Mary Church Terrell

Purity and the Negro - 1905

Mary Church Terrell
January 01, 1905— Washington, D.C.
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Purity and the Negro.


In compliance with your request to present some facts on the purity of Ngro I submit the following, in the hope that it will open the eyes of a few, even if it does not convert them to my view. In dismissing the moral lapses of colored people it is customary for people who try to be fair-minded both to forget the past and ignore the present, while the fail to give environment and heredity a passing thought. It is a notorious fact, also that those who throw stones at the moral character of colored people do not spend much time in studying comparative statistics.

During slavery it was impossible for bond-women to protect themselves from the lust of their masters, the sons of their masters or their master’s friends. The system put a premium upon immorality and made chastity an impossibility. By the slaveholders themselves virtue in a slave woman, if was ever thought of at all, was regarded as a joke. Nothing that the cunning ingenuity of lustful men could conceive or their wicked passions conceive for the degradation of the colored women of the South was left undone. Since the war, colored women have been regarded as the rightful prey of every white man who has looked upon them with lustful eyes, and they have been protected from the wiles and lechery of their destroyers neither by public sentiment nor by law. The more beautiful, prepossessing and intelligent a colored girl is in the South to day, the more difficult is it for her to escape the pitfalls laid for her by white men in the South to day. In discussing conditions in a certain southern city a friend who was visiting there wrote me last summer as follows: “This is a small place but such a wicked one. All the prominent white men here have their colored mistresses and families. The children who are the result of such unions all go by their fathers names and consequently there two families, a white and a colored, for each name.” When I was a student at Oberlin College, one of my trachers told me that a colored girl who is virtuous in the United States deserves a great dela more credit than a white girl who is pure. When this remark was made, My feelings were deeply wounded, because I thought it implied an innate tendency to immorality on the part of colored girls. But since I have studied the conditions which exist, where the majority of colored girls live, I understand exactly what my teacher meant.

And yet in spite of the fateful heritage of slavery, in spite of the fact that safeguards usually thrown around maidenly youth and innocence are in many sections of the South entirely withheld from colored girls to day, in spite of the temptations to which they are subjected by those belonging to what they have always been taught is the superior race and in spite of the fact that white men may despoil colored girls in the South without fear of punishment by law or incurring the censure of those among whom they live, in spite of all this, statistics compiled by men who would not falsify in favor of my race show that immorality among colored women is nos so great as among women whose environment is similar in France, Italy Germany and Sweden and France.

Among what is called the best class of colored people a scandal rarely occurs. Personally I do not know of a single social circle of representative colored people, that is those who have had the advantage of education and moral training in a single city North, East or West, in which there have been proportionately so many divorces and so many glaring, ugly transgressions of the moral law as there have been in New Yory City among people blessed with fabulous wealth, having been blessed with advantages which education, culture and heredity bring and having every possible incentive to lead correct and decent lives. And yet, it will be exceedingly difficulty for many good and fair-minded people to believe that the proportion of moral colored people in the United States is so large. There are no women in this or any other country who more virtuous that the the colored women in the United States who have been well educated and carefully reared.

Those who insist that colored people are brutes with respect to their sexual natures, as is so often asserted by the enemies and traducers of the race, either ignore or maliciously misrepresent the facts. Nothing has done so much to attach the stain of licentiousness to the character of colored men as the charge of violating white women, preferred against them by the mobs in the South who hang them, shoot them to death and burn them alive. In discussing the subject of Lynching in the June number of the North American Review which show that out of every 100 colored men wo are lunched, only 12 or 15 at the most are even accused of what is so falsely and maliciously called the usual crime. It has also been stated on most reliable authority that in the city of Chicago one white man or boy out of every 20,000 assaults a woman, whereas only one colored man or boy out of every 100,000 in the South is guilty of the same heinous offence. And yet, in spite of these uncontrovertible facts staring them in the face and pointing the finger of accusation at them, southern gentlemen well-known on the literary, social and political life of the nation, unblushingly declare that Negroes are lynched in the South on account of the unmentionable crime. With one breath these spokes men for the South admit that during the war, when the men of that section generally speaking were on the battle field fighting to keep the iron heel of oppression upon the neck of their slves, the dusky bondmen, left behind on the plantations protected the mothers, daughters and wives of their masters with a tenderness, a fidelity and sacredness of trust which the men of no race have ever surpassed. With the next breath they insist that these men and their descendants have changed so radically in sentiment and conduct as to have become sexual degenerates and brutes, unable to control their passion for white women and unwilling to bridle their low desires. But one would search history in vain for a revolution in the nature of a race of men so sudden and violent as that which the South claims has taken place in the mental and moral fibre of rhe colored men of the United States. All colored men are not perfect. It would indeed be strange, if they were. There is no desire on the part of the writer to minimize defects or to deny the truth. Colored men transgress the moral law no doubt, as their white brothers do. The colored man is nothing, if not imitative. He learns his lessons quickly and well. The system of slavery in which the foreparents of the present generation acquired their notions of erect living, and imbibed their ideals for nearly 300 years was not calculated to set their moral standard very high. But when those who wish to be just consider the examples of immorality so generally set colored people by their masters throughout the regime of the awful bondage they endured, the enforced ignorance of the masses in many sections of the South where school houses are so rare to day, the temptations to which the women and girls are subjected by the men whose attention naturally flatters them, the degrading environment of multitudes of the youth and the wicked methods employed by the people of the section in which the majority live to keep them as near the level of brutes as they possibly can, men occasionally yield to their base desires, not colored women and girls occasionally go astray, but that the race as a whole adheres as strictly to the path of virtue as statistics prove they does.

Although I have seen moral status of colored women discussed many times both by friend and foe, I have never read a word or suggestion from anybody concerning the great responsibility resting upon the white women of the South toward their sorely tempted and shamefully debauched sisters of a darker hue. And yet nobody who has considered the matter at all doubts that the white women of the South might, if they would, exert a powerful influence for the elevation of colored women, if they chose. Instead of trying to arouse the conscience of the public toward the open and shameless debauchery of colored women by their husbands, fathers and sons, the white women of the South who discuss the subject in the public prints at all, seem to delight in exposing the weakness of colored women and appear to gloat over their vice. In several articles which have appeared in one of the best magazines in the country southern white women have declared without qualification or reservation of any kind that there is no such thing as a virtuous colored woman in the United States.

Mrs. L.H. Harris of Nashville Tenn. who frequently writes for the Independent and who is an author of repute made the most violent, unfounded and unchristian attack upon the colored women of the South about two years ago that I have ever seen. Since then another white women living in the South has taken her pen in hand to besmirch the character of colored women. In the article which the latter writer contributed to the Independent, she declared that although she had been brought up among colored women, she felt certain she had never seen are who was virtuous and she doubted whether a virtuous colored woman could be found in the United States. Even if these writers believed what they said was true, it is difficult to understand why they should wish to bring discredit and dishonor through the public prints upon the womanhood of the whole race. It is impossible to explain such hardness of heart and such bitterness on the part of the women belonging to a strong and superior race toward those who belong to one which labors under innumerable disadvantages and is because of its weakness and public scorn except on the ground of heredity. Descended from generations of mothers who were accustomed to look upon the wholesale debauchery of colored women with out a protest and without the shock to their moral natures which they would be expected to receive, their daughters have inherited this indifference to the degradation of colored women by the men of the present day. Morally speaking slavery was a weapon which shot both ways, wounding those who fired as well as those who were hit. So far as slavery is concerned, the one feature connected with it which I have never been able to explain was the acquiesence of the white women of the South in the fearful transgressions of the moral law by the masters of female slaves which there was no effort to conceal. It is just as dificult to comprehend the attitude of the white women of the South toward their colored sisters to day. For surely they must know that so long as men may despoil the women of any race with impunity, the prevailing standard of morality must necessarily be very low. If it really is no concern to them, therefore, whether the girls and women who serve them and who touch their lives in a vari[ety] of ways are helped to lead decent lives or not, surely interest in their fathers, husbands and sons should prompt them to shield in every possible way from the lust of their men. When one thinks what the white women of the South might do for the elevation of their ignorant, poor and unprotected sisters of a darker hue, their responsibility seems great indeed. When he is obliged to acknowledge that the virtuous, Christian, intelligent women of the favored race are doing practically nothing for the moral elevation of their sisters who so sorely need their aid, he does not know whether to marvel more at the short sighted policy so recklessly pursued or the hardness of hardness of heart which displayed.

In answering the question “Why is the prejudice against the colored man in the North greater now than at any time since the war”?, the American Missionary Magazine for November made the following reply; I. “The constant iteration on the part of the dominant South that the Negro is a failure, that the education of the Negro only makes him more indolent and dangerous, though absolutely false, secures attention by virtue of its repetition, and comes to be accepted as true by those who have not the evidence to the contrary.” Nothing has been said bearing on the race problem truer or more forcible for a long time. In the same way the slurs against the moral character of colored women and the charges of bestiality preferred against colored men may be explained. From the constant repetition of the foul slanders against colored women not only are many white people in the South who try to be fair-minded and just persuaded to believe them, but multitudes in the North are converted to this view. It is a notorious fact that these who circulate most diligently the foul aspersions upon the character of colored women are the descendants of those who were responsible for the moral degradation of their female slaves and who are themselves imitating the example of their departed sires. In reading accounts of the terrible assaults committed by colored men upon white women which appear in the press, one should always remember that mistakes frequently occur. Gov. hywood [Heyward] of South Carolina has just respited the sentence of Aaron Williams, a Negro, sentenced to hang [Friday] at Camden to Dec. 23. for committing rape upon a white woman. Some of the best citizens of Kershaw county petitioned the Governor as follows: We, the undersigned citizens of Kershaw county firmly and honestly believe that there are circumstances connected with this case which will appeal to Your Excellency why the defendant in this case does not deserve the imposition of the death penalty, respectfully petition your excellency to grant a respite in this case for at least 30 days, until we can make the proper and convincing show why Williams should not be executed and our reasons therefor. On Oct. 17th Governor Heuwood [Heyward] declined to grant this petitio because it was too general in terms and showed no specific reason why it should be granted. Then the following affidavits were submitted; County of Kershaw; Personally appeared J.J.B. Truesdale on oath to say that Aaron Williams did not commit rape on Mrs. Langley. Aaron Williams was intimate with Mrs. Langley’s consent and that J.J.B. Truesdell does not think Aaron Williams Should be hung and should be sent to penitentiary for life. Personally appeared Samuel Amons under oath to say that Aaron Williams did work for Mrs. Langley for several days after it was reported to Langley that Aaron Williams had raped his wife, and that he, S.J. Amons, does not believe that Mrs. Langley was a virtuous woman, and that Aaron Williams has been living in adultery with Mrs. Langley for some time before this happened.

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and morally to face the world again and begin a new life. Throughout the Southland there is scarcely a single institution of this kind to which a colored girl may go and be encouraged to lead a better life, after she has gone astray. What a blessing such institutions would be to the tempted unprotected colored girls of the South.

In considering statistics bearing upon the number of illegitimate children born to colored women, one should never lose sight of the fact that in all the institutions to which they are admitted, a careful record is kept which is easily obtained. On the other hand it is well-known that there are sanitariums and private institutions to which unfortunate girls of other races may go in their hour of sorrow without fear that painful facts will ever go beyond the four walls of their room.

There is no desire on the part of the writer to attribute to colored people virtues which they do not possess. A proper regard for truth forces one to admit that colored men and women transgress the moral law, just as people belonging to other races in this country and abroad. Statistics among the colored people of the United States as their enemies and traducers claim. Finally, when on studies the conditions under which the masses of the race live in the South, he is surprised not so much at the morally obliquity which he sometimes finds as he is at the innumerable examples of virtue, sobriety and decency which confront him at every turn.

Terrell, Mary Church. 1905. “Purity and the Negro." Mary Church Terrell Papers. Library of Congress.