Mary Church Terrell

Difficulties of Negroes in the United States - Nov. 2, 1905

Mary Church Terrell
November 02, 1905
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The bolded text below is underlined in the original transcript of this speech.

Difficulties of Negroes in the United States.

A Word About Lynching.

There are a very few cities or towns in the United States in which a colored man can live without feeling keenly that he belongs to an “inferior” and a despised race. He may be more intelligent than his white neighbors; he may possess more of this world’s goods than they, but in their estimation he is a “nigger” still, a victim of all the odium and contempt which that word in the United States implies. In certain sections of our glorious Republic the beasts of the field are treated with far more consideration and charity than the human beings whom God has seen fit to encase in dark skins.

For the past ten years the tide of public opinion has been steadily setting against Colored people in this Country. The increasing hostility toward the race can be explained in only one of two ways. Either it is caused by the envy and jealousy of the illiterate and vicious whites, (the class called the “poor whites” in the South) whose barbarity so often disgraces the civilization of the Country in which they live, or it is caused by the fear of the more intelligent white people and their Colored brothers are progressing intellectually, morally and financially too fast, in spite of the almost insurmountable obstacles which the latter are obliged to surmount.

Whether it is possible logically to explain the hostility or not, the fact remains that the revulsion of feeling toward Colored people all over the United States exists to a marked degree. Those who were once known to be their boldest advocates and their staunchest friends have almost nothing to say in their favor or to their credit now. Ask them why they concern themselves so little about the present status of Colored people, and it impossible for them to answer the question satisfactorily to themselves. In many cases they will go so far as to admit that the progress of the freedmen along all lines has even transcended the expectation of their most sanguine friends. But in spite of the marvellous advancement made by colored people during the past forty years against tremendous odds the interest [illegible] manifested in them by the North is growing lamentably less. It is reaching the vanishing point fast as it can. To the struggling and despised race this lack of sympathy on the part of its former friends and this chilly indifference to their wrongs and woes are staggering blows.

Those who carefully study the race problem as it exists in the United States must inevitably reach the conclusion that one of the most serious obstacles to its solution is the lack of incentive to effort on the part Colored People. There are comparatively few positions which it is possible for them to secure, few avocations in which they can successfully engage and comparatively few trades in which they are generally employed. In almost every States of the Union it would be easier for a camel with a hump to pass literally through a cambric needle’s eye that it would be for a man or a woman even remotely identified with the despised race to get employment in a factory or secure any one of a number of positions open to everybody except the individual whose epidermis is dark.

In the first place the trades Union are hostile to Colored men, although some of the officers and members try to conceal this fact. A personal experience will illustrate this point as well as anything which I can cite. In addressing an audience in a Western city a few summers ago I expressed regret that the Trades Unions discriminate against Colored workmen. At the close of the address just as I was leaving the auditorium, a young man who appeared to be in an alarming state of mind rushed forward and stopped me abruptly. “How dare you make such a vicious attack upon the Trades Unions?” he demanded angrily. “If you had studied your subject properly as you should have done, before you appeared on the lecture platform, you would have known that the constitution of the American Federation of Labor strictly prohibits the drawing of the color line. Mr. Gompers, the president, is strongly in favor of organizing Colored men into unions, not for their sake alone, but for the sake of white laborers, as well.” As soon as I could get a word in edgewise, I told the excited young man that in spite of his disclaimer, I had discovered after careful investigation that many unions refuse to receive Colored men, even though they are known to be skilled workmen. Those who are fair enough to show a trace of their African blood are rejected. But nothing I could say made any impression upon the irascible young man. He insisted to the last that I had either been misinformed or that I had maliciously misrepresented the facts. In the leading editorial of the largest daily next morning it was stated that the charges made by myself with reference to the attitude of the Trades Unions towards Colored men were unfair, unjust and untrue. But I picked up a newspaper one day in the following December and read something which vindicated me and purged me of the guilt of falsehood. In glaring headlines the public was informed “The American Federation of Labor Draws the Color Line” and that “The Trades Union Bar the Negro.” Then followed an account of what was called the largest labor convention ever held in the United States. President Gompers himself was in the chair. And yet this convention seated a delegate from the Central Labor Union of Richmond, Virginia almost unanimously, although this union refused to admit Colored men and boasted openly of the fact. So long as Trades Unions are hostile to Colored workmen, the progress of the latter along industrial lines must necessarily be slow.

Even in those sections where Colored men are employed, they seldom receive as good wages as are paid white men, though they perform the same kind of work and do it equally as well. In a fit of desperation if Colored men fly in the face of white labor organizations by accepting places which white strikers have left, they do so at their own peril and it has more than once cost them their lives. Two instances which occurred during the month of August in the present year show the determination of white men to force Colored men out of employment and to make them pay the penalty, if they dare disobey. During the recent great strike in the stock yards of Chicago a Colored man, Allen Cotton, by name was found unconscious one morning with his eyes gouged out and his skull crushed--the penalty paid for filling the place voluntarily abandoned by a white man. A Colored brakeman was frightened into quitting his job by receiving a coffin, on the lid of which was written “We will give you this day to make your last trip on any train of this road. Rope is cheap and limbs are low; if otherwise, into this box you will go.” On the same line a short while before this episode occurred, the white crew refused to handle the mail bag for the Colored clerk. And yet, in spite of these cruel discriminations and in the face of all these obstacles to their success as tradesman, Colored men are continually being accused of wilful idleness. Their detractors never tire telling how lazy the Negro is--how constitutionally opposed he is to work.

In addition to the difficulties already mentioned is one which is serious and great, because it affects thousands of dusky plodders in the South who are too ignorant to protect themselves. The credit system in vogue on the plantation in some parts of the South, when reduced to its lowest terms, is but another species of slavery. The storekeepers with whom these poor ignorant wage earners trade and for whom in the majority of cases they work, have devised a little system of counting, by which at the end of the year the figures invariably show that the bill which the Colored workman owes for goods bought on credit at his employer’s store amounts to more than the wages which his white employer has promised to pay him. Thus it happens that year in and year out the Colored laborers have never a penny of their own, are always in debt at their employer’s store and must continue to buy their food and clothing on credit. So notorious has this system become that the victims of the fraud have composed a little rhyme which runs as follows: “Naught’s a naught and a figger’s a figger, All for the white man, but none for the nigger.”

Briefly stated the industrial condition of the Colored people in the United States is a follows. In that section of our country which is supposed to very friendly to the struggling race, because the fathers of the men now holding the reins of the States governments in their hands fought for the freedom of the slave, it is difficult for Colored workmen to secure employment at all. Those who are fortunate enough to get the opportunity to work are not so well paid as other workmen who are superior neither in endurance nor skill. In that section of the country where Colored people were formerly held as slaves, they are generally employed in the various trades, not because of any strong affection for the race, as is sometimes asserted, but because, practically speaking, there is no body else to employ. The Colored workman in the South is a case of Hobson’s choice. The Southerners who seek to prove the depth and strength of their affection for the depised and oppressed race by pointing with pride to the number permitted to work are simply making necessity a virtue. But even in the section where Colored people practically perform all the menial labor, they are usually very poorly paid, while the ignorant are frequently cheated out of [t]heir earnings. The real difficulty confronting the Colored people of the United States therefore is not a racial distaste for work, as some of their enemies and detractors insist, but it is the settled, grim determination of the trades unions to force them out of employment as well as the discrimination against them by the employing class in the price paid for their services.

In the speeches, monographs and tomes on the conditions of the Colored people of this country reference is rarely, if ever, made to their lack of incentive to effort, to which most of their vices and defects may be directly traced. Young men and women in the public schools frequently ask their teachers what good it will do them to get an education, since there are so few things for Colored people to do. Only a few of us can practice the professions, they say, so the rest of us must engage in menial work. We do not need to get an education to succeed in that. It is difficult, if not impossible for a white person to put himself into a Colored American’s place. The white man with every avenue of employment open to him cannot imagine how dreary, stale, flat and unprofitable the world seem, if his incentive to effort were removed. There are thousands of Colored people in the United States who realize as fully and as bitterly as mortals can the meaning of Dante’s conception of hell-- a place in which the victims can have no hope.

One of the features of the race problem which will render it increasingly difficult to elevate the masses of Colored people is their lack of self respect. Nine-tenths of them live in a section in which they are held in scron and contempt. Under such circumstances there is reason to fear that the manhood and womanhood of the race may be utterly crushed. The individual who hears from birth that he belongs to a race hopelessly ignorant, totally depraved and utterly destitute of those qualities of intellect and graces of character necessary to lift it from the low plane of inferiority to the lofty heights of intelligence, respectability and worth, can with difficulty cultivate self respect. The individual who has no self respect lacks one of the most important and substantial attributes in human character. What is true of the individual is true of a race. The most illiterate and degraded white man in the United States considers himself immeasurably superior to the most intelligent, refined and well to do Colored man, because the latter’s skin is dark. The consensus of opinion in this country coincides with this view. As soon as a Colored child understands anythings at all, he is taught his inferiority to his little white neighbor in a variety of ways. It is in the very atmosphere which he breathes. He hears it in every zephyr that blows.

In the South everything that human ingenuity can devise or human mind conceive is done to humiliate Colored people both in their own estimation and in that of others. The South claims that it objects to the freedman, because he is ignorant, the straightway deprives him of his schools. Already one state in the South has enacted a law, by which the public schools for Colored children are prohibited from giving instruction higher than the 3rd or 4th grade. These children are given a smattering of reading, writing and arithmetic and are then turned loose to shift for themselves. But the white children of this state are not only permitted but are urged to pursue the full course. For the past few years several southern states have been urged by a goodly number of their distinguished sons to enact a law by which the school taxes shall be divided, and only so many schools be provided for Colored children as the taxes paid by Colored people can support. Grave fears have several times been entertained by Colored people and their friends that the colleges and institutions for the youth of the oppressed race in certain southern states would be greatly crippled, if not utterly destroyed by a law introduced into the respective legislatures forbidding white teachers to instruct Colored youth.

A law has just been enacted in Kentucky forbidding the education of Colored and white youth together in the same institution. This law aimed directly at Berea College founded years ago for the mountain whites in its immediate vicinity and for the Colored youth as well. Ever since this institution was established, white and colored students have been receiving instruction in the same recitation rooms, but henceforth this will not be allowed. As is the rule in all such cases, the colored youth are the sufferer, and Berea’s doors in the future will be closed against them. The case will becarried to the Supreme Court of the United States, but many fear that the decision will be adverse to the Colored youth. Pending the decision of the Supreme Court the Colored students who are already far advanced in their college course must either go to institutions in other States and distant from their homes or they must abandon their college education altogether.

If the South is to be judged by its deeds as well as by its words, it was never more determined to keep its former slaves as low in the scale of humanity as possible and never more bent on withholding from them theirinalienable rights than it is at the present time.

Nor is it possible for the Colored man to amelorate his condition through the medium of the ballot in the southern states, for his citizenship has been stolen away. In almost every state of the South the constitutional amendments which conferred the elective franchise upon Colored men are a dead letter and they have been so for many years. And yet, if one dares to call attention to these illegal political practices, he is accused of stirring up sectional strife and of “waving the bloody shirt,” than which nothing is accounted more criminal. Public wrath is no longer turned against the sinner, but against him, who dares to call the sinner to account. At the close of the war of rebellion, if an abolitionist or a union soldier had been told that in less than forty years much of the work which it cost rivers of blood and millions of treasure to accomplish would be practically undone throughout the South, he would have dismissed such a prediction as too wildly improbable to happen. And yet that is just what has occurred. Almost every day one reads or hears learned arguments advanced to prove that it was an unpardonable blunder to confer citizenship upon a race just emerging from bondage. There are hardly a bakers dozen throughout the entire land, however, who are urging the country to respect its constitution and obey it as the fundamental law. It is inconceivable that an infraction of any other organic law would be winked at so generally as that which deprives the Colored man of his rights.

There is no doubt that many fair minded, justice-loving citizens of the United States honestly believe that it was a terrible mistake to confer the elective franchise upon Colored men, as soon as they became free. In discussing this question of Negro suffrage, however, it is amazing that even the upright and honorable fail to perceive that no matter what may be their individual opinion with reference to the wisdom or folly of taking such a step, citizenship for the Negro has been incorporated into the constitution of the United States and should therefore be respected all over the land. By some of the opponents of Negro suffrage great emphasis is laid upon the ignorance of the Colored man. But those who declaim loudest upon this fail to remember and to state that Colored people in the United States have reduced their illiteracy much more rapidly than have the southern whites. Two years ago the Atlanta Constitution, one of the largest newspapers in the South, expressed itself as follows: “We have as many illiterate white men in the South to day over the age of 21 years as there were 52 years ago, when the census of 1850 was taken.” Over against this evidence of the backwardness and the sluggishness of the Southern whites, statistics complied by men of their own race show that the Colored people of this country during the past forty years have reduced their illiteracy to 445%, in the face of obstacles against which many of them have been obliged to contend. In spite of this rapid advancement, however, the Colored man’s vote has been reduced 500% in certain sections of the South in the past few years. In the largest county of Alabama with a population of more than 52,000 Colored people only 47 registered at a recent election. In this particular county the Colored people are 35 times as numerous as the whites, but the white voters are 34 times as numerous as the colored. In Dr. Booker T. Washington’s county, the very heart of the Black Belt of Alabama, only 52 Colored men voted a short time ago.

To those who believe that the affairs of the nation should be placed in the hands of the intelligent rather than in the hands of the illiterate, this elimination of the Colored Man’s vote may seem a necessary evil. Very few who have denied their rights of citizenship however are so gullible as to believe that the ability to read and write is exacted from black and white alike. Almost everybody has heard of the famous grandfather clause, which has been adopted by at least four of the southern states and by the terms of which ignorant white men are to vote, while intelligent Colored men are excluded from the polls. It is an open secret that thousands of Colored men in the South of education, refinement and wealth would take their lives in their hands, if they tried to cast a ballot, while thousands of ignorant, worthless white men are almost forced to vote. In discussing this phase of the subject one of the best known journalists in the United States, who is himself a southerner, the son of a slaveholder, served four years in the Confederate Army, had twenty years experience of political reconstruction and who could hardly be accused of bias in favor of the Colored man expressed himself as follows a short while ago: “My opinion is based upon intimate acquaintance, careful observation, and close contact covering a quarter of a century. In my opinion the average Negro is a better citizen, a more conservative force in politics than the poor whites. If the choice were necessary”, said he, “I should rather have the destinies of the southern states confided to the unbiassed action of the Negro yeomanry than to the control of the illiterate whites. What is more, I believe, and I think I know that the upper classes of the South are of the same opinion. In slave times 40 years ago Negroes were the friends and the poor whites were the enemies of the educated elements of society. Conditions have not materially changed. The South”, said he, “would undoubtedly be the gainer by any dispensation under which the southern states can become debatable ground in party politics. But I absolutely deny”, said this southern gentleman, “that this condition can be brought about by legislation which excludes from the ballot box one illiterate class and leaves in power another and more dangerous one. We cannot help matters by leaving the franchise in the hands of the ignorant, the vicious, and the corruptible, no matter what may be the color of their skins.” This opinion was expressed in an editorial of the Washington Post, the largest morning daily of the National Capital by Mr. Richard Weightman, as fine a specimen of the old slave holding aristocracy as can be found in a day’s march. But in spite of a general knowledge of the wholesale disfranchisement of the Negro and in spite of the high estimate placed by those who know him best upon his honesty and integrity asa citizen, the platform, the pulpit and the press are in the main silent upon this burning question of human rights. Those who insist that it was unwise to confer the elective franchise upon Colored men as soon as they became free, forgot the reasons which made such a course necessary. Some of the most astute and conservative statesmen whom the United States has ever produced felt obliged to put the ballot into the freedman’s hand as a means of protection and defence. The Emancipation Proclamation had no sooner been issued from the White House than the South began to enact laws affecting former slaves by which in a short time they would have been reduced to a state of bondage as cruel and as hard as that from which they had just been freed. But this phase of the subject is rarely discussed, either in the United States or abroad. It is inconceivable that the wise and far seeing statesmen who advocated the amendments to the constitution which which placed citizenship in the freedman’s hands failed to perceive all the evils which could arise from such a measure. But after carefully considering the question in all its lights and shades they decided that of the two new evils which confronted them, elective franchise for the newly emancipated slaves would be the less. But by stratagem, by fraud and by the enactment of laws which discriminate against them the Colored people of the south are now deprived of the benfits of this merciful provision which their kind friends made.

It is the nature of injustice and tyranny to pass from one degree of injury and offence toward its victim to another. The desire to humiliate and oppress the weak is an appetite which grows by what it feeds upon. This was never more clearly illustrated then in the treatment accorded the Colored people by the South. Their right of citizenship was no sooner stolen than the school facilities for their children and their youth were either curtailed or withheld. That had no sooner been accomplished than efforts were made to humiliate and degrade them in every possible way. In almost ever state of the South what is called the Jim Crow Car Laws have been enacted, by which colored people, no matter what may be their intellectual attainments their character or their wealth are prohibited from riding in the same compartment with white people. As a matter of fact, however, the coaches in which Colored people are forced to ride are often dirty, cold and uncomfortable in the winter and inferior in every respect to those provided for white people. Last winter a Colored woman with a sick baby started from the North to go South. Part of her journey was made in a warm and comfortable sleeper. She was obliged to change cars in a southern state, however, in which Colored people are not allowed to ride in the Pullman coaches, so she was forced to make the rest of her journey in a Jim Crow Car. The sudden change from the comfortable sleeper to the cold and cheerless coach for colored people was so great that the infant died from the effects.

If the Jim Crow Car laws had been enacted to protect white ladies and gentlemen from unkempt, unwashed and uncouth Colored people, even some of the victims themselves might recognize the necessity of their existence perhaps. But these laws were not made for the illy conditioned Colored people, they were aimed directly at the intelligent, cultivated men and women of color, and designed to humiliate them. No matter how shabby or repulsive a Colored person may be, he is permitted to ride in the coach with white people in any state of the South, provided he is there in the capacity of a servant. If by some sudden metamorphosis, however, he were changed froma menial to a millionare, he would be ejected from the same coach according to the law if he were known to have but a single drop of African blood in his veins. Not long ago a Colored woman of education and refinement travelled through the state of Kentucky as a nurse for the infant of her white neighbor, who did not possess as much of this world’s good as herself, rather than be subjected to the humiliation of introducing the Jim Crow Car was being discussed in the legislature of North Carolina, a member of the body declared that such a law was unnecessary in that state, because the “darkies” could be forced to go wherever the white people wanted them. “It is true we can make the ignorant negroes go where we want them, but we cant make the educated high toned darkies stay in their places” was the reply. “We need the Jim Crow Car Law for the “Nigger” preachers, teachers, doctors, lawyers and all the others who think they are as good as white folks.” This appeal to the prejudice against the respectable Colored people of the South had the desired effect and the Jim Crow Car Law was passed without further delay. There is not a single hotel patronized by the white people of the South in which a Colored Lady or Gentlemen can secure accommodations. There is not a single restaurant throughout the south and patronized by white people is assigned by the South as the reason for all their dignities so wantonly heaped upon the oppressed races and for the denial of privileges which it is the right of every freeborn citizen to enjoy. “Social Equality” is the great bugaboo of the South. It is the scapegoat upon which all of its sins and crimes against a defenceless people are packed, It is also used by the South as a scare crow to frighten the North from those eternal principles of justice, equality before the law and liberty for which their forefathers fought and in which the present generation itself pretends to believe. But the only social equality which has ever been practiced to any extent in this country is that which was introduced by the white masters of slave women and which has been perpetuated by the descendants of the former even unto the present day. The South frequently boasts that in no other section of the country can Americans be found whose blood is so pure as that which flows through the veins of its white population. But this boast is not founded on fact. During slavery there was a goodly number of white fathers of Colored children who were too humane and natural either to hold their own flesh and blood in slavery to themselves or to sell them into bondage to another. It was no uncommon thing for such fathers to send their Colored children to Europe, where they were educated. In many cases these children who were fair enough to pass for white returned, South associated with white people exclusively and married into some of the most aristocratic families of that section. There is no doubt, therefore, that many white people in the South who are to day boasting about the purity of their blood have a drop or two of African blood in their veins. Several years ago a beautiful young woman who had always supposed she was white committed suicide in a hotel in Charleston South Carolina, because in settling her father’s estate her lawyer discovered that her mother was a slave.

It is a great misfortune that the Colored people of the United States are debarred from many of the avocations and trades. It will be difficult to elevate the masses of a people, who are prevented from cultivating respect for themselves as individuals and for the race with which they are identified as a whole, because of the systematic and determined efforts on the part of a stronger race to humiliate and degrade them. But there is nothing which renders their condition in this country so pathetic and so hopeless as the cruelty and the barbarity of which they are constantly the victims in that section where nine tenths of them live. When one picks up the newspaper every morning he expects to read an account of the lynching of a Colored man, woman or child, and he is rarely disappointed. Colored people are shot to death, hanged and burnt almost daily in this Country while their murders not only escape punishment, but are rarely called to account So rapidly has the crime of lynching spread that not it is confined to no one particular section, as it was a few years ago, but it is constantly breaking out in places where one would least expect to find, it. The South insists that lynching will cease when the crime which is responsible for the lawlessness of the mobs is stopped. But everybody who has studied lynching knows that there is no one particular crime for which Colored people are tortured and murdered by mobs in the South Statistics which are compiled by white men show that out of every hundred Colored men who are lynched, only 12 and at the most 15 are even accused for what is so falsely and maliciously called the “Usual” crime by the South. And of the 12 or 15 who are charged with assault upon white women, it is doubtful that six are guilty of the crime. A white minister who has lived for years in the South says it is doubtful whether there has ever been a case of assault upon a white woman in that section by a colored man. According to statistics only one Colored male in 100,000 was even accused of this crime in 1902, whereas in the city of Chicago one white man or boy out of every 20,000 was accused of assault during the same year. One of the most revolting and wanton lynchings which has ever disgraced the civilization of the United States occurred in August of the present year. Two Colored men in Statesboro Georgia were accused of murder, were convicted and sentenced to be hanged. They were taken from the jail, however, after sentence had been passed, dragged two miles into the woods, saturated with twenty gallons of kerosene oil and burned to death in the broad daylight by men who did not even take the trouble to wear masks. A potographer and the crowd was cleared back that he might get several views of the men bound to the stake and ready for the burning. One of the prisoners declared to the last that he was innocent of the murder and begged that he be shot or hanged, but the crowd insisted that he be burned. The details of this tragedy are too sickening to relate. A lynching was expected and the militia had been sent to protect the prisoners. At the military court of inquiry appointed by the governor of Georgia to investigate the conduct of the state troops who allowed the mob to seize the Colored men before their very eyes, a private testified that the sheriff ordered the soldiers to stand back and let the mob take the prisoners. Since this crime was against a defenceless race, against civilization and against the law of the land was committed, at least six other Colored people have been lynched, one of them a boy seventeen, while he was in a jail, into which no mob is said to have broken and in which no disturbance of any kind is known to have occurred. The authorities of the jail claim they had no idea that the prisoner was dead, until they saw his lifeless body hanging to the ceiling by a rope.

When I think of the Convict Lease System that new form of slavery which is as cruel and as crushing as the old, the disfranchisement acts, the unjust discriminations in the professions and the trades, the Jim Crow Car Laws and the almost daily lynching of the Colored people of the United States, I fell that my sentiments can be expressed in no stronger or more appropriate language than that employed by a great statesman long since passed away. “I tremble for my country, when I think that God is just.”

Mary Church Terrell,

Honorary President of the National Association of Colored Women.

326 T Street, northwest.

Washington, D.C.

Nov, 2, 1905

Terrell, Mary Church. “Difficulties of Negroes in the United States." Mary Church Terrell Papers. Library of Congress. 5 November 1905.