The “house negro” and the “field negro”; and the case of the Harrison Berry, the Property of S. W. Price / Part 2


Continued from Part 1


Pages from the pamphlet Slavery and Abolitionism, as Viewed by a Georgia Slave. By Harrison Berry, the Property of S. W. Price, Covington, Georgia; 1861
Source: Documenting the American South (DocSouth) online collection at the University Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. See details at the end of this blog entry.

These are the words of a Georgia slave, in 1861:

We see the Apostles teaching peace all through the New Testament. We see, in the Epistles, they exhort Servants to be obedient to their masters; and not only in words do we find this, but in all their practice. For, on one occasion, when a Slave had run away from his master, and went to Paul, he does not hesitate a moment, but sends him back to his lawful owner. This shows that Christ and the Apostles had quite a different view of Slavery to that of our modern factionists of the United States…

We will now examine some of the leading principles of the Abolition party. It is not that I am opposed to freedom, that actuates me to address them in the manner which I do, for I believe it to be one of the greatest blessings earthly, when not contaminated with fanatical dispositions.

But rather would I die, were I a citizen of the United States, than to disturb the peace, or act in any way that would be detrimental to the onward progress and prosperity of my country. For, of all the Governments that now exist, or have ever existed, this perhaps is the least contaminated with injustice–the Constitution granting to every native born, or adopted citizen, the freedom of speech, and the power, at the ballot-box, of making their own laws to be governed by. What a lesson it ought to be to the American citizen, to view four-fifths of Europe and Asia having no more power to make the laws by which they are governed than the Slaves of this country who are not citizens!

Now, as the master waits all night for the return of the Slave that has run away from him, seeing, in the morning, he is absent, he goes over to his neighbor’s house, and asks him to look out for him. Says he, “I went to town yesterday after my paper, and when I had gotten it, I saw a statement of the organization of an Abolition Convention, resolving that Slavery was a sin, and a reproach upon any free people, and that they would never desist from its agitation, until they had eradicated the last string that bound it to the country.

“I, of course, became somewhat grum when I saw it; and, on going to the field, after getting home, in that grum state, I, perhaps, might have been too much vexed to have judged correctly the amount of work that should have been done. I, at any rate, thought they had not done enough, and scolded Tom for not having done more; he commenced muttering, which only added fuel to the fire already kindled within me; so I was in a bad fix to take his insolence, and made at him, when he ran away. I would like to get hold of him, for if any of those Abolitionists should happen to get hold of him, they would carry him off.”

Now, let us hear the consolation of his neighbor. He says: “Yes; and let me tell you what happened at my house last Sunday. As I was going to the lot, I saw my Bob have a newspaper, reading very attentively; and, on going to him, and asking him to let me see it, I found that he was reading the paper that had the very same proceedings of that Convention of the Abolitionists you were speaking of. So I lurked around my negroes’ houses that night, to see if I could hear Bob say anything about the Convention to the other negroes; and, sure enough I did, for I heard him tell them that they would not be Slaves much longer, for the Abolition party intended to set them all free, at the risk of their lives. He was going on at a terrible rate; and, on peeping through a crack, I saw two of Mr. Jones’ boys there too. So I slipped back to the house, and thought I would watch their manoeuvres the next morning; and when morning came, I found them to be dull, careless, and very slothful.

“So I took them up, and whipped every one of them, and gave Bob two hundred lashes; then I got on my horse and rode over to Mr. Jones’, and told him what I had heard Bob say in the presence of his two boys, and what I had done to mine. He called up his two boys and whipped them too. So you see how the thing is shaping. We must have our property protected against this diabolical set of Abolitionists, and our Legislatures must give us more power over our Slaves. And any man that will not agree to make the laws more binding on Slaves, can’t get my vote, nor any one else that I can in the least influence.”

– Harrison Berry, the Property of S. W. Price, Covington, Georgia, in his 1861 pamphlet Slavery and Abolitionism, as Viewed by a Georgia Slave.
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Message to slaves, from one slave to another: listening to abolitionists will get your butt whipped. In case you didn’t know.

Sigh. As an African American living in the 21st century, it’s too easy to take derisive potshots at a 19th century slave who:

– tells his “brethren in bondage” that slavery is sanctioned by the Bible;

– says that if he was a citizen, he’d rather die than “disturb the peace” (as abolitionists were doing) because he lives in a place which offers its citizens all kinds of freedoms and rights; even as he acknowledges that he, as a slave and non-citizen, didn’t enjoy those freedoms and rights himself;

– warns that slaves who listen to abolitionists will get their butts whipped… as if they didn’t know.

But Harrison Berry – a slave and author of Slavery and Abolitionism, as Viewed by a Georgia Slave. By Harrison Berry, the Property of S. W. Price, Covington, Georgia, which was published in 1861 – lived in much different times. Slavery was nothing to joke about, and he clearly took his positions – a passioned defense of slavery and slave masters, and a biting critique of abolitionists and the Republican Party – very, very seriously.

More of his pamphlet is in part one of this two part blog entry; the entire document is here.

The pamphlet raises all kinds of questions: Just who was Harrison Berry? Did he actually write the pamphlet? If so, how was it that he was so literate and knowledgeable, in a state where teaching slaves to read was a minor offense punishable by a fine and/or whipping? Who was the intended audience? And what did he get out of it – financially or otherwise?
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ONE IN A MILLION

Harrison Berry is described as a shoemaker and “a full blooded African, forty-five years of age, [who] learned to read and write while employed as an errand boy in a law office.” Berry is apparently a skilled craftsman who does not live with his master, but is hired out to work. Berry is neither a field negro nor a house negro; he is a non-agrarian artisan who has an amount of freedom and learning, and probably respect, that is atypical of the slave population. In the North, he would be called an “intelligent Negro.”

Berry’s identification as “a full blooded African” is important. A “mixed-blood” person – a mulatto – might have familial or other social ties that would make him more sympathetic to the (white) Southern cause. This pamphlet, we are meant to believe, is the legitimate view of a legitimate black man.

To write this kind of document, Berry would not only need to be literate. He’d also need to have access to material about Republicans and abolitionists (or the “Southern” view on them); and have the time to read said materials; and have the time to write a manuscript; and engage in discussions of the subject with others, such as knowledgeable whites.

Indeed, the pamphlet indicates that Berry provided his manuscript to others (whites) for comments and corrections. One of the “editors,” A. M. Eddleman, says “the time [Berry] devoted to writing his book, is generally occupied by other Slaves in making their pocket change.” In other words, Berry took time that could have been spent making more money to write this document.

It’s notable that the pamphlet begins with comments – called “certificates” – from over half a dozen whites who attest to the fact that Berry was literate, that he did write the document, and that he did believe in what it said. The pamphlet also includes a copy of a brief letter from Berry’s owner, S. W. Price, which authorizes Berry to publish the text.

What I find especially interesting is that, on the whole, the pamphlet is not so much a defense of slavery, but rather, it is primarily a political broadside against the so-called “Black Republicans” (the insulting name applied to Lincoln’s Republican Party) and abolitionists. In fact, just about every argument made against the Republicans and abolitionists by elites in the South is articulated here with both great detail and passion. It’s almost as if the author researched and aggregated all of those critiques into this one document. I don’t think any white man of any level of learning could argue the Confederate case with more force, specificity, or rhetorical acumen.

Could a slave have written this? This may sound odd, but I want to believe, if only because it is so different and unexpected – I just find it so intriguing and extraordinary.

Many contemporaries of Fredrick Douglass, the abolitionist, orator, author, and publisher, found it hard to believe he was a former slave, due to his high level of speaking and writing skills. He wound up telling his story in a slave narrative in 1845. Many of Douglass’ associates feared the book would draw the attention of his former slave master, and he moved to Europe until his freedom could be purchased.

Anything is possible. Out of 4 million slaves in 1861, it’s not impossible that one of them might somehow be literate and articulate enough to write such a thing; be well read enough to discuss the issues in great detail; and be convinced that slavery was good and that abolitionists and Republicans were bad. Maybe Harrison Berry was that one in a million guy, the exception who proves the rule.

Or maybe it’s fake. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

“WE CAN GO INTO OUR MASTERS’ HOUSES AND GET PLENTY OF GOOD THINGS TO EAT”

Who was the intended audience for Berry’s comments? Berry says his document is “address(ed)… to the fanatical Abolitionists, who call themselves Republicans. To them, and them alone, have I written.” One of the whites who “certified” the document says “I have known Harrison Berry since 1842… Harrison has all the time been a good servant. It has always been his highest ambition to do his duty at anything his master set him at… He has expressed the same sentiments to me in conversation, that are set forth in his book, saying that he would let Fred Douglass, and other Abolitionists, know that the slaves of the South were not fools enough to believe that they were benefitting them, or even intended to try to benefit them.”

And that’s one of the main themes of the pamphlet. Berry is more anti-abolitionist and anti-Republican – and to him, being one is like being the other – than he is pro-slavery. To him, the abolitionists are no friends of the colored man: despite their lofty rhetoric, they too treat the negro as a degraded race. Says Berry:

You must recollect that we are not oppressed here like your nominally free there. We can go into our masters’ houses and get plenty of good things to eat; and we can shake hands with the big-bugs of the country, and walk side-by-side with Congress members on the side-walks, and stand and converse with gentlemen of the highest rank, for hours at a time. So, in short, we can do anything, with the exceptions of those privileges wrested from us in consequence of your diabolical, infernal, Black Republican, Abolition, fanatical agitation.

But, perhaps, you will say, in the face of all this, “our colored people are not subject to a separation from their families, as the Slaves are; for when they marry they have the same chance to live and remain with their families as we do, for we have no law to separate them.” That all may be; but when we consider the many deprivations the colored man is subject to in a country granting him these lawful privileges, we would wonder that the colored man is held in such low esteem, were it not that we are posted on the social relations in which he stands in the non-Slave-holding States, it is a common thing to see poor, half-naked, and starving creatures, standing on corners, begging every one passing by for a penny. And it is not at all surprising, when we consider the prejudice existing there against them.

As for myself, I would rather have the law against me, and prejudice in my favor, than to have the law in my favor and the prejudice against me. For the decisions of the law are always, in a greater or less degree, subject to prejudice. The colored man is a colored man anywhere. He is but the tool North, and the servant South.

That’s Berry’s premise: prejudice is everywhere, but being a slave in the South is better than being a “tool” in the North. For Berry, then, slavery is as good as it gets for the colored man. His message to his brethren slaves seems to be, don’t let “them,” and don’t let us, mess with this good thing we have.

And from where Berry was sitting, perhaps things weren’t that bad. He could read and write; he was a skilled creftsman whose work was appreciated; he was a thinker whose intellect was respected; and he was clearly not a victim of the horrors of slavery told in so many of the day’s slave’s narrative. He was no field negro or house negro; in a land of bondage, Harrison Berry was sitting on top of the world.

Was Berry self-aware enough to realize that the propaganda value of his work? Maybe. But then again, he probably relished the thought of his being read by all, free and slave, North and South, black and white. After all, this was a time of civil war, and as Berry put it, “you [abolitionists/Republicans] had better mind how you come here and jump aboard of our masters; for I tell you, though we sometimes fight among ourselves, if another man jumps on either, we both pitch into him.”

Berry seemed ready for a fight, at least rhetorically.

But I’m not sure if his brethren in bondage were feeling it.

MEANWHILE, OUT IN THE FIELD

On January 2, 1864, Confederate major-general Pat Cleburne issued a proposal to enlist slaves to fight in the Confederate army. He wanted slaves to be allies of the Confederacy; to date, he said, they had acted as enemies:

We can see three great causes operating to destroy us [the Confederacy]: …[the] third [is] the fact that slavery, from being one of our chief sources of strength at the commencement of the war, has now become, in a military point of view, one of our chief sources of weakness.

…slavery is a source of great strength to the enemy in a purely military point of view, by supplying him with an army from our granaries; …it is our most vulnerable point, a continued embarrassment, and in some respects an insidious weakness.

Wherever slavery is once seriously disturbed, whether by the actual presence or the approach of the enemy, or even by a cavalry raid, the whites can no longer with safety to their property openly sympathize with our cause. The fear of their slaves is continually haunting them, and from silence and apprehension many of these soon learn to wish the war stopped on any terms. The next stage is to take the oath to save property, and they become dead to us, if not open enemies.

To prevent raids we are forced to scatter our forces, and are not free to move and strike like the enemy; his vulnerable points are carefully selected and fortified depots. Ours are found in every point where there is a slave to set free.

All along the lines slavery is comparatively valueless to us for labor, but of great and increasing worth to the enemy for information. It is an omnipresent spy system, pointing out our valuable men to the enemy, revealing our positions, purposes, and resources, and yet acting so safely and secretly that there is no means to guard against it. Even in the heart of our country, where our hold upon this secret espionage is firmest, it waits but the opening fire of the enemy’s battle line to wake it, like a torpid serpent, into venomous activity.

How was it that Berry was so out of touch with the feelings and reactions of the slaves to the possibilities for freedom that the Civil War offered? How could he not suspect the pent-up desire for liberty among his brethren?

Perhaps he didn’t spend enough time in the field…

ADDENDUM

Berry’s pamphlet cosy 25¢. If he sold 100 copies, he’d have made $25; in 2009 dollars, that would be worth $610. The pamphlet is described as having been “published by [Benny] himself, and copy-righted for his benefit exclusively.” I don’t know how many copies were actually sold.

Meanwhile, the attention and status he received was probably priceless.

****
Slavery and Abolitionism, as Viewed by a Georgia Slave. By Harrison Berry, the Property of S. W. Price, Covington, Georgia is from the Documenting the American South (DocSouth) online collection at the University Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. © Copyright 2004 by the University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, all rights reserved. The Usage Statement is here.

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