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

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

Would You Choose Freedom or Your Wife?

John Boston Letter to enslaved wife
Letter from runaway slave/freedman John Boston to his wife Elizabeth. John tells his wife he has escaped to freedom with the Union army — and might never see her again.
Image Source: National Archives

Would you leave your wife and family to gain freedom for yourself?

That dilemma was faced by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of slaves during the Civil War. Many enslaved Southerners fled their masters and sought freedom behind Union lines. But the chance for escape did not always afford the opportunity to take all the family along. [1]

This was apparently the case for John Boston, who escaped enslavement in Owensville, MD, by taking refuge with a New York regiment that was heading south. Boston wrote a letter to his wife, transcribed below, where he exclaims his joy at being free, and expresses his regret that he has left his wife (and perhaps a child named Daniel) behind. It is not clear if Boston wrote the letter himself, or if one of the regiment’s soldiers wrote it.

John Boston says in the letter “i trust the time Will Come When We Shal meet again And if We dont met on earth We Will Meet in heven Whare Jesas ranes.” He has no certainty about what the future holds; for now, he has cast his lot with the Union army, and all he can do is hope that God will take care of the rest. It is worth noting that the letter was written in January 1862. The legislation authorizing the Emancipation Proclamation was not passed by the US Congress until July 1862; and Lincoln did not issue the final version of the Proclamation until January 1, 1863. The notion of emancipating the slaves was not yet Union policy.

(In any event, the final version of the Proclamation did not apply to Boston’s home state of Maryland; it was only effective for states that had seceded and joined the Confederacy. Maryland did finally abolish slavery in November 1864 – notably, this was more than a year before the 13th Amendment was ratified.)

[​IMG]
Envelope for the letter from runaway slave/freedman John Boston to his wife Elizabeth.
Image Source: National Archives

It does not appear that Elizabeth Boston ever received this letter. It was intercepted and eventually forwarded to US Secretary of War Edwin Stanton by a group of Marylanders who wanted something to be done about runaway slaves who were being harbored in Union army camps. At the time, The War department wrote back that the situation would be handled when “time permitted.”

This is the content of the letter[2]: Continue reading

The Demographics and Geography of Free Blacks before the Civil War: North & South, East & West


Map of Free States and Slave States, 1861. During the Antebellum Era, the term “slave states” was synonymous “the South,” and the term “free states” was synonymous “the North.” In the latest (2010) US Census, all the states which had slaves before the war are listed as part of the South except Missouri and New Jersey. New Jersey, which established a plan for gradual emancipation during the war, had 18 elderly slaves when the Civil War began.
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons.

In 1860, right before the start of the Civil War, more free African Americans lived in “the South” than in “the North.” Does that mean anything? Does that mean, for example, that life for an un-enslaved African American was better in the South than in the North? Some people look at the raw numbers and make that leap. In this post, I will take a detailed look at population numbers for free blacks before the war, to determine if they, by themselves, show that blacks were better off in any region.

First, it is correct that of the 488,000 or so free blacks in 1860, 262,000 (53.7%) lived in the slave states (the “South”) and 226,000 (46.3%) lived in the free states and the territories (the “North”). I did some additional research and number crunching based mostly (but not only) on the 1860 Census, to see if a more detailed look at the data offers any insights. (I’ve posted the stats at the bottom of this post.) I noted the following:

(1) This is the free black population for various groups of states:

State/Area      % of the Slave Pop    % of the Freeman Pop

Free States            0.0                   46.1
DC-MD-DE               2.3                   23.5
KY-MO                  8.6                    2.9
Upper South           30.6                   19.7
Lower South           58.5                    7.5

TOTAL                100.0%                  99.7%*
=========================================
Union                 10.9                   72.5
Confederacy           89.1                   27.2

Total                100.0%                  99.7%*

* Numbers off due to rounding and small number of freemen in territories.

Lower South = SC, FL, GA, AL, MS, LA, TX
Upper South = VA, AR, NC, TN

(2) While it’s true that the majority of free blacks lived in “the South,” the data is skewed by the large free black population in the Delaware, Maryland, and Washington, DC area. Almost one of four free blacks lived in this geographically small, contiguous area, while just 2.3% of US slaves resided in the area. That area is not representative of the South at all.

I find it much more useful to break-out the free black population by three separate regions, not two, viz.:

Free Black Population in the USA @ 1860, by Region
Northern (free) states: 46.1% of US free blacks
Border (slave) states: 26.4% of US free blacks
Deep South (Confederate/slave) states: 27.2% of US free blacks

The term “Border state” was commonly used to describe Delaware Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri during the Civil War. The District of Columbia, which was created out of small portions of Maryland and Virginia, contained 11,131 free blacks and 3,185 enslaved blacks in 1860. The Virginia portions of the District were reverted back to that state in 1846.

(3) The real divide in the free black population is more about “East vs West” than “North vs South.” The majority of free people of African descent lived in the original 13 states and Washington, DC. Or put in another way, most free blacks lived on the East Coast.

In 1860, 370,000 free blacks — 75% of the nation’s free black population — lived in MA, NH, CN, RI, NJ, NY, PA, DE, MD, DC, VA, NC, SC, and GA.

(4) African Americans living west of the 13 Original States (and especially west and south of Ohio and Indiana)  were relatively scarce, especially in the Old SouthWest. To illustrate this point, consider that:
• OH and IN (two states in the Old Northwest; we now call it the Midwest) combined had 48,101 free blacks in 1860.
• The Old Southwest ~ AL, AR, FL, KY, LA, MO, MS, TN, and TX ~ combined had only 45,077 free blacks. Louisiana had 18,647 free blacks, who were inherited from the Louisiana Purchase. Outside of Louisiana, then, these states were a no-man’s land for free blacks, even as the Deep South states contained the majority of enslaved blacks.

(5) Of the 261,918 free blacks who lived in the slave states, 203,407 free blacks lived in just four states (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina) and the District of Columbia. That is, just under 78% of slave states’ free blacks lived in the Mid-Atlantic states.

(6) Less than 2% of the population in the free states was of African descent. And many African Americans were clustered in places in the northeast and Ohio. Demographically, the free states looked like modern day Idaho or Wyoming, which are also less than 2% African American. I would imagine that millions of whites living in the North went through entire lives and saw a real live African American just once or twice, if ever.

(7) Only 5% of the black population lived in the free states in 1860.

(8) In 1860, NJ had 18 persons listed as slaves, and there were 46 slaves in US territories (Nebraska had 15, Kansas had 2, and Utah had 29).

~ The following factoids refer demographics for the Union and the Confederacy, the two American Civil War antagonists ~ Continue reading

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)

Confederate Declarations of Independence: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery”


This poster (called a “broadside”), based on an article in the Charleston Mercury newspaper, announces that South Carolina has “dissolved” its connection to the United States
Image Source: The Rail Splitter.com

In 1776, so-called “Patriots” (some might call them rebels) in thirteen British American colonies declared themselves politically independent from Great Britain. The colonies, which now called themselves independent states, believed that “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” Thus, on July 4, 1776, they issued the Declaration of Independence, which said that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive” of the “ends” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

The declaration, issued by what the colonists called the United States of America, has become iconic both here in the US and abroad, for its language and values, and for the example it set for so many other nations that sought separation from (what they claimed were) tyrannical and despotic governments.

After Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, seven slaveholding states — the so-called Deep South or Cotton Seven states — declared that they were “dissolving the Union.” They “seceded” from the USA to form the Confederate States of America (CSA). Eventually, circumstances led the USA and CSA to go to war, after which four other slave states joined the the fledgling Confederacy. That war between the USA and CSA would last more than four bloody years.

The seceding states, desiring to uphold the declarative tradition of the American colonists, issued their own declarations of independence, which many refer to today as secession declarations. These declarations offer valuable insight into why the breakaway states sought to form a separate nation.

A review of the secession declarations  from the original seceding states discovers a common theme: they dissolved the Union over concerns that the incoming Lincoln administration was a sectional party (that is, a party that was partial to people in the Northern free states) which threatened the institution of slavery, racial supremacy, and the very future of white civilization in the South.

The Mississippi secession declaration says outright that “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.” South Carolina says that the incoming Lincoln administration seeks to “(wage) war…against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.” Texas makes the serious claim that the free states “have refused to vote appropriations for protecting Texas against ruthless savages (Indians), for the sole reason that she is a slave-holding State.” Georgia says “The party of Lincoln, called the Republican party… is admitted to be an anti-slavery party… their avowed purpose is to subvert our society and subject us not only to the loss of our (slave) property but the destruction of ourselves, our wives, and our children, and the desolation of our homes, our altars, and our firesides.”

The Declaration of Independence says that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The state of Texas asserted an important clarification: “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy (i.e., United States) itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable… in this free government *all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights* [emphasis in the original].”

Their statements, in today’s thinking, seem paradoxical: how could people at once say that they value freedom and independence, while simultaneously claiming the necessity of keeping other humans in bondage? Perhaps the following excerpts from the secession declarations can offer some answers. The full text of the declarations can be found here and here. I add more comments further below.

This is from the state of Mississippi: A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union. (Adopted around January 9, 1861) Continue reading