Selected Essays in Black Historyby James B. Runnion

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

The Negro Exodus

by James B. Runnion

A recent sojourn in the South for a few weeks, chiefly in Louisiana and Mississippi, gave the writer an opportunity to inquire into what has been so aptly called "the negro exodus." The emigration of blacks to Kansas began early in the spring of this year. For a time there was a stampede from two or three of the river parishes in Louisiana and as many counties opposite in Mississippi. Several thousand negroes (certainly not fewer than five thousand, and variously estimated as high as ten thousand) had left their cabins before the rush could be stayed or the excitement lulled. Early in May most of the negroes who had quit work for the purpose of emigrating, but had not succeeded in getting off, were persuaded to return to the plantations, and from that time on there have been only straggling families and groups that have watched for and seized the first opportunity for transportation to the North. There is no doubt, however, that there is still a consuming desire among the negroes of the cotton districts in these two States to seek new homes, and there are the best reasons for believing that the exodus will take a new start next spring, after the gathering and conversion of the growing crop. Hundreds of negroes who returned from the river-banks for lack of transportation, and thousands of others infected with the ruling discontent, are working harder in the fields this summer, and practicing more economy and self-denial than ever before, in order to have the means next winter and spring to pay their way to the "promised land."

"We've been working for fourteen long years," said an intelligent negro, in reply to a question as to the cause of the prevailing discontent, "and we ain't no better off than we was when we commenced." This is the negro version of the trouble, which is elaborated on occasion into a harrowing story of oppression and plunder.

"I tell you it's all owing to the radical politicians at the North," explained a representative of the type known as the Bourbons; "they've had their emissaries down here, and deluded the 'niggers' into a very fever of emigration, with the purpose of reducing our basis of representation in Congress and increasing that of the Northern States."

These are the two extremes of opinion at the South. The first is certainly the more reasonable and truthful, though it implies that all the blame rests upon the whites, which is not the case; the second, preposterous as it will appear to Northern readers, is religiously believed by large numbers of the "unreconciled." Between these two extremes there is an infinite variety of theories, all more or less governed by the political faction to which the various theorizers belong; there are at least a dozen of these factions, such as the Bourbons, the conservatives, the native white republicans, the carpet-bag republicans, the negro republicans, etc. There is a political tinge in almost everything in the extreme Southern States. The fact seems to be that the emigration movement among the blacks was spontaneous to the extent that they were ready and anxious to go. The immediate notion of going may have been inculcated by such circulars, issued by railroads and land companies, as are common enough at emigrant centres in the North and West, and the exaggeration characteristic of such literature may have stimulated the imagination of the negroes far beyond anything they are likely to realize in their new homes. Kansas was naturally the favorite goal of the negro emigre, for it was associated in his mind with the names of Jim Lane and John Brown, which are hallowed to him. The timid learned that they could escape what they have come to regard as a second bondage, and they flocked together to gain the moral support which comes from numbers.

Diligent inquiry among representative men, of all classes and from all parts of Louisiana, who were in attendance at the constitutional convention in New Orleans, and careful observation along the river among the land owners and field hands in both Louisiana and Mississippi, left a vivid impression of some material and political conditions which fully account for the negro exodus. I have dropped the social conditions out of the consideration, because I became convinced that the race troubles at the South can be solved to the satisfaction of both whites and blacks without cultivating any closer social relations than those which now prevail. The material conditions which I have in mind are less familiar than the political conditions; they are mainly the land-tenure and credit systems, and mere modifications (scarcely for the better) of the peculiar plantation system of slavery days.

The cotton lands at the South are owned now, as they were before the war, in large tracts. The land was about all that most of the Southern whites had left to them after the war, and they kept it when they could, at the first, in the hope that it would yield them a living through the labor of the blacks; of late years they have not been able to sell their plantations at any fair price, if they desired to do so. The white men with capital who went to the South from the North after the war seemed to acquire the true Southern ambition to be large land owners and planters; and when the ante-bellum owners lost their plantations the land usually went in bulk to the city factors who had made them advances from year to year, and had taken mortgages on their crops and broad acres. As a consequence, the land has never been distributed among the people who inhabit and cultivate it, and agricultural labor in the Southern States approaches the condition of the factory labor in England and the Eastern States more nearly than it does the farm labor of the North and West. Nearly every agricultural laborer north of Mason and Dixon's line, if not the actual possessor of the land he plows, looks forward to owning a farm some time; at the South such an ambition is rare, and small ownership still more an exception. The practice of paying day wages was first tried after the war; this practice is still in vogue in the sugar and rice districts, where laborers are paid from fifty to seventy cents per day, with quarters furnished and living guaranteed them at nine or ten cents a day. In sections where the wages system prevails, and where there have been no political disturbances, the negroes seem to be perfectly contented; at all events, the emigration fever has not spread among them. But it was found impracticable to maintain the wage system in the cotton districts. The negroes themselves fought against it, because it reminded them too much of the slave-gang, driven out at daybreak and home at sundown. In many cases the planters were forced to abandon it, because they had not the means to carry on such huge farming, and they could not secure the same liberal advances from capitalists as when they were able to mortgage a growing "crop of niggers." Then the system of working on shares was tried. This was reasonably fair, and the negro laborers were satisfied as long as it lasted. The owners of the land, under this system, would furnish the indispensable mule and the farming implements, and take one half the product. The planters themselves relinquished this system. Some of them contend that the laziness and indifference of the negro made the partnership undesirable; many others admit that they were not able to advance the negro tenant his supplies pending the growth of the year's crop, as it was necessary they should do under the sharing system. Now the renting system is almost universal. It yields the land owner a certainty, endangered only by the death, sickness, or desertion of the negro tenant; but it throws the latter upon his own responsibility, and frequently makes him the victim of his own ignorance and the rapacity of the white man. The rent of land, on a money basis, varies from six to ten dollars an acre per year, while the same land can be bought in large quantities all the way from fifteen to thirty dollars per acre, according to location, clearing, improvement, richness, etc. When paid in product, the rent varies from eighty to one hundred pounds of lint cotton per acre for land that produces from two hundred to four hundred pounds of cotton per acre; the tenant undertakes to pay from one quarter to one half-perhaps an average of one third- of his crop for the use of the land, without stock, tools, or assistance of any kind. The land owners usually claim that they make no money even at these exorbitant figures. If they do not, it is because only a portion of their vast possessions is under cultivation, because they do no work themselves, and in some cases because the negroes do not cultivate and gather as large a crop as they could and ought to harvest. It is very certain that the negro tenants, as a class, make no money; if they are out of debt at the end of a season, they have reason to rejoice.

The credit system, which is as universal as the renting system, is even more illogical and oppressive. The utter viciousness of both systems in their mutual dependence is sufficiently illustrated by the single fact that, after fourteen years of freedom and labor on their own account, the great mass of the negroes depend for their living on an advance of supplies (as they need food, clothing, or tools during the year) upon the pledge of their growing crop. This is a generic imitation of the white man's improvidence during the slavery times; then the planters mortgaged their crops and negroes, and where one used the advances to extend his plantation, ten squandered the money. The negro's necessities have developed an offensive race, called merchants by courtesy, who keep supply stores at the cross-roads and steamboat landings, and live upon extortion. These people would be called sharks, harpies, and vampires in any Northwestern agricultural community, and they would not survive more than one season. The country merchant advances the negro tenant such supplies as the negro wants up to a certain amount, previously fixed by contract, and charges the negro at least double the value of every article sold to him. There is no concealment about the extortion; every store-keeper has his cash price and his credit price, and in nearly all cases the latter is one hundred per cent. higher than the former. The extortion is justified by those who practice it on the ground that their losses by bad debts, though their advances are always secured by mortgage on the growing crop, overbalance the profits; this assertion is scarcely borne out by the comparative opulence of the "merchant" and the pitiful poverty of the laborer. Some of the largest and wealthiest planters have sought to protect their tenants from the merciless clutches of the contrary merchant, who is more frequently than not an Israelite, by advancing supplies of necessary articles at reasonable prices. But the necessities of the planter, if not his greed, often betray him into plundering the negro. The planter himself is generally a victim to usury. He still draws on the city factor to the extent of ten dollars a bale upon his estimated crop. He pays this factor two and one half per cent. commission for the advance, eight per cent. interest for the money, two and one half per cent. more for disposing of the crop when consigned to him, and sometimes still another commission for the purchase of the supplies. The planter who furnishes his tenants with supplies on credit is usually paying an interest of fifteen to eighteen per cent. himself, and necessarily takes some risk in advancing upon an uncertain crop and to a laborer whom he believes to be neither scrupulous nor industrious; these conditions necessitate more than the ordinary profit, and in many cases suggest exorbitant and unreasonable charges. But whether the negro deals with the merchant or the land owner, his extravagance almost invariably exhausts his credit, even if it be large. The negro is a sensuous creature, and luxurious in his way. The male is an enormous consumer of tobacco and whisky; the female has an inordinate love for flummery; both are fond of sardines, potted meats, and canned goods generally, and they indulge themselves without any other restraint than the refusal of their merchant to sell to them. The man who advances supplies watches his negro customers constantly; if they are working well and their crop promises to be large, he will permit and even encourage them to draw upon him liberally; it is only a partial failure of the crop, or some intimation of the negro's intention to shirk his obligations, that induces his country factor to preach the virtue of self-restraint, or moralize upon the advantages of economy.

The land owner's rent and the merchant's advances are both secured by a chattel mortgage on the tenant's personal property, and by a pledge of the growing crop. The hired laborer (for it is common for negroes to work for wages for other negroes who rent lands) has also a lien upon the growing crops second only to the land owner's; but as the law requires that the liens shall be recorded, which the ignorant laborer usually neglects and the shrewd merchant never fails to do, the former is generally cheated of his security. Among those who usually work for hire are the women, who are expert cotton pickers, and the loss of wages which so many of them have suffered by reason of the prior lien gained by landlord and merchant has helped to make them earnest and effective advocates of emigration. The Western farmer considers it hard enough to struggle under one mortgage at a reasonable interest; the negro tenant begins his season with three mortgages, covering all he owns, his labor for the coming year, and all he expects to acquire during that period. He pays one third his product for the use of the land; he pays double the value of all he consumes; he pays an exorbitant fee for recording the contract by which he pledges his pound of flesh; he is charged two or three times as much as he ought to pay for ginning his cotton; and, finally, he turns over his crop to be eaten up in commissions, if anything still be left to him. It is easy to understand why the negro rarely gets ahead in the world. This mortgaging of future services, which is practically what a pledge of the growing crop amounts to, is in the nature of bondage. It has a tendency to make the negro extravagant, reckless, and unscrupulous; he has become convinced from previous experience that nothing will be coming to him on the day of settlement, and he is frequently actuated by the purpose of getting as much as possible and working as little as possible. Cases are numerous in which the negro abandons his own crop at picking time, because he knows that he has already eaten up its full value; and so he goes to picking for wages on some other plantation. In other cases, where negroes have acquired mules and farming implements upon which a merchant has secured a mortgage in the manner described, they are practically bound to that merchant from year to year, in order to retain their property; if he removes from one section to another, they must follow him, and rent and cultivate lands in his neighborhood. It is only the ignorance, the improvidence, and the happy disposition of the negro, under the influence of the lazy, drowsy climate, to which he is so well adapted physically, that have enabled him to endure these hardships so long. And, though the negro is the loser, the white man is not often the gainer, from this false plantation and mercantile system. The incidental risk may not be so large as the planter and merchant pretend, but the condition of the people is an evidence that the extortion they practice yields no better profit in the long run than would be gained by competition in fair prices on a cash system; and in leading up to a general emigration of the laboring population the abuses described will eventually ruin and impoverish those who have heretofore been the only beneficiaries thereof. The decay of improvements inevitable under annual rentings, the lack of sufficient labor to cultivate all the good land, and the universal idleness of the rural whites have kept the land owners comparatively poor; the partial failure of crops and the unscrupulousness of the negro debtor, engendered by the infamous exactions of his creditor, have prevented the merchants, as a class, from prospering as much as might be supposed; and, finally, the uniform injustice to the laborers induces them to fly to ills they know not of, rather than bear those they have. It is a blessing to the negro that the laws do not yet provide for a detention of the person in the case of debt, or escape would be shut off entirely; as it is, various influences and circumstances appertaining to the system in vogue have been used to prevent the easy flight of those who desire to go, and have detained thousands of blacks for a time who are fretting to quit the country.

Political oppression has contributed largely to the discontent which is the prime cause of the exodus. "Bulldozing" is the term by which all forms of this oppression are known. The native whites are generally indisposed to confess that the negroes are quitting the country on account of political injustice and persecution; even those who freely admit and fitly characterize the abuses already described seek to deny, or at least belittle, the political abuses. The fact that a large number of negroes have emigrated from Madison Parish, Louisiana, where there has never been any bulldozing, and where the negroes are in full and undisputed political control, is cited as proof that political disturbances cut no figure in the case. But the town of Delta, in Madison Parish, is at once on the river and the terminus of a railroad that runs back through the interior of the State; thus Madison Parish would furnish the natural exit for the fugitives from the adjoining counties, where there have been political disturbances. It would be just as reasonable to contend that the plundering of the negroes has had no influence in driving them away, since many of those who have emigrated were among the most prosperous of the blacks, as to deny the agency of political persecution. Families that had been able to accumulate a certain amount of personal property, in spite of the extortionate practices, sold their mules, their implements, their cows, their pigs, their sheep, and their household goods for anything they would bring,-frequently as low as one sixth of their value,-in order that they might improve an immediate opportunity to go away; it is evident that there must have been some cause outside of extortion in their case. There are candid native whites who do not deny, but justify, the violent methods which have been employed to disfranchise the negroes, or compel them to vote under white dictation, in many parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, on the ground that the men who pay the taxes should vote them and control the disbursement of the public moneys. The gentlemen who advance this argument seem to ignore the fact that the very Northerner whom they are seeking to convert to "the Mississippi plan" may himself be a taxpayer in some Northern city, where public affairs are controlled by a class of voters in every way as ignorant and irresponsible as the blacks, but where bulldozing has never yet been suggested as a remedy. For the rest, the evidences of political oppression are abundant and convincing. The bulldozers as a class are more impecunious and irresponsible than the negroes, and, unlike the negroes, they will not work. There has been more of the "night-riding," the whippings, the mysterious disappearances, the hangings, and the terrorism comprehended in the term bulldozing than has been reported by those "abstracts and brief chronicles of the time," the Southern newspapers, which are now all of one party, and defer to the ruling sentiment among the whites. The exodus has wrung from two or three of the more candid and independent journals, however, a virtual confession of the fiendish practices of bulldozing in their insistance that these practices must be abandoned. The non-resident land owners and the resident planters, the city factors and the country merchants of means and respectability, have taken no personal part in the terrorizing of the negro, but they have tolerated it, and sometimes encouraged it, in order to gratify their preference for "white government." The negroes have suffered the more because they have not resisted and defended themselves; now they have begun to convince those who have persecuted them that, if they will not strike back, they can and will run away. No one who is at all familiar with the freedman can doubt that the abridgment of his political rights has been one of the main causes of the exodus. Voting is widely regarded at the North as a disagreeable duty, but the negro looks upon it as the highest privilege in life; to be frightened out of the exercise of this privilege, or compelled to exercise it in conflict with his convictions and preferences, is to suffer from a cruel injustice, which the negro will now try to escape, since he has learned that escape is possible. The women, though free from personal assaults, suffer from the terrorism that prevails in certain districts as much as the men. "We might as well starve or freeze to death in Kansas," they say, "as to be shot-gunned here." If they talk to you in confidence, they declare that the ruling purpose is to escape from the "slaughter-pens" of the South. Political persecution, and not the extortion they suffer, is the refrain of all the speakers at negro meetings that are held in encouragement and aid of the emigration. It is idle to deny that the varied injustice which the negroes have suffered as voters is accountable for a large part of their universal yearning for new homes, and it will be folly for the responsible classes at the South to ignore this fact.

As it is the negroes who are fleeing from the South, it is natural to look among the dominant class for the injustice which is driving them away; but it would be unfair to conclude that the blame rests entirely upon the whites, and still more so to leave the impression that there is no extenuation for the mistakes and abuses for which the whites are responsible. Much of the intimidation of the blacks has been tolerated, if not suggested, by a fear of negro uprisings. The apprehension is a legacy from the days of slavery, and is more unreasonable now than it was then; but still it exists. This is not an excuse, but an explanation. The Pharaohs of the time of Moses were in constant dread lest the Hebrews under their rule should go over to their enemies, and their dread doubtless increased the cruelty of the Egyptians; but, while this dread was an extenuation in the eyes of the persecutors, it did not prevent the Hebrews from fleeing the persecution. So the blacks are going without regard to the justification which the whites may set up for their treatment; the only difference between the old and new exodus is that, as the writer heard one negro speaker express it, "every black man is his own Moses in this exodus." The negro may be lazy; it seems impossible to be otherwise in the Southern climate. He may not be willing to work on Saturdays, no matter how urgent the necessity; the indulgence in holidays is said to be one of the chief drawbacks to the advancement of the emancipated serfs of Russia. The blacks are certainly extravagant in their way, though the word seems to be almost misused in connection with a race who live largely on pork and molasses, and rarely wear more than half a dollar's worth of clothes at one time. They have not the instinct of home as it prevails among the whites, but incline to a crude and unsystematic communism; the negro quarters of the old plantations are all huddled together in the centre, and, except where the land owners have interfered to encourage a different life, there is still too much promiscuousness in the relation of the sexes. The negro, as a rule, has no ambition to become a land owner; he prefers to invest his surplus money, when he has any, in personal and movable property. In most cases where the blacks have been given the opportunity of buying land on long time, and paying yearly installments out of the proceeds of their annual crops, they have tired of the bargain after a year or two, and abandoned the contract. The negro politicians and preachers are not all that reformers and moralists would have them; the imitative faculty of the African has betrayed the black politician into many of the vicious ways of the white politician, and the colored preacher is frequently not above "the pomps and vanity of this wicked world." All this is the more unfortunate, as the blacks have a child-like confidence in their chosen leaders, founded partly on their primitive character, and partly on their distrust of the native whites. Both their politicians and their preachers have given abundant evidence of their insincerity during the excitement of emigration by blowing hot and blowing cold; by talking to the negroes one way, and to the whites another; and even to the extent, in some instances, of taking money to use their influence for discouraging and impeding emigration. These are some of the faults and misfortunes on the part of the blacks which enter into the race troubles. The chief blame which attaches to the whites is the failure to make a persistent effort, by education and kind treatment, to overcome the distrust and cure the faults of the negroes. The whites control, because they constitute the "property and intelligence" of the South, to use the words of a democratic statesman; this power should have been used to gain the confidence of the blacks. Had such a course been taken, there would not have been the fear of reenslavement, which actually prevails to a considerable extent among the negroes. So long as a portion of the whites entertain the conviction that the war of the sections will be renewed within a few years, as is the case, the negroes will suspect and dread the class who would treat them as enemies in case the war should come, and will seek to escape to a section of the country where they would not be so treated. Perhaps, too, there would have been a voluntary political division among the black voters, had the whites used more pacific means to bring it about, and had they themselves set the example. And last, but not least, in making up the sum of blame that the whites must bear, is their own unwillingness to labor, which gives the rural population too much time for mischief and too little sympathy with the working classes.

As we have traced the causes that have led to the exodus, and described the conditions which warrant the belief that there will be a renewal of the emigration on a more extended scale next spring, and endeavored to distribute the responsibility for the troubles equitably among whites and blacks, remedies have naturally suggested themselves to the reader; in fact, they are more easily to be thought out than accomplished. A few general reflections may be added, however, in order to indicate the probable solution of the race troubles that have brought about the exodus, if, indeed, the whites and blacks of the South are ever going to live together in peace.

(1.) It is certain that negro labor is the best the South can have, and equally certain that the climate and natural conditions of the South are better suited to the negro than any others on this continent. The alluvial lands, which many persons believe the negroes alone can cultivate, on account of climatic conditions, are so rich that it might literally be said it is only necessary to tickle them with a hoe to make them laugh back a harvest. The common prosperity of the country-the agricultural interests of the South and the commercial interests of the North- will be best served, therefore, by the continued residence and labor of the blacks in the cotton States.

(2.) The fact stated in the foregoing paragraph is so well understood at the North that the Southern people should dismiss the idea that there is any scheming among the Northern people, political or otherwise, to draw the black labor away from its natural home. The same fact should also influence the people at the North not to be misled by any professional philanthropists who may have some self-interest in soliciting aid to facilitate negro emigration from the South. The duty of the North in this matter is simply to extend protection and assure safe-conduct to the negroes, if the Southern whites attempt to impede voluntary emigration by either law or violence. Any other course might be cruel to the negro in encouraging him to enter on a new life in a strange climate, as well as an injustice to the white land owners of the South.

(3.) There is danger that the Southern whites will, as a rule, misinterpret the meaning of the exodus. Many are inclined to underrate its importance, and those who appreciate its significance are apt to look for temporary and superficial remedies. The vague promises made at the Vicksburg convention, which was controlled by the whites, and called to consider the emigration movement, have had no influence with the negroes, because they have heard such promises before. Had the convention adopted some definite plan of action, such as ex-Governor Foote, of Mississippi, submitted, its session might not have been in vain. This plan was to establish a committee in every county, composed of men who have the confidence of both whites and blacks, that should be auxiliary to the public authorities, listen to complaints, and arbitrate, advise, conciliate, or prosecute, as each case should demand. It is short-sighted for the Southern people to make mere temporary concessions, such as have been made in some cases this year, for that course would establish an annual strike. It is folly for them to suppose they can stem the tide of emigration by influencing the regular lines of steamboats not to carry the refugees, for the people of the North will see that the blacks shall not be detained in the South against their will. It is unwise for them to devise schemes for importing Chinese, or encouraging the immigration of white labor as a substitute for negro labor, when they may much better bestir themselves to make the present effective labor content.

(4.) Education will be the most useful agent to employ in the permanent harmonizing of the two races, and the redemption of both from the faults and follies which constitute their troubles. It is not the education of the negro alone, whose ambition for learning is increasing notably with every new generation, but the education of the mass of the young whites, that is needed to inculcate more tolerance of color and opinion, to give them an aspiration beyond that of riding a horse and hanging a "nigger," and to enable them to set a better example to the imitative blacks in the way of work and frugality. The blacks need the education to protect them from designing white men; the whites need it to teach them that their own interests will be best served by abandoning bulldozing of all kinds.

(5.) Reform in the land tenure, by converting the plantation monopolies into small holdings; abolition of the credit system, by abandoning the laws which sustain it; a diversification of crops; and attention to new manufacturing, maritime, and commercial enterprises,-these are the material changes that are most needed. They can be secured only through the active and earnest efforts of the whites. The blacks will be found responsive.

(6.) The hope of the negro exodus at its present stage, or even if it shall continue another season, is that the actual loss of the valuable labor that has gone, and the prospective loss of more labor that is anxious to go, will induce the intelligent and responsible classes at the South to overcome their own prejudices, and to compel the extremists, irreconcilables, and politicians generally, of all parties, to abandon agitation, and give the South equal peace and equal chance for black and white.

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