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation), if not the greatest event of the century…

In the hurry and excitement of the moment, it is difficult to grasp the full and complete significance of President Lincoln’s proclamation. The change in attitude of the Government is vast and startling. For more than sixty years the Federal Government has been little better than a stupendous engine of Slavery and oppression, through which Slavery has ruled us, as with a rod of iron. The boast that Cotton is King was no empty boast. Assuming that our Government and people will sustain the President and the Proclamation, we can scarcely conceive of a more complete revolution in the position of a nation…

I hail it as the doom of Slavery in all the States. I hail it as the end of all that miserable statesmanship, which has for 60 years juggled and deceived the people, by professing to reconcile what is irreconcilable.

We are all liberated by this proclamation. Everybody is liberated. The white man is liberated, the black man is liberated, the brave men now fighting the battles of their country against rebels and traitors are now liberated, and may strike with all their might, even if they do hurt the Rebels, at their most sensitive point. [Applause.] I congratulate you upon this amazing change—the amazing approximation toward the sacred truth of human liberty.
– Frederick Douglass, Speech at The Cooper Institute in New York, February 6, 1863


By February 1863, Frederick Douglass was surely feeling joyful and triumphant. On January 1 of 1863, president Abraham Lincoln issued the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation. America’s slaves were declared forever free – with the caveat that the slave-holding Border States (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri) and some Unionist or Union controlled areas in the Confederacy (such as Tennessee and Louisiana) were exempted. But that wasn’t a show stopper for Douglass; he believed that the Proclamation marked the beginning of the end of slavery. Time would prove him correct.

But in the short run, there was a war to fight. After the issuance of the Proclamation, the Union’s efforts to recruit black men into the army began in earnest. And it wasn’t a sure thing that black men would enlist.

Many blacks were angry that they were denied enlistment when the war started, being told this was a “white man’s war.” The Emancipation Proclamation, for all the hope it offered, did not free slaves in Union strongholds; this was not the unequivocal call for black freedom that many wanted to see. And blacks were infuriated when they discovered that colored soldiers were paid less than their white counterparts. Wasn’t a black man’s life worth as much as a white man’s, they asked?

But where some had doubts, Douglass had resolve. No black leader was more prominent, insistent, and supportive of black enlistment than Douglass, at least in the several months after the Proclamation. Earlier, he said that unless the Union committed to ending slavery, “they don’t deserve the support of a single sable arm.” Now that the Union made the commitment, Douglass was all in.

While freedom for the slaves was paramount, Douglass saw another purpose in black military service: it would give colored people the opportunity to prove, through manly courage and performance of duty, that their race was worthy of full citizenship. Douglass understood that freedom and equality were not the same thing. If the colored man was to attain his due rights and respect, he must fight to earn it. If whites were fighting for their cause, then blacks could do no less for their own.

In his March 1863 “Men of Color to Arms” speech, Douglass argued

From East to West, from North to South, the sky is written all over, “Now or never.” Liberty won by white men would lose half its luster. “Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.” “Better even die free, than to live slaves.” This is the sentiment of every brave colored man amongst us. There are weak and cowardly men in all nations. We have them amongst us. They tell you this is the “white man’s war”; and you will be “no better off after than before the war”; that the getting of you into the army is to “sacrifice you on the first opportunity.” Believe them not; cowards themselves, they do not wish to have their cowardice shamed by your brave example. Leave them to their timidity, or to whatever motive may hold them back.

Douglass’ play of the “coward card” was a harsh critique for those not wanting to enlist, coming as it did in a male dominated era where the willingness to stand-up for one’s self and fight was a necessary proof of manhood; and in a racist era where the black male was stereotyped as docile, submissive, and lacking in fortitude. His rhetorical challenge went to the heart of 19th century conceptions of what it meant to be a man: if you’re not man enough to fight in this war, Douglass argued to his fellows, then you deserve your degraded position in American society.
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Off Topic Saturday: The Black South of Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange is a famous American photographer. She worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the 1930s, going across the country to take pictures that documented the effects of the Great Depression on the American people.

She is best known for her Migrant Mother picture, which has been called “an iconic image of the Great Depression.” Lange’s work took her all over the South, where she took pictures of both struggling blacks and whites. Many of her FSA photographs are available from the Library of Congress’ online archives. I user several of her photos to create this slideshow of black life in the South during the Great Depression.

These photographs are a vivid reminder of how tough those days were. But it’s notable that the black folks in these pictures look hardened, but not broken. They are lean, strong, and unbowed. Life is hard, and they accept it as such. Indeed, for many of them, a hard life is the only life they’ve known.

These pictures were taken in Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas during the mid to late 1930s.

The music is from a traditional spiritual performed by Texas gospel singer Blind Willie Johnson (vocal and guitar) and Willie B. Harris (vocal) in 1927. The song is titled “Keep Your Light Trimmed and Burning.”

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.