Home » Essay of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”

Essay of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”

Du Bois, W. E. Burghardt. The Souls of Black Folk
Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library
Chapter 1
I. Of Our Spiritual Strivings
O water, voice of my heart, crying in the sand,
All night long crying with a mournful cry,
As I lie and listen, and cannot understand
The voice of my heart in my side or the voice of the sea,
O water, crying for rest, is it I, is it I?
All night long the water is crying to me.
Unresting water, there shall never be rest
Till the last moon droop and the last tide fail,
And the fire of the end begin to burn in the west;
And the heart shall be weary and wonder and cry like the sea,
All life long crying without avail,
As the water all night long is crying to me.

[musial notation from “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”]
Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some
through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All,
nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me
curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be
a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at
Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I
smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require.
To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.
And yet, being a problem is a strange experience, — peculiar even for one who has
never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe. It is in the early days
of rollicking boyhood that the revelation first bursts upon one, all in a day, as it were. I
remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the
hills of New England, where the dark Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic
to the sea. In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys’ and girls’ heads
to buy gorgeous visiting-cards — ten cents a package — and exchange. The exchange was
merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card, — refused it peremptorily, with a
glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the
others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a
vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all
beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great
wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examinationtime, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all
this fine contempt began to fade; for the words I longed for, and all their dazzling
opportunities, were theirs, not mine. But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some,
all, I would wrest from them. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law,
by healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head, — some way.
With other black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youth shrunk into
tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking
distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, Why did God make me an
outcast and a stranger in mine own house? The shades of the prison-house closed round
about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and
unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing
palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above.
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the
Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this
American world, — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets
him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this
double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of
others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt
and pity. One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts,
two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength
alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, — this longing to attain
self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this
merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize
America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach
his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a
message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a
Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without
having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.
This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to
escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius.
These powers of body and mind have in the past been strangely wasted, dispersed, or
forgotten. The shadow of a mighty Negro past flits through the tale of Ethiopia the
Shadowy and of Egypt the Sphinx. Through history, the powers of single black men flash
here and there like falling stars, and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged
their brightness. Here in America, in the few days since Emancipation, the black man’s
turning hither and thither in hesitant and doubtful striving has often made his very
strength to lose effectiveness, to seem like absence of power, like weakness. And yet it is
not weakness, — it is the contradiction of double aims. The double-aimed struggle of the
black artisan — on the one hand to escape white contempt for a nation of mere hewers of
wood and drawers of water, and on the other hand to plough and nail and dig for a
poverty-stricken horde — could only result in making him a poor craftsman, for he had
but half a heart in either cause. By the poverty and ignorance of his people, the Negro
minister or doctor was tempted toward quackery and demagogy; and by the criticism of
the other world, toward ideals that made him ashamed of his lowly tasks. The would-be
black savant was confronted by the paradox that the knowledge his people needed was a
twice-told tale to his white neighbors, while the knowledge which would teach the white
world was Greek to his own flesh and blood. The innate love of harmony and beauty that
set the ruder souls of his people a-dancing and a-singing raised but confusion and doubt
in the soul of the black artist; for the beauty revealed to him was the soul-beauty of a race
which his larger audience despised, and he could not articulate the message of another
people. This waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals, has
wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds of ten thousand thousand people,
— has sent them often wooing false gods and invoking false means of salvation, and at
times has even seemed about to make them ashamed of themselves.
Away back in the days of bondage they thought to see in one divine event the end of
all doubt and disappointment; few men ever worshipped Freedom with half such
unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries. To him, so far as he
thought and dreamed, slavery was indeed the sum of all villainies, the cause of all sorrow,
the root of all prejudice; Emancipation was the key to a promised land of sweeter beauty
than ever stretched before the eyes of wearied Israelites. In song and exhortation swelled
one refrain — Liberty; in his tears and curses the God he implored had Freedom in his
right hand. At last it came, — suddenly, fearfully, like a dream. With one wild carnival of
blood and passion came the message in his own plaintive cadences: —
“Shout, O children!
Shout, you’re free!
For God has bought your liberty!”
Years have passed away since then, — ten, twenty, forty;
forty years of national life, forty years of renewal and development, and yet the swarthy
spectre sits in its accustomed seat at the Nation’s feast. In vain do we cry to this our
vastest social problem: —
“Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble!”
The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in
freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in these years of change,
the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people, — a disappointment all
the more bitter because the unattained ideal was unbounded save by the simple ignorance
of a lowly people.
The first decade was merely a prolongation of the vain search for freedom, the boon
that seemed ever barely to elude their grasp, — like a tantalizing will-o’-the-wisp,
maddening and misleading the headless host. The holocaust of war, the terrors of the KuKlux Klan, the lies of carpet-baggers, the disorganization of industry, and the
contradictory advice of friends and foes, left the bewildered serf with no new watchword
beyond the old cry for freedom. As the time flew, however, he began to grasp a new idea.
The ideal of liberty demanded for its attainment powerful means, and these the Fifteenth
Amendment gave him. The ballot, which before he had looked upon as a visible sign of
freedom, he now regarded as the chief means of gaining and perfecting the liberty with
which war had partially endowed him. And why not? Had not votes made war and
emancipated millions? Had not votes enfranchised the freedmen? Was anything
impossible to a power that had done all this? A million black men started with renewed
zeal to vote themselves into the kingdom. So the decade flew away, the revolution of
1876 came, and left the half-free serf weary, wondering, but still inspired. Slowly but
steadily, in the following years, a new vision began gradually to replace the dream of
political power, — a powerful movement, the rise of another ideal to guide the unguided,
another pillar of fire by night after a clouded day. It was the ideal of “book-learning”; the
curiosity, born of compulsory ignorance, to know and test the power of the cabalistic
letters of the white man, the longing to know. Here at last seemed to have been
discovered the mountain path to Canaan; longer than the highway of Emancipation and
law, steep and rugged, but straight, leading to heights high enough to overlook life.
Up the new path the advance guard toiled, slowly, heavily, doggedly; only those who
have watched and guided the faltering feet, the misty minds, the dull understandings, of
the dark pupils of these schools know how faithfully, how piteously, this people strove to
learn. It was weary work. The cold statistician wrote down the inches of progress here
and there, noted also where here and there a foot had slipped or some one had fallen. To
the tired climbers, the horizon was ever dark, the mists were often cold, the Canaan was
always dim and far away. If, however, the vistas disclosed as yet no goal, no restingplace, little but flattery and criticism, the journey at least gave leisure for reflection and
self-examination; it changed the child of Emancipation to the youth with dawning self-
consciousness, self-realization, self-respect. In those sombre forests of his striving his
own soul rose before him, and he saw himself, — darkly as through a veil; and yet he saw
in himself some faint revelation of his power, of his mission. He began to have a dim
feeling that, to attain his place in the world, he must be himself, and not another. For the
first time he sought to analyze the burden he bore upon his back, that dead-weight of
social degradation partially masked behind a half-named Negro problem. He felt his
poverty; without a cent, without a home, without land, tools, or savings, he had entered
into competition with rich, landed, skilled neighbors. To be a poor man is hard, but to be
a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships. He felt the weight of his
ignorance, — not simply of letters, but of life, of business, of the humanities; the
accumulated sloth and shirking and awkwardness of decades and centuries shackled his
hands and feet. Nor was his burden all poverty and ignorance. The red stain of bastardy,
which two centuries of systematic legal defilement of Negro women had stamped upon
his race, meant not only the loss of ancient African chastity, but also the hereditary
weight of a mass of corruption from white adulterers, threatening almost the obliteration
of the Negro home.
A people thus handicapped ought not to be asked to race with the world, but rather
allowed to give all its time and thought to its own social problems. But alas! while
sociologists gleefully count his bastards and his prostitutes, the very soul of the toiling,
sweating black man is darkened by the shadow of a vast despair. Men call the shadow
prejudice, and learnedly explain it as the natural defence of culture against barbarism,
learning against ignorance, purity against crime, the “higher” against the “lower” races.
To which the Negro cries Amen! and swears that to so much of this strange prejudice as
is founded on just homage to civilization, culture, righteousness, and progress, he humbly
bows and meekly does obeisance. But before that nameless prejudice that leaps beyond
all this he stands helpless, dismayed, and well-nigh speechless; before that personal
disrespect and mockery, the ridicule and systematic humiliation, the distortion of fact and
wanton license of fancy, the cynical ignoring of the better and the boisterous welcoming
of the worse, the all-pervading desire to inculcate disdain for everything black, from
Toussaint to the devil, — before this there rises a sickening despair that would disarm and
discourage any nation save that black host to whom “discouragement” is an unwritten
But the facing of so vast a prejudice could not but bring the inevitable self-questioning,
self-disparagement, and lowering of ideals which ever accompany repression and breed
in an atmosphere of contempt and hate. Whisperings and portents came home upon the
four winds: Lo! we are diseased and dying, cried the dark hosts; we cannot write, our
voting is vain; what need of education, since we must always cook and serve? And the
Nation echoed and enforced this self-criticism, saying: Be content to be servants, and
nothing more; what need of higher culture for half-men? Away with the black man’s
ballot, by force or fraud, — and behold the suicide of a race! Nevertheless, out of the evil
came something of good, — the more careful adjustment of education to real life, the
clearer perception of the Negroes’ social responsibilities, and the sobering realization of
the meaning of progress.
So dawned the time of Sturm und Drang: storm and stress to-day rocks our little boat
on the mad waters of the world-sea; there is within and without the sound of conflict, the
burning of body and rending of soul; inspiration strives with doubt, and faith with vain
questionings. The bright ideals of the past, — physical freedom, political power, the
training of brains and the training of hands, — all these in turn have waxed and waned,
until even the last grows dim and overcast. Are they all wrong, — all false? No, not that,
but each alone was over-simple and incomplete, — the dreams of a credulous racechildhood, or the fond imaginings of the other world which does not know and does not
want to know our power. To be really true, all these ideals must be melted and welded
into one. The training of the schools we need to-day more than ever, — the training of deft
hands, quick eyes and ears, and above all the broader, deeper, higher culture of gifted
minds and pure hearts. The power of the ballot we need in sheer self-defence, — else what
shall save us from a second slavery? Freedom, too, the long-sought, we still seek, — the
freedom of life and limb, the freedom to work and think, the freedom to love and aspire.
Work, culture, liberty, — all these we need, not singly but together, not successively but
together, each growing and aiding each, and all striving toward that vaster ideal that
swims before the Negro people, the ideal of human brotherhood, gained through the
unifying ideal of Race; the ideal of fostering and developing the traits and talents of the
Negro, not in opposition to or contempt for other races, but rather in large conformity to
the greater ideals of the American Republic, in order that some day on American soil two
world-races may give each to each those characteristics both so sadly lack. We the darker
ones come even now not altogether empty-handed: there are to-day no truer exponents of
the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independence than the American Negroes;
there is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave; the
American fairy tales and folklore are Indian and African; and, all in all, we black men
seem the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and
smartness. Will America be poorer if she replace her brutal dyspeptic blundering with
light-hearted but determined Negro humility? or her coarse and cruel wit with loving
jovial good-humor? or her vulgar music with the soul of the Sorrow Songs?
Merely a concrete test of the underlying principles of the great republic is the Negro
Problem, and the spiritual striving of the freedmen’s sons is the travail of souls whose
burden is almost beyond the measure of their strength, but who bear it in the name of an
historic race, in the name of this the land of their fathers’ fathers, and in the name of
human opportunity.
And now what I have briefly sketched in large outline let me on coming pages tell
again in many ways, with loving emphasis and deeper detail, that men may listen to the
striving in the souls of black folk. Du Bois, W. E. Burghardt. The Souls of Black Folk
Chapter 2
II. Of the Dawn of Freedom
The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line, — the relation of
the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of
the sea. It was a phase of this problem that caused the Civil War; and however much they
who marched South and North in 1861 may have fixed on the technical points, of union
and local autonomy as a shibboleth, all nevertheless knew, as we know, that the question
of Negro slavery was the real cause of the conflict. Curious it was, too, how this deeper
question ever forced itself to the surface despite effort and disclaimer. No sooner had
Northern armies touched Southern soil than this old question, newly guised, sprang from
the earth, — What shall be done with Negroes? Peremptory military commands this way
and that, could not answer the query; the Emancipation Proclamation seemed but to
broaden and intensify the difficulties; and the War Amendments made the Negro
problems of to-day
It is the aim of this essay to study the period of history from 1861 to 1872 so far as it
relates to the American Negro. In effect, this tale of the dawn of Freedom is an account of
that government of men called the Freedmen’s Bureau, — one of the most singular and
interesting of the attempts made by a great nation to grapple with vast problems of race
and social condition.
The war has naught to do with slaves, cried Congress, the President, and the Nation;
and yet no sooner had the armies, East and West, penetrated Virginia and Tennessee than
fugitive slaves appeared within their lines. They came at night, when the flickering campfires shone like vast unsteady stars along the black horizon: old men and thin, with gray
and tufted hair; women with frightened eyes, dragging whimpering hungry children; men
and girls, stalwart and gaunt, — a horde of starving vagabonds, homeless, helpless, and
pitiable, in their dark distress. Two methods of treating these newcomers seemed equally
logical to opposite sorts of minds. Ben Butler, in Virginia, quickly declared slave
property contraband of war, and put the fugitives to work; while Fremont, in Missouri,
declared the slaves free under martial law. Butler’s action was approved, but Fremont’s
was hastily countermanded, and his successor, Halleck, saw things differently.
“Hereafter,” he commanded, “no slaves should be allowed to come into your lines at all;
if any come without your knowledge, when owners call for them deliver them.” Such a
policy was difficult to enforce; some of the black refugees declared themselves freemen,
others showed that their masters had deserted them, and still others were captured with
forts and plantations. Evidently, too, slaves were a source of strength to the Confederacy,
and were being used as laborers and producers. “They constitute a military resource,”
wrote Secretary Cameron, late in 1861; “and being such, that they should not be turned
over to the enemy is too plain to discuss.” So gradually the tone of the army chiefs
changed; Congress forbade the rendition of fugitives, and Butler’s “contrabands” were
welcomed as military laborers. This complicated rather than solved the problem, for now
the scattering fugitives became a steady stream, which flowed faster as the armies
Then the long-headed man with care-chiselled face who sat in the White House saw
the inevitable, and emancipated the slaves of rebels on New Year’s, 1863. A month later
Congress called earnestly for the Negro soldiers whom the act of July, 1862, had half
grudgingly allowed to enlist. Thus the barriers were levelled and the deed was done. The
stream of fugitives swelled to a flood, and anxious army officers kept inquiring: “What
must be done with slaves, arriving almost daily? Are we to find food and shelter for
women and children?”
It was a Pierce of Boston who pointed out the way, and thus became in a sense the
founder of the Freedmen’s Bureau. He was a firm friend of Secretary Chase; and when, in
1861, the care of slaves and abandoned lands devolved upon the Treasury officials,
Pierce was specially detailed from the ranks to study the conditions. First, he cared for
the refugees at Fortress Monroe; and then, after Sherman had captured Hilton Head,
Pierce was sent there to found his Port Royal experiment of making free workingmen out
of slaves. Before his experiment was barely started, however, the problem of the fugitives
had assumed such proportions that it was taken from the hands of the over-burdened
Treasury Department and given to the army officials. Already centres of massed
freedmen were forming at Fortress Monroe, Washington, New Orleans, Vicksburg and
Corinth, Columbus, Ky., and Cairo, Ill., as well as at Port Royal. Army chaplains found
here new and fruitful fields; “superintendents of contrabands” multiplied, and some
attempt at systematic work was made by enlisting the able-bodied men and giving work
to the others.
Then came the Freedmen’s Aid societies, born of the touching appeals from Pierce and
from these other centres of distress. There was the American Missionary Association,
sprung from the Amistad, and now full-grown for work; the various church organizations,
the National Freedmen’s Relief Association, the American Freedmen’s Union, the
Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission, — in all fifty or more active organizations, which
sent clothes, money, school-books, and teachers southward. All they did was needed, for
the destitution of the freedmen was often reported as “too appalling for belief,” and the
situation was daily growing worse rather than better.
And daily, too, it seemed more plain that this was no ordinary matter of temporary
relief, but a national crisis; for here loomed a labor problem of vast dimensions. Masses
of Negroes stood idle, or, if they worked spasmodically, were never sure of pay; and if
perchance they received pay, squandered the new thing thoughtlessly. In these and other
ways were camp-life and the new liberty demoralizing the freedmen. The broader
economic organization thus clearly demanded sprang up here and there as accident and
local conditions determined. Here it was that Pierce’s Port Royal plan of leased
plantations and guided workmen pointed out the rough way. In Washington the military
governor, at the urgent appeal of the superintendent, opened confiscated estates to the
cultivation of the fugitives, and there in the shadow of the dome gathered black farm
villages. General Dix gave over estates to the freedmen of Fortress Monroe, and so on,
South and West. The government and benevolent societies furnished the means of
cultivation, and the Negro turned again slowly to work. The systems of control, thus
started, rapidly grew, here and there, into strange little governments, like that of General
Banks in Louisiana, with its ninety thousand black subjects, its fifty thousand guided
laborers, and its annual budget of one hundred thousand dollars and more. It made out
four thousand pay-rolls a year, registered all freedmen, inquired into grievances and
redressed them, laid and collected taxes, and established a system of public schools. So,
too, Colonel Eaton, the superintendent of Tennessee and Arkansas, ruled over one
hundred thousand freedmen, leased and cultivated seven thousand acres of cotton land,
and fed ten thousand paupers a year. In South Carolina was General Saxton, with his
deep interest in black folk. He succeeded Pierce and the Treasury officials, and sold
forfeited estates, leased abandoned plantations, encouraged schools, and received from
Sherman, after that terribly picturesque march to the sea, thousands of the wretched camp
Three characteristic things one might have seen in Sherman’s raid through Georgia,
which threw the new situation in shadowy relief: the Conqueror, the Conquered, and the
Negro. Some see all significance in the grim front of the destroyer, and some in the bitter
sufferers of the Lost Cause. But to me neither soldier nor fugitive speaks with so deep a
meaning as that dark human cloud that clung like remorse on the rear of those swift
columns, swelling at times to half their size, almost engulfing and choking them. In vain
were they ordered back, in vain were bridges hewn from beneath their feet; on they
trudged and writhed and surged, until they rolled into Savannah, a starved and naked
horde of tens of thousands. There too came the characteristic military remedy: “The
islands from Charleston south, the abandoned rice-fields along the rivers for thirty miles
back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. John’s River, Florida, are reserved
and set apart for the settlement of Negroes now made free by act of war.” So read the
celebrated “Field-order Number Fifteen.”
All these experiments, orders, and systems were bound to attract and perplex the
government and the nation. Directly after the Emancipation Proclamation, Representative
Eliot had introduced a bill creating a Bureau of Emancipation; but it was never reported.
The following June a committee of inquiry, appointed by the Secretary of War, reported
in favor of a temporary bureau for the “improvement, protection, and employment of
refugee freedmen,” on much the same lines as were afterwards followed. Petitions came
in to President Lincoln from distinguished citizens and organizations, strongly urging a
comprehensive and unified plan of dealing with the freedmen, under a bureau which
should be “charged with the study of plans and execution of measures for easily guiding,
and in every way judiciously and humanely aiding, the passage of our emancipated and
yet to be emancipated blacks from the old condition of forced labor to their new state of
voluntary industry.”
Some half-hearted steps were taken to accomplish this, in part, by putting the whole
matter again in charge of the special Treasury agents. Laws of 1863 and 1864 directed
them to take charge of and lease abandoned lands for periods not exceeding twelve
months, and to “provide in such leases, or otherwise, for the employment and general
welfare” of the freedmen. Most of the army officers greeted this as a welcome relief from
perplexing “Negro affairs,” and Secretary Fessenden, July 29, 1864, issued an excellent
system of regulations, which were afterward closely followed by General Howard. Under
Treasury agents, large quantities of land were leased in the Mississippi Valley, and many
Negroes were employed; but in August, 1864, the new regulations were suspended for
reasons of “public policy,” and the army was again in control.
Meanwhile Congress had turned its attention to the subject; and in March the House
passed a bill by a majority of two establishing a Bureau for Freedmen in the War
Department. Charles Sumner, who had charge of the bill in the Senate, argued that
freedmen and abandoned lands ought to be under the same department, and reported a
substitute for the House bill attaching the Bureau to the Treasury Department. This bill
passed, but too late for action by the House. The debates wandered over the whole policy
of the administration and the general question of slavery, without touching very closely
the specific merits of the measure in hand. Then the national election took place; and the
administration, with a vote of renewed confidence from the country, addressed itself to
the matter more seriously. A conference between the two branches of Congress agreed
upon a carefully drawn measure which contained the chief provisions of Sumner’s bill,
but made the proposed organization a department independent of both the War and the
Treasury officials. The bill was conservative, giving the new department “general
superintendence of all freedmen.” Its purpose was to “establish regulations” for them,
protect them, lease them lands, adjust their wages, and appear in civil and military courts
as their “next friend.” There were many limitations attached to the powers thus granted,
and the organization was made permanent. Nevertheless, the Senate defeated the bill, and
a new conference committee was appointed. This committee reported a new bill,
February 28, which was whirled through just as the session closed, and became the act of
1865 establishing in the War Department a “Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and
Abandoned Lands.”
This last compromise was a hasty bit of legislation, vague and uncertain in outline. A
Bureau was created, “to continue during the present War of Rebellion, and for one year
thereafter,” to which was given “the supervision and management of all abandoned lands
and the control of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen,” under “such rules and
regu-lations as may be presented by the head of the Bureau and approved by the
President.” A Commissioner, appointed by the President and Senate, was to control the
Bureau, with an office force not exceeding ten clerks. The President might also appoint
assistant commissioners in the seceded States, and to all these offices military officials
might be detailed at regular pay. The Secretary of War could issue rations, clothing, and
fuel to the destitute, and all abandoned property was placed in the hands of the Bureau for
eventual lease and sale to ex-slaves in forty-acre parcels.
Thus did the United States government definitely assume charge of the emancipated
Negro as the ward of the nation. It was a tremendous undertaking. Here at a stroke of the
pen was erected a government of millions of men, — and not ordinary men either, but
black men emasculated by a peculiarly complete system of slavery, centuries old; and
now, suddenly, violently, they come into a new birthright, at a time of war and passion, in
the midst of the stricken and embittered population of their former masters. Any man
might well have hesitated to assume charge of such a work, with vast responsibilities,
indefinite powers, and limited resources. Probably no one but a soldier would have
answered such a call promptly; and, indeed, no one but a soldier could be called, for
Congress had appropriated no money for salaries and expenses.
Less than a month after the weary Emancipator passed to his rest, his successor
assigned Major-Gen. Oliver O. Howard to duty as Commissioner of the new Bureau. He
was a Maine man, then only thirty-five years of age. He had marched with Sherman to
the sea, had fought well at Gettysburg, and but the year before had been assigned to the
command of the Department of Tennessee. An honest man, with too much faith in human
nature, little aptitude for business and intricate detail, he had had large opportunity of
becoming acquainted at first hand with much of the work before him. And of that work it
has been truly said that “no approximately correct history of civilization can ever be
written which does not throw out in bold relief, as one of the great landmarks of political
and social progress, the organization and administration of the Freedmen’s Bureau.”
On May 12, 1865, Howard was appointed; and he assumed the duties of his office
promptly on the 15th, and began examining the field of work. A curious mess he looked
upon: little despotisms, communistic experiments, slavery, peonage, business
speculations, organized charity, unorganized almsgiving, — all reeling on under the guise
of helping the freedmen, and all enshrined in the smoke and blood of the war and the
cursing and silence of angry men. On May 19 the new government — for a government it
really was — issued its constitution; commissioners were to be appointed in each of the
seceded states, who were to take charge of “all subjects relating to refugees and
freedmen,” and all relief and rations were to be given by their consent alone. The Bureau
invited continued cooperation with benevolent societies, and declared: “It will be the
object of all commissioners to introduce practicable systems of compensated labor,” and
to establish schools. Forthwith nine assistant commissioners were appointed. They were
to hasten to their fields of work; seek gradually to close relief establishments, and make
the destitute self-supporting; act as courts of law where there were no courts, or where
Negroes were not recognized in them as free; establish the institution of marriage among
ex-slaves, and keep records; see that freedmen were free to choose their employers, and
help in making fair contracts for them; and finally, the circular said: “Simple good faith,
for which we hope on all hands for those concerned in the passing away of slavery, will
especially relieve the assistant commissioners in the discharge of their duties toward the
freedmen, as well as promote the general welfare.”
No sooner was the work thus started, and the general system and local organization in
some measure begun, than two grave difficulties appeared which changed largely the
theory and outcome of Bureau work. First, there were the abandoned lands of the South.
It had long been the more or less definitely expressed theory of the North that all the
chief problems of Emancipation might be settled by establishing the slaves on the
forfeited lands of their masters, — a sort of poetic justice, said some. But this poetry done
into solemn prose meant either wholesale confiscation of private property in the South, or
vast appropriations. Now Congress had not appropriated a cent, and no sooner did the
proclamations of general amnesty appear than the eight hundred thousand acres of
abandoned lands in the hands of the Freedmen’s Bureau melted quickly away. The second
difficulty lay in perfecting the local organization of the Bureau throughout the wide field
of work. Making a new machine and sending out officials of duly ascertained fitness for a
great work of social reform is no child’s task; but this task was even harder, for a new
central organization had to be fitted on a heterogeneous and confused but already existing
system of relief and control of ex-slaves; and the agents available for this work must be
sought for in an army still busy with war operations, — men in the very nature of the case
ill fitted for delicate social work, — or among the questionable camp followers of an
invading host. Thus, after a year’s work, vigorously as it was pushed, the problem looked
even more difficult to grasp and solve than at the beginning. Nevertheless, three things
that year’s work did, well worth the doing: it relieved a vast amount of physical suffering;
it transported seven thousand fugitives from congested centres back to the farm; and, best
of all, it inaugurated the crusade of the New England schoolma’am.
The annals of this Ninth Crusade are yet to be written, — the tale of a mission that
seemed to our age far more quixotic than the quest of St. Louis seemed to his. Behind the
mists of ruin and rapine waved the calico dresses of women who dared, and after the
hoarse mouthings of the field guns rang the rhythm of the alphabet. Rich and poor they
were, serious and curious. Bereaved now of a father, now of a brother, now of more than
these, they came seeking a life work in planting New England schoolhouses among the
white and black of the South. They did their work well. In that first year they taught one
hundred thousand souls, and more.
Evidently, Congress must soon legislate again on the hastily organized Bureau, which
had so quickly grown into wide significance and vast possibilities. An institution such as
that was well-nigh as difficult to end as to begin. Early in 1866 Congress took up the
matter, when Senator Trumbull, of Illinois, introduced a bill to extend the Bureau and
enlarge its powers. This measure received, at the hands of Congress, far more thorough
discussion and attention than its predecessor. The war cloud had thinned enough to allow
a clearer conception of the work of Emancipation. The champions of the bill argued that
the strengthening of the Freedmen’s Bureau was still a military necessity; that it was
needed for the proper carrying out of the Thirteenth Amendment, and was a work of
sheer justice to the ex-slave, at a trifling cost to the government. The opponents of the
measure declared that the war was over, and the necessity for war measures past; that the
Bureau, by reason of its extraordinary powers, was clearly unconstitutional in time of
peace, and was destined to irritate the South and pauperize the freedmen, at a final cost of
possibly hundreds of millions. These two arguments were unanswered, and indeed
unanswerable: the one that the extraordinary powers of the Bureau threatened the civil
rights of all citizens; and the other that the government must have power to do what
manifestly must be done, and that present abandonment of the freedmen meant their
practical re-enslavement. The bill which finally passed enlarged and made permanent the
Freedmen’s Bureau. It was promptly vetoed by President Johnson as “unconstitutional,”
“unnecessary,” and “extrajudicial,” and failed of passage over the veto. Meantime,
however, the breach between Congress and the President began to broaden, and a
modified form of the lost bill was finally passed over the President’s second veto, July 16.
The act of 1866 gave the Freedmen’s Bureau its final form, — the form by which it will
be known to posterity and judged of men. It extended the existence of the Bureau to July,
1868; it authorized additional assistant commissioners, the retention of army officers
mustered out of regular service, the sale of certain forfeited lands to freedmen on nominal
terms, the sale of Confederate public property for Negro schools, and a wider field of
judicial interpretation and cognizance. The government of the unreconstructed South was
thus put very largely in the hands of the Freedmen’s Bureau, especially as in many cases
the departmental military commander was now made also assistant commissioner. It was
thus that the Freedmen’s Bureau became a full-fledged government of men. It made laws,
executed them and interpreted them; it laid and collected taxes, defined and punished
crime, maintained and used military force, and dictated such measures as it thought
necessary and proper for the accomplishment of its varied ends. Naturally, all these
powers were not exercised continuously nor to their fullest extent; and yet, as General
Howard has said, “scarcely any subject that has to be legislated upon in civil society
failed, at one time or another, to demand the action of this singular Bureau.”
To understand and criticise intelligently so vast a work, one must not forget an instant
the drift of things in the later sixties. Lee had surrendered, Lincoln was dead, and Johnson
and Congress were at loggerheads; the Thirteenth Amend-ment was adopted, the
Fourteenth pending, and the Fifteenth declared in force in 1870. Guerrilla raiding, the
ever-present flickering after-flame of war, was spending its forces against the Negroes,
and all the Southern land was awakening as from some wild dream to poverty and social
revolution. In a time of perfect calm, amid willing neighbors and streaming wealth, the
social uplifting of four million slaves to an assured and self-sustaining place in the body
politic and economic would have been a herculean task; but when to the inherent
difficulties of so delicate and nice a social operation were added the spite and hate of
conflict, the hell of war; when suspicion and cruelty were rife, and gaunt Hunger wept
beside Bereavement, — in such a case, the work of any instrument of social regeneration
was in large part foredoomed to failure. The very name of the Bureau stood for a thing in
the South which for two centuries and better men had refused even to argue, — that life
amid free Negroes was simply unthinkable, the maddest of experiments.
The agents that the Bureau could command varied all the way from unselfish
philanthropists to narrow-minded busy- bodies and thieves; and even though it be true
that the aver-age was far better than the worst, it was the occasional fly that helped spoil
the ointment.
Then amid all crouched the freed slave, bewildered between friend and foe. He had
emerged from slavery, — not the worst slavery in the world, not a slavery that made all
life unbearable, rather a slavery that had here and there something of kindliness, fidelity,
and happiness, — but withal slavery, which, so far as human aspiration and desert were
concerned, classed the black man and the ox together. And the Negro knew full well that,
whatever their deeper convictions may have been, Southern men had fought with
desperate energy to perpetuate this slavery under which the black masses, with halfarticulate thought, had writhed and shivered. They welcomed freedom with a cry. They
shrank from the master who still strove for their chains; they fled to the friends that had
freed them, even though those friends stood ready to use them as a club for driving the
recalcitrant South back into loyalty. So the cleft between the white and black South grew.
Idle to say it never should have been; it was as inevitable as its results were pitiable.
Curiously incongruous elements were left arrayed against each other, — the North, the
government, the carpet-bagger, and the slave, here; and there, all the South that was
white, whether gentleman or vagabond, honest man or rascal, lawless murderer or martyr
to duty.
Thus it is doubly difficult to write of this period calmly, so intense was the feeling, so
mighty the human passions that swayed and blinded men. Amid it all, two figures ever
stand to typify that day to coming ages, — the one, a gray-haired gentleman, whose
fathers had quit themselves like men, whose sons lay in nameless graves; who bowed to
the evil of slavery because its abolition threatened untold ill to all; who stood at last, in
the evening of life, a blighted, ruined form, with hate in his eyes; — and the other, a form
hovering dark and mother-like, her awful face black with the mists of centuries, had
aforetime quailed at that white master’s command, had bent in love over the cradles of his
sons and daughters, and closed in death the sunken eyes of his wife, — aye, too, at his
behest had laid herself low to his lust, and borne a tawny man-child to the world, only to
see her dark boy’s limbs scattered to the winds by midnight marauders riding after
“damned Nig-gers.” These were the saddest sights of that woful day; and no man clasped
the hands of these two passing figures of the present-past; but, hating, they went to their
long home, and, hating, their children’s children live today.
Here, then, was the field of work for the Freedmen’s Bureau; and since, with some
hesitation, it was continued by the act of 1868 until 1869, let us look upon four years of
its work as a whole. There were, in 1868, nine hundred Bureau officials scattered from
Washington to Texas, ruling, directly and indirectly, many millions of men. The deeds of
these rulers fall mainly under seven heads: the relief of physical suffering, the overseeing
of the beginnings of free labor, the buying and selling of land, the establishment of
schools, the paying of bounties, the administration of justice, and the financiering of all
these activities.
Up to June, 1869, over half a million patients had been treated by Bureau physicians
and surgeons, and sixty hospi-tals and asylums had been in operation. In fifty months
twenty-one million free rations were distributed at a cost of over four million dollars.
Next came the difficult question of labor. First, thirty thousand black men were
transported from the refuges and relief stations back to the farms, back to the critical trial
of a new way of working. Plain instructions went out from Washington: the laborers must
be free to choose their employers, no fixed rate of wages was prescribed, and there was to
be no peonage or forced labor. So far, so good; but where local agents differed toto caelo
in capacity and character, where the personnel was continually changing, the outcome
was necessarily varied. The largest element of suc-cess lay in the fact that the majority of
the freedmen were willing, even eager, to work. So labor contracts were written, — fifty
thousand in a single State, — laborers advised, wages guaranteed, and employers
supplied. In truth, the organiza-tion became a vast labor bureau, — not perfect, indeed,
notably defective here and there, but on the whole successful beyond the dreams of
thoughtful men. The two great obstacles which confronted the officials were the tyrant
and the idler, — the slaveholder who was determined to perpetuate slavery under another
name; and, the freedman who regarded freedom as perpetual rest, — the Devil and the
Deep Sea.
In the work of establishing the Negroes as peasant proprietors, the Bureau was from
the first handicapped and at last absolutely checked. Something was done, and larger
things were planned; abandoned lands were leased so long as they remained in the hands
of the Bureau, and a total revenue of nearly half a million dollars derived from black
tenants. Some other lands to which the nation had gained title were sold on easy terms,
and public lands were opened for settlement to the very few freedmen who had tools and
capital. But the vision of “forty acres and a mule” — the righteous and reasonable
ambition to become a landholder, which the nation had all but categorically promised the
freedmen — was destined in most cases to bitter disappointment. And those men of
marvellous hindsight who are today seeking to preach the Negro back to the present
peonage of the soil know well, or ought to know, that the opportunity of binding the
Negro peasant willingly to the soil was lost on that day when the Commissioner of the
Freedmen’s Bureau had to go to South Carolina and tell the weeping freedmen, after their
years of toil, that their land was not theirs, that there was a mistake — somewhere. If by
1874 the Georgia Negro alone owned three hundred and fifty thousand acres of land, it
was by grace of his thrift rather than by bounty of the government.
The greatest success of the Freedmen’s Bureau lay in the planting of the free school
among Negroes, and the idea of free elementary education among all classes in the South.
It not only called the school-mistresses through the benevolent agencies and built them
schoolhouses, but it helped discover and support such apostles of human culture as
Edmund Ware, Samuel Armstrong, and Erastus Cravath. The opposition to Negro
education in the South was at first bitter, and showed itself in ashes, insult, and blood; for
the South believed an educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro. And the South was not
wholly wrong; for education among all kinds of men always has had, and always will
have, an element of danger and revolution, of dissatisfaction and discontent.
Nevertheless, men strive to know. Perhaps some inkling of this paradox, even in the
unquiet days of the Bureau, helped the bayonets allay an opposition to human training
which still to-day lies smouldering in the South, but not flaming. Fisk, Atlanta, Howard,
and Hampton were founded in these days, and six million dollars were expended for
educational work, seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars of which the freedmen
themselves gave of their poverty.
Such contributions, together with the buying of land and various other enterprises,
showed that the ex-slave was handling some free capital already. The chief initial source
of this was labor in the army, and his pay and bounty as a soldier. Payments to Negro
soldiers were at first complicated by the ignorance of the recipients, and the fact that the
quotas of colored regiments from Northern States were largely filled by recruits from the
South, unknown to their fellow soldiers. Consequently, payments were accompanied by
such frauds that Congress, by joint resolution in 1867, put the whole matter in the hands
of the Freedmen’s Bureau. In two years six million dollars was thus distributed to five
thousand claimants, and in the end the sum exceeded eight million dollars. Even in this
system fraud was frequent; but still the work put needed capital in the hands of practical
paupers, and some, at least, was well spent.
The most perplexing and least successful part of the Bureau’s work lay in the exercise
of its judicial functions. The regular Bureau court consisted of one representative of the
employer, one of the Negro, and one of the Bureau. If the Bureau could have maintained
a perfectly judicial attitude, this arrangement would have been ideal, and must in time
have gained confidence; but the nature of its other activities and the character of its
personnel prejudiced the Bureau in favor of the black litigants, and led without doubt to
much injustice and annoyance. On the other hand, to leave the Negro in the hands of
Southern courts was impossible. In a distracted land where slavery had hardly fallen, to
keep the strong from wanton abuse of the weak, and the weak from gloating insolently
over the half-shorn strength of the strong, was a thankless, hopeless task. The former
masters of the land were peremptorily ordered about, seized, and imprisoned, and
punished over and again, with scant courtesy from army officers. The former slaves were
intimidated, beaten, raped, and butchered by angry and revengeful men. Bureau courts
tended to become centres simply for punishing whites, while the regular civil courts
tended to become solely institu-tions for perpetuating the slavery of blacks. Almost every
law and method ingenuity could devise was employed by the legislatures to reduce the
Negroes to serfdom, — to make them the slaves of the State, if not of individual owners;
while the Bureau officials too often were found striving to put the “bottom rail on top,”
and gave the freedmen a power and independence which they could not yet use. It is all
well enough for us of another generation to wax wise with advice to those who bore the
burden in the heat of the day. It is full easy now to see that the man who lost home,
fortune, and family at a stroke, and saw his land ruled by “mules and niggers,” was really
benefited by the passing of slavery. It is not difficult now to say to the young freedman,
cheated and cuffed about who has seen his father’s head beaten to a jelly and his own
mother namelessly assaulted, that the meek shall inherit the earth. Above all, nothing is
more convenient than to heap on the Freedmen’s Bureau all the evils of that evil day, and
damn it utterly for every mistake and blunder that was made.
All this is easy, but it is neither sensible nor just. Someone had blundered, but that was
long before Oliver Howard was born; there was criminal aggression and heedless neglect,
but without some system of control there would have been far more than there was. Had
that control been from within, the Negro would have been re-enslaved, to all intents and
pur-poses. Coming as the control did from without, perfect men and methods would have
bettered all things; and even with imperfect agents and questionable methods, the work
accom-plished was not undeserving of commendation.
Such was the dawn of Freedom; such was the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which,
summed up in brief, may be epitomized thus: for some fifteen million dollars, beside the
sums spent before 1865, and the dole of benevolent societies, this Bureau set going a
system of free labor, established a beginning of peasant proprietorship, secured the
recognition of black freedmen before courts of law, and founded the free common school
in the South. On the other hand, it failed to begin the establishment of good-will between
ex-masters and freedmen, to guard its work wholly from paternalistic methods which
discouraged self-reliance, and to carry out to any considerable extent its implied promises
to furnish the freedmen with land. Its successes were the result of hard work,
supplemented by the aid of philanthropists and the eager striving of black men. Its
failures were the result of bad local agents, the inherent difficulties of the work, and
national neglect.
Such an institution, from its wide powers, great responsibilities, large control of
moneys, and generally conspicuous position, was naturally open to repeated and bitter
attack. It sustained a searching Congressional investigation at the instance of Fernando
Wood in 1870. Its archives and few remaining functions were with blunt discourtesy
transferred from Howard’s control, in his absence, to the supervision of Secretary of War
Belknap in 1872, on the Secretary’s recommendation. Finally, in consequence of grave
intimations of wrong-doing made by the Secretary and his subordinates, General Howard
was court-martialed in 1874. In both of these trials the Commissioner of the Freedmen’s
Bureau was officially exonerated from any wilful misdoing, and his work commended.
Nevertheless, many unpleasant things were brought to light, — the methods of transacting
the business of the Bureau were faulty; several cases of defalcation were proved, and
other frauds strongly suspected; there were some business transactions which savored of
dangerous specula-tion, if not dishonesty; and around it all lay the smirch of the
Freedmen’s Bank.
Morally and practically, the Freedmen’s Bank was part of the Freedmen’s Bureau,
although it had no legal connection with it. With the prestige of the government back of
it, and a directing board of unusual respectability and national reputation, this banking
institution had made a remarkable start in the development of that thrift among black folk
which slavery had kept them from knowing. Then in one sad day came the crash, — all
the hard-earned dollars of the freedmen disappeared; but that was the least of the loss, —
all the faith in saving went too, and much of the faith in men; and that was a loss that a
Nation which to-day sneers at Negro shiftlessness has never yet made good. Not even ten
additional years of slavery could have done so much to throttle the thrift of the freedmen
as the mismanagement and bankruptcy of the series of savings banks chartered by the
Nation for their especial aid. Where all the blame should rest, it is hard to say; whether
the Bureau and the Bank died chiefly by reason of the blows of its selfish friends or the
dark machinations of its foes, perhaps even time will never reveal, for here lies unwritten
Of the foes without the Bureau, the bitterest were those who attacked not so much its
conduct or policy under the law as the necessity for any such institution at all. Such
attacks came primarily from the Border States and the South; and they were summed up
by Senator Davis, of Kentucky, when he moved to entitle the act of 1866 a bill “to
promote strife and conflict between the white and black races . . . by a grant of
unconstitutional power.” The argument gathered tremendous strength South and North;
but its very strength was its weakness. For, argued the plain common-sense of the nation,
if it is unconstitutional, unpractical, and futile for the nation to stand guardian over its
helpless wards, then there is left but one alternative, — to make those wards their own
guardians by arming them with the ballot. Moreover, the path of the practical politician
pointed the same way; for, argued this opportunist, if we cannot peacefully reconstruct
the South with white votes, we certainly can with black votes. So justice and force joined
The alternative thus offered the nation was not between full and restricted Negro
suffrage; else every sensible man, black and white, would easily have chosen the latter. It
was rather a choice between suffrage and slavery, after endless blood and gold had
flowed to sweep human bondage away. Not a single Southern legislature stood ready to
admit a Negro, under any conditions, to the polls; not a single Southern legislature
believed free Negro labor was possible without a system of restrictions that took all its
freedom away; there was scarcely a white man in the South who did not honestly regard
Emancipation as a crime, and its practical nullification as a duty. In such a situation, the
granting of the ballot to the black man was a necessity, the very least a guilty nation
could grant a wronged race, and the only method of compelling the South to accept the
results of the war. Thus Negro suffrage ended a civil war by beginning a race feud. And
some felt gratitude toward the race thus sacrificed in its swaddling clothes on the altar of
national integrity; and some felt and feel only indifference and contempt.
Had political exigencies been less pressing, the opposition to government guardianship
of Negroes less bitter, and the attachment to the slave system less strong, the social seer
can well imagine a far better policy, — a permanent Freedmen’s Bureau, with a national
system of Negro schools; a carefully supervised employment and labor office; a system
of impartial protection before the regular courts; and such institutions for social
betterment as savings-banks, land and building associations, and social settlements. All
this vast expenditure of money and brains might have formed a great school of
prospective citizenship, and solved in a way we have not yet solved the most perplexing
and persistent of the Negro problems.
That such an institution was unthinkable in 1870 was due in part to certain acts of the
Freedmen’s Bureau itself. It came to regard its work as merely temporary, and Negro
suffrage as a final answer to all present perplexities. The political ambition of many of its
agents and proteges led it far afield into questionable activities, until the South, nursing
its own deep prejudices, came easily to ignore all the good deeds of the Bureau and hate
its very name with perfect hatred. So the Freedmen’s Bureau died, and its child was the
Fifteenth Amendment.
The passing of a great human institution before its work is done, like the untimely
passing of a single soul, but leaves a legacy of striving for other men. The legacy of the
Freedmen’s Bureau is the heavy heritage of this generation. To-day, when new and vaster
problems are destined to strain every fibre of the national mind and soul, would it not be
well to count this legacy honestly and carefully? For this much all men know: despite
compromise, war, and struggle, the Negro is not free. In the backwoods of the Gulf
States, for miles and miles, he may not leave the plantation of his birth; in well-nigh the
whole rural South the black farmers are peons, bound by law and custom to an economic
slavery, from which the only escape is death or the penitentiary. In the most cultured
sections and cities of the South the Negroes are a segregated servile caste, with restricted
rights and privileges. Before the courts, both in law and custom, they stand on a different
and peculiar basis. Taxation without representation is the rule of their political life. And
the result of all this is, and in nature must have been, lawlessness and crime. That is the
large legacy of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the work it did not do because it could not.
I have seen a land right merry with the sun, where children sing, and rolling hills lie
like passioned women wanton with harvest. And there in the King’s Highways sat and sits
a figure veiled and bowed, by which the traveller’s footsteps hasten as they go. On the
tainted air broods fear. Three centuries’ thought has been the raising and unveiling of that
bowed human heart, and now behold a century new for the duty and the deed. The
problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.
Chapter 3
III. Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others
Easily the most striking thing in the history of the American Negro since 1876 is the
ascendancy of Mr. Booker T. Washington. It began at the time when war memories and
ideals were rapidly passing; a day of astonishing commercial devel-opment was dawning;
a sense of doubt and hesitation overtook the freedmen’s sons, — then it was that his
leading began. Mr. Washington came, with a simple definite programme, at the
psychological moment when the nation was a little ashamed of having bestowed so much
sentiment on Negroes, and was concentrating its energies on Dollars. His programme of
industrial education, conciliation of the South, and submission and silence as to civil and
political rights, was not wholly original; the Free Negroes from 1830 up to war-time had
striven to build industrial schools, and the American Missionary Association had from
the first taught various trades; and Price and others had sought a way of honorable
alliance with the best of the Southerners. But Mr. Washington first indissolubly linked
these things; he put enthusiasm, unlimited energy, and perfect faith into his programme,
and changed it from a by-path into a veritable Way of Life. And the tale of the methods
by which he did this is a fascinating study of human life.
It startled the nation to hear a Negro advocating such a programme after many decades
of bitter complaint; it startled and won the applause of the South, it interested and won
the admiration of the North; and after a confused murmur of protest, it silenced if it did
not convert the Negroes themselves.
To gain the sympathy and cooperation of the various elements comprising the white
South was Mr. Washington’s first task; and this, at the time Tuskegee was founded,
seemed, for a black man, well-nigh impossible. And yet ten years later it was done in the
word spoken at Atlanta: “In all things purely social we can be as separate as the five
fingers, and yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” This “Atlanta
Compromise” is by all odds the most notable thing in Mr. Washington’s career. The
South interpreted it in different ways: the radicals received it as a complete surrender of
the demand for civil and political equality; the conservatives, as a generously conceived
working basis for mutual understanding. So both approved it, and to-day its author is
certainly the most distinguished Southerner since Jefferson Davis, and the one with the
largest personal following.
Next to this achievement comes Mr. Washington’s work in gaining place and
consideration in the North. Others less shrewd and tactful had formerly essayed to sit on
these two stools and had fallen between them; but as Mr. Washington knew the heart of
the South from birth and training, so by singular insight he intuitively grasped the spirit
of the age which was dominating the North. And so thoroughly did he learn the speech
and thought of triumphant commercialism, and the ideals of material prosperity, that the
picture of a lone black boy poring over a French grammar amid the weeds and dirt of a
neglected home soon seemed to him the acme of absurdities. One wonders what Socrates
and St. Francis of Assisi would say to this.
And yet this very singleness of vision and thorough oneness with his age is a mark of
the successful man. It is as though Nature must needs make men narrow in order to give
them force. So Mr. Washington’s cult has gained unquestioning followers, his work has
wonderfully prospered, his friends are legion, and his enemies are confounded. To-day he
stands as the one recognized spokesman of his ten million fellows, and one of the most
notable figures in a nation of seventy millions. One hesitates, therefore, to criticise a life
which, beginning with so little, has done so much. And yet the time is come when one
may speak in all sincerity and utter courtesy of the mistakes and shortcomings of Mr.
Washington’s career, as well as of his triumphs, without being thought captious or
envious, and without forgetting that it is easier to do ill than well in the world.
The criticism that has hitherto met Mr. Washington has not always been of this broad
character. In the South especially has he had to walk warily to avoid the harshest
judgments, — and naturally so, for he is dealing with the one subject of deepest
sensitiveness to that section. Twice — once when at the Chicago celebration of the
Spanish-American War he alluded to the color-prejudice that is “eating away the vitals of
the South,” and once when he dined with President Roosevelt — has the resulting
Southern criticism been violent enough to threaten seriously his popularity. In the North
the feeling has several times forced itself into words, that Mr. Washington’s counsels of
submission overlooked certain ele-ments of true manhood, and that his educational
programme was unnecessarily narrow. Usually, however, such criticism has not found
open expression, although, too, the spiritual sons of the Abolitionists have not been
prepared to acknowl-edge that the schools founded before Tuskegee, by men of broad
ideals and self-sacrificing spirit, were wholly failures or worthy of ridicule. While, then,
criticism has not failed to follow Mr. Washington, yet the prevailing public opinion of the
land has been but too willing to deliver the solution of a wearisome problem into his
hands, and say, “If that is all you and your race ask, take it.”
Among his own people, however, Mr. Washington has encountered the strongest and
most lasting opposition, amounting at times to bitterness, and even today continuing
strong and insistent even though largely silenced in outward expression by the public
opinion of the nation. Some of this opposition is, of course, mere envy; the
disappointment of displaced demagogues and the spite of narrow minds. But aside from
this, there is among educated and thoughtful colored men in all parts of the land a feeling
of deep regret, sorrow, and apprehension at the wide currency and ascendancy which
some of Mr. Washington’s theories have gained. These same men admire his sincerity of
purpose, and are willing to forgive much to honest endeavor which is doing something
worth the doing. They cooperate with Mr. Washington as far as they conscientiously can;
and, indeed, it is no ordinary tribute to this man’s tact and power that, steering as he must
between so many diverse interests and opinions, he so largely retains the respect of all.
But the hushing of the criticism of honest opponents is a dangerous thing. It leads some
of the best of the critics to unfortunate silence and paralysis of effort, and others to burst
into speech so passionately and intemperately as to lose listeners. Honest and earnest
criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched, — criticism of writers by
readers, — this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society. If the best
of the American Negroes receive by outer pressure a leader whom they had not
recognized before, manifestly there is here a certain palpable gain. Yet there is also
irreparable loss, — a loss of that peculiarly valuable educa-tion which a group receives
when by search and criticism it finds and commissions its own leaders. The way in which
this is done is at once the most elementary and the nicest problem of social growth.
History is but the record of such group-leadership; and yet how infinitely changeful is its
type and character! And of all types and kinds, what can be more instructive than the
leadership of a group within a group? — that curious double movement where real
progress may be negative and actual advance be relative retrogression. All this is the
social student’s inspiration and despair.
Now in the past the American Negro has had instructive experience in the choosing of
group leaders, founding thus a peculiar dynasty which in the light of present conditions is
worth while studying. When sticks and stones and beasts form the sole environment of a
people, their attitude is largely one of determined opposition to and conquest of natural
forces. But when to earth and brute is added an environment of men and ideas, then the
attitude of the imprisoned group may take three main forms, — a feeling of revolt and
revenge; an attempt to adjust all thought and action to the will of the greater group; or,
finally, a determined effort at self-realization and self-development despite environing
opinion. The influence of all of these attitudes at various times can be traced in the
history of the American Negro, and in the evolution of his successive leaders.
Before 1750, while the fire of African freedom still burned in the veins of the slaves,
there was in all leadership or attempted leadership but the one motive of revolt and
revenge, — typified in the terrible Maroons, the Danish blacks, and Cato of Stono, and
veiling all the Americas in fear of insurrection. The liberalizing tendencies of the latter
half of the eighteenth century brought, along with kindlier relations between black and
white, thoughts of ultimate adjustment and assimilation. Such aspiration was especially
voiced in the earnest songs of Phyllis, in the martyrdom of Attucks, the fighting of Salem
and Poor, the intellectual accomplishments of Banneker and Derham, and the political
demands of the Cuffes.
Stern financial and social stress after the war cooled much of the previous
humanitarian ardor. The disappointment and impatience of the Negroes at the persistence
of slavery and serfdom voiced itself in two movements. The slaves in the South, aroused
undoubtedly by vague rumors of the Haytian revolt, made three fierce attempts at
insurrection, — in 1800 under Gabriel in Virginia, in 1822 under Vesey in Carolina, and
in 1831 again in Virginia under the terrible Nat Turner. In the Free States, on the other
hand, a new and curious attempt at self-development was made. In Philadelphia and New
York color-prescription led to a withdrawal of Negro communicants from white churches
and the formation of a peculiar socio-religious institution among the Negroes known as
the African Church, — an organization still living and controlling in its various branches
over a million of men.
Walker’s wild appeal against the trend of the times showed how the world was
changing after the coming of the cotton-gin. By 1830 slavery seemed hopelessly fastened
on the South, and the slaves thoroughly cowed into submission. The free Negroes of the
North, inspired by the mulatto immigrants from the West Indies, began to change the
basis of their demands; they recognized the slavery of slaves, but insisted that they
themselves were freemen, and sought assimilation and amalgamation with the nation on
the same terms with other men. Thus, Forten and Purvis of Philadelphia, Shad of
Wilmington, Du Bois of New Haven, Barbadoes of Boston, and others, strove singly and
together as men, they said, not as slaves; as “people of color,” not as “Negroes.” The
trend of the times, however, refused them recognition save in individual and exceptional
cases, considered them as one with all the despised blacks, and they soon found
themselves striving to keep even the rights they formerly had of voting and working and
moving as freemen. Schemes of migration and colonization arose among them; but these
they refused to entertain, and they eventually turned to the Abolition movement as a final
Here, led by Remond, Nell, Wells-Brown, and Douglass, a new period of self-assertion
and self-development dawned. To be sure, ultimate freedom and assimilation was the
ideal before the leaders, but the assertion of the manhood rights of the Negro by himself
was the main reliance, and John Brown’s raid was the extreme of its logic. After the war
and eman-cipation, the great form of Frederick Douglass, the greatest of American Negro
leaders, still led the host. Self-assertion, especially in political lines, was the main
programme, and behind Douglass came Elliot, Bruce, and Langston, and the
Reconstruction politicians, and, less conspicuous but of greater social significance,
Alexander Crummell and Bishop Daniel Payne.
Then came the Revolution of 1876, the suppression of the Negro votes, the changing
and shifting of ideals, and the seeking of new lights in the great night. Douglass, in his
old age, still bravely stood for the ideals of his early manhood, — ultimate assimilation
through self-assertion, and on no other terms. For a time Price arose as a new leader,
destined, it seemed, not to give up, but to re-state the old ideals in a form less repugnant
to the white South. But he passed away in his prime. Then came the new leader. Nearly
all the former ones had become leaders by the silent suffrage of their fellows, had sought
to lead their own people alone, and were usually, save Douglass, little known outside
their race. But Booker T. Washington arose as essentially the leader not of one race but of
two, — a compromiser between the South, the North, and the Negro. Naturally the
Negroes resented, at first bitterly, signs of compromise which surrendered their civil and
politi-cal rights, even though this was to be exchanged for larger chances of economic
development. The rich and dominating North, however, was not only weary of the race
problem, but was investing largely in Southern enterprises, and welcomed any method of
peaceful cooperation. Thus, by national opinion, the Negroes began to recognize Mr.
Washington’s leadership; and the voice of criticism was hushed.
Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and
submission; but adjustment at such a peculiar time as to make his programme unique.
This is an age of unusual economic development, and Mr. Washington’s programme
naturally takes an economic cast, becoming a gospel of Work and Money to such an
extent as apparently almost completely to overshadow the higher aims of life. Moreover,
this is an age when the more advanced races are coming in closer contact with the less
developed races, and the race-feeling is therefore intensified; and Mr. Washington’s
programme practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races. Again, in our
own land, the reaction from the sentiment of war time has given impetus to raceprejudice against Negroes, and Mr. Washington withdraws many of the high demands of
Negroes as men and American citizens. In other periods of intensified prejudice all the
Negro’s tendency to self-assertion has been called forth; at this period a policy of
submission is advocated. In the history of nearly all other races and peoples the doctrine
preached at such crises has been that manly self-respect is worth more than lands and
houses, and that a people who voluntarily surrender such respect, or cease striving for it,
are not worth civilizing.
In answer to this, it has been claimed that the Negro can survive only through
submission. Mr. Washington distinctly asks that black people give up, at least for the
present, three things, —
First, political power,
Second, insistence on civil rights,
Third, higher education of Negro youth, —
and concentrate all their energies on industrial education, and accumulation of wealth,
and the conciliation of the South. This policy has been courageously and insistently
advocated for over fifteen years, and has been triumphant for perhaps ten years. As a
result of this tender of the palm-branch, what has been the return? In these years there
have occurred:
1. The disfranchisement of the Negro.
2. The legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro.
3. The steady withdrawal of aid from institutions for the higher training of the Negro.
These movements are not, to be sure, direct results of Mr. Washington’s teachings; but
his propaganda has, without a shadow of doubt, helped their speedier accomplishment.
The question then comes: Is it possible, and probable, that nine millions of men can make
effective progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile
caste, and allowed only the most meagre chance for develop-ing their exceptional men? If
history and reason give any distinct answer to these questions, it is an emphatic No. And
Mr. Washington thus faces the triple paradox of his career:
1. He is striving nobly to make Negro artisans business men and property-owners; but
it is utterly impossible, under modern competitive methods, for workingmen and
property-owners to defend their rights and exist without the right of suffrage.
2. He insists on thrift and self-respect, but at the same time counsels a silent
submission to civic inferiority such as is bound to sap the manhood of any race in the
long run.
3. He advocates common-school and industrial training, and depreciates institutions of
higher learning; but neither the Negro common-schools, nor Tuskegee itself, could
remain open a day were it not for teachers trained in Negro colleges, or trained by their
This triple paradox in Mr. Washington’s position is the object of criticism by two
classes of colored Americans. One class is spiritually descended from Toussaint the
Savior, through Gabriel, Vesey, and Turner, and they represent the attitude of revolt and
revenge; they hate the white South blindly and distrust the white race generally, and so
far as they agree on definite action, think that the Negro’s only hope lies in emigration
beyond the borders of the United States. And yet, by the irony of fate, nothing has more
effectually made this programme seem hopeless than the recent course of the United
States toward weaker and darker peoples in the West Indies, Hawaii, and the Philippines,
— for where in the world may we go and be safe from lying and brute force?
The other class of Negroes who cannot agree with Mr. Washington has hitherto said
little aloud. They deprecate the sight of scattered counsels, of internal disagreement; and
especially they dislike making their just criticism of a useful and earnest man an excuse
for a general discharge of venom from small-minded opponents. Nevertheless, the
questions involved are so fundamental and serious that it is difficult to see how men like
the Grimkes, Kelly Miller, J. W. E. Bowen, and other representatives of this group, can
much longer be silent. Such men feel in conscience bound to ask of this nation three
1. The right to vote.
2. Civic equality.
3. The education of youth according to ability.
They acknowledge Mr. Washington’s invaluable service in counselling patience and
courtesy in such demands; they do not ask that ignorant black men vote when ignorant
whites are debarred, or that any reasonable restrictions in the suffrage should not be
applied; they know that the low social level of the mass of the race is responsible for
much discrimination against it, but they also know, and the nation knows, that relentless
color-prejudice is more often a cause than a result of the Negro’s degradation; they seek
the abatement of this relic of barbarism, and not its systematic encouragement and
pampering by all agencies of social power from the Associated Press to the Church of
Christ. They advocate, with Mr. Washington, a broad system of Negro common schools
supplemented by thorough industrial training; but they are surprised that a man of Mr.
Washington’s insight cannot see that no such educational system ever has rested or can
rest on any other basis than that of the well-equipped college and university, and they
insist that there is a demand for a few such institutions throughout the South to train the
best of the Negro youth as teachers, professional men, and leaders.
This group of men honor Mr. Washington for his attitude of conciliation toward the
white South; they accept the “Atlanta Compromise” in its broadest interpretation; they
recog-nize, with him, many signs of promise, many men of high purpose and fair
judgment, in this section; they know that no easy task has been laid upon a region already
tottering under heavy burdens. But, nevertheless, they insist that the way to truth and
right lies in straightforward honesty, not in indiscriminate flattery; in praising those of the
South who do well and criticising uncompromisingly those who do ill; in taking
advantage of the opportunities at hand and urging their fellows to do the same, but at the
same time in remembering that only a firm adherence to their higher ideals and
aspirations will ever keep those ideals within the realm of possibility. They do not expect
that the free right to vote, to enjoy civic rights, and to be educated, will come in a
moment; they do not expect to see the bias and prejudices of years disappear at the blast
of a trumpet; but they are absolutely certain that the way for a people to gain their
reasonable rights is not by voluntarily throwing them away and insisting that they do not
want them; that the way for a people to gain respect is not by continually belittling and
ridiculing themselves; that, on the contrary, Negroes must insist continually, in season
and out of season, that voting is necessary to modern manhood, that color discrimination
is barbarism, and that black boys need education as well as white boys.
In failing thus to state plainly and unequivocally the legitimate demands of their
people, even at the cost of opposing an honored leader, the thinking classes of American
Negroes would shirk a heavy responsibility, — a responsibility to themselves, a
responsibility to the struggling masses, a responsibility to the darker races of men whose
future depends so largely on this American experiment, but especially a responsibility
to this nation, — this common Fatherland. It is wrong to encourage a man or a people in
evil-doing; it is wrong to aid and abet a national crime simply because it is unpopular not
to do so. The growing spirit of kindliness and reconciliation between the North and South
after the frightful difference of a generation ago ought to be a source of deep
congratulation to all, and especially to those whose mistreatment caused the war; but if
that reconciliation is to be marked by the industrial slavery and civic death of those same
black men, with permanent legislation into a position of inferiority, then those black men,
if they are really men, are called upon by every consideration of patriotism and loyalty to
oppose such a course by all civilized methods, even though such opposition involves
disagreement with Mr. Booker T. Washington. We have no right to sit silently by while
the inevitable seeds are sown for a harvest of disaster to our children, black and white.
First, it is the duty of black men to judge the South discriminatingly. The present
generation of Southerners are not responsible for the past, and they should not be blindly
hated or blamed for it. Furthermore, to no class is the indiscriminate endorsement of the
recent course of the South toward Negroes more nauseating than to the best thought of
the South. The South is not “solid”; it is a land in the ferment of social change, wherein
forces of all kinds are fighting for supremacy; and to praise the ill the South is today
perpetrating is just as wrong as to condemn the good. Discriminating and broad-minded
criticism is what the South needs, — needs it for the sake of her own white sons and
daughters, and for the insurance of robust, healthy mental and moral development.
Today even the attitude of the Southern whites toward the blacks is not, as so many
assume, in all cases the same; the ignorant Southerner hates the Negro, the workingmen
fear his competition, the money-makers wish to use him as a laborer, some of the
educated see a menace in his upward development, while others — usually the sons of the
masters — wish to help him to rise. National opinion has enabled this last class to
maintain the Negro common schools, and to protect the Negro partially in property, life,
and limb. Through the pressure of the money-makers, the Negro is in danger of being
reduced to semi-slavery, especially in the country districts; the workingmen, and those of
the educated who fear the Negro, have united to disfranchise him, and some have urged
his deportation; while the passions of the ignorant are easily aroused to lynch and abuse
any black man. To praise this intricate whirl of thought and prejudice is nonsense; to inveigh indiscriminately against “the South” is unjust; but to use the same breath in praising
Governor Aycock, exposing Senator Morgan, arguing with Mr. Thomas Nelson Page,
and denouncing Senator Ben Tillman, is not only sane, but the imperative duty of
thinking black men.
It would be unjust to Mr. Washington not to acknowledge that in several instances he
has opposed movements in the South which were unjust to the Negro; he sent memorials
to the Louisiana and Alabama constitutional conventions, he has spoken against lynching,
and in other ways has openly or silently set his influence against sinister schemes and
unfortunate happenings. Notwithstanding this, it is equally true to assert that on the whole
the distinct impression left by Mr. Washington’s propaganda is, first, that the South is
justified in its present attitude toward the Negro because of the Negro’s degradation;
secondly, that the prime cause of the Negro’s failure to rise more quickly is his wrong
education in the past; and, thirdly, that his future rise depends primarily on his own
efforts. Each of these propositions is a dangerous half-truth. The supplementary truths
must never be lost sight of: first, slavery and race-prejudice are potent if not sufficient
causes of the Negro’s position; second, industrial and common-school training were
necessarily slow in planting because they had to await the black teachers trained by
higher institutions, — it being extremely doubtful if any essentially different development was possible, and certainly a Tuskegee was unthinkable before 1880; and, third,
while it is a great truth to say that the Negro must strive and strive mightily to help
himself, it is equally true that unless his striving be not simply seconded, but rather
aroused and encouraged, by the initiative of the richer and wiser environing group, he
cannot hope for great success.
In his failure to realize and impress this last point, Mr. Washington is especially to be
criticised. His doctrine has tended to make the whites, North and South, shift the burden
of the Negro problem to the Negro’s shoulders and stand aside as critical and rather
pessimistic spectators; when in fact the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of
none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.
The South ought to be led, by candid and honest criticism, to assert her better self and
do her full duty to the race she has cruelly wronged and is still wronging. The North —
her co-partner in guilt — cannot salve her conscience by plastering it with gold. We
cannot settle this problem by diplomacy and suaveness, by “policy” alone. If worse come
to worst, can the moral fibre of this country survive the slow throttling and murder of
nine millions of men?
The black men of America have a duty to perform, a duty stern and delicate, — a
forward movement to oppose a part of the work of their greatest leader. So far as Mr.
Washington preaches Thrift, Patience, and Industrial Training for the masses, we must
hold up his hands and strive with him, rejoicing in his honors and glorying in the strength
of this Joshua called of God and of man to lead the headless host. But so far as Mr.
Washington apologizes for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilege
and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions, and opposes
the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds, — so far as he, the South, or the
Nation, does this, — we must unceasingly and firmly oppose them. By every civilized and
peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging
unwaveringly to those great words which the sons of the Fathers would fain forget: “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.”
Chapter 14
XIV. Of the Sorrow Songs
I walk through the churchyard
To lay this body down;
I know moon-rise, I know star-rise;
I walk in the moonlight, I walk in the starlight;
I’ll lie in the grave and stretch out my arms,
I’ll go to judgment in the evening of the day,
And my soul and thy soul shall meet that day,
When I lay this body down.

Don't use plagiarized sources. Get Your Custom Essay on
Essay of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”
Just from $9/Page
Order Essay

[musical notation from “Wrestling Jacob”]
They that walked in darkness sang songs in the olden days — Sorrow Songs — for they
were weary at heart. And so before each thought that I have written in this book I have
set a phrase, a haunting echo of these weird old songs in which the soul of the black slave
spoke to men. Ever since I was a child these songs have stirred me strangely. They came
out of the South unknown to me, one by one, and yet at once I knew them as of me and of
mine. Then in after years when I came to Nashville I saw the great temple builded of
these songs towering over the pale city. To me Jubilee Hall seemed ever made of the
songs themselves, and its bricks were red with the blood and dust of toil. Out of them
rose for me morning, noon, and night, bursts of wonderful melody, full of the voices of
my brothers and sisters, full of the voices of the past
Little of beauty has America given the world save the rude grandeur God himself
stamped on her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor
and ingenuity rather than in beauty. And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song — the
rhythmic cry of the slave — stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as
the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas. It has been
neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently
mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual
heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.
Away back in the thirties the melody of these slave songs stirred the nation, but the
songs were soon half forgotten. Some, like “Near the lake where drooped the willow,”
passed into current airs and their source was forgotten; others were caricatured on the
“minstrel” stage and their memory died away. Then in war-time came the singular Port
Royal experiment after the capture of Hilton Head, and perhaps for the first time the
North met the Southern slave face to face and heart to heart with no third witness. The
Sea Islands of the Carolinas, where they met, were filled with a black folk of primitive
type, touched and moulded less by the world about them than any others outside the
Black Belt. Their appearance was uncouth, their language funny, but their hearts were
human and their singing stirred men with a mighty power. Thomas Wentworth Higginson
hastened to tell of these songs, and Miss McKim and others urged upon the world their
rare beauty. But the world listened only half credulously until the Fisk Jubilee Singers
sang the slave songs so deeply into the world’s heart that it can never wholly forget them
There was once a blacksmith’s son born at Cadiz, New York, who in the changes of
time taught school in Ohio and helped defend Cincinnati from Kirby Smith. Then he
fought at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg and finally served in the Freedmen’s Bureau at
Nashville. Here he formed a Sunday- school class of black children in 1866, and sang
with them and taught them to sing. And then they taught him to sing, and when once the
glory of the Jubilee songs passed into the soul of George L. White, he knew his life-work
was to let those Negroes sing to the world as they had sung to him. So in 1871 the
pilgrimage of the Fisk Jubilee Singers began. North to Cincinnati they rode, — four halfclothed black boys and five girl-women, — led by a man with a cause and a purpose.
They stopped at Wilberforce, the oldest of Negro schools, where a black bishop blessed
them. Then they went, fighting cold and starvation, shut out of hotels, and cheerfully
sneered at, ever northward; and ever the magic of their song kept thrilling hearts, until a
burst of applause in the Congrega-tional Council at Oberlin revealed them to the world.
They came to New York and Henry Ward Beecher dared to welcome them, even though
the metropolitan dailies sneered at his “Nigger Minstrels.” So their songs conquered till
they sang across the land and across the sea, before Queen and Kaiser, in Scotland and
Ireland, Holland and Switzerland. Seven years they sang, and brought back a hundred and
fifty thousand dollars to found Fisk University.
Since their day they have been imitated — sometimes well, by the singers of Hampton
and Atlanta, sometimes ill, by straggling quartettes. Caricature has sought again to spoil
the quaint beauty of the music, and has filled the air with many debased melodies which
vulgar ears scarce know from the real. But the true Negro folk-song still lives in the
hearts of those who have heard them truly sung and in the hearts of the Negro people.
What are these songs, and what do they mean? I know little of music and can say
nothing in technical phrase, but I know something of men, and knowing them, I know
that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world. They tell us in these
eager days that life was joyous to the black slave, careless and happy. I can easily believe
this of some, of many. But not all the past South, though it rose from the dead, can
gainsay the heart-touching witness of these songs. They are the music of an unhappy
people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced
longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.
The songs are indeed the siftings of centuries; the music is far more ancient than the
words, and in it we can trace here and there signs of development. My grandfather’s
grand-mother was seized by an evil Dutch trader two centuries ago; and coming to the
valleys of the Hudson and Housatonic, black, little, and lithe, she shivered and shrank in
the harsh north winds, looked longingly at the hills, and often crooned a heathen melody
to the child between her knees, thus:

The child sang it to his children and they to their children’s children, and so two
hundred years it has travelled down to us and we sing it to our children, knowing as little
as our fathers what its words may mean, but knowing well the meaning of its music.
This was primitive African music; it may be seen in larger form in the strange chant
which heralds “The Coming of John”
“You may bury me in the East,
You may bury me in the West,
But I’ll hear the trumpet sound in that morning,”
— the voice of exile.
Ten master songs, more or less, one may pluck from the forest of melody-songs of
undoubted Negro origin and wide popular currency, and songs peculiarly characteristic of
the slave. One of these I have just mentioned. Another whose strains begin this book is
“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.” When, struck with a sudden poverty, the United
States refused to fulfill its promises of land to the freedmen, a brigadier-general went
down to the Sea Islands to carry the news. An old woman on the outskirts of the throng
began singing this song; all the mass joined with her, swaying. And the soldier wept.
The third song is the cradle-song of death which all men know,-“Swing low, sweet
chariot,” — whose bars begin the life story of “Alexander Crummell.” Then there is the
song of many waters, “Roll, Jordan, roll,” a mighty chorus with minor cadences. There
were many songs of the fugitive like that which opens “The Wings of Atalanta,” and the
more familiar “Been a-listening.” The seventh is the song of the End and the Beginning —
“My Lord, what a mourning! when the stars begin to fall”; a strain of this is placed before
“The Dawn of Freedom.” The song of groping — “My way’s cloudy” — begins “The
Meaning of Progress”; the ninth is the song of this chapter — “Wrestlin’ Jacob, the day is
a-breaking,” — a paean of hopeful strife. The last master song is the song of songs —
“Steal away,” — sprung from “The Faith of the Fathers.”
There are many others of the Negro folk-songs as striking and characteristic as these,
as, for instance, the three strains in the third, eighth, and ninth chapters; and others I am
sure could easily make a selection on more scientific principles. There are, too, songs that
seem to be a step removed from the more primitive types: there is the maze-like medley,
“Bright sparkles,” one phrase of which heads “The Black Belt”; the Easter carol, “Dust,
dust and ashes”; the dirge, “My moth-er’s took her flight and gone home”; and that burst
of melody hovering over “The Passing of the First-Born” — “I hope my mother will be
there in that beautiful world on high.”
These represent a third step in the development of the slave song, of which “You may
bury me in the East” is the first, and songs like “March on” (chapter six) and “Steal away”
are the second. The first is African music, the second Afro-American, while the third is a
blending of Negro music with the music heard in the foster land. The result is still
distinctively Negro and the method of blending original, but the elements are both Negro
and Caucasian. One might go further and find a fourth step in this development, where
the songs of white America have been distinctively influenced by the slave songs or have
incorporated whole phrases of Negro melody, as “Swanee River” and “Old Black Joe.”
Side by side, too, with the growth has gone the debasements and imitations — the Negro
“minstrel” songs, many of the “gospel” hymns, and some of the contemporary “coon”
songs, — a mass of music in which the novice may easily lose himself and never find the
real Negro melodies.
In these songs, I have said, the slave spoke to the world. Such a message is naturally
veiled and half articulate. Words and music have lost each other and new and cant
phrases of a dimly understood theology have displaced the older sentiment. Once in a
while we catch a strange word of an unknown tongue, as the “Mighty Myo,” which
figures as a river of death; more often slight words or mere doggerel are joined to music
of singular sweetness. Purely secular songs are few in number, partly because many of
them were turned into hymns by a change of words, partly because the frolics were
seldom heard by the stranger, and the music less often caught. Of nearly all the songs,
however, the music is distinctly sorrowful. The ten master songs I have mentioned tell in
word and music of trouble and exile, of strife and hiding; they grope toward some unseen
power and sigh for rest in the End.
The words that are left to us are not without interest, and, cleared of evident dross, they
conceal much of real poetry and meaning beneath conventional theology and unmeaning
rhapsody. Like all primitive folk, the slave stood near to Nature’s heart. Life was a “rough
and rolling sea” like the brown Atlantic of the Sea Islands; the “Wilderness” was the
home of God, and the “lonesome valley” led to the way of life. “Winter’ll soon be over,”
was the picture of life and death to a tropical imagination. The sudden wild thunderstorms of the South awed and impressed the Negroes, — at times the rumbling seemed to
them “mournful,” at times imperious:
“My Lord calls me,
He calls me by the thunder,
The trumpet sounds it in my soul.”
The monotonous toil and exposure is painted in many words. One sees the ploughmen
in the hot, moist furrow, singing:
“Dere’s no rain to wet you,
Dere’s no sun to burn you,
Oh, push along, believer,
I want to go home.”
The bowed and bent old man cries, with thrice-repeated wail:
“O Lord, keep me from sinking down,”
and he rebukes the devil of doubt who can whisper:
“Jesus is dead and God’s gone away.”
Yet the soul-hunger is there, the restlessness of the savage, the wail of the wanderer,
and the plaint is put in one little phrase:

Over the inner thoughts of the slaves and their relations one with another the shadow of
fear ever hung, so that we get but glimpses here and there, and also with them, eloquent
omissions and silences. Mother and child are sung, but seldom father; fugitive and weary
wanderer call for pity and affection, but there is little of wooing and wedding; the rocks
and the mountains are well known, but home is unknown. Strange blending of love and
helplessness sings through the refrain:
“Yonder’s my ole mudder,
Been waggin’ at de hill so long;
‘Bout time she cross over,
Git home bime-by.”
Elsewhere comes the cry of the “motherless” and the “Fare-well, farewell, my only
Love-songs are scarce and fall into two categories — the frivolous and light, and the
sad. Of deep successful love there is ominous silence, and in one of the oldest of these
songs there is a depth of history and meaning:

A black woman said of the song, “It can’t be sung without a full heart and a troubled
sperrit.” The same voice sings here that sings in the German folk-song:
“Jetz Geh i’ an’s brunele, trink’ aber net.”
Of death the Negro showed little fear, but talked of it familiarly and even fondly as
simply a crossing of the waters, perhaps — who knows? — back to his ancient forests
again. Later days transfigured his fatalism, and amid the dust and dirt the toiler sang”
“Dust, dust and ashes, fly over my grave,
But the Lord shall bear my spirit home.”
The things evidently borrowed from the surrounding world undergo characteristic
change when they enter the mouth of the slave. Especially is this true of Bible phrases.
“Weep, O captive daughter of Zion,” is quaintly turned into “Zion, weep-a-low,” and the
wheels of Ezekiel are turned every way in the mystic dreaming of the slave, till he says:
“There’s a little wheel a-turnin’ in-a-my heart.”
As in olden time, the words of these hymns were impro-vised by some leading minstrel
of the religious band. The circumstances of the gathering, however, the rhythm of the
songs, and the limitations of allowable thought, confined the poetry for the most part to
single or double lines, and they seldom were expanded to quatrains or longer tales,
although there are some few examples of sustained efforts, chiefly paraphrases of the
Bible. Three short series of verses have always attracted me, — the one that heads this
chapter, of one line of which Thomas Wentworth Higginson has fittingly said, “Never, it
seems to me, since man first lived and suffered was his infinite longing for peace uttered
more plain-tively.” The second and third are descriptions of the Last Judgment, — the one
a late improvisation, with some traces of outside influence:
“Oh, the stars in the elements are falling,
And the moon drips away into blood,
And the ransomed of the Lord are returning unto God,
Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
And the other earlier and homelier picture from the low coast lands:
“Michael, haul the boat ashore,
Then you’ll hear the horn they blow,
Then you’ll hear the trumpet sound,
Trumpet sound the world around,
Trumpet sound for rich and poor,
Trumpet sound the Jubilee,
Trumpet sound for you and me.”
Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope — a faith in the
ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and
calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes
assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the
meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls
and not by their skins. Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true?
The silently growing assumption of this age is that the probation of races is past, and
that the backward races of to-day are of proven inefficiency and not worth the saving.
Such an assumption is the arrogance of peoples irreverent toward Time and ignorant of
the deeds of men. A thousand years ago such an assumption, easily possible, would have
made it difficult for the Teuton to prove his right to life. Two thousand years ago such
dogmatism, readily welcome, would have scouted the idea of blond races ever leading
civilization. So wofully unorganized is sociological knowledge that the meaning of
progress, the meaning of “swift” and “slow” in human doing, and the limits of human
perfectability, are veiled, unanswered sphinxes on the shores of science. Why should
AEschylus have sung two thousand years before Shakespeare was born? Why has
civilization flourished in Europe, and flickered, flamed, and died in Africa? So long as
the world stands meekly dumb before such questions, shall this nation proclaim its
ignorance and unhallowed prejudices by denying freedom of opportunity to those who
brought the Sorrow Songs to the Seats of the Mighty?
Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we
have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song — soft,
stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn
to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast
economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the
third, a gift of the Spirit. Around us the history of the land has centred for thrice a
hundred years; out of the nation’s heart we have called all that was best to throttle and
subdue all that was worst; fire and blood, prayer and sacrifice, have billowed over this
people, and they have found peace only in the altars of the God of Right. Nor has our gift
of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp
and woof of this nation, — we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood
with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless
people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse.
Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in bloodbrotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would
America have been America without her Negro people?
Even so is the hope that sang in the songs of my fathers well sung. If somewhere in
this whirl and chaos of things there dwells Eternal Good, pitiful yet masterful, then anon
in His good time America shall rend the Veil and the prisoned shall go free. Free, free as
the sunshine trickling down the morning into these high windows of mine, free as yonder
fresh young voices welling up to me from the caverns of brick and mortar below —
swelling with song, instinct with life, tremulous treble and darkening bass. My children,
my little children, are singing to the sunshine, and thus they sing:
And the traveller girds himself, and sets his face toward the Morning, and goes his way.

Get Professional Assignment Help Cheaply

Buy Custom Essay

Are you busy and do not have time to handle your assignment? Are you scared that your paper will not make the grade? Do you have responsibilities that may hinder you from turning in your assignment on time? Are you tired and can barely handle your assignment? Are your grades inconsistent?

Whichever your reason is, it is valid! You can get professional academic help from our service at affordable rates. We have a team of professional academic writers who can handle all your assignments.

Why Choose Our Academic Writing Service?

  • Plagiarism free papers
  • Timely delivery
  • Any deadline
  • Skilled, Experienced Native English Writers
  • Subject-relevant academic writer
  • Adherence to paper instructions
  • Ability to tackle bulk assignments
  • Reasonable prices
  • 24/7 Customer Support
  • Get superb grades consistently

Online Academic Help With Different Subjects


Students barely have time to read. We got you! Have your literature essay or book review written without having the hassle of reading the book. You can get your literature paper custom-written for you by our literature specialists.


Do you struggle with finance? No need to torture yourself if finance is not your cup of tea. You can order your finance paper from our academic writing service and get 100% original work from competent finance experts.

Computer science

Computer science is a tough subject. Fortunately, our computer science experts are up to the match. No need to stress and have sleepless nights. Our academic writers will tackle all your computer science assignments and deliver them on time. Let us handle all your python, java, ruby, JavaScript, php , C+ assignments!


While psychology may be an interesting subject, you may lack sufficient time to handle your assignments. Don’t despair; by using our academic writing service, you can be assured of perfect grades. Moreover, your grades will be consistent.


Engineering is quite a demanding subject. Students face a lot of pressure and barely have enough time to do what they love to do. Our academic writing service got you covered! Our engineering specialists follow the paper instructions and ensure timely delivery of the paper.


In the nursing course, you may have difficulties with literature reviews, annotated bibliographies, critical essays, and other assignments. Our nursing assignment writers will offer you professional nursing paper help at low prices.


Truth be told, sociology papers can be quite exhausting. Our academic writing service relieves you of fatigue, pressure, and stress. You can relax and have peace of mind as our academic writers handle your sociology assignment.


We take pride in having some of the best business writers in the industry. Our business writers have a lot of experience in the field. They are reliable, and you can be assured of a high-grade paper. They are able to handle business papers of any subject, length, deadline, and difficulty!


We boast of having some of the most experienced statistics experts in the industry. Our statistics experts have diverse skills, expertise, and knowledge to handle any kind of assignment. They have access to all kinds of software to get your assignment done.


Writing a law essay may prove to be an insurmountable obstacle, especially when you need to know the peculiarities of the legislative framework. Take advantage of our top-notch law specialists and get superb grades and 100% satisfaction.

What discipline/subjects do you deal in?

We have highlighted some of the most popular subjects we handle above. Those are just a tip of the iceberg. We deal in all academic disciplines since our writers are as diverse. They have been drawn from across all disciplines, and orders are assigned to those writers believed to be the best in the field. In a nutshell, there is no task we cannot handle; all you need to do is place your order with us. As long as your instructions are clear, just trust we shall deliver irrespective of the discipline.

Are your writers competent enough to handle my paper?

Our essay writers are graduates with bachelor's, masters, Ph.D., and doctorate degrees in various subjects. The minimum requirement to be an essay writer with our essay writing service is to have a college degree. All our academic writers have a minimum of two years of academic writing. We have a stringent recruitment process to ensure that we get only the most competent essay writers in the industry. We also ensure that the writers are handsomely compensated for their value. The majority of our writers are native English speakers. As such, the fluency of language and grammar is impeccable.

What if I don’t like the paper?

There is a very low likelihood that you won’t like the paper.

Reasons being:

  • When assigning your order, we match the paper’s discipline with the writer’s field/specialization. Since all our writers are graduates, we match the paper’s subject with the field the writer studied. For instance, if it’s a nursing paper, only a nursing graduate and writer will handle it. Furthermore, all our writers have academic writing experience and top-notch research skills.
  • We have a quality assurance that reviews the paper before it gets to you. As such, we ensure that you get a paper that meets the required standard and will most definitely make the grade.

In the event that you don’t like your paper:

  • The writer will revise the paper up to your pleasing. You have unlimited revisions. You simply need to highlight what specifically you don’t like about the paper, and the writer will make the amendments. The paper will be revised until you are satisfied. Revisions are free of charge
  • We will have a different writer write the paper from scratch.
  • Last resort, if the above does not work, we will refund your money.

Will the professor find out I didn’t write the paper myself?

Not at all. All papers are written from scratch. There is no way your tutor or instructor will realize that you did not write the paper yourself. In fact, we recommend using our assignment help services for consistent results.

What if the paper is plagiarized?

We check all papers for plagiarism before we submit them. We use powerful plagiarism checking software such as SafeAssign, LopesWrite, and Turnitin. We also upload the plagiarism report so that you can review it. We understand that plagiarism is academic suicide. We would not take the risk of submitting plagiarized work and jeopardize your academic journey. Furthermore, we do not sell or use prewritten papers, and each paper is written from scratch.

When will I get my paper?

You determine when you get the paper by setting the deadline when placing the order. All papers are delivered within the deadline. We are well aware that we operate in a time-sensitive industry. As such, we have laid out strategies to ensure that the client receives the paper on time and they never miss the deadline. We understand that papers that are submitted late have some points deducted. We do not want you to miss any points due to late submission. We work on beating deadlines by huge margins in order to ensure that you have ample time to review the paper before you submit it.

Will anyone find out that I used your services?

We have a privacy and confidentiality policy that guides our work. We NEVER share any customer information with third parties. Noone will ever know that you used our assignment help services. It’s only between you and us. We are bound by our policies to protect the customer’s identity and information. All your information, such as your names, phone number, email, order information, and so on, are protected. We have robust security systems that ensure that your data is protected. Hacking our systems is close to impossible, and it has never happened.

How our Assignment Help Service Works

1. Place an order

You fill all the paper instructions in the order form. Make sure you include all the helpful materials so that our academic writers can deliver the perfect paper. It will also help to eliminate unnecessary revisions.

2. Pay for the order

Proceed to pay for the paper so that it can be assigned to one of our expert academic writers. The paper subject is matched with the writer’s area of specialization.

3. Track the progress

You communicate with the writer and know about the progress of the paper. The client can ask the writer for drafts of the paper. The client can upload extra material and include additional instructions from the lecturer. Receive a paper.

4. Download the paper

The paper is sent to your email and uploaded to your personal account. You also get a plagiarism report attached to your paper.

smile and order essay GET A PERFECT SCORE!!! smile and order essay Buy Custom Essay

Place your order
(550 words)

Approximate price: $22

Calculate the price of your order

550 words
We'll send you the first draft for approval by September 11, 2018 at 10:52 AM
Total price:
The price is based on these factors:
Academic level
Number of pages
Basic features
  • Free title page and bibliography
  • Unlimited revisions
  • Plagiarism-free guarantee
  • Money-back guarantee
  • 24/7 support
On-demand options
  • Writer’s samples
  • Part-by-part delivery
  • Overnight delivery
  • Copies of used sources
  • Expert Proofreading
Paper format
  • 275 words per page
  • 12 pt Arial/Times New Roman
  • Double line spacing
  • Any citation style (APA, MLA, Chicago/Turabian, Harvard)

Our guarantees

Delivering a high-quality product at a reasonable price is not enough anymore.
That’s why we have developed 5 beneficial guarantees that will make your experience with our service enjoyable, easy, and safe.

Money-back guarantee

You have to be 100% sure of the quality of your product to give a money-back guarantee. This describes us perfectly. Make sure that this guarantee is totally transparent.

Read more

Zero-plagiarism guarantee

Each paper is composed from scratch, according to your instructions. It is then checked by our plagiarism-detection software. There is no gap where plagiarism could squeeze in.

Read more

Free-revision policy

Thanks to our free revisions, there is no way for you to be unsatisfied. We will work on your paper until you are completely happy with the result.

Read more

Privacy policy

Your email is safe, as we store it according to international data protection rules. Your bank details are secure, as we use only reliable payment systems.

Read more

Fair-cooperation guarantee

By sending us your money, you buy the service we provide. Check out our terms and conditions if you prefer business talks to be laid out in official language.

Read more
error: Content is protected !!
Open chat
Need assignment help? You can contact our live agent via WhatsApp using +1 718 717 2861

Feel free to ask questions, clarifications, or discounts available when placing an order.
  +1 718 717 2861           + 44 161 818 7126           [email protected]
  +1 718 717 2861         [email protected]