Frederick Douglass: He knew why the caged bird sang

From YouTube: This is a clip from the film 12 Years a Slave. The slaves sing “Roll Jordan Roll” during a funeral for one of their own.

Frederick Douglass, as I like to say, was the most eminently quotable man of his generation. This 19th century abolitionist, writer, publisher, orator, community activist, civil servant, and former slave, was perhaps the spokesman for the African American community during his lifetime.

In his memoir My Bondage and My Freedom – which was part of the slave narrative literary genre – Douglass spoke about the meaning of song to enslaved African Americans. Songs had many purposes. They were utilitarian: they helped overseers keep track of slaves working in the fields. They were flattering: they praised the slave master in a way that might curry his or her favor. And they were healing: they helped purge the soul of the pain that bondage brought to the body.

Douglass warned, don’t mistake the slaves’ songs as a sign of their contentment: “Sorrow and desolation have their songs, as well as joy and peace. Slaves sing more to make themselves happy, than to express their happiness.”

These are Douglass’ thoughts on the meaning and value of song to the enslaved, from My Bondage and My Freedom:

Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work. A silent slave is not liked by masters or overseers. “Make a noise,” “make a noise,” and “bear a hand,” are the words usually addressed to the slaves when there is silence amongst them. This may account for the almost constant singing heard in the southern states. There was, generally, more or less singing among the teamsters, as it was one means of letting the overseer know where they were, and that they were moving on with the work.

But, on allowance day, those who visited the great house farm were peculiarly excited and noisy. While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild notes. These were not always merry because they were wild. On the contrary, they were mostly of a plaintive cast, and told a tale of grief and sorrow. In the most boisterous outbursts of rapturous sentiment, there was ever a tinge of deep melancholy.

In all the songs of the slaves, there was ever some expression in praise of the great house farm; something which would flatter the pride of the owner, and, possibly, draw a favorable glance from him.

I am going away to the great house farm,
O yea! O yea! O yea!
My old master is a good old master,
O yea! O yea! O yea!

This they would sing, with other words of their own improvising—jargon to others, but full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought, that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress truly spiritual-minded men and women with the soul-crushing and death-dealing character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of its mere physical cruelties. They speak to the heart and to the soul of the thoughtful. I cannot better express my sense of them now, than ten years ago, when, in sketching my life, I thus spoke of this feature of my plantation experience:

I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meanings of those rude, and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle, so that I neither saw or heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirits, and filled my heart with ineffable sadness. The mere recurrence, even now, afflicts my spirit, and while I am writing these lines, my tears are falling.

To those songs I trace my first glimmering conceptions of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds.

The remark is not unfrequently made, that slaves are the most contended and happy laborers in the world. They dance and sing, and make all manner of joyful noises—so they do; but it is a great mistake to suppose them happy because they sing. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows, rather than the joys, of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that, when pressed to extremes, it often avails itself of the most opposite methods… The singing of a man cast away on a desolate island, might be as appropriately considered an evidence of his contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave. Sorrow and desolation have their songs, as well as joy and peace. Slaves sing more to make themselves happy, than to express their happiness.

Continue reading

Gen W T Sherman: Stop recruiting for soldiers from my black laborers; “I must have (negro) labor and a large quantity of it.”


Union General William T. Sherman
Image Source: Old Pictures.com

On June 21, 1864, Union General William T. Sherman was in a foul mood. The cause of his exasperation this day was the loss of black labor due to the aggressive soldier recruitment efforts of Union General Lorenzo Thomas. Thomas had been tasked with enlisting former slaves into the Union army along the Mississippi River and Mississippi Valley, and he was doing too good a job as far as Sherman was concerned.

In the following communication, Sherman makes it clear: “I must have (negro) labor and a large quantity of it.” The fact that the army needed the support of African Americans was not up for debate. Sherman wanted them as laborers, whereas Thomas wanted them as soldiers.

Sherman complained that slaveowners were fleeing north Georgia, for example, and taking their slaves with them. That created a problem for Sherman because he seemed to expect that he could use those slaves as laborers to support his military operations. Although Sherman had his doubts about the viability of negroes as soldiers, he is explicit that he doesn’t mind blacks being enlisted, per se… as long as he could get all the black laborers he needed first.

So great is the value of these laborers that Sherman orders a halt Lorenzo Thomas’ recruiting efforts:

Hdqrs. Military Division Of The Mississippi,
In the Field, Big Shanty, June 21, 1864.

General Lorenzo Thomas,
Chattanooga:

It has repeatedly come to my knowledge, on the Mississippi, and recently Colonel Beckwith, my chief commissary, reported officially that his negro cattle drivers and gangs for unloading cars were stampeded and broken up by recruiting officers who actually used their authority to carry them off by a species of force. I had to stop it at once.

I am receiving no negroes now, because their owners have driven them to Southwest Georgia. I believe that negroes better serve the Army as teamsters, pioneers, and servants, and have no objection to the surplus, if any, being enlisted as soldiers, but I must have labor and a large quantity of it. I confess I would prefer 300 negroes armed with spades and axes than 1,000 as soldiers.

Still I repeat I have no objection to the enlistment of negroes if my working parties are not interfered with, and if they are interfered with I must put a summary stop to it. For God’s sake let the negro question develop itself slowly and naturally, and not by premature cultivation make it a weak element in our policy. I think I understand the negro as well as anybody, and profess as much conviction in the fact of his certain freedom as you or any one, but he, like all other of the genus homo, must pass through a probationary state before he is qualified for utter and complete freedom. As soldiers it is still an open question, which I am perfectly willing should be fairly and honestly tested. Negroes are as scarce in North Georgia as in Ohio. All are at and below Macon and Columbus, Ga.

W. T. SHERMAN, Major-General, Commanding.

Source: THE MISCELLANEOUS DOCUMENTS OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES FOR THE FIRST SESSION OF THE FIFTY-SECOND CONGRESS, 1891-’92.

What are we to make of Sherman’s remarks? I have a few thoughts:

o Sherman’s comments highlight an unappreciated fact: that African American labor was an essential part of the Union war effort. We know a lot about the black sailors and soldiers who numbered over 200,000, and were a part of the Union’s war machine. But there were tens of thousands, perhaps over a hundred thousand, African Americans who acted as servants, cooks, teamsters, pioneers, construction workers, medical aides, animal caretakers, etc, and were key parts of the civilian population that directly supported the Union efforts. I don’t think this gets enough recognition or attention.

It might be too strong to say the Union would have lost without the support of black civilians. But at the least, African American laborers enabled tens of thousands more soldiers to be dedicated to combat and other duties. By fulfilling various logistical and operational functions, these black men and women helped to, sometimes literally, pave the way for Union army in the South. Continue reading

Studio portrait of African American man with walrus mustache

image
Studio portrait of African American man with walrus mustache; circa late 19th century/early 20th century; probably in Natchez, Mississippi
Image Source: Photograph courtesy Louisiana State University Libraries, Thomas H. and Joan W. Gandy Photograph Collection, Item Number 37780413106a; see details below

This fine portrait of an African American male, perhaps named Alex Mazique, is from the Thomas H. and Joan W. Gandy Photograph Collection, a set of photographs in the Special Collections of the Louisiana State University Libraries.

The Gandy Collection contains photos from the Gurney and Norman studios, and features images from the Natchez, Mississippi area where the studios were located. As noted at the LSU web page describing the collection,

Brothers Henry and M. J. Gurney established a daguerreotype studio in Natchez in 1851 and began recording the lives of their fellow citizens using the latest in photographic technology. The Civil War brought economic disaster and social upheaval to the region, but Natchez quickly recovered.

In 1870, Henry Gurney hired a new employee, Henry Norman, and by 1876 Norman had opened his own studio, buying out Gurney’s studio to do so. Henry Norman became the best-known photographer in the region. When he died in 1913, his son Earl inherited the studio. Earl, like his father, became widely known for his photographic skills and left images spanning nearly 40 years.

The photograph was taken by the Norman Studios. This undated image was taken in the late 19th century or early 20th century.

Pro-secessionist Minister Benjamin Morgan Palmer: Our God-given “trust… is to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery”


Southern/Confederate religious leader Benjamin Morgan Palmer (January 25, 1818 – May 25, 1902)
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

“The argument which enforces the solemnity of this providential trust (slavery) is simple and condensed. It is bound upon us, then, by the principle of self preservation, that “first law” which is continually asserting its supremacy over all others. Need I pause to show how this system of servitude underlies and supports our material interests; that our wealth consists in our lands and in the serfs who till them; that from the nature of our products they can only be cultivated by labor which must be controlled in order to be certain; that any other than a tropical race must faint and wither beneath a tropical sun?

“Need I pause to show how this system is interwoven with our entire social fabric; that these slaves form parts of our households, even as our children; and that, too, through a relationship recognized and sanctioned in the Scriptures of God even as the other?”
Benjamin Morgan Palmer, Louisiana, 1860

In 1860-61, a group of slaveholding states decided to secede from the United States after the election of Abraham Lincoln. Politicians in the slave states argued that secession was necessary to protect them from the anti-slavery Lincoln and his Republican Party. The secessionists formed the Confederate States of America, which eventually went to war with Lincoln’s United States of America. Their war, the American Civil War, became the bloodiest in American history.

As observed by historian was Gordon Rhea, it was not just southern politicians who said secession was needed to protect the “institution,” as slavery was called. Community leaders,  and even preachers, joined the clamor.

One of those pro-secession religious leaders was Benjamin Morgan Palmer (January 25, 1818 – May 25, 1902). Per Wikipedia, Palmer, “a theologian and orator, was the first moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America.” He was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans when he gave an influential “Thanksgiving Sermon” on November 29, 1860, shortly after Lincoln won the White House. In his sermon, Palmer argues for a break from the Union. Why? To enable the South to fulfill its God given trust to “conserve and perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing.” The threat of northern abolitionists, whose goal was “setting bounds to what God alone can regulate,” called the South “to resent and resist,” Palmer claimed.

Palmer’s sermon might seem extraordinary today for its forthright, righteous, and holy defense of slavery. But in Palmer’s time, the idea of slavery as God’s divine will and order was common in the slaveholding states. Palmer was, to use an expression, preaching to the choir.

Some items of note in Palmer’s sermon:

• The slave, says Palmer, “stands to me in the relation of a child.” The slave is his “brother” and “friend,” while Palmer is the “guardian” and “father.” The slave “leans upon (the slaveholder) for protection, for counsel, and for blessing.” The God-given ties between master and slave thus “binds” the master with “the providential duty of preserving the relation”;  upsetting that relationship would be “a doom worse than death.” Palmer gets more specific: for slaves, “freedom would be their doom.”

• Palmer demonizes abolitionists by calling them atheists. Using language that is practically Orwellian, he says that the abolitionists cries’ of “liberty, fraternity, and equality” must be “interpreted” to mean “bondage, confiscation, and massacre.”

• Also of note is Palmer’s belief that, through the products borne of slave labor, the South is the economic engine that fuels the world’s commerce. Palmer says that the South owes it to the world (and perhaps the world owes it to the South) to protect southern agriculture and its enslaved laborers.

Palmer’s comments give us cause to ponder: would slavery have ended anytime soon if not for the Civil War? Palmer went so far as to say that the defense of slavery “lifted” southerners “to the highest moral ground” and that they must “proclaim to all the world that we hold this trust from God, and in its occupancy we are prepared to stand or fall as God may appoint.” Southerners, said Palmer, must not abandon what God had given them without a fight. And then the war came.

The full text is here; this a longish but interesting excerpt:

In determining our duty in this emergency (the election of Lincoln and the threat to slavery) it is necessary that we should first ascertain the nature of the trust providentially committed to us. A nation often has a character as well defined and intense as that of an individual. This depends, of course upon a variety of causes operating through a long period of time. It is due largely to the original traits which distinguish the stock from which it springs, and to the providential training which has formed its education.

But, however derived, this individuality of character alone makes any people truly historic, competent to work out its specific mission, and to become a factor in the world’s progress. The particular trust assigned to such a people becomes the pledge of the divine protection; and their fidelity to it determines the fate by which it is finally overtaken. What that trust is must be ascertained from the necessities of their position, the institutions which are the outgrowth of their principles and the conflicts through which they preserve their identity and independence.

If then the South is such a people, what, at this juncture, is their providential trust? I answer, that it is to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing. Continue reading

Monument: “Lincoln and Child,” Harlem, New York, by Charles Keck

Lincoln and Boy Monument 2
Lincoln and Child Monument, Harlem, New York; by sculptor Charles Keck
Image Source: NYC Civil War Monuments Blog; see here and here for more images

As described on Google Plus, the “President Abraham Lincoln Houses in Manhattan, one of the New York City Housing Authority’s nearly 350 developments, has fourteen buildings, 6 and 14-stories tall with 1,283 apartments.” In 1949, a monument to the namesake for the Lincoln Houses was installed, to some fanfare. The Baltimore Afro-American wrote an article about the unveling of the monument:

The Afro-American | Baltimore, MD February 19, 1949
Lincoln statue tribute to Harlem slum clearance

New York — Tribute was paid to the clearing of slums in Harlem and to the freeing of slaves as the statue, “Lincoln and Boy,” was unveiled and dedicated in the center of the Abraham Lincoln Housing project here.

“Lincoln would have been proud to have his statue placed in the middle of a recreation area which embodies so many of his principles rather than in marble halls among the great,” Thomas Farrell, chairman of the (New York City) authority declared.

…Some 1286 families, most of them colored, live in the Lincoln project… The boy in the statue was described by the sculptor as a youth who posed for another piece of art work, but was put in because he struck the “fancy” of the sculptor.”

As noted in the article, several NYC politicians and public officials used the occassion to decry the lack of equality and racial justice for New Yorkers.

At the dedication for the statue, it was called the “Lincoln and Boy” monument. Later references have called it the “Lincoln and Child” monument. I am using the latter designation for this blog post.

Lincoln with Boy NYC
A boy gets a closer look at the sculpture, “Abraham Lincoln and Child,” during its dedication at Abraham Lincoln Houses in East Harlem, Manhattan. The sculpture, which was unveiled on Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1949, is bronze with a granite base and was created by Charles Keck (1875-1951). ID# 02.003.09535
Image and Caption Source: From the La Guardia and Wagner Archives, La Guardia Community College

Many New York City Housing projects feature some kind of artwork; see here for more details. 

Black Moses Barbie, by Pierre Bennu


Black Moses Barbie (Harriet Tubman Commercial) (1 of 3)
From YouTube: This commercial for a Black Moses Barbie toy celebrating the legacy of Harriet Tubman is part of Pierre Bennu’s larger series of paintings and films deconstructing and re-envisioning images of people of color in commercial and pop culture.
Two more commercials for this hypothetical toy will be posted throughout Black History Month 2011.
Directed, written, shot & storyboard by: Pierre Bennu

These three videos are by the African American artist Pierre Bennu. They take a comedic/satiric look at Harriet Tubman and the beloved Barbie doll.The videos have references to pop culture that some viewers may not recognize. For example, the third video might require a web search for Billy Dee Williams and the 1975 movie Mahogany before you “get” it.

The humor might not be to everyone’s taste, but I got a good laugh. An article in the Huffington Post discusses the videos:

Bennu, who is also known for his videos “Sun Moon Child” (music by Imani Uziri) and Gregory Porter’s “Be Good (Lion’s Song),” shares the artistic sensibilities with a generation of Black artists like Kara Walker, Michael Ray Charles, Hank Willis Thomas, who have sought to turn Black stereotypes, Black history and Black trauma into vehicles of satire, humor and ultimately cultural resistance. As Glenda Carpio notes in her book Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery (Oxford University Press, 2008), “Black American humor began as a wrested freedom, the freedom to laugh at that which was unjust and cruel in order to create distance from what would otherwise obliterate a sense of self and community.”


Black Moses Barbie (Harriet Tubman Commercial) (2 of 3)


Black Moses Barbie (Harriet Tubman Commercial) (3 of 3)

The Discover Freedmen Project: Digitizing Freedmen’s Bureau Records for Genealogy and Other Research

Video for The Freedmen’s Bureau Project:

The Freedmen’s Bureau Project is an effort to digitize records from the Freedmen’s Bureau, which can be used for genealogical and other research. The Project’s website, http://www.discoverfreedmen.org, provides this background:

The Freedmen’s Bureau Project is helping African Americans reconnect with their Civil War­-era ancestors. Join us in restoring thousands of records, and begin building your own family tree.

LEAD US INTO THE LIGHT

To help bring thousands of records to light, the Freedmen’s Bureau Project was created as a set of partnerships between FamilySearch International and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro­-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS), and the California African American Museum.

Tens of thousands of volunteers are needed to make these records searchable online. No specific time commitment is required, and anyone may participate. Volunteers simply log on, pull up as many scanned documents as they like, and enter the names and dates into the fields provided. Once published, information for millions of African Americans will be accessible, allowing families to build their family trees and connect with their ancestors.

For those who are interested in the project, please go to the website to get more details.

Hat tip to Yulanda Burgess for this information. FYI, Angela Y. Walton-Raji of the USCT Chronicle blog appears in the above video.