Africans in America: Part IV


This is the fourth installment of a series of articles by Kwame Somburu on the history of African people in the United States – from the early days of slavery to our own century.

The opening salvos of the Civil War, in 1861, brought one era of the struggle of Africans in America to a close-and it heralded the birth of another.

The great scholar and fighter for human rights Dr. W.E.B. Dubois said the following about the legal status of Blacks on the eve of the Civil War:

“The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, in an obiter dictum [a non-binding opinion expressed by a judge] had just said that, historically, the Negro had ‘no rights which a white man was bound to respect.’ Neither a horse, nor Frederick Douglass, could get an American passport for travel….

“White Americans shuddered at miscegenation, yet in 1861 there were two million colored women who had no right to refuse sexual intercourse with the white owners. That these masters exercised this right was shown by 588,000 mulattos in 1860.

“Kidnapping of free Negroes in the North had been made easy by the fugitive slave law. All agreed that the Constitution recognized slavery as a legal institution and that the government was bound to protect it.”

The majority of the South’s 8 million whites supported slavery even though only 24 percent of them owned slaves. In fact, only 3000, or 1 percent of the white population, owned more than 100 slaves.

Most whites were poor. In the late 1850s in Jackson, Miss., slaves earned 20 cents a day while white workers at the same factory earned merely 30 cents a day.

But most poor whites supported slavery because, as long as it existed, Blacks would be at the bottom of society. Although slavery harmed them economically by lowering the basic wage level, the whites gained the psychological lift of having others to look down upon.

Additionally, slave patrols, overseers, and other flunkies of the ruling planters were recruited from the ranks of the poor whites.

In order to justify white domination, “scientific” books were published to try to prove that Europeans were naturally superior to Africans. A notable contributor was Josiah C. Nott, a professor of Anatomy at the University of Louisiana, who collaborated in publishing “Types of Mankind” in 1855.

But the major source for the racists was the Christian Bible: Africans are supposed to be descended from Noah’s son Ham, who was punished because he saw his father sleeping in the nude. As a result, they were ordained to servitude under the descendants of Shem and Japeth.

Birth of the Republican Party

In May 1854, Congress passed a bill that permitted slavery in the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska if the white settlers there voted for it. The bill had been proposed by Democratic Party Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois. Douglas was a land speculator in Kansas and a director of the Illinois Central railroad, which wanted to build a transcontinental line through the territory.

Anti-slavery meetings throughout the North condemned the bill. During the next few years, bloody battles took place between “free-state” white homesteaders in Kansas and “border ruffians” who crossed the river from the nearby slave state of Missouri.

In early 1854, a meeting in Wisconsin had approved a resolution that called for the formation of a new party if Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska bill. After the bill was passed, the Republican Party was founded-on July 6, 1854.

The Republican Party was the political representative of the now economically powerful Northern industrialists. The party gained in strength during the next four years by supporting Northern farmers and mechanics who believed that federal lands should be given away in homesteads to poor people.

Meanwhile, the ruling Democratic Party was divided over the issue of slave policy in the new territories. While Northern members of the party tended to support Sen. Douglas’s doctrine of letting the territories decide, the Southern wing believed that Congress should enact a new code allowing slavery to spread completely unobstructed.

In the 1860 election, the majority Northern wing of the Democrats nominated Douglas for president, and the Southern wing nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky on a pro-slavery platform. The Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, and the middle-of-the-road Constitutional Union Party put forward John Bell of Tennessee.

In part because of the split vote, Lincoln won the election. The Republicans’ victory promoted the secession of most of the slave states. This brought to a boil the conflict that had been brewing for 72 years between Northern and Southern exploiters of human labor.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels followed the course of the U.S. Civil War from Europe. They wrote in a dispatch to Die Presse of Vienna:

“The present struggle between North and South is, therefore, nothing but a struggle between two social systems, between the system of slavery and the system of free labor.

“The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer live peacefully side by side on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.”

Lincoln: The Great Vacillator

The leadership of the Republican Party, on the whole, was not against slavery.

To conciliate pro-slavery interests North and South, Lincoln stated in his first inaugural address: “Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern states that by the accession of a Republican administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered.

“There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary … is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you.

“I do but quote from one of these speeches when I declare that-I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so and I have inclination to do so.”

Black leaders during the Civil War held a tortured, ambivalent stance toward the Republican Party because of its compromises toward their cause.

In 1864, a National Negro Convention was held in Syracuse, N.Y. The convention-attended by Black leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet (the “Tom Paine of the abolitionist movement”)-issued a resolution that stated in part:

“In the ranks of the Democratic Party, all the worst elements of American society fraternize; and we need not expect a single voice from that quarter for justice, mercy, or even decency. To it we are nothing; the slave-holders everything….

“How stands the case with the great Republican Party in question? We have already alluded to it as being under the influence of the prevailing contempt for the character and rights of the colored race … not even those who fought for the country, recognized as having any political existence or rights whatever.”

The Emancipation Proclamation

When, soon after the beginning of the Civil War, Gen. John C. Fremont issued a proclamation freeing the slaves of rebel whites in Missouri, Lincoln annulled the proclamation. In fact, some Union commanders routinely returned runaway slaves to their masters.

Gen. George McClellan, head of the Army of the Potomac, promised that slave insurrections would be put down “with an iron hand.”

By the summer of 1862, however, Southern victories early in the war, along with pressure from abolitionists and Blacks, had forced Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. This was a promise that the slaves would be freed in areas of the South captured by the Union army after Jan. 1, 1863.

No slaves were freed immediately by Lincoln’s announcement, which did not apply to border states, like Kentucky, that had remained in the Union or to sections of the Confederacy, like New Orleans and Norfolk, Va., already controlled by federal troops.

In fact, slavery was not abolished throughout the reunified country until the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on Dec. 6, 1865-nine months after Lincoln’s death.

But the proclamation did have an immediate effect on slaves in the South. As soon as the Union army approached, they often put down their tools and stole away in droves.

Unfortunately, the proclamation, and pro-slavery newspapers, further incited racist feeling among whites in the North. The pro-slavery forces exploited fears that Blacks would compete with white workers for jobs and drive down wages, as well as racist accusations that the party of Lincoln was plotting to raise Black workers to the status of whites.

Poor white workers were further agitated when Congress passed the first federal draft in U.S. history. The Conscription Act favored the wealthy by allowing them to pay $300 to avoid service, or to get a substitute.

In July 1863, mobs of poor whites attacked Blacks and their supporters in several Northern cities. The bloodiest Draft Riots took place in New York City. More than a thousand people-among them white police officers-were killed or wounded.

The Colored Orphan Asylum, housing 300 children, was burned to the ground. Many Blacks were hanged on lamp posts. An eyewitness related that after one Black man had been hanged, his flesh was cut off in bits and thrown to the mob.

Blacks in the army

In the early days of the Civil War, thousands of free Black men volunteered to fight with the Union army-but they were turned away. A law of 1792 barred Blacks from the army, although they did fight in the Battle of New Orleans in 1812.

But the need for manpower was creating pressure for change. In August 1862, the military government of the captured South Carolina Sea Islands was authorized to enlist slaves in the area. At the same time, a group of 1400 free Blacks in New Orleans, who had formed a Confederate regiment, the First Louisiana Native Guard, was reorganized into the Union army.

Finally, in January 1863, the government of Massachusetts was allowed to organize an official Black regiment, the famous Massachusetts 54th Volunteers.

The 54th went into battle with the cry, “hurrah for Massachusetts and seven dollars a month,” reflecting the fact that Black soldiers were denied the full $13 that white privates received. Rather than endure the insult, the 54th and other Black regiments fought without accepting any wages until the pay inequity was corrected.

By the end of the war, one federal soldier in eight was Black. More than 100,000 Black soldiers had been recruited in the South alone. Over 38,000 were killed in battle, a rate about 40 percent higher than that of white troops.

Murderous atrocities were practiced against African Americans who were fighting in the war. The president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, issued orders that all captured Black soldiers should be killed. They were beaten to death with muskets, bayoneted, burned alive, and even crucified.

In 1864, after the capture of Fort Pillow, Tenn., Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slaveowner and the future head of the Ku Klux Klan, supervised the slaughter of Black troops and civilians.

The Confederates entered the fort shouting, “Kill all the niggers!” Over 300 people, including women and children, were killed. Some were buried alive. After that, Black soldiers entered battle with the cry, “Remember Fort Pillow!”

Next month, Kwame Somburu will discuss the Reconstruction period, in which Africans in America were briefly allowed to taste freedom. Soon, with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other forces, the former slaves were re-enslaved in a modified form that lasts until this day.

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