THE SOUTH KNOWS US (1879-05-04)






dangerous, even to itself, when secured by disfranchising freemen. It will, I believe, after learning the lesson, be ready to grant equal rights to all.”


Baltimore American, 5 May 1879, and Baltimore Sun, 5 May 1879.

On the evening of 4 May 1879 Douglass addressed the issue of black emigration to Kansas at a gathering in Baltimore’s Centennial African Methodist Episcopal Church. As reported in the New York Times, the “large and mixed audience” frequently applauded during the course of his three-hour remarks. Although that newspaper refrained from criticizing Douglass’s speech, other journals were far from reticent. The Topeka (Kans.) Colored Citizen asserted that Douglass, in condemning the emigration to Kansas, “does not represent the views of the best thinkers of his race to-day.” The Washington National Republican chastised Douglass for his failure to appreciate fully the “real causes” for the Exodus and reminded him that in 1838 he too made a “manly effort to be free, and so does his race in the South.” By far the angriest response to Douglass’s address came from the Virginia Star: “Men sometimes live just long enough, after winning honor and distinction to commit some unbecoming act which throws all their former greatness and renown into the shade.” Washington National Republican, 5 May 1879; New York Times, 5 May 1879; Topeka (Kans.) Colored Citizen, 10 May 1879.

Friends—I regret that I have to begin the few remarks which I shall make with an apology, but in my haste in leaving home I was so unfortunate as to leave my satchel which contained the manuscript of my lecture. I was far from the railroad station when I found out my mistake only too late to remedy it. I thought, which you may place to my vanity, that it would be better for me to lecture without my manuscript than not to lecture at all.

The relations existing between the white and colored people of the country, notwithstanding all that has been said and done respecting them, are not what I would wish them to be. It is a question for this age and nation to solve. Thoughtful men of both races are giving more or less attention to this subject, and very properly so, for we are here in the same country, under the same government, filling the places of citizens, and yet we are, as a race, held in question, and our relations are not such as are desirable and not such as they can continue to be. We shall either rise higher in the

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4 MAY 1879 497

estimation of the community or we shall fall considerably below . . . † (There are men among us of both races in doubt which way the scales will turn, and whether we have in ourselves the elements of high and enlightened civilization. As to our destiny on this continent I myself have been in doubt and have wondered whether the social forces in operation would extinguish us, or if we would rise, despite of all against us. But as a humble watchman, looking out from my watch-tower, l have at length rid myself of all doubt as to the vindication of the principles of justice and liberty in the case of both white and colored, unless the wheels of civilization should go back, Christianity be an empty name with no vitality, truth cease to be a lever and the Declaration of Independence prove a lie. Unless you can show the truth has some peculiar complexion, and that the sun shines only on the white, I believe that oppression will not always reign.)¹


A good many [of our race] despair, and many are arising up in darkening trains, leaving their homes, their cabins, their cotton patches and pig styes, are following the sinuosities of the Mississippi river up further north.² Heartless, hopeless, ragged, on their way as from a doomed city, leaving their country under a burning sun, without civilization, like birds startled up on the sea coast by a shot from a passing vessel, in the hope of improving their condition. . . .† † (Even in the face of this I dare to be hopeful. When the colored man despairs it is best for him to turn to the past and fling his plummet into its depths, not measuring his condition from the point he wishes to attain, but that from whence he came. He will find in the past fifty years a constant and wonderful change. I wish sometimes that the light had dawned on us more gradually, instead of bursting on us with

† Here the Baltimore American reads: “But for myself, as an humble watcher, I am happy to assure you that I am in no doubt as to the result. Unless the wheels of civilization roll backwards and Christianity is an empty form; unless the Declaration of Independence, which brought us into a nation, is a lie, we shall rise. And unless it is proven that truth has some peculiar complexion, I shall continue to hope that my race will not always bow its head in oppression."

† † Here the Baltimore American reads: “The colored race must not measure its condition from the point he wishes to attain, but from what he has been. There have been vast and wonderful changes for the better."

1. From Baltimore Sun, 5 May l879.

2. Douglass refers to the “Exodus,” the migration of thousands of Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas blacks to Kansas that began in the spring of 1879. Opposed to the movement, Douglass presented his most complete statement on the movement in a speech prepared for delivery at the annual meeting of the American Social Science Association in Saratoga, New York, on 12 September 1879. Nell Irvin Painter, Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (New York, 1977), 184-85.

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abnormal effulgence and almost dazzling our poor eyesight. But there is no ground to despair because of what has happened.)³

Fifty years ago I was landed at Smith’s dock,⁴ in this city, when quite a boy, and my first occupation was to drive a flock of sheep to Slater’s Hill to the butchers.⁵ It is fashionable to talk about “the good old times,” but to me they were bad old times. I was a boy then, and wanted to see the soldiers, but


was not allowed to look in peace. I remember the time when the Baltimore roughs⁶ acted on the Donnybrook Fair motto, “Whenever you see a (nigger) head, hit it.” It wasn’t much matter to them how hard they hit, and if you dared to strike back, you did so at your peril. When every now and then there would be a great commotion a negro had struck a white man, and then the white men would raise the cry of “Down with him; kill the negro,” is Baltimore that way now? At that time worship was not safe, and for a colored person to be caught out as late as nine o’clock was to be taken to the watch house, if the watching had a mind to take him.⁷ Is it so now? I remember that in the Christian city of Baltimore, which has listened to

3. From Baltimore Sun, 5 May 1879.

4. Smith's Wharf was located below Pratt Street in Baltimore’s inner harbor, the Basin, west of Fells Point. Matchett's Baltimore Directory for 1827 (Baltimore, 1827), 18-19; Sherry H. Olson, Baltimore: The Building of an American City (Baltimore, 1980), 60.

5. Douglass describes his first job upon arriving in Baltimore in March 1826 in Narrative, 55, Bondage and Freedom, 137, and Life and Times, 84-85.

6. By the time Douglass returned to Baltimore from Talbot County in 1836, the city was witnessing increased crowd violence brought on by worsening economic conditions and the failure of the Bank of Maryland in 1834. Included in this violence were attacks on free blacks, who, though primarily employed as day laborers, draymen, and servants, had come to dominate such trades as those of barber and caulker. Claiming that free blacks were depriving them of jobs, Baltimore whites unsuccessfully petitioned the Maryland legislature in the 1830s and 1840s to restrict black entry into certain trades. In his autobiographies Douglass elaborates on an attack on him by four white carpenters while he was hired out to Baltimore shipbuilder William Gardner. Douglass, Narrative, 127-33; idem. Bondage and Freedom, 313; idem, Life and Times, 201-07; “The Condition of the Coloured Population of the City of Baltimore," Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine, 4:174-75 (April 1838); James M. Wright, The Free Negro in Maryland, 1634-1860 (New York, 1921), 154-55, 172; Olson. Baltimore, 98-101; Berlin, Slaves without Masters, 217-49.

7. An act of 1831 forbade blacks from attending religious meetings unless a white clergyman or his appointee conducted them, although the large black populations of Baltimore and Annapolis could hold their own services by themselves with permission of a licensed white minister. In many local jurisdictions special laws provided for the whipping or temporary imprisonment of free blacks found on the streets after a certain hour—usually 9:00 P.M. in the winter and 10:00 P.M. in the summer. Jeffrey R. Brackett, The Negro in Maryland: A Study of the Institution of Slavery (Baltimore, 1889), 199-201.

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4 MAY 1879 499

some of the greatest statesmen, such as Breckenridge⁸ or Ward,⁹ I remember to have seen passing through its streets 30 or 40 of my race chained together and driven down the block to be shipped to the New Orleans slave market, while all around were wives weeping for their departing husbands, children weeping for their parents; all was then dark and dreary. Scarce a white man in the land dared to open his mouth in behalf of the negro.

The church, the whipping post, the slave auction block were in the same neighborhood. We were a marketable commodity. Now we rejoice for our white friends and ourselves. They were the slaves of slavery. It has been said that no man can put a chain on his brother without finding the other end around his own neck before long. Our past was dark, and when the light burst upon us with abnormal refulgence, it threw us poor, uneducated colored people forward with


to fill the positions of citizens of the United States. When slavery was abolished it was seen by some of us that we should be placed on a level with our other fellow-creatures, and we are now constitutionally and organically citizens of the United States. Where under the heavens could we find a citizenship that is like ours? I know no one like it. Go to Russia, and we would find ourselves under a despotism. Go to Austria, and we would have imperialism. All the rest of the old countries of Europe are very much in the same way.

We once had more colored men in Congress than we have now, ¹⁰ and in the abnormal condition of things, it seems some of us were tossed up by the earthquake to positions for which some of us were qualified and some were not; consequently they settled down and finally disappeared. I am not disposed to despair on account of the disappearance of those heads. They came prematurely and went down naturally; came in an earthquake and went out in a whirlwind. Are we to have no more representatives? 1 think not at present. Slavery was a poor school in which to prepare statesmen, but a race which has gone through what we have cannot be blotted out nor kept

8. Robert J. Breckinridge.

9. Probably Beverly Waugh.

10. By May 1879 sixteen blacks had held seats in the U.S. Congress. Of those sixteen, fourteen served in the House and two in the Senate. Although P. B. S. Pinchback was elected to both houses, neither permitted him a seat. At the time Douglass spoke, Senator Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi was the only black member of Congress. [Congressional Quarterly, lnc.], Members of Congress, 6; Christopher, Black Americans in Congress, 104, 107— 12.

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down. Fifty years ago a colored man that could read and write was a curiosity, as schools were forbidden, and it was against the law for colored people to learn the letters that spell the name of God. If he did he was speedily sent South and put to work on the cotton plantation. I am looking now over the millions of our race in the South for heads to rise up able to take part in the government of this country in common with other men. Even Southern men will now be instruments in this work. The colored men can’t expect to be leaders. The Moses of our own race will probably be a white man. . . . †††

(By violence we were deprived of the elective franchise in some places because among our leaders there were none of the old master class. They are now all of one party, but after a time they will find more cats than mice in the party; some of them will want to go to Congress; rival ambitions will spring up; they will apprehend that this is a nation, not a league of States, that great as may be a State the United States is greater; that it is idle, wrong and mischievous to disregard the constitution, and apprehending this they will say “if the colored people want to uphold this standard we will help them or die in the track.” I say nothing as to social rights, for they will take care of themselves, and are neither matters for legislation nor for the application of any principle. If I am black I do not want to introduce a white man into my house unless he is of the right stn'pe or hungry, and then I will feed him.

I have been asked if I am in favor of my people leaving the South and going North)¹¹ I should be glad to relieve their distress, but I don’t believe in their leaving their homes. I think there has been more harm done our business and enterprise by schemes of emigration than from any other cause. Fifty years ago it was to Hayti, a new land of Canaan, where grapes were large, and bananas larger, and those who went were glad to get back. Then came along another paradise for the negro—Jamaica—he was asked

††† Here the Baltimore American reads: “We have been


in the South by violence. We could not number amongst us any of the ‘old master’ class. They were organized in the party, and I am glad of it. They will find they have more cats than mice in their party. They can‘t always hold together. They will apprehend that the plank must bind to the ship, and not the ship to the plank, as the United States ship is stronger than the plank they will be forced to espouse the cause of truth and justice. Present appearances indicate that the present exclusion of colored rights in the South is only temporary. l have been asked if I am in favor of the colored people


and going North."

11. From Baltimore Sun. 5 May 1879.

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