Citizenship and the Spirit of Caste: An Address Delivered in New York, New York, On May 11, 1858
CITIZENSHIP AND THE SPIRIT OF CASTE: AN ADDRESS DELIVERED IN NEW YORK, NEW YORK, ON 11 MAY 1858
Frederick Douglass' Paper, 21 May 1858.
Throughout the antebellum period most of New York City’s privately owned streetcar lines discriminated against blacks, requiring them to ride on the outside platforms of the cars or restricting them to specially designated carriages that ran less frequently. In 1855 city blacks formed a Legal Rights Association to press for equal treatment on public transportation. While most streetcar companies eventually dropped their discriminatory policies, the most recalcitrant was the Sixth Avenue Railroad. During the 1858 Anniversary Week in New York City, Douglass was a featured speaker at an evening meeting called to protest the Sixth Avenue line’s practices. Held at the Reverend Henry Highland Garnet’s Shiloh Presbyterian Church, the gathering was well attended by local blacks. After introductory remarks by Garnet, James McCune Smith offered several resolutions, which Douglass seconded, condemning the company and creating a committee to raise funds for a legal challenge against it that would compel adherence to “the common law in regard to common carriers.” Following Douglass’s speech, the meeting adopted the resolutions and then adjourned. New York Daily Times, 11 May 1858; New York Herald, 12 May 1858; New York Morning Express, 12 May 1858; Freeman, “Free Negro in New York City,” 102—12.
MR. PRESIDENT:—I am somewhat at a loss to know what to say on this occasion. The embarrassment, however, does not arise out of the scarcity of suitable material of which to make a speech, but rather out of the very abundance of that material.
To some, the object which has brought us here will seem small and
insignificant—too small for the outlay of money, time and talent in holding a public meeting. What is the use of making a fuss about so small a matter, as the exclusion of anybody from a railroad carriage? If a man can’t ride, of course he can walk. That, of course, sounds well, and stands to reason. The singularity of this estimate of the object of our meeting is explained by the fact that men generally bear with patience and resignation the wrongs and burdens heaped upon other people. To me the matter is not a trivial one. Standing alone, it is a grievous wrong. But it does not stand alone. It is a part of the grand, overshadowing system of wrong and oppression, which everywhere binds and crushes the colored American citizen to the very earth.
I see, in the exclusion of the colored man from the Sixth Avenue rail cars, the cruel and malignant spirit of caste, which is at the foundation, and is the cause.,as well as the effect of our American slave system. It is a part of the policy of the Government and people of the United States towards a race meeted, peeled and down-trodden. That spirit is satisfied with nothing short of complete and perpetual degradation of the whole colored race in America. The denial of our citizenship, the refusal of passports, the with-holding of pre-emption rights, the exclusion of the colored man from the jury box, from the militia, from the ballot box, from the Southern States, and from some of the Western States, making it penal for them to settle in them, and penal even for white men to give them leave to toil, are only so many manifestations of the same devilish spirit.
The exclusion of colored citizens from the Sixth Avenue rail carriages fairly involves the whole question of our relations to the people and institutions of the country, and is mainly important in this view. We are here to protest against one feature of this grand, overshadowing system of oppression, and to take measures to make that protest effective and successful.
Some of us yet believe in the justice of the laws, and the impartiality of the Courts, although our experience in that direction has been, thus far, one of bitter disappointment. We may even now be mistaken in our hopes, but we cannot be mistaken in the wisdom of making the effort now contemplated. We may fail, but something will be gained even by failure. We shall know to a certainty just where we stand before the law in the great State of New York, the greatest free State in the American Union. The public, too, will know precisely in what light we regard the oppression and degradation by which we are weighed down.
My friends, there is an impression. I will not say what, or who has produced it—an impression which has settled down upon the pathway of
those who labor for the rights and the elevation of our people, like the gloomy fogs upon the mariner approaching our perilous northern coast. This impression is, that we ourselves are unconcerned and even contented with our condition; that we, both slave and free, are unwilling to struggle and make sacrifices for our rights. I hold that next to the dignity of being a freeman, is the dignity of striving to be free. I detest the slaveholder, and almost equally detest a contented slave. They are both enemies to freedom. We shall have gained immensely for our cause as a people, when we have shown a proper sense of the wrongs which we suffer as a people. One of the saddest facts connected with organized and settled oppression is, that it deadens sensibility in its victims. It acts upon the oppressed like certain deadly poisons upon animal life, which lull to sleep before dissolving the body in death.
Sir, we are often asked, why colored men at the North make so little progress? Why are they not richer, better and wiser citizens? The men who put these questions answer them in their own way. They tell us that that the black man is inferior in natural endowments to the white race, and that he has not that native vigor, that vital element of progress which distinguishes the white race. I am sad to find that even the colored man himself sometimes tacitly assents to this description of himself and race. For myself, I scout with scorn and indignation this estimate of my race.
The grand explanation of our tardiness, our spiritlessness, and our destitution as a people, may be found in just such conduct towards us as is now being practiced by the Sixth Avenue Railroad. It is to be found in the fact that whatever may be the talents, worth, or wealth of a colored man in this country, he is civilly, socially, and politically crushed down far beneath the lowest and most degraded white man in the country. It is found in the fact that the emancipated colored man only casts off the chains of bondage to an individual master, to put on the galling fetters of social degradation, and to have burned into his very soul the brand of inferiority. Northern society, not less than Southern society, in many instances, treat the colored man as having no rights which white men are bound to respect.1Douglass alludes to the language of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, whose opinion in the Dred Scott decision included the following summation of public attitude toward blacks at the time that the Constitution was written: “They [blacks] had for more than a century been regarded as beings of an inferior order . . . so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.“ Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford, 19 Howard 393 (1857), 407. This Sixth Avenue Railroad is a constant preacher of prejudice and hate against us. All New York is told by it to regard us as the only people in the
United States unfit to travel by the same conveyances in which others travel.2Printed in “huge letters" on the sides of the “special and proscribed" cars was the notice: “COLORED PEOPLE ALLOWED TO RIDE HERE." “That “infamous proclamation," wrote Douglass, “more even than the mere exclusion, is cause of complaint and denunciation.“ FDP, 21 May 1858.
Facts like these, which touch us in every relation of life, deaden the speed, if they do not entirely reverse the action of the wheels of progress, and convert the colored man’s life into a stagnant pool. The motives for moral and mental exertion are murdered in our very bosoms; and, as a consequence, we largely lead a merely animal life. Those who contend that colored men are the authors of their own degradation, had better give us a fair chance to be the authors of our own elevation. That chance has not yet been given. In reality, there is not a free colored man in the United States. Theoretically, we are free—practically, we are slaves. We hold our liberty by favor, rather than by right. The wonder is, under all the circumstances, not that the colored American has fallen so low in the scale of being, but that he has risen so high. I doubt if there ever were a people more imposed upon, more shamelessly trampled upon, and despitefully used, than are the free colored people of these United States. Even the Catholic country of Brazil—a country which we in our pride stigmatize as semi-barbarous—does not treat the colored people, either free or slave, in the unjust, barbarous and scandalous manner in which we treat them.
The consequence ofthis difference is seen in the better condition ofthe free colored man there than here. The practice in that country is, that when a slave is emancipated, he is at once invested with all the rights of a man-made equal to all other subjects ofthe Empire. No relic of his past bondage clings to him. He is a freeman. His color and features are lost sight of in the blaze of his Liberty. You may find the black man there by his white brother—at the bar, acting as lawyer—on the bench, acting asjudge—in the army, acting as a commander—in the halls of commerce, acting as a merchant—at the bedside, acting as a physician—in the Church, acting as a priest—in the study, acting as an author—in the sanctum, acting as editor.3Douglass may have been familiar with two books on Brazil that had recently appeared in the United States. Both Brazil and the Brazilians, by D. P. Kidder and J. C. Fletcher, and Life in Brazil, by Thomas Ewbank, described race relations in Brazil as egalitarian and cited examples of black Brazilians in the highest echelons of society. Nonetheless, several forms of discrimination against blacks persisted in Brazil. The army remained segregated, blacks lacked the right to vote, and, according to the constitution of the Portuguese Empire, certain state and church offices could be filled only by whites. The fact that mulattoes enjoyed more complete civil rights in Brazil, and often received acceptance as whites, complicated race relations in Brazil and contributed to the rosy picture of black life there painted by some North Americans. Thomas Ewbank, Life in Brazil (New York, 1856), 78; D. P. Kidder and J. C. Fletcher, Brazil and the Brazilians (Philadelphia, 1857), 133; Carl N. Degler, Neither Black Nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (New York, 1971), 219—20. The largest printing establishment in that great and increasingly
powerful country, is owned and managed by a colored man4Douglass relies on Kidder and Fletcher, who reported that the “largest and most successful printing-establishment in Rio—that of Sr. F. Paulo Brito—is owned and directed by a mulatto." Kidder and Fletcher, Brazil and the Brazilians, 133. The free negro is admitted fully, like the man of any other nation, into any society for which he may by fortune, mental attainments. and moral worth, be fitted. Protestant and democratic America would do well to learn a lesson of justice and Liberty from Catholic and despotic Brazil.
Sir, we are at liberty to draw consolation from the facts just stated. If the colored man can rise from degradation to respectability in Brazil, with the same treatment he can rise here. If he can be esteemed as a man by Portuguese, he can be so esteemed by Anglo-Saxons and Celts. If he can have justice at the hands of Catholics, why not also at the hands of Protestants?
One of the most saddening results of the circumstances of our people is, that they tend to destroy our own faith in ourselves. Having seen ourselves oppressed, despised, and hated for so many long and bitter years, we come at last to think that degradation is our doom. Instead of attributing our condition to the injustice and oppression which have been heaped upon us, we sink down into the belief that we are the victims of our natural inferiority. When that disheartening thought creeps over us, we should call to mind the progress of our people under other institutions, and in other countries. Low as our condition is, it is no lower than was that of the Anglo-Saxons after the conquest of England by William the Conqueror.5William I, the Conqueror (1027?—87), Duke of Normandy, successfully invaded England with a force of perhaps twenty-five thousand men in 1066 and assumed the English crown on 25 December of that year. DNB, 21: 293—301. The fact that Africa is still the abode of barbarism, is often cited as evidence of our natural inferiority. But supposing all that is said of the barbarism of Africa be true, what does it prove? Why, simply this, that Africa is just now where England and the west of Europe once were—and what they were only a few centuries ago—and what they probably would have been until now, but for the respective invasions of those countries by other nations.