The Southern Exodus, (4 May 1879) Baltimore, MD

Speech Text

[1] 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.

[2] The relations existing between the white and colored people of this 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 estimation of the community or we shall fall considerably below. But for myself, as a humble watchman, looking out from my watch-tower, 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.

[3] A good many despair, and many are arising up in darkening trains, leaving their old homes, their cabins, their cotton patches and pig styes, are following the sinuosities of the Mississippi river up further north. Heartless, hopeless, ragged, on their way as from a doomed city, leaving their country under a burning sun, without cultivation, like birds startled up on the sea coast by a shot from a passing vessel, in the hope of improving their condition. 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. Fifty years ago I was landed at Smith’s dock, 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. 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 BEING A BLACK BOY, was not allowed to look in peace. I remember the time when the Baltimore roughs acted on the Donnybrook Fair motto, “Whenever you see a colored 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 colored man had struck a white man, and then the white men would raise the cry of “Down with him; kill the colored man.” 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 watchman had a mind to take him. Is it so now? I remember that in the Christian city of Baltimore, which has listened to some of the greatest statesmen, such as Breckenridge or Ward, I remember to have seen passing through its streets 30 for 40 of my race chained together and driven down to the dock 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 land dared to open his mouth in behalf of the colored man.

[4] 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 THE SHOCK OF AN EARTHQUAKE 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.

[5] We once had more colored men in Congress than we have now, 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 dispair [sic] 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? I think not at present. Slavery was a poor school in which to prepare statesman, but a race which has gone through what we have cannot be blotted out nor kept 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 spelt the name of God. If he did he was speedily sent South and put to work on the cotton plantations. 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.

[6] The Moses of our own race will probably be a white man. We have been DEPRIVED OF OUR ELECTIVE FRANCHISE in the South by violence. We could not number amongst us any of the “old master” class. They were organized in one party, and I am glad of it. They will find that they have more cats than mice in their party. [S]ome 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 of 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. They can’t always hold together. They will apprehend that the plank must bind to the ship and not the ship to the plank, and 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.

[7] I have been asked if I am in favor of the colored people LEAVING THE SOUTH and going North. 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 Hayti [sic], 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 colored people – Jamaica – he was asked to emancipate and go, and many of them actually sold their homes and made their way to the promised land. What became of them? Most of them died from starvation. That was 35 years ago. During the war there was the cry in Washington for the colored population to go to Nicaragua. It would have been a Nigger-ague. Possession is nine points of the law. We have possession of the land down South. And then there is a power in being to the manor born. It was colored muscle that tilled the soil, felled the timber and drained the marshes, and they have just been all over the country sympathizing with them. There is no use in coming North when they will be confronted by Germans, Irishmen and Chinamen. Stay at home, demand fair wages from the “old master class.” Capital, both at the North or South, tries to get labor at the lowest possible price. Emptying 40,000 people, without money, in rags, up North will enable our enemies to say: “These are the people they wish to raise over the heads of the Southern people. We are handing around the hat to help them on, and in less than a year we will be handing around the hat to help them back.”

[8] We will never change our relations to the white people until we become more economical, stick to our employment and live within our means. If you do people will respect you. Other races, notably the Jews and the Quakers, worse situated than you are, have fought their way up. The question is, will the colored man be as good a servant to himself as he was to his master? We must be truthful and honest. We are religious and want to shun the wrath to come, but what we need is absolute truthfulness of character. A lie is only intended to deceive, and when it ceases to fulfill its purpose it is of no value to the liar. Slavery taught us to steal, but we know it is wrong and destroys the motive of those around to acquire anything. The pulpit must not keep us on the high wave of Apocalyptic vision, but on the rock of practical righteousness. I want when I lay down my life to say that I have seen my people, once ignorant, now intelligent; once degraded, now elevated; once despised, now honored. I see the elements at work for us, and in every bar of iron, every ship and locomotive, the electric wire and the telephone, there are certain signs of the ultimate success of our race in this mighty nation.