This is an amazing article written for The Atlantic Monthly in 1901 from the perspective of an old man looking back on the failed experiment of BRA and the political death of the “Afro-American.”
Freedom has failed before in America. It failed even more spectacularly at the state level in South Carolina than in modern Birmingham or Detroit:
“The overthrow of Republican or negro rule in South Carolina in 1876 was root-and-branch work. The fabric so long and laboriously built up fell in a day. Where was fancied to be strength was found only weakness. The vauntings were turned to cringing of terror. Poltroons and perjurers made haste to confess; robbers came forward to disgorge, intent only on personal safety; and the world saw an old phenemonon repeated – the essential and ineradicable cowardice and servility of conscious wrongdoers. The avalanche caught the innocent with the guilty, the patriot and reformer with the corruptionist, the bribe giver and bride taker. It could not be otherwise; it has never been otherwise in such convulsions. …
There is an important inquiry still to be noticed and answered: How did the victors use their victory? The answer seems to be, “Not altogether well,” but emphatically, “As well as could have been expected,” – as well as the lot and nature of humanity probably permit. Some unfair, unjust, merely angry blows were struck after the victory was won. For the rest, forebearance and oblivion were the rule. Good government, the avowed aim, was finally secured. Economy succeeded extravagance; judicial integrity and ability succeeded profligacy and ignorance on the bench; all the conditions of public welfare were restored.
Of secondary results, it is hardly necessary to this review and picture of reconstruction in South Carolina to speak; but it would be an impressive warning for other cases if it were added that the methods of 1876 have left scars and wounds which generations of time cannot efface or heal. The appeal for the truth of this remark may be safely made to the most ardent defender of those methods. The price of what was gained in 1876 will long remain unliquidated. No part of it can ever be remitted. The laws of human society, not written in statute books, proclaim that wrong and wrong methods are self-propagating. Long before Shakespeare told it, it was true, even from the foundation of the moral order:
“We but teach
Bloody insurrections, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor; this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips.”
Every present citizen of South Carolina knows, and those who are truthful and frank will confess, that the ballot debauched in 1876 remains debauched; the violence taught then remains now, if not in the same, in other forms; the defiance of law learned then in what was called a good cause survives in the horrid orgies and degradation of lynching.
The chapter of recent events covered by this paper is made up largely of the record of mistakes and crimes followed by the sure, unvarying retributions which all history teaches are the early or late result of evil courses in nations and states as well as in individuals. To whom, humanly speaking, are these woes and wastes chargeable? The answer must be, to those who devised and put in operation the congressional scheme of reconstruction – to their unspeakable folly, their blind party greed, their insensate attempt to reverse the laws which control human society.
The designed plan of this paper does not extend to any discussion of the always grave topic of the negro race in South Carolina and the South. It has abundantly appeared in what has already been written that that race was used as the tool of heartless partisan leaders. As in all such cases, the tool was cast aside when its use ended. We can look on the picture, – the negro enslaved by physical chains for two centuries and a half, then bodily lifted into freedom by hands other than his own, next mercilessly exploited for the benefit of a political party, and heartlessly abandoned when the scheme had failed – what heart of stone, we say, would not be touched by these undeserved miseries, these woeful misfortunes, of the negro of the United States?
What had the negro to show after 1876 for his sufferings? Merely the paper right to vote, – a right which he had no earthly power or capacity to use or to defend; while, with smug faces, with hypocritic sighs and upturned eyeballs, the soi-disant philanthropists and charitymongers of the North looked on the negro from afar, giving him only an occasional charge to still stand by the grand old party that had set him free!
To all who feel a real solicitude for the welfare of the Southern negro, it ought to be said that the conditions of his welfare lie in reversing at all points the spirit and policy of reconstruction which brought on him this Iliad of woes. Philanthropy without wisdom is always dangerous. Disregard of actual conditions is never wise. The negro depends for his welfare, not on the North, but on the South; not on strangers, however friendly or sympathetic in bestowing bounty, but on his own white neighbors and employers. Whatever can be done to promote good relations between him and his neighbors will well be done; whatever is done which tends otherwise will be ill done. By industry and thrift the negro can secure all he needs, both of livelihood and of education; whatever is given him gratuitously promotes idleness and unthrift. With all emphasis let it be said and known – and the writer’s knowledge confirms the saying, as will like knowledge acquired by any honest and clear-sighted person – that the negro at the South is not, in the mass or individually, the proper object of charity.
And of his education let a word be said. Education is, no one disputes or doubts, essential to the welfare of a free and self governing community. The negro in his present situation is not an exception to the rule. But what sort of education does he need? Primarily, and in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of one thousand, he does not need, in any proper sense of the words, literacy, scientific, or what is called higher education. It is not too much to say that, up to this time, a great amount of money and effort has been worse than wasted on such education, or attempts at such education, of the negro. To an appreciable extent, it has been a positive evil to him. Give him, or rather stimulate him to provide for himself, education suited to his condition: to wit, abundant training in the three R’s; and after that, skill in handicraft, in simple manual labor of all kinds, which it is his lot to do – lot fixed not by us, but by powers above us. If there be aspiring spirits in the race, capable of better things, this is the soil from which they may rise, rather than from hotheads of forcing grounds – the so-called negro colleges and universities now existing in the south. Beyond this, let the negro be taught, early and late, in schools and everywhere, thrift, pecuniary prudence and foresight, the duty, the foremost duty, of getting homes, property, land, or whatever constitutes wealth in his community. Above all things, let him be taught that his so-called rights depend on himself alone. Tell him, compel him by iteration to know, that no race or people has ever yet long had freedom unless it was won and kept by itself; won and kept by courage, by intelligence, by vigilance, by prudence. Having done this, let Northern purses be closed; let sympathy and bounty be bestowed, if anywhere, upon the far less favored toilers nearer home, and leave the negro to work out his own welfare, unhelped and unhindered. If these simple methods are adopted and rigorously observed, the Negro problem out our South will flow toward solution, and the flood of ills flowing from reconstruction as imposed from without will at last be stayed; and they can be stayed in no other ways. Constitutional limits of aid by legislation have already been reached and overpassed. Rights, to be secure, must, in the last resort, rest on stronger supports than constitutions, statutes, or enrolled parchments. Self-government under constitutions presupposes a firm determination, and mental, moral and physical capacity, ready and equal to the defense of rights. Neither the negro nor the white man can have them on other terms.”