(1839) Peter Paul Simmons, “We Must Remain Active”

Broadway, New York, 1840
Broadway, New York, 1840
Painting by Charles F. Flower, Public Domain

On April 23, 1839, Peter Paul Simmons gave an address before the African Clarkson Association of New York City.  He challenged the then standard call for moral uplift and reform among African Americans and instead called for black Americans to employ more aggressive strategies and tactics to fight against racial discrimination.  His remarks, which were first published in the Colored American, a black New York City newspaper, on June 1, 1839, are reprinted below.

My Brother Clarksons, I have on all occasions where I have had the honor to address an assemblage of our people, advocated in most strongest terms the benefit of our benevolent institutions and the object of our moral elevation. The reason why I advocated the first was that we have had practical proof of its benefit, while the latter has now carried its good to a climax.

In particular reference to our people, my language is inadequate to express the honor due to those who first introduced these institutions among us, all that I can say to those who still remain among us is, that heaven alone can justly pay them for their labors. It would be vain to endeavor the useless task to trace up the very many practical proofs derived from our benevolent associations, but there is one I cannot pass over, which is unity. Unity alone has elevated us to our present stand, and benevolent societies was the father of it; some thirty years back there was nothing to guide us but discord and enmity, but with the introduction of institutions, came virtue, benevolence, sympathy, brotherly affection, unity. It was this, exertions of our feeble selves (independent of other sources) that has brought us to our present stand.

But hark to the trumpet sound from the pulpit. Again it’s thundered from the press, now its the topic of our common arguments. What is this discording tone? Moral elevation. Our moral elevation.

It is sounded to be the prolific parent of all virtue, and he who would dare whisper in the faintest breath against it, is thought no less than the parent of all vice, crime, and degradation, that possibly could afflict humanity. But I my Brother Clarksons will venture to say that this long talk of our moral elevation, has made us a moral people, but no more.

There is no nation of people under the canopy of heaven, who are given more to good morals and piety than we are. Show up to the world an African and you will show in truth morality. It is stamped in his countenance, it is in his word an act-on, he uses it mechanically for his principal tool to work by. But as it has progressed, it has carried along with it blind submission.

Yes brothers, our soft manners when particularly addressing those of pale complexions, this very great respect which is particularly shown to them also, moral elevation carries these which are roots of degradation with it. As my proof to this fact our children by having so much of this folly for their institutions, taught by example from its parent, to submit to any decision that comes from a white quarter; this cherishes a natural timidity, and white children can with ease coward down colored children of the same age.
Why is this?

The difference of their bringing up, my worthy brothers is the sole cause. The parent of the one although he may be extremely poor, thinks himself a poor finite being, and knows too well that all mankind are the same, he knows nothing, and will acknowledge nothing superior, but the Almighty God. He shows this as an example for his child, which it carries out through life. While the parent of the other takes morality for his guide (although morality when uninterrupted is a strong step to piety, I must confess, but when harassed by prejudice it makes a slave of itself), and this morality links on those evils, and we chain on ourselves oppression.

Yes it’s nothing but this moral elevation that causes us to have so little confidence in one another, it is this alone that puts white men at the head of even our private affairs, they are both judge and council for some of our people’s transactions, and they can fill all offices where they can gain their ends. Yes Brothers, this moral elevation of our people is but a mere song, it is nothing but a conspicuous scarecrow designed expressly, I may safely say, to hinder our people from acting collectively for themselves. For long as it continues we will have a lack of confidence in one another, and if we suspect each other, how can we act together.

No, we must lose sight of it entire, for it will deceive you if practised any longer. I wonder much how our people could be regurgitated by this false philanthropy so long, for there is no such a thing as elevating a nation of people by good morals, it is contrary to common sense or any plan of elevation laid down in record. But it is practised on our people as a means for to hinder them from acting in another way to obtain their rights. The basis of the manumission society was to elevate Africans by morals, and this has been formed upwards of a half century, and what has been done? Our people were slaves then and are the same today; this northern freedom is nothing but a nickname for northern slavery, and it was but a speculative policy in making us the free slaves of the north, being the climate would not suffer a sugar plantation, a coffee or a rice field, the master found it to be a good speculation in making us the free slaves of the north.

We have been a people more deceived than any nation of people under the sun; we have always mistaken speculation for benevolence, like the slave trade, it was not benevolence that roused England, France, and America, to send out naval forces to stop the importation of slaves, no such a thing, it was their policy. For they knew that the annual importation, together with the natural increase of slaves, that in time they would double outnumber the white population, and it would bring about too soon that very dark day, when God would raise up the ghosts of our forefathers from their graves, to rouse us all to revenge.

But I am intruding on your patience by dwelling too long on this one topic, I will carry you to the next which is also hashed up for us to feast on, it is intellectual elevation. In my schoolboy days parents were much infatuated with the idea of educating their children, that they might fill easy situations in life, but they have found themselves now, bitterly disappointed. It was said then by those who were called our friends, educate your children, and when they become men they can fill easy situations in life, this was the language then used, and it is used now by those who are our friends.

But we all know well that their sayings in this particular has not proved itself. For we see men of the highest standing among us filling very low stations. Men educated, and are preachers of the gospel, filling the meanest occupations in life from extreme necessity But our friends tell us we must not fill low stations, for it degrades us the more, but they take good care not to adopt the means that some of our talented men might fill respectable stations.

The colonizationist or pro-slavery men as they are called, say to us go to Africa, the land of your forefathers, for I hold a prejudice within my breast, I can no way get rid of, I was born with it, in infancy taught it, in my boyhood practised upon it, and now I am a man it has become an innate principle, go to Africa, but if you insist on staying here, I will give you only such employment to do, as to make you a poor wretch all your lifetime.

Our friends to the contrary say stay here brother, our principles are all men are equal, but my brother do not domesticate yourself, do not be any man’s servant, for it helps to degrade you. But mark ye, the friend has not adopted a plan yet for us to do anything else. And let me ask this generous public, who of these two speaks most conscientious, or gives the full development of his heart? You can answer that best yourselves. But we have been waiting for better prospects this great while, but we will never see better prospects until we give up all parties, acknowledge none as our friends, until they carry out their views to a letter, and have practical proof of some truth in their great declarations.

I think it is high time for us to act, for we must certainly see this deception, and all that is left for us to do is simply collective action, and we will profit our desires.

Parents I have perceived of late, act quite to the contrary from what was practised some few years back. It was then education of children, and both the means of the parent and time of the child went to accomplish the great end. But parents at present set them to some employment early that they might thank God for putting it in the parent for adopting the best means for a welfare. As a proof to this let me ask my auditors, who are they in the best circumstances among us the learned or the unlearned? How many men of education among us has accumulated anything at all? I will take the responsibility and answer none.

It has been those who toil daily at the rough and most laborous work that has accumulated the means to benefit them while living, then to bequeath a legacy when dead. The reason those who are considered the most literate among us do not reap the sweets of the harvest, is that this cry of intellectual elevation has caused them to be proud, and they will not be no man’s servant, they carry our friends’ views out to a letter in this particular, they form classes of distinction, so as to be known from those who get an honest living by labor. These individuals to keep up their rank of distinction by intellectual capacity, and having no means to back it, they degrade themselves the more for they are nothing but learned paupers.

It is a wrong idea in our people that because they have education, they must do only such employment to meet their large views, seek for means first, all, or principal part of the means that is among us, you will find among the laboring class. Those who first introduced this phantom of imagination among us will not give a help in time of need, no, for this reason I say, let everyone study his own interest, and let everyone’s interest be self.

Why is it, that we never hear of a physical and a political elevation, because they both call for united strength. And these two must go together, for if you destroy the one you must unquestionably shock the other, and even when taken separately they require action, and we must act before we can be an independent people.

Physical and political efforts are the only methods left for us to adopt. Yes my Brothers, and it may appear very singular, but it is a true trait in the African character, that there is a natural timidity, a great lack of physical courage.

We act like infidels. The time when France in her infidelity, believing that death was an eternal sleep, this caused them to be complete cowards. They started at their own moonlight shadow, fearing that some assassin were at their heels to end their eternal career. So it is with us, we seem to have lost all sight of the splendid mirror of immortality, we act like when this miserable life is ended, it will be to an eternal nonentity. Our actions do not show well the belief that this world was but a turn-pike for us to travel through, and at the end of which lies life eternal. No, and if our forefathers held the truths of immortality of the soul before their eyes, there would have been no such thing as African slavery, for they all would have died one by one, before they would remain one day in the clutches of captivity. Oh! that we could picture to our views the splendor of an after existence, Oh that I could rouse my brethren, even to the last struggle. Who would sicken years away of servitude and oppression? Who, at this age of intellect, would not rather cling to immortality? What boots this miserable life since it is to pass away, even if it is lost by disease or strife?

Is it possible that this foolish thought of moral elevation suffers us to remain inactive? If so, than remain inactive, and you but raise another generation of slaves, and your children’s children to the last posterity will spend their lives in as bitter oppression as ye do now today.

Remain inactive and your children will curse the day of their birth.

Remain inactive, and you will be the cause of rearing children for an eternal torment, for they in an ecstacy of despair will curse their maker for suffering such bitter oppression to be practised upon them.

Remain inactive, and the almighty himself will spurn you, for lack of courage and not using properly your agency. No, we must show ACTION! ACTION! ACTION! and our will to be, or not to be; this we study, this we must physically practice, and we will be in truth an independent people.