Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentleman:
I cannot bring myself to feel that I am worthy of speaking to the members of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences on the occasion of the observation of the birthday of George Washington, the Father of our Country. Neither by education nor by experience am I fitted to perform such an important service. Occasions like the one which we celebrate tonight, that have to do with the great lives of the founders of the republic, are mainly valuable in giving us the opportunity to pause in the midst of our onward march, take our bearings, and learn lessons from the past that may perchance serve us greatly in the future.
Our republic is the outgrowth of the desire for liberty that is natural in every human breast — freedom of body, mind, and soul, and the most complete guarantee of the safety of life and property. It was the desire for liberty, ever burning in the hearts of the Pilgrim Fathers and the Quakers, that led them to cut loose from kindred and native land and risk the perils and hardships of an almost unsailed and unknown sea. It was the same aspiration that led these people in their new—found home in America to resolve to make an effort to rid themselves of all connection with the mother country, because of political and economic restrictions. A spirit of freedom was kindled that soon manifested itself in every valley and on every hill from Massachusetts to Georgia. The cry for liberty came in equally emphatic tones from the Cavaliers of Jamestown as from the Puritans of Plymouth Rock. I need not take your time to remind you how, under the leadership of George Washington, the result sought for was secured through the Declaration of Independence, through Lexington, Concord, and Yorktown.
Still later in our country’s history we have another evidence of the growth of the sentiment of freedom in the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine, which, in a word, said that the United States would not only contend against the world for its freedom, but for the freedom of all governments upon the two American continents. Half a century later we find the Southern section of our country entering into a political and physical war in a contention for freedom in the control of domestic and state policies, and still later we find ourselves demanding, at the point of the sword, the freedom of our neighbors, the Cubans.
During all the period that the majority and dominant races were contending for the most complete and perfect freedom and independence, there were living by their side two other races, different in color and different in history — the Indian and the Negro. The red man refused, in a large degree, to serve the white man as a slave, refused as a general thing to assimilate the white man’s civilization, and refused, even when he had the opportunity, to enter into sympathetic cooperation with the government instituted by the conquering race. Strange to relate, during all the years in which the white American was making such heroic struggles of his own freedom, at nearly every point at which the lives of the red man and the white man touched each other there either was war between the two or injustice and oppression shown in the original American. The result is that because of oppression, or inability to stand the contact with a stronger and more numerous race, the Indian recedes and diminishes.
At any rate, you have so far practised absorption, colonization, or extermination, that the problem growing out of the presence and influence of the red man is small in comparison with the scope and depth of your other race problem. That is to say, in one way or another, you have got the Indian out of the range of your vision. And in this country it seems to be the fashion to consider a problem solved when we get it out of our sight to such an extent that its existence is unobtrusive and our consciences are eased.
Our most recent experiment in the way of race accessions — the Filipino —I shall not, on this occasion, discuss, for the reason that you seem as yet to be quite undecided as to how and where he shall be classed — that is, whether you will rate him as a black man or a white man. Just now the Filipino seems to be going through the interesting process of being carefully examined. If he can produce hair that is long enough and nose and feet that are small enough, I think the Filipino will be designated and treated as a white man; otherwise he will be assigned to my race. If I were to consider the question purely from a selfish standpoint, I should urge that our new subjects be classed as Negroes; but if I were to consider unselfishly the peace of mind of the Filipino himself, I should hope that he be so classified that, in addition to all his other trials, he will not struggle through all future generations considered and looked upon as a problem, instead of a man. But this is a digression from the trend of our discussion. In the year 1620, just about the time when the sentiment in favor of national freedom was at its height, in some way a few members of my own race — twenty in number, it is said — were landed at Jamestown and were sold into physical bondage. The first representatives of your race preceded the first of mine by less than a score of years, if you reckon the landing of the English at Jamestown — the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in the same year — 1620.
Caesar, writing of the people out of which your race grew, describing them as he found them in England, says: “The inhabitants do not for the most part sow corn, but live on milk and flesh, and clothe themselves in skins. All the Britons stain themselves with a pigment which produces a blue color, and gives them a most formidable appearance in battle. They wear their hair long. Ten or twelve have wives in common.” Another historian says of these people: “They appeared rambling about their islands with long beards like goats, clad in dark garments reaching to heels, and leaning upon staves. Their only navigation is in small boats of twisted osier covered with leather.”
Two thousand years later — in round numbers — another explorer and historian, writing of the Africans — the stock out of which my race grew — has this to say of them (I quote from Dr. Livingstone): “I had been in closer contact with heathenism than I had ever been before; and although all, including the chief were as kind and attentive to me as possible, and there was no want of food, oxen being slaughtered daily, more than sufficient for the wants of all of us, yet to endure the dancing, roaring, and singing, the jesting, anecdotes, grumbling, quarreling and murdering of these children of nature, seemed more like a severe penance than anything I had ever before met with in my course.”
We come thus to the point where these two races, so unlike in physical appearance but so similar in their primitive life, meet. One becomes the owner, the other the slave. It is interesting, and perhaps instructive, to note that during the greater part of the period in which agitation and struggle were kept up for the most complete freedom for the white race, another and growing race was being held in servitude by the very people seeking liberty for themselves. Even George Washington, whose birthday we celebrate, held slaves while he fought for freedom.
For nearly two hundred and fifty years the two races remained in close contact with each other in the capacity of master and servant. What was the result of this contact on the enslaved? I confine myself to a statement of cold, bare facts when I say that when the Negro went into slavery, he was a pagan; when he ended his period of bondage he had a reasonably clear conception of the Christian religion. When he went into slavery he was without anything which might properly be called a language; when he came out of slavery he was able to speak the English tongue with force and intelligence. Moreover, when he entered slavery he had little working knowledge of agriculture, mechanics, or household duties; when he emerged from the condition of a chattel he was almost the entire dependence in a large section of our country for agricultural, mechanical, and domestic labor.
In spite of many wrongs and frequent cruelties, when the two races faced each other in their new relations at the end of slavery, there was a certain attachment and bond of sympathy existing between the individuals that composed them that few people outside of the slave states could understand or appreciate.
Unlike the Indian, unlike the original Mexican or the Hawaiian, the Negro, so far from dying out when in contact with a stronger and different race, continued to increase in numbers to such an extent that, whereas the race entered bondage twenty in number, at the end of the slave period there were more than four million representatives. In addition to that the race has continued to grow in numbers in a state of freedom until there are now more than nine millions. So I want to emphasize the truth that whether we are of Northern or of Southern birth, whether we are black or white, whether with or without sympathy for the colored man, we must face frankly, gravely, sensibly, the hard, stubborn fact that in bondage and in freedom, in ignorance and in intelligence, the Negro, in spite of all predictions and scientific conclusions to the contrary, has continued year by year to increase in numbers, until he now forms about one eighth of the entire population, and that there are no signs that are based upon proper evidence that the same ratio of increase that has obtained in the past will not hold good in the future. Further than this, in spite of setbacks here and discouragements there, despite alternate loss and gain, despite all the changing, uncertain conditions through which the race has passed and is passing, you will find that every year since the black man came into this country, whether in bondage or in freedom, he has made a steady gain in acquiring property, skill, habits of industry, education, and Christian character.
But now we have the two races in contact with each other, not as master and slave, but as freemen, with equal rights guaranteed by the Constitution, and sheltered by the same flag.
If one had asked Caesar when he first discovered your forefathers in the condition that has been described, if in two thousand years, they could be transformed into the condition in which they are now found in America, the answer doubtless would have been an emphatic “No.” If one had asked Livingstone, when he first saw my forefathers in Africa, if in the fifty years that have elapsed since then, or even in the two hundred and fifty years that have passed since the first African was brought to this country, a young Negro would be the class orator at Harvard University, the answer doubtless would have been a “No” — as emphatic as Caesar’s.
In mathematics and in the physical sciences we can lay down definite hard—and—fast rules, can be sure that a certain thing will be true tomorrow because it was true five hundred years ago, but in the evolution of races and nations it is hardly possible to be guided by or to reckon by mathematical rules. In fact, the higher one ascends, the further he gets away from the material, and the more nearly he approaches the intellectual and spiritual life, the more uncertainty surrounds him. The two races, facing each other in a state of freedom thirty—seven years ago, presented, we must acknowledge, a problem of life which could not be found anywhere in the history of the world. It was not left us, then, to be definitely guided by the mistakes or failures of others, but it became our duty to blaze, as it were, a path through a wilderness. While, as I have stated, in dealing with races one cannot be guided by definite formulas, yet I do believe that study of the history of the races of the world, together with a close observation of the character and history of these two races during a period of two hundred and fifty years in America, ought to enable us to reach a few conclusions with some degree of correctness.
The Negro has lived for over two centuries in the midst of the people who from pulpit to rostrum, through the press and in school, in legislative halls and on many a battlefield, have been constantly upholding the doctrine that the most complete development of each human being can come only through his being permitted to exercise the most complete freedom compatible with the freedom of others. Under these conditions the Negro naturally has wrought into every fiber of his being a belief that if freedom is good for one race, it is equally helpful and necessary to the well—being of others. It is impossible that the impassioned plea of Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty or give me death,” should have had no influence upon our black citizens. If the black man did not have in him that which spurred him toward the acquiring of those qualities which you consider most essential, neither the white man at the North nor the white man at the South would have any respect for him or confidence in his future. This, then, after a long introduction to a short sermon, brings me to the pith of what I want to say:
What is liberty for a race, and how is it to be obtained? In this respect we must bear in mind the words of another, that freedom in its highest and broadest sense can never be a bequest; it must be a conquest.
Black men must not deceive themselves or from others suffer deception. There are several kinds of freedom. There is a freedom that is apparent, and one that is real; a superficial freedom, and one that is substantial; a freedom that is temporary and deceptive, and one that is abiding and permanent; one that ministers to the lower appetites and passions, and another that encourages growth in the higher and sweeter things of life — a freedom that is forced, and one that is the result of struggle, forbearance, and self-sacrifice. But there is but one kind of freedom that is worth the name, and that is the one embodied in the words spoken centuries ago by the Great Master: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” We can benefit a race only as we can an individual, and that is by dealing honestly, truthfully with it — by giving it that truth which shall make it free indeed.
It is my purpose this evening to take a historical, philosophical, and fundamental view of the Negro question. I do this because, in building a house, the main thing is to get the foundation laid correctly, to get it started upon the rock and not upon the sand, to be sure that the principal timbers are sound and true to measurement. Or, changing the metaphor, to say with Longfellow, of the ship:
We know what Master laid thy keel, / What workman wrought thy ribs of steel, / Who made each mast, and sail, and rope, / What anvils rang, what hammers beat, / In what a forge and what a heat, / Were shaped the anchors of thy hope! / Fear not each sudden sound and shock, / ’Tis of the wave and not the rock; ’Tis but the flapping of the sail, / And not a rent made by the gale.
In the development of a race there are many temporary, local, and side issues to which one can devote himself if he so choose. On the other hand he can aim to keep true, in the main, to matters more fundamental and far—reaching, and trust in a large degree to time for a growth in the sense of justice — trust to time for the logical and natural readjustment of all human rights around any worthy and deserving race, which can never be permanently resisted. The dreamers who gaze while we battle the waves May see us in sunshine or shade; Yet true to our course, though our shadow grows dark, We’ll trim our broad sails as before, And stand by the rudder that governs the bark, Nor ask how we look from the shore!
But to return to the main point. What is freedom, and how obtained? The child who wants to spend time in play, rather than in study, mistakes play for freedom. The spendthrift who parts with his money as soon as it is received mistakes spending for freedom. The young man who craves the right to drink and gamble mistakes debauchery for freedom. The man who claims the right to idle away his days upon the street, rather than to spend them in set hours of labor, mistakes loafing for freedom. And so, all through human experience, we find that the highest and most complete freedom comes slowly, and is purchased only at a tremendous cost. Freedom comes through seeming restriction. Those are most truly free today who have passed through great discipline. Those persons are in the United States who are most truly free in body, mind, morals, are those who have passed through the most severe training — are those who have exercised the most patience and, at the same time, the most dogged persistence and determination.
To deal more practically and directly with the affairs of my own race, I believe that both the teachings of history as well as the results of everyday observation should convince us that we shall make our most enduring progress by laying the foundation carefully, patiently in the ownership of the soil, the exercise of habits of economy, the saving of money, the securing of the most complete education of hand and head, and the cultivation of Christian virtues. There is nothing new or startling in this. It is the old, old road that all races that have got upon their feet and have remained there have had to travel. Standing as I do today before this audience, when the very soul of my race is aching, is seeking for guidance as perhaps never before, I say deliberately that I know no other road. If I knew how to find more speedy and prompt relief, I should be a coward and a hypocrite if I did not point the way to it.
Efforts in other directions may assist and bring stimulation, but after all for permanent success and growth we must, in my opinion, go back to and depend upon the basic principles to which I have referred. In the case of a diseased person, when the blood is once purified and the body cleansed, it is surprising to note how soon nature will cure all the minor and temporary ills that grow out of an abnormal blood.
As a slave the Negro was worked. As a freeman he must learn to work. There is a vast difference between working and being worked. Being worked means degradation; working means civilization. There is still doubt in many quarters as to the ability of the Negro unguided, unsupported, to hew his own path and put into visible, tangible, indisputable form products and signs of civilization. This doubt cannot be much affected by mere abstract arguments, no matter how delicately and convincingly woven together. Patiently, quietly, doggedly, persistently, through summer and winter, sunshine and shadow, by self—sacrifice, by foresight, by honesty and industry, we must reinforce argument with results. One farm bought, one house built, one home sweetly and intelligently kept, one man who is the largest taxpayer or has the largest bank account, one school or church maintained, one factory running successfully, one truck garden profitably cultivated, one patient cured by a Negro doctor, one sermon well preached, one office well filled, one life cleanly lived — these will tell more in our favor than all the abstract eloquence that can be summoned to plead our cause. Our pathway must be up through the soil, up through swamps, up through forests, up through the streams, the rocks, up through commerce, education, and religion.
If you ask me to state in detail just what will happen, and how and when it will happen — just what attitude each race will assume toward the other, and how each will act in a given case, when the conditions of growth on which I have laid emphasis have been fulfilled — if you ask this of me, I must answer frankly that I do not know. One can no more tell that than he can tell the day and the hour when the corn will ripen. We only know that if conditions prescribed by nature are complied with, at some time in some manner the corn will ripen and be gathered into the garner. Duty is with us; results are with God.
I have referred to the task that my race must perform if it would effectually emancipate itself. But there is another side. The white race, North and South, also has a duty and a serious responsibility.
In connection with our presence in this country, it should always be borne in mind that, unlike other races, we not only were forced to come into this country against our will, but were brought here in the face of our most earnest protest. Both as slaves and as freemen we have striven to serve the interests of this country as best we could. We have cleared forests, builded railways, tunneled mountains, grown the cotton and the rice, and we have always stood ready to defend the flag. We have never disturbed the country by riots, strikes, or lock—outs. Ours has been a peaceful, faithful service and life. In the face of all this I cannot believe, I will not believe, that a country that invites into its midst every type of European, from the highest to the very dregs of the earth, and gives these comers shelter, protection, and the highest encouragement will refuse to accord the same protection and encouragement to her black citizens. I repeat here what I have often said in the South. The Negro seeks no special privileges. All that he asks is opportunity — that the same law which is made by the white man and applied to the one race be applied with equal certainty and exactness to the other.
And when I say this, I repeat also that which I have said directly to the members of more than one state constitutional convention in the South — namely, that any revised state constitution that is capable of being twisted into one interpretation when an ignorant white man is concerned and another when an ignorant black man is concerned will not represent entire justice or the highest statesmanship. These new constitutions should place a premium upon good citizenship for both races, and wherever they fail to do this, they are weak and are not in accord with the best interests of the state.
When in any country there are laws which are not respected, which are trampled under foot and made to mean one thing when applied to one race and another thing when applied to another race, there is not only injustice for which in the end the nation must pay the penalty, but there is hardening and blunting of the conscience, there is sapping of the growth of human beings in kindness, justice, and all the higher, purer, and sweeter things in life. No race can degrade another without degrading itself. No race can assist in lifting up another without itself being broadened and made more Christ-like.
Before I conclude, I want to make one request and suggestion, and I do so with all the earnestness of my soul — with a full knowledge and realization of the present condition and anxieties of my race. That request is that you white men of the North and the white men of the South approach the solution of the Negro question with coolness, with that calmness, that deliberation, and that sense of justice and foresight with which you approach any other problem in business or national affairs. On most other subjects white men use their reason, not their feelings; but in considering the subject of the colored man, in most cases, there are evidences of passion — a tendency to exaggerate and to make a sensation out of the most innocent and the most meaningless events. This is not the way to settle great national questions. While the North and the South argue in heated passion, the Negro suffers.
We must not grow disappointed or despondent because, forsooth, all that was hoped for thirty-five years ago has not taken place just exactly as we wish, or as had been planned. Man’s way is not always God’s way. The Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule were proclaimed centuries ago, and yet with all his growth and strivings, the Anglo-Saxon, citing him as an example, has not, I think you will agree with me, reached the point where he is living up to them in daily life. And yet, because of this failure, no one has yet been bold enough to propose that we should repeal the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. Every government, like every individual, must have a standard of perfection that is immovable, unchangeable, applicable to all races, rich and poor, black and white, towards which its people must continually strive.
I believe the time has come — and I believe it is a perfectly practical thing — when a group of representative Southern white men and Northern white men and Negroes should meet and consider with the greatest calmness and business sagacity the whole subject as viewed from every point. When there is division, when there is doubt on other great questions, this method is followed. Why not in this?
The age for settling great questions, either social or national, with the shotgun, the torch, and by lynchings, has passed. An appeal to such methods is unworthy of either race. I may be in doubt about some things connected with our future, but of one thing I feel perfectly sure, and that is that ignorance and race hatred are no solution for any problem on earth. No one can ever lift up a race by continually calling attention to its weak points. The Negro, like other races, should be judged in a large degree by its best element, rather than by its weakest.
It is hard to find those who can be so far control themselves as to discuss this subject with complete absence of prejudice. In most cases there is an effort to prove the Negro a devil or an angel. He is neither, but just an ordinary human being. I deplore the spirit and the disposition of any person who can extract seeming comfort out of the habit of continually dwelling upon the mistakes and weak points of any individual or race, without trying to suggest a remedy for those mistakes and weaknesses. Anyone who is guilty of doing this lives among the briars, the thorns, the stubble and the stumps of life. He who is not content with cold, captious, negative criticism, but enters with body and soul into positive, progressive effort to strengthen and make more useful the most unfortunate of God’s creatures, is the individual who is living in green groves and who is continually drinking in the sweet fragrance that comes from beautiful flowers.
When measured by the standard of eternal, or even present, justice, that race is greatest that has learned to exhibit the greatest patience, the greatest self-control, the greatest forbearance, the greatest interest in the poor, in the unfortunate — that has been able to live up in a high and pure atmosphere, and to dwell above hatred and acts of cruelty. He who would be the greatest among us must become the least. Though often beset behind and before, and on the right hand and on the left, with difficulties that would seem well-nigh insurmountable, I have the most complete faith in the ultimate adjustment of all the perplexing questions that weigh heavily upon us. More and more, as a race, we are learning to exclaim with one of old: The stormy billows are high; their fury is mighty, But the Lord is above them, and almighty and almighty.