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Collection African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection

Contributions to the Nation

Fri., Dec. 30 1898
Evening Session, 7.30 o'clock

Our Place in the Politics of the Country

The 1st Vote. Artist unknown. Wood engraving, in Harper's Weekly, November 16, 1867. LC-USZ62-29247.

The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, guaranteed the right to vote without regard to "race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

All federal efforts to enforce this amendment came to an end after the 1876 election. Immersed in the great industrial expansion that followed the Civil War, the nation was no longer very interested in ensuring the rights or advancement of newly emancipated African-Americans. Democrats, who had no hope of winning the White House without the support of the "solid South," did nothing to irritate white Southerners -- nor did the national Republicans, who were anxious to make inroads in the Democratic South. Thus, for more than a generation, neither national party paid more than lip service to the rights of African-Americans.

Ninety percent of African-Americans lived in the South, where the vast majority was kept from voting by state law and terrorism. Elections were usually "lily white." In the rest of the nation, however, black Americans did vote. Traditionally these voters supported the Republicans -- the party of Reconstruction, Emancipation, and Lincoln. Anxious for votes, the Republican party continued to work to retain the support of African-Americans.

Work Among Our Women

African-American women have a tradition of independence and leadership dating back to the times of slavery. In spite of great danger, black women took leading roles in the struggle for abolition; two strong leaders were Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. Truth was a powerful speaker against slavery. A heckler once called out, "Old woman...I don't care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea." Truth replied, "Perhaps not, but the good Lord willing, I'll keep you scratching."

Harriet Tubman, a slave, obtained her freedom, declaring, "I had a right to liberty or death; if I could not have one I would have another." Despite a reward of $40,000 for her capture, pistol-packing Tubman returned to the South many times, leading more than 300 slaves to their freedom via the "Underground Railway." She served with Union forces during the Civil War and acted as a scout behind enemy lines.

After the Civil War, African-American women such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary McCloud Bethune, and Mary Church Terrell were active participants in the struggle for advancement and against Jim Crow segregation laws.

The Negro in the Wars of the Nation

The Gallant Charge of the 54th Mass. [colored] regiment of the rebel works of Ft. Wagner...July 18, 1863. Currier and Ives. Lithograph, 1863. LC-USZ62-7824.

Crispus Attucks, a black man, was the first American to fall at the 1770 "Boston Massacre," considered the first skirmish of the Revolutionary War. During that war, more than 5,000 black Americans served under General George Washington's command. Although there were four black units from the New England states, most black soldiers and sailors served in integrated units. Peter Salem and Salem Poor were heroes at Bunker Hill; Black Samson was a hero at Brandywine. At the Battle of Rhode Island, the Hessians were repulsed by a regiment of black soldiers. "Had they been unfaithful or even given away before the enemy all would have been lost," reported an observer.

In the War of 1812, African-American sailors were with Captain Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie; two battalions of black Americans were with General Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. Said Jackson, "I expected much from you... but you surpass my hopes....the American nation shall applaud your valor, as your General now praises your ardor."

In both the Revolution and the War of 1812, the military at first refused to allow African-Americans to serve. Service was often under humiliating conditions. Many slaves fought for their country, only to be returned to slavery after the war.

Blacks were barred from service in the Civil War until Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Ultimately, more than 186,000 African-Americans enlisted in the Civil War and more than 38,000 died in battle. At the Battle of New Market, twelve black men of the Third Division of the Eighteenth Corps of the Army of the James earned Congressional Medals of Honor. The 1989 Tri-Star Pictures film Glory records the courage and sacrifice of the Black 54th Massachusetts Volunteers at Fort Wagner, Charleston, South Carolina.

Address to the Country

Booker T. Washington's controversial address at the opening ceremonies of the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, September 18, 1895, argued the importance of material advancement over integration: " The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house." He called agitation for social equality "the extremest folly," and assured his white audience, "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."

The New York World called Washington's speech "a revelation," "epoch-making," and a "turning point in the progress of the Negro race." It was met with "unanimous approval." President Grover Cleveland had similar praise: "I thank you with much enthusiasm for making the address...Your words cannot fail to delight and encourage all who wish well for your race..."

Black leaders were not so enthusiastic. The brilliant W.E.B. Du Bois framed the terms of a heated debate when he warned that Washington was "leading the way backward." In an influential 1903 essay, Du Bois wrote, "So far as Mr. Washington preaches thrift, patience, and industrial training for the masses, we must hold up his hands and strive with him...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 distinction 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."