Major Martin Delany to the Freedpeople of SC: “(W)e would not have become free, had we not armed ourselves and fought out our independence.”


Major Martin Delaney
US Army Major Martin R. Delany: Delany was a free born “African American abolitionist, journalist, physician, and writer.” (per Wikipedia.com) Among other activities, he was co-publisher of the North Star newspaper along with Frederick Douglass. During the Civil War, “Delany recruited thousands of men for the Union Army. In February 1865, after meeting with President Abraham Lincoln to persuade the administration to create an all-black Corps led by African American officers, Delaney was commissioned a Major” in the US Colored Troops (per Blackpast.org).
Image Source: US Military History Institute, via The Senator John Heinz History Center

Edward M. Stoeber, a lieutenant in the 104th US Colored Troops, US Army, was shocked. He had just attended a “lecture” in St. Helena Island, SC, given by army Major Martin Robinson Delany to a group of fellow African Americans in July 1865, as the American Civil War was coming to an end. Delany’s audience had been enslaved, but were now unbound. Delany – who was commissioned an army major by Abraham Lincoln after appealing for the creation of black regiments led by black officers – gave the freedmen and women advice for how to move forward, advice which drove the white Lieutenant Stoeber to disgust.

Why was Stoeber so upset? For one, Delany told the freedmen that they had had freed themselves by enlisting and fighting in the Union army. Stoeber disagreed, evidently unable or unwilling to acknowledge African American agency, or perhaps, angry that the martyred Abraham Lincoln was not getting enough credit. “This is a falsehood and a misrepresentation. Our President Abraham Lincoln declared the colored race free, before there was even an idea of arming colored men,” said Stoeber in a letter to his superiors. “This (talk from Delaney) is decidedly calculated to create bad feeling against the Government,” he insisted.

Additionally, Stoeber was concerned that in “acquaint(ing) (the freedmen) with the fact that slavery was absolutely abolished,” Delany had thrown “thunders of damnations and maledictions on all the former slaveowners and people of the South, and almost condemned their souls to hell.” Stoeber might not have been aware that jeremiads against slavery and the South were not uncommon for black abolitionists, perhaps even some white ones.

Stoeber was also alarmed that Delany warned the freedmen to beware of white “ministers, schoolteachers, Emissaries, (and others who would come South to help the freedmen) because they never tell you the truth.” Such talk, said Stoeber, “is only to bring distrust against all, and gives them to understand that they shall believe men of their own race. He openly acts and speaks contrary to the policy of the Government, advising them not to work for any man, but for themselves.” Such talk was dangerous, according to Stoeber: “In my opinion of this discourse he was trying to encourage them to break the peace of society and force their way by insurrection to a position he is ambitious they should attain to.” Delany’s views were informed  by a lifetime of prejudice against himself and other African Americans living in the North; this included his dismissal from Harvard Medical School after just a month of attendance, when white students wrote of their objection to the presence of blacks at the school.

Delany and Stoeber seemed to have irreconcilable views of the past, present, and future. Major Delany, an activist African American from the North, had his own ideas about the role of African Americans in building the South and winning the Civil War, and in charting their own future as free people. For him, self-pride, self-worth, economic self-sufficiency, and a healthy dose of skepticism concerning the intentions of, and advice from, whites were key for black progress. But as far as Lt. Stoeber was concerned, Delany was a “a thorough hater of the white race (who) excites the colored people unnecessarily” and horrified white onlookers. Stoeber was also concerned that Delany gave incorrect information about the Union government’s land and labor policies, information that he feared would create false expectations and eventually result in anger among the freedpeople.

Delany was not the first to speak to what some might call a “black” (others might say “correct”) understanding of the war, emancipation, and permanent freedom, nor would he be the last. Stoeber’s reaction to his comments underscores that the memory and interpretation of the Civil War, as well as the strategies and policies for African American independence, would be contested, even among those who were on the Union side, and lead to outcomes that no one could predict.

This (partial) text of Delany’s July 1865 speech to former slaves in Beaufort, South Carolina, is based on the recollection of Lt. Stoeber, as written in letter to Brevet Maj. S. M. Taylor, Assistant Adjutant General with the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (AKA the Freedmen’s Bureau). There was some fear among (white) government officials that Delaney might be using inappropriate language or giving improper instruction and advice to the freedmen, hence Stoeber’s presence at the speech.
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Partial text of letter from Lt Edward M. Stoeber, dated July 24th, 1865, written to the Freedmen’s Bureau, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida (For the full text, including more of the white reaction to the speech, see the source: Columbia University):

Major:

In obedience to your request, I proceeded to St. Helena Island, yesterday morning for the purpose of listening to the public delivery of a lecture by Major Delany 104th Ne[gro] S.C. Troops. I was accompanied by Lieut. A. Whyte Jr. 128th Ne[gro] S.C. Troops, Com[an]d’g Post. The meeting was held near “Brick Church,” the congregation numbering from 500 to 600.

As introduction Maj. Delany made them acquainted with the fact, that slavery is absolutely abolished, throwing thunders of damnations and maledictions on all the former slaveowners and people of the South, and almost condemned their souls to hell.

He says “It was only a War policy of the Government, to declare the slaves of the South free, knowing that the whole power of the South, laid in the possession of the Slaves. But I want you to understand, that we would not have become free, had we not armed ourselves and fought out our independence” (this he repeated twice).

He further says,

“If I had been a slave, I would have been most troublesome and not to be conquered by any threat or punishment. I would not have worked, and no one would have dared to come near me, I would have struggled for life or death, and would have thrown fire and sword between them.

I know you have been good, only too good. I was told by a friend of mine that when owned by a man and put to work on the field, he laid quietly down, and just looked out for the overseer to come along, when he pretended to work very hard. But he confessed to me, that he never had done a fair day’s work for his master. And so he was right, so I would have done the same, and all of you ought to have done the same.

“People say that you are too lazy to work, that you have no intelligence to get on for yourselves, without being guided and driven to the work by overseers. I say it is a lie, and a blasphemous lie, and I will prove it to be so.

“I am going to tell you now, what you are worth. As you know Christopher Columbus landed here in 1492. They came here only for the purpose to dig gold, gather precious pearls, diamonds and all sorts of jewels, only for the proud Aristocracy of White Spaniards and Portuguese, to adorn their persons, to have brooches for their breasts, earrings for their ears, Bracelets for their ankles and rings for their limbs and fingers. They found here (red men) Indians whom they obliged to dig and work and slave for them-but they found out that they died away too fast and cannot stand the work. In course of time they had taken some blacks (Africans) along with them and put them to work- they could not stand it-and yet the Whites say they are superior to our race, though they could not stand it…

“I tell you I have been all over Africa {I was born there)* and I tell you (as I told to the Geographical Faculty of London) that those people there, are a well-driving class of cultivators, and I never saw or heard of one of our brethren there to travel without taking seeds with him as much as he can carry and to sow it wherever he goes to, or to exchange it with his brethren.

“So you ought further to know, that all the spices, cotton, rice, and coffee has only been brought over by you, from the land of our brethren.

“Your masters who lived in opulence, kept you to hard work by some contemptible being called overseer-who chastised and beat you whenever he pleased-while your master lived in some Northern town or in Europe to squander away the wealth only you acquired for him. He never earned a single Dollar in his life. You men and women, every one of you around me, made thousands and thousands of dollars for your master. Only you were the means for your masters to lead the ideal and inglorious life, and to give his children the education, which he denied to you, for fear you may awake to conscience. If I look around me, I tell you all the houses of this Island and in Beaufort, they are all familiar to my eye, they are the same structures which I have met with in Africa. They have all been made by the Negroes, you can see it by such exteriors.

“I tell you they (white man) cannot teach you anything, and they could not make them because they have not the brain to do it. (after a pause) At least I mean the Southern people; Oh the Yankees they are smart. Now tell me from all you have heard from me, are you not worth anything? Are you those men whom they think, God only created as a curse and for a slave? Whom they do not consider their equals? As I said before the Yankees are smart; there are good ones and bad ones. The good ones, if they are good they are very good, if they are bad, they are very bad. But the worst and most contemptible, and even worse than even your masters were, are those Yankees, who hired themselves as overseers.

“Believe not in these School teachers, Emissaries, Ministers, and agents, because they never tell you the truth, and I particularly warn you against those Cotton Agents, who come honey mouthed unto you, their only intent being to make profit by your inexperience.

“If there is a man who comes to you, who will meddle with your affairs, send him to one of your more enlightened brothers, who shall ask him who he is, what business he seeks with you, etc.

“Believe none but those Agents who are sent out by Government, to enlighten and guide you. I am an officer in the service of the U.S. Government, and ordered to aid Gen’1 Saxton, who has been only lately appointed Asst Comr from South Carolina. So is Gen’l Wild Asst Comr. for Georgia.

“When Chief Justice Chase was down here to speak to you, some of those malicious and abominable New York papers derived from it that he only seeks to be elected by you as President. I have no such ambition, I let them have for a President a white or a black one. I don’t care who it be-it may be who has a mind to. I shall not be intimidated whether by threats or imprisonment, and no power will keep me from telling you the truth. So I expressed myself even at Charleston, the hotbed of those scoundrels, your old masters, without fear or reluctance.

“So I will come to the main purpose for which I have come to see you. As before the whole South depended upon you, now the whole country will depend upon you. I give you an advice how to get along. Get up a community and get all the lands you can-if you cannot get any singly.

“…Now go to work, and in a short time I will see you again, and other friends will come to show you how to begin.-Have your fields in good order and well tilled and planted, and when I pass the fields and see a land well planted and well cared for, then I may be sure from the look of it, that it belongs to a free Negro, and when I see a field thinly planted and little cared for, then I may think it belongs to some man who works it with slaves.

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