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William Hooper Councill’s Letter to the White People of Alabama, 1901

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Most scholars of today imagine Booker T. Washington as the major accommodationist and black political conservative of the era.  There were others including Professor William Hooper Councill, the founder and  first President of the Huntsville Normal School which today is Alabama A.A& M University.  Councill founded the school in 1875, six years before Booker T. Washington established Tuskegee in South Central Alabama, and led the school until his death in 1909.  In the public letter below written on November 28, 1901, Councill outlines his views regarding the recently passed Alabama Constitution which effectively denied the vote to its African American citizens.  Couched in the language of deference, Councill, nonetheless, protests the new level of denial of rights to blacks in the state and the language of racial hate that accompanied that denial.

I have served you in slavery and in freedom for over half a century.  I have stood with you for “good government” for a quarter of a century.  As all of past life has been devoted to your service and to the welfare of my race, I believe that you will grant me a hearing now.

I love Alabama.  I have been true to her at home and abroad.  I have never breathed one work against her.  I have all along trusted her white people.  I revere the names of her long lines of noble sons with untarnished honor, who scorned wrong and hate injustice. Their faith in right gave birth to your Confederate monument which stands on Capitol Hill representing what they regarded as truth.  But today, I am alarmed! I tremble for the future of my people in Alabama, unless you come to our rescue.  

The recent [political] campaign was one of bitterness and abuse of my people.  Many of the public speakers did not appeal to the highest sentiment in man, but held up the Negro in a manner to make the white masses hostile to him.  With all your best efforts for many years to come, it will be hard to undo the harm which was done to my race by the campaign into which was put so much unkind feeling.  Not that you put a premium on suffrage.  That was right.  Not that the white man became supreme in government.  He was that already.  But in the sentiment manufactured against us.  Was such a campaign necessary?

There could have been but one result—ratification—[even if] the press and speakers had held their peace.  Then why abuse and mortify the men who are trying hard to please you and serve you every hour?

Do not misunderstand me.  For God’s sake do not misrepresent me.   I have never asked for unqualified suffrage.  Since a majority of the better elements of the white people of Alabama wanted the new constitution and promised better things under it, I was not against it.  I am opposed to every phase of social equality so distasteful to us both, and in my opinion, detrimental to Southern society.  There is no necessity for it.  Ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine (99,999) Negroes in every one hundred thousand (100,000) do not seek social equality, and if every Negro in the State sought it, it would not be.  You know all this.  Still we were abused, and the hostility of the lower element of your race aroused against us, while a quarter of a million of us were bowed, uncomplaining, at your cook pots, ironing boards, wash tubs, in your cotton fields, and in all the varied industries, loyal and true to you.  We are in your hands as babes in the hands of giants, making no laws, construing no laws, executing no laws, holding no offices, composing no juries, forming no militia, a weak, powerless people, and still men acted toward us as if we had been Caesar’s Legions in their palmiest days.  If we were the strong and you the weak, would not you be alarmed?  I beg you in the name of your mothers who were cradled in the arms of black women, in the name of your fathers who were loved and served by our fathers, and in the name of the sacred dead in gray, around whose sad hearths we kept faithful vigil, to rise up and checkmate those evil influences which you have set on foot against us.  You do not know the harm you have done.  We know it.  We feel it keenly in a hundred ways.  

Do not say that it is only the educated Negro who is disturbed.  God grant that it were so. But the cut has entered the soul of the ignorant Negro whose benighted mind cannot gather light from the philosophy of history and strength from a knowledge of the ultimate triumph of right; but the stolid, sullenly silent man whom you much change into the citizen of hope and obedience, or drive into the stupid, homeless, riotous creature of despair—a best, a constant menace to be cured by the Gatling gun.

The new constitution makes it possible for the darkest wrong to be perpetrated on Negro education and many of the campaign speakers and writers prepared the public to commit this wrong.  You can compel a Negro school to run ten months on one hundred dollars and appropriate one thousand dollars for ten months to a white school under your new constitution. You must surely know that such injustice would not only drive away from you the loyal hearts of your Negro population, but would drive them from Alabama.  Your own Dr. Curry told your Legislature that the Negro was, in certain counties, often defrauded out of his part of school funds under the old constitution.  Who will guarantee that it will not be done to a greater extent under the new constitution?  You got a new constitution, you said, to avoid the necessity of committing fraud in elections. You promised us righteous treatment in educational affairs. Your own statesmen say that the Negro pays taxes and still some men persist in saying that he does not.  If you wish a division of the school funds on racial lines, go to the very bottom of the matter, and see who pulls the tax money from the bosom of the earth, the only original source of wealth.

Your own record shows that the mass of your Negro labor is not only law abiding but industrious.  The proportion of Negro wage earners in the entire Negro population in Alabama is greater than any other Southern state except Louisiana.  Give us our portion in equity and we will not complain.  You promised to do this.  You said that with the political matter settled, all else should be fair. I still have faith in you.  Though you slay me, yet will I trust you.  Present the question fairly to the popular vote of the white people alone.  I believe they would vote for a division of the school fund on the basis of scholastic enumeration, and they would enumerate fairly, too.  Take this matter out of the hands of men who do not like my race. Let it rest on the Golden Rule, then peace, prosperity, and happiness will come to all our people, and your waste places will bloom.  Leave it with men who hate us, who appeal to prejudice, and it will soon take the place of the political question just settled.

It is said that the educated Negro is the criminal Negro.  We are in your fields, in your kitchens, and shops at work.  We cannot answer.  But what are the facts as recorded by you in your books?  Three million (3,000,000) Negroes can read and write.  Only eleven thousand (11,000) Negroes who can read and write are in all the prisons of the country.  Just one Negro in every hundred who can read and write is engaged in teaching, preaching, and other professional work. That is what your records tell.  Does this show that the educated Negro is the criminal Negro, that all educated Negroes go into the professions and that education unfits the Negro for labor?

Two million, nine hundred and fifty thousand (2,950,000) Negroes who can read and write are working every day for you in all grades of labor.  Are not our virtues minimized and our sins magnified by men who do not like us?  I do not hesitate to state as a fact that nine in every ten Negro teachers and preachers are loyal and true to the South, and hold up the best lights before the ignorant masses of the Negroes.  Whether you accept it or not, these Negro teachers and preachers will be the life preservers among your laboring population in less than fifty years.

We are part of your productive population.  Please study us. Please look into what we are doing, and what we are teaching and preaching.  I beg you not to listen to those who use our weakness to arouse prejudices to elevate them to position.  We want only what is right.   The better element of white people do not know what unnecessary insults and hardships are put upon we Negroes.  We bear these things because we know that even a manly and most humble protest is often put down as impudence and arrogance.  Nearly everywhere we turn, in cities, in backwoods—the Negro stands muzzled and manacled, and unkind white men belabor our backs with impunity.  White men of Alabama, for God’s sake look at this picture!  It is not overdrawn.  See the truth as it is before God and angels!  Are you not debauching your own sons by lodging such privileges and unholy power in the pigment of a man’s skin?  Punish the Negro—whip him until the blood runs in streams when he is wrong, but let justice be done him though the heavens fall—justice everywhere.  Truth, Mercy, and Justice will strengthen and adorn your race when it stands before the judgment bar of future intelligence and righteousness.

Mississippi disfranchised the Negro, but she is fair in education.  Mississippi, the home of Jefferson Davis.  Georgia stands up for Negro education.  Georgia, the home of Alexander Stephens [vice president of the confederate states]!  Mississippi welcomes the Negro to her borders.  Texas gives princely support to Negro education and invites him to her territory.   Can you see the signs of the times?  Must your labor element be kept suspicious, treated wrong by the men who take advantage of the color of their skin—men who know the power in white and the weakness in black—or will you protect us and make life profitable and happy to us?
The Jewish people are examples of the triumph of right. Their history shows forth God’s mercies in the life of people.  It is a warning to cruel men.  Every nation which has been cruel to the Jew is dead or dying.  The Jew has served many nations for thousands of years.  He was obedient to the laws of all, and bent his back to the stripes laid on by all. At last God ha brought him to a land here he has peace and where those who once despised him honor him.

I have been loyal and true to you. I would be disloyal and untrue now if I did not speak.  We love you, honor you, and want to serve you.  Encourage us.  We need it.

I have presented conditions that cannot be cured by abuse, or general denial. I have presented conditions which you must strike down, or which will harm us all.  I appeal to you—not to the north—not to Congress.  They are powerless.  You are all-powerful in this matter.  I believe that you have the righteousness to correct these conditions and I trust it is all in your hands.

If your race is in superior condition, then God has placed the races in inferior conditions under your care for kind treatment, and not to be mistreated and crushed.  Will you do the work of god, or must He take it in His own hands as He has always done when men failed?  The weak and unfortunate are His tenderest care.

“Right forever on the scaffold,   
Wrong forever on the throne;   
Yet the  scaffold sways the future,   
For behind the dim unknown,   
Standeth God within the shadow,   
Keeping watch above His Own.”

W. H. Councill               
Normal, Alabama, November 28th 1901                          

Sources:

Vivian Gunn Morris and Curtis L. Morris, The Price They Paid: Desegregation in an African American Community (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 2002), pp. 21-26.
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