Selected Essays in Black History by Jerome Dowd

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Paths of Hope for the Negro

Practical Suggestions of a Southerner

by Jerome Dowd

It is too late in the day to discuss whether it would have been better had the Negro never been brought into the Southern States. If his presence here has been beneficial, or is ever to prove so, the price of the benefit has already been dearly paid for. He was the occasion of the deadliest and most expensive war in modern times. In the next place, his presence has corrupted politics and has limited statesmanship to a mere question of race supremacy. Great problems concerning the political, industrial, and moral life of the people have been subordinated or overshadowed, so that, while important strides have been made elsewhere in the investigation of social conditions and in the administration of State and municipal affairs, in civil-service reform, in the management of penal and charitable institutions, and in the field of education, the South has lagged behind.

On the charts of illiteracy and crime the South is represented by an immense black spot. Such are a few items of the account. It will require millions more of dollars and generations more of earnest work before the total cost is met of bringing the black man to this side of the globe. But the debt has been incurred and must be liquidated.

The welfare of the Negro is bound up with that of the white man in many important particulars:

First, the low standard of living among the blacks keeps down the wages of all classes of whites. So long as the Negroes are content to live in miserable huts, wear rags, and subsist upon hog fat and cow-pease, so long must the wages of white people in the same kind of work be pressed toward the same level. The higher we raise the standard of living among the Negroes, the higher will be the wages of the white people in the same occupations. The low standard of the Negroes is the result of low productive power. The less intelligent and skilled the Negroes are, the less they can produce, whether working for themselves or others, and hence, the less will be the total wealth of the country.

But it may be asked, When the standard of living of the Negroes is raised, will not wages go up, and will not that be a drawback? Certainly wages will go up, because the income of all classes will be increased. High wages generally indicate high productive power and general wealth, while low wages indicate the opposite. Only benefits can arise from better wages.

In the next place, the Negro's propensity to crime tends to excite the criminal tendencies of the white man. The South enjoys the distinction of having the highest percentage of crime in all the civilized world, and the reason is that the crimes of the one race provoke counter-crimes in the other.

The physical well-being of the one race has such a conspicuous influence upon that of the other that the subject requires no elaboration. The uncleanliness of person and habits of the Negroes in their homes and in the homes of their employers tends to propagate diseases, and thus impairs the health and increases the death-rate of the whole population.

Again, the lack of refinement in intellect, manners, and dress among the Negroes is an obstacle to the cultivated life of the whites. Ignorance and the absence of taste and self-respect in servants result in badly kept homes and yards, destruction of furniture and ware, ill-prepared food, poor table service, and a general lowering of the standard of living. Furthermore, the corrupt, coarse, and vulgar language of the Negroes is largely responsible for the jumbled and distorted English spoken by many of the Southern whites.

Seeing that the degradation of the Negro is an impediment to the progress and civilization of the white man, how may we effect an improvement in his condition?

First, municipalities should give more attention to the streets and alleys that traverse Negro settlements. In almost every town in the South there are settlements, known by such names as "New Africa," "Haiti," "Log Town," "Smoky Hollow," or "Snow Hill," exclusively inhabited by Negroes. These settlements are often outside the corporate limits. The houses are built along narrow, crooked, and dirty lanes, and the community is without sanitary regulations or oversight. These quarters should be brought under municipal control, the lanes widened into streets and cleaned, and provision made to guard against the opening of similar ones in the future.

In the next place, property-owners should build better houses for the Negroes to live in. The weakness in the civilization of the Negroes is most pronounced in their family life. But improvement in this respect is not possible without an improvement in the character and the comforts of the houses they live in. Bad houses breed bad people and bad neighborhoods. There is no more distinctive form of crime than the building and renting of houses unfit for human habitation.

Scarcely second in importance to improvements in house architecture is the need among Negroes of more time to spend with their families. Employers of Negro labor should be less exacting in the number of hours required for a day's work. Many domestic servants now work from six in the morning until nine and ten o'clock at night. The Southern habit of keeping open shopping- places until late at night encourages late suppers, retains cooks, butlers, and nurses until bedtime, and robs them of all home life. If the merchants would close their shops at six o'clock, as is the custom in the North, the welfare of both races would be greatly promoted.

Again, a revolution is needed in the character of the Negro's religion. At present it is too largely an affair of the emotions. He needs to be taught that the religious life is something to grow into by the perfection of personality, and not to be jumped into or sweated into at camp-meetings. The theological seminaries and the graduate preachers should assume the task of grafting upon the religion of the Negro that much sanity at least.

A reform is as much needed in the methods and aims of Negro education. Up to the present Negro education has shared with that of the white man the fault of being top-heavy. Colleges and universities have developed out of proportion to, and at the expense of, common schools. Then, the kind of education afforded the Negro has not been fitted to his capacities and needs. He has been made to pursue courses of study parallel to those prescribed for the whites, as though the individuals of both races had to fill the same positions in life. Much of the Negro's education has had nothing to do with his real life-work. It has only made him discontented and disinclined to unfold his arms. The survival of the Negroes in the race for existence depends upon their retaining possession of the few bread-winning occupations now open to them. But instead of better qualifying themselves for these occupations they have been poring over dead languages and working problems in mathematics. In the meantime the Chinaman and the steam-laundry have abolished the Negro's wash-tub, trained white "tonsorial artists" have taken away his barber's chair, and skilled painters and plasterers and mechanics have taken away his paint-brushes and tool-chests. Every year the number of occupations open to him becomes fewer because of his lack of progress in them. Unless a radical change takes place in the scope of his education, so that he may learn better how to do his work, a tide of white immigration will set in and force him out of his last stronghold, domestic service, and limit his sphere to the farm.

All primary schools for the Negroes should be equipped for industrial training in such work as sewing, cooking, laundering, carpentry, and house-cleaning, and, in rural districts, in elementary agriculture.

Secondary schools should add to the literary courses a more advanced course in industrial training, so as to approach as nearly as possible the objects and methods of the Tuskegee and Hampton Industrial and Normal Schools. Too much cannot be said in behalf of the revolution in the life of the Negro which the work of these schools promises and, in part, has already wrought. The writer is fully aware that education has a value aside from and above its bread-winning results, and he would not dissuade the Negro from seeking the highest culture that he may be capable of; but it is folly for him to wing his way through the higher realms of the intellect without some acquaintance with the requirements and duties of life.

Changes are needed in the methods of Negro education as well as in its scope. Educators should take into account, more than they have yet done, the differences in the mental characteristics of the two races. It is a well-established fact that, while the lower races possess marked capacity to deal with simple, concrete ideas, they lack power of generalization, and soon fatigue in the realm of the abstract. It is also well known that the inferior races, being deficient in generalization, which is a subjective process, are absorbed almost entirely in the things that are objective. They have strong and alert eyesight, and are susceptible to impressions through the medium of the eye to an extent that is impossible to any of the white races. This fact is evidenced in the great number of pictures found in the homes of the Negroes. In default of anything better, they will paper their walls with advertisements of the theater and the circus, and even with pictures from vicious newspapers. They delight in street pageantry, fancy costumes, theatrical performances, and similar spectacles. Factories employing Negroes generally find it necessary to suspend operations on "circus day." They love stories of adventure and any fiction that gives play to their imaginations. All their tastes lie in the realm of the objective and the concrete.

Hence, in the school-room stress should be laid on those studies that appeal to the eye and the imagination. Lessons should be given in sketching, painting, drawing, and casting. Reprints of the popular works of art should be placed before the Negroes, that their love for art may be gratified and their taste cultivated at the same time. Fancy needlework, dress-making, and home decorations should also have an important place. These studies, while not contributing directly to bread-winning, have a refining and softening influence upon character, and inspire efforts to make the home more attractive. The more interest we can make the Negro take in his personal appearance and in the comforts of his home, the more we shall strengthen and promote his family life and raise the level of his civilization.

The literary education of the Negro should consist of carefully selected poems and novels that appeal to his imagination and produce clear images upon his mind, excluding such literature as is in the nature of psychological or moral research. Recitations and dialogues should be more generally and more frequently required. In history emphasis should be given to what is picturesque, dramatic, and biographical.

Coming to the political phase of the Negro problem, there is a general agreement among white men that the Southern States cannot keep pace with the progress of the world as long as they are menaced by Negro domination, and that, therefore, it is necessary to eliminate the Negro vote from politics. When the Negroes become intelligent factors in society, when they become thrifty and accumulate wealth, they will find the way to larger exercise of citizenship. They can never sit upon juries to pass upon life and property until they are property-owners themselves, and they can never hold the reins of government by reason of mere superiority of numbers. Before they can take on larger political responsibilities they must demonstrate their ability to meet them.

The Negroes will never be allowed to control State governments so long as they vote at every election upon the basis of color, without regard whatever to political issues or private convictions. If the Negroes would divide their votes according to their individual opinions, as the lamented Charles Price, one of their best leaders, advised, there would be no danger of Negro domination and no objection to their holding offices which they might be competent to fill. But as there is no present prospect of their voting upon any other basis than that of color, the white people are forced to accept the situation and protect themselves accordingly. Years of bitter and costly experience have demonstrated over and over again that Negro rule is not only incompetent and corrupt, but a menace to civilization. Some people imagine that there is something anomalous, peculiar, or local in the race prejudice that binds all Negroes together; but this clan spirit is a characteristic of all savage and semi- civilized peoples.

It should be well understood by this time that no foreign race inhabiting this country and acting together politically can dominate the native whites. To permit an inferior race, holding less than one tenth of the property of the community, to take the reins of government in its hands, by reason of mere numerical strength, would be to renounce civilization. Our national government, in making laws for Hawaii, has carefully provided for white supremacy by an educational qualification for suffrage that excludes the semi-civilized natives. No sane man, let us hope, would think of placing Manila under the control of a government of the Philippine Islands based upon universal suffrage. Yet the problem in the South and the problem in the Philippines and in Hawaii differ only in degree.

The only proper safeguard against Negro rule in States where the blacks outnumber or approximate in number the whites lies in constitutional provisions establishing an educational test for suffrage applicable to black and white alike. If the suffrage is not thus limited it is necessary for the whites to resort to technicalities and ballot laws, to bribery or intimidation. To set up an educational test with a "grandfather clause," making the test apply for a certain time to the blacks only, seems to an outsider unnecessary, arbitrary, and unjust. The reason for such a clause arises from the belief that no constitutional amendment could ever carry if it immediately disfranchised the illiterate whites, as many property-holding whites belong to that class. But the writer does not believe in the principle nor in the necessity for a "grandfather clause." If constitutional amendments were to be submitted in North Carolina and Virginia applying the educational test to both races alike after 1908, the question would be lifted above the level of party gain, and would receive the support of white men of all parties and the approbation of the moral sentiment of the American people. A white man who would disfranchise a Negro because of his color or for mere party advantage is himself unworthy of the suffrage. With the suffrage question adjusted upon an educational basis the Negroes would have the power to work out their political emancipation, the white people having made education necessary and provided the means for attaining it.

When the question of Negro domination is settled the path of progress of both races will be very much cleared. Race conflicts will then be less frequent and race feeling less bitter. With more friendly relations growing up, and with more concentration of energy on the part of the Negroes in industrial lines, the opportunities for them will be widened and the task of finding industrial adjustment in the struggle for life made easier. The wisest and best leaders among the Negroes, such as Booker Washington and the late Charles Price, have tried to turn the attention of the Negroes from politics to the more profitable pursuits of industry, and if the professional politician would cease inspiring the Negroes to seek salvation in political domination over the whites, the race issue would soon cease to exist.

The field is broad enough in the South for both races to attain all that is possible to them. In spite of the periodic political conflicts and occasional local riots and acts of individual violence, the relations between the races, in respect to nine tenths of the population, are very friendly. The general condition has been too often judged by the acts of a small minority. The Southern people understand the Negroes, and feel a real fondness for those that are thrifty and well behaved. When fairly treated the Negro has a strong affection for his employer. He seldom forgets a kindness, and is quick to forget a wrong. If he does not stay long at one place, it is not that he dislikes his employer so much as that he has a restless temperament and craves change. His disposition is full of mirth and sunshine, and not a little of the fine flavor of Southern wit and humor is due to his influence. His nature is plastic, and while he is easily molded into a monster, he is also capable of a high degree of culture. Many Negroes are thoroughly honest, notwithstanding their bad environment and hereditary disposition to steal. Negro servants are trusted with the keys to households to an extent that, probably, is not the case among domestics elsewhere in the civilized world.

It is strange that two races working side by side should possess so many opposite traits of character. The white man has strong will and convictions and is set in his ways. He lives an indoor, monotonous life, restrains himself like a Puritan, and is inclined to melancholy. The prevalence of Populism throughout the South is nothing but the outcome of this morbid tendency. Farmers and merchants are entirely absorbed in their business, and the women, especially the married women, contrast with the women of France, Germany, and even England, in their indoor life and disinclination to mingle with the world outside. Public parks and public concerts, such as are found in Europe, which call out husband, wife, and children for a few hours of rest and communion with their friends, are almost unknown in the South. The few entertainments that receive sanction generally exclude all but the well-to-do by the cost of admission. The life of the poor in town and country is bleak and bare to the last degree.

Contrasting with this tendency is the free-and-easy life of the blacks. The burdens of the present and the future weigh lightly upon their shoulders. They love all the worldly amusements; in their homes they are free entertainers, and in their fondness for conversation and love of street life they are equal to the French or Italians.

May we not hope that the conflict of these two opposite races is working out some advantages to both, and that the final result will justify all that the conflict has cost?

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