These Questions Cannot Be Answered by the White Race: An Address Delivered in New York, New York, 11 May 11, 1855
THESE QUESTIONS CANNOT BE ANSWERED BY THE WHITE RACE: AN ADDRESS DELIVERED IN NEW YORK, NEW YORK, ON 11 MAY 1855
New York Evening Express, 12 May 1855 and New York Herald, 12 May 1855.
Before adjourning its deliberations of 9 May 1855, the National Council of the Colored People decided to hold a public meeting on the evening of 11 May. That gathering, held in J. W. C. Pennington’s Shiloh Presbyterian Church on Prince Street, attracted a crowd that the New York Daily Times described as “quite large and decidedly mixed.” Following an opening prayer, Pennington delivered a brief address opposing colonization and favoring an industrial school for blacks. After Amos G. Beman declined a request to speak, James McCune Smith, acting as chairman, introduced Douglass. Although he lacked a prepared text and expected to deliver only brief remarks, Douglass spoke for nearly two hours, covering a wide range of topics. After displaying what the Daily Times called “his usual eloquent and impressive style,” Douglass finished with a song that part of the audience joined in singing. Dissenting remarks from Charles L. Remond, who defended Garrisonian abolitionism, and a collection for the Council brought the meeting to a close. New York Morning Express, 10 May 1855; New York Daily Times, 12 May 1855.
Mr. FREDERICK Douglass was then introduced. He said:—Mr. Chairman and ladies and gentlemen—I am not here this evening with a set or prepared speech to deliver to this audience. I came here in the full expectation of being more of a listener than a speaker. Considering the shortness of the
evening, and the number of speakers announced, I supposed that I should be only required to make a few remarks, and therefore I have not turned my attention to any particular train of thought for this occasion; besides, I experience the difficulty this evening that I almost always do when I appear before an audience mixed as the present one is. What I might say to an audience nearly all or almost exclusively white would seem probably somewhat out of place before an audience so composed; as I have said, what may suit the case of the one in this instance may be but badly suited to the other case,—so different, so dissimilar is the position occupied by the two classes of people in this country,—not that there are any constitutional differences that make it difficult to address the same thought and ideas to the one or the other, but because of the difference of our social positions. There are, however, thoughts, ideas and principles applicable to all occasions connected with the great cause of man,—liberty and prejudice,—and for the brief period which I have to speak to you, I shall try to deal with the subject in such a manner as shall be acceptable to all my congregation—to all the classes now present.
(While slavery in this country has an existence, or while slavery has an existence in this country; while near four millions of people are in chains under the lash and under a cruel task master, robbed of all their earnings that their masters may live in idleness; while the children of the slave must live in ignorance, while their masters live on the proceeds of the toil of the slave, and educate their children on these proceeds; while the marriage institution is struck down; while these millions are dragging out an existence, and live through time into eternity, it will continue to be necessary to call the attention of the people to these appalling, these heart-rending facts, all the people, white and colored, colored and white.
There are, however, certain duties, peculiarly the duties of the colored people of this country. There are certain other duties peculiar to the white people. The chairman has told us we occupy an important and responsible position in this country. It is true. We are not only occupying this highly important and responsible position here, but every man of sable hue, wherever placed, occupies a highly important position before the world. We are literally the spectacle for man and for angels. The whole world, the civilized world, at least, appears to stand in doubt concerning us.
It is asked by men of all nations, what manner of men are the descendants of Africa? Are they capable of the same educational advancement? Are they capable of rising to the same heights of civilization—of producing the same grand results produced by the great nations of the white race?
Are they like other men? That’s the question. Have they, within themselves—enfolded within their organization, within their own brain—those germs of civilization and exalted character supposed to be within the natural reach of other men? These are questions being asked us as a colored race, by the world. It is asked us, can the negro do without a master,—can he do without a master? Can he rise from degradation to respectability, from ignorance to intelligence, from isolation to society, from disorder to order, from savagism and unrestricted life to a well-devised and well-organized civil government? And it has been asked—but is it true—that when the colored man is left for himself, without the guidance, without the control, without the government, without the example of what is called the superior race, it is asked, will he not turn his face in the direction of barbarism. and relapse into a wild savagism in his native land?
The answer to these questions cannot be answered by the white race. They may give us their views and learned disquisitions, and teach from the words of the inspired writings that God has made us what we are, a cursed race on the face of the earth, but this is no answer to these questions. These generalities do not meet the case entirely. What the world asks of us is facts—facts.
And I am sorry to say many of our people themselves have received a doubt in their own minds; there is cast over it a shadow of doubt as to whether we can do without the guidance, example, control and direction of what are called the men of the superior race. Even in the management of the anti-slavery cause itself, it is considered preposterous for a colored man to assume anything more than to follow the guidance of those superiors. We do stand in doubt among ourselves, in our meetings and in our national councils. And the burden of nearly all the speeches is a confirmation of natural inferiority, perpetually hurled at the sable brows of the sons of Africa. It is a confession I blush to hear made. I blush to hear colored men and colored women exclaiming—“We colored folks will never be anything—can never do anything.” The best way to prompt that do-nothing principle is to remain inactive, and we shall never be able to do anything for ourselves or others.
Now, sir, I have faith in the colored people of this country, although I may confess I have sometimes gloomy thoughts. But there was no necessity to despond, if they would only look to the examples they had of eminent distinguished colored gentlemen before them to-night. One thing is certain—whether we are capable, or have natural abilities to rise from a low condition in life to a higher state of civilization—these questions cannot be
answered for us: they must be answered by ourselves. We must show them what we are capable of becoming—show them we are skilful architects, profound thinkers, originators or discoverers of ideas, and other things connected with a higher state of civilization. This will be of far more importance than all the lectures ever delivered in our favor by our white friends. This would be a fact plain enough to be understood by the simplest mind. This is what is wanted to abolish chattel slavery. When we can point to intellects among the blacks as bright as that of Webster, Clay, or Calhoun—when we can do this, but not till then—is our case made out.
(At this point several colored “gals” entered, and disturbed the speaker’s train of thought, who had not prepared a set speech). And I tell you another thing: you must learn to come to meeting in time. You must be punctual.
What we want, in order to change our relationships with the white people, is an ability to do just whatever white people do, and as well and as quick, without being imitators. If they can count the stars, so must we; build a bridge, so must we; bind a girdle round the earth in forty seconds, so must we. It is idle for us to suppose that we can ever be respectable in this country, or any other in this world—and l was going to say the next—if we are contented to be inferior. The idea prevails everywhere in this country that, as a people, however much we may talk of our love of liberty, and the regard for our rights and a knowledge of our rights there is a deep-seated conviction in the public mind that we care too little about them when assailed by force. I would have every colored man defend them when the law does not protect him, and surrender his liberty only with his life. I would have you fight for your liberty when assailed by the slave hunter. This will gain you some respect. Hungarians, Irishmen and Italians can fight for liberty, and they are respected, and once in a while a colored man does the same, and is respected for it. Fear inculcates respect. I would rather see insurrection for the next six months in the South than that slavery should exist there for [the] next six years. Anthony Burns1Fugitive slave Anthony Burns (1834–62) precipitated one of the most dramatic incidents connected with enforcement of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Born in Stafford County. Virginia, Burns was hired out from age seven onward. Upon reaching his late teens he was sent to Richmond, where he soon began working under the nominal supervision of a local druggist who allowed Burns to find his own employment and report back every two weeks with his earnings. Aided by a sympathetic seaman, Burns stowed away on a northern merchant ship in February 1854 and reached Boston early the next month. He remained there until 24 May 1854, when he was arrested on a warrant from Fugitive Slave Commissioner Edward G. Loring. Fearful of his fate and apparently intimidated by the presence of his master and other hostile whites. Burns initially wanted to return south voluntarily and had to be persuaded even to accept legal counsel. Coinciding as it did with congressional passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Burns's arrest and confinement caused intense excitement among antislavery Bostonians. An emotion-charged evening rally at Faneuil Hall ended in violence when Thomas Wentworth Higginson led an unsuccessful mob attack on the courthouse where Burns was being held. Efforts to purchase Burns's freedom were thwarted and Richard Henry Dana's able but hastily contrived legal defense also proved futile. President Franklin Pierce, anxious to appease southern supporters, sent federal troops to Boston to assist in the fugitive's rendition. On 2 June 1854, Boston police, together with 1,500 volunteer militiamen and military detachments from Rhode Island and New Hampshire, escorted Burns through crowds of would-be rescuers and saw him safer aboard the U.S. revenue cutter Morris bound for Norfolk, Virginia. After several months' confinement in Richmond, Burns was sold at auction for $910 to a North Carolina slave trader. In February 1855 northern sympathizers led by black Boston clergyman Leonard A. Grimes purchased Burns's freedom for $1,300. As a slave, Burns had been a devout Christian and had functioned as a Baptist lay preacher. He continued his ministerial career as a free man and, after studying at Oberlin College and Fairmont Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, assumed the pastorate of Zion Church in St. Catharines, Canada West. Charles Emery Stevens, Anthony Burns, A History (1856; New York, 1969); Donald M. Jacobs, “A History of the Boston Negro from the Revolution to the Civil War" (Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 1968), 286– 91; Samuel Shapiro, “The Rendition of Anthony Burns," JNH, 44:34–51 (January 1959); Quarles, Black Abolitionists, 207–09; Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease, The Fugitive Slave Law and Anthony Burns: A Problem in Law Enforcement (Philadelphia, 1975 ); Anthony Burns to Richard Henry Dana, 23 August 1854, in John W. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies (Baton Rouge, 1977), 109; Lib., 13 August 1858, 22 August 1862; DANB, 80-81. would never have gone back to slavery if he had had the spirit to fight for his liberty.
The speaker referred to the case of William Craft. The abolitionists told him to run to Canada. “I have,” said William to the Bostonians, “run far enough.” And for two weeks he stayed there, when he knew that the marshal had a warrant for his arrest. He sat at the table with a revolver and a bowie knife before him, and was determined to take the lives of several of those who should attempt to take him back to the hog pens of slavery. The speaker visited him while the excitement was pending, and he confessed to being afraid. He addressed him to go to Canada, but he replied: “If I am taken, it will be the last slave hunt in Boston." Precious as life was, it was nothing without liberty. There he sat with smiles for his friends and daggers for his enemies. (Applause) There was nothing more noble than this to be found in Roman history. Would to God William Craft had been allowed to follow his own wish.2William Craft (1827–1900) fled slavery in 1848 by posing as the servant of his fair-complexioned wife Ellen (c.1826–c.1897), who had disguised herself as a male planter journeying north for medical treatment. Born in different parts of Georgia, the Crafts met during their youth after their respective owners moved to the vicinity of Macon. Reluctant to rear children in slavery, the couple postponed marriage until December 1848, when they resolved to escape during the Christmas holidays. The Crafts made their way to Philadelphia, but fearing recapture, they moved in January 1849 to Boston, where William worked as cabinetmaker and Ellen as a seamstress, using skills both had acquired as slaves. In late October 1850, after passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, agents of Georgia planter Robert Collins tried to arrest the Crafts but were thwarted by stiff resistance from the Boston Vigilance Committee and the local black community. While Ellen temporarily went into hiding, William vowed to fight to the death in Boston rather than return to bondage. Calmer counsel ultimately prevailed and the Crafts decided to flee the United States. After being legally married by the Reverend Theodore Parker on 7 November, William and Ellen traveled to England by way of Canada. Ellen remained in Liverpool to recover her health while William spent the next six months addressing antislavery gatherings throughout the United Kingdom. From approximately 1852 to 1855 the Crafts studied at Ockham Agricultural School in Surrey, where they mastered basic academic subjects, taught carpentry and sewing, and imbibed the philosophy of cooperative farming. In the late 1850s they returned to the abolitionist lecture circuit and in 1860 published an autobiographical narrative Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. In the 1860s William joined a coalition of English philanthropists and cotton manufacturers who sought to attack slavery and the slave trade by promoting the cultivation of free-labor cotton in Africa. He spent the next several years in Africa as a business agent for the British Company of African Merchants, rejoining Ellen in England in 1867. During 1868 William toured England, seeking to raise £1,500 with which to purchase a plantation to be operated as an agricultural cooperative for the benefit of freedmen. In August 1869 the Craft family sailed for the United States. ending almost two decades of foreign exile. During the early 1870s they operated a hotel in Savannah, Georgia, and in 1873 Frederick Douglass urged unsuccessfully that William Craft be named minister to Liberia. In January 1874 the Crafts purchased a 1,800-acre plantation in Bryan County, Georgia, evidently hoping to implement their plans for an agricultural cooperative. Within a year and a half, sixteen families were cultivating 300 acres of the Craft plantation, and seventy-five children were attending the Woodville Co-operative Farm School free of charge. The farming operations did not prosper, however, and the plantation was sold in 1890. R. J. M. Blackett, “Fugitive Slaves in Britain: The Odyssey of William and Ellen Craft." Journal of American Studies, 12 : 41–62 (April 1978); Blassingame, Slave Testimony, xxxix, 268–74; ASB 14 July 1849; NS, 31 October 1850; Lib., 24 January 1851, 2 January, 17 December 1852; Washington (D.C.) New National Era, 14 December 1871, 16 January 1873; Savannah (Ga) Tribune 17 February 1900; DANB 139–40.
The duty of the colored population was to let the kidnappers know if they come here in search of fugitive slaves, it was dangerous—not to their reputation, for God knows they had little of that, but of [to] their lives. Christianity would bear him out in this argument. Kidnappers were what Christ called a generation of vipers;3Douglass adapts Matt. 3 :7. there were stakes in their breast[s], they had the spirit of a tiger or a wild beast, and the sooner they were struck out of the world, the better. The white man goes on this principle: everything is presumed in his favor; but everything is presumed against the black man. Is a black man drunk? oh, yes. Is he lazy? oh, yes. All this is presumed in his favor. (Laughter.)
Mr. Douglass reviewed at some length the conduct of the anti-slavery society and denounced it. He was opposed to a dissolution and in favor, to a certain extent, of free soilism. His arguments were concluded with a few funny anecdotes. He then favored the audience with an abolition ballad, to the tune of “I’ll never get drunk aga-a-ain,” &c.)4From the New York Herald, 12 May 1855.