(1901) William Hannibal Thomas on the American Negro

William Hannibal Thomas
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Nineteenth Century black conservative William Hannibal Thomas was a Civil War veteran, Reconstruction era South Carolina politician, and U.S. counsel to Portuguese Southwest Africa (Angola).  He is most famous however as the author of the 1901 book, The American Negro: What He Was, What He Is, and What He May Become: A Critical and Practical Discussion. The passages below excerpted from his book describe the positions Thomas stakes out on the problems and challenges facing African Americans at the dawn of the 20th century.

In the autumn of 1876 I was elected a member of the legislature of South Carolina, and when that body convened I was made chairman of its leading committees… During the stormy period…my services contributed in no slight measure to the settlement of the presidential issue of that year. About the same time that I was elected a state representative I was admitted to practice before the state Supreme Court, and also commissioned a colonel of the National Guard.

I have never regarded the political rights of the freedman as essential to his well-being, though I have no sympathy with the forcible methods which are employed to prevent his exercising them. When, therefore, the critical stage in reconstruction was reached, my conviction was confirmed by the ease with which the existing Republican governments of the South were overthrown, and it was then that I gave up the practice of law, and withdrew from active participation in politics, in order that I might devote my chief attention to the educational and social advancement of the freedmen. In pursuance of that purpose I built churches, established schoolhouses, and created facilities for primary instruction in localities where such were before unknown.

Nor did I cease endeavors…to observe and study the negro in every phase of his existence until I had visited every Southern state and community… I have slept in bare cabins, sat on earthen floors, and eaten corn pone, and witnessed as much genuine self-respect in log huts as I have ever beheld in the most pretentious negro homes. I have kept step with the illiterate freedman as he pursued his daily round of toil in the field or forest, and sat in rapt attention at his hearthstone at night while he recounted his own privations or drew vivid pictures of what he dreamed, but dared not hope, his children might become. I have also witnessed the ostentatious flauntings of negro pretensions in church, in the schoolroom, in social intercourse, and in material undertakings; and…been moved to righteous indignation at the…follies of a race blind to every passing opportunity….

I have now a word to say to a larger audience,– the American people,–because, in my judgment, the negro question embodies the most momentous problems that have engaged the attention of the nation. I think I have fairly diagnosed the racial situation, and have pointed out rational and efficient remedies for the elimination of race disabilities…. While nothing which I have written concerning the habits of the freedmen is new to the negroes themselves, who in their secluded gatherings show no reluctance to talk freely of themselves, yet so far as the white race is concerned there is very little first-hand knowledge regarding these topics.

I know that few have any actual knowledge of their hidden lives and real living in their homes, churches, and social intercourse…. It is therefore obvious that the American white people have no intelligent insight into negro sociology; and it is reasonable, to assume that…the essential facts of negro life are as little known to the great mass of our people as they were three centuries ago. Furthermore…no genuine attempt has been made to know the negro as a freeman and as a citizen of our republican commonwealth. He has rights which are denied, as well as wrongs that have gone unredressed; and though he possesses many despicable traits that environment has accentuated, nevertheless his acknowledged exemplars have not all been saints, nor are his teachers altogether blameless for existing racial conditions…

Negroism…is an attitude of mental density, a spiritual sensuousness; but that each of these characteristics, though endowed with great persistency and potency, is nevertheless amenable to radical treatment. On account of this belief I have pity and profound sympathy for an awakening group of negroes, to whom…I gladly reach out a hand of succor. On the other hand, I have a deep-seated aversion [and] unfeigned disgust for a distinctive phase of negro characteristic of those bereft of all uplifting desire, because I know that they deliberately…pander to every phase of racial viciousness and resist every attempt for social betterment.

Two things, however, ought to be understood. One is, that the admitted degradation of the race is not characteristic of all persons of negroid ancestry… It is, therefore, a grave mistake on the part of the general public to assume that all freedmen are alike in character and conduct. The great majority, it is true, have all the defects and weaknesses attributed to them; but it is also a fact that good and true men and women are to be found among them,

These discussions cover a wide range of thought… I am actuated neither by prejudice, sentiment, cravenness, nor egotism, but moved simply and solely by an intense desire to awaken the negro people out of their sleep of death, I have sought to show the depth of negro degradation, the height of negro achievement, in the hope that…the race would be moved to gird itself anew with the garb of truth and righteousness.

It is notably true that the Southern educated negro shuns all work involving manual effort, and, in imitation of a superior environment, calls in to his aid, for domestic, garden, and field service, the sinewy arms of unskilled muscular force. It is this belittling of the dignity of labor on the part of the more enlightened negroes that creates an aversion among the illiterate for honest toil, and a desire to escape physical exertion… Many negro mothers, themselves inured to toil… undertake at great self-denial to procure for their daughters a semblance of knowledge acquired from books, but who studiously exempt them from domestic labor. The consequence is that, being untrained to work, such girls grow up in idleness, and readily drift into dissolute company, to their own shame and their parents’ humiliation….

That the negro has an aversion to manual labor and strives to evade it, is shown by the vast numbers of freedmen who throng to the cities and towns to avoid field work, although in cities only idleness and poverty await the great majority of them. For a similar reason multitudes of the freed people congregate in the villages, where the struggle for existence is a death-grapple. In both cases the actual drift of these movements is toward idle and dissolute living. Actuated by a like spirit of unrest, no inconsiderable proportion of negro men and women migrate North and West annually, and in increasing numbers each succeeding year….The inevitable outcome is that such persons, having already an aversion to domestic labor, and finding their wages insufficient to satisfy their craving for personal adornment, readily succumb to the allurements of vicious living; consequently our Northern cities contain many negro women who lead impure lives, often under the garb of pretentious respectability.

For two centuries and a half the negro has dwelt in the presence of a superior and vigorous civilization, and one that at times has sought to inculcate in him lofty notions of duty, industry, and power, with the result that he has acquired a fair degree of diligence, and is reasonably industrious when under capable supervision. But what he has not yet acquired is that self-propelling force inherent in the white race; nor has he fairly utilized in freedom what he gained in compulsory bondage. For, notwithstanding its wanton abuse of power, slavery taught negroes trades, and made many of them skilled workmen in every department of mechanical handicraft….  It was this class of artisans who became men of affairs, took contracts, made money, acquired credit, bought property, and became substantial citizens in our Southern commonwealths.

But the slave-disciplined mechanic has no successor in the ranks of the freedmen, for the simple reason that they are lacking in mental energy and that subtle intelligence required of efficient artisans. The exclusion of the negro from the higher mechanical industries is due largely to his incapacity for acquiring a thorough painstaking knowledge of details. His sloven and slipshod methods are justly chargeable with his inability to achieve place and distinction in the mechanical field…

But the crux of the whole matter lies in the fact that the competent and incompetent, the trustworthy and untrustworthy negroes, are set apart from their white fellow-men by a distinctive color badge common to all….Black is deemed a symbol of ignorance and inefficiency. The unknown negro of capacity and integrity, essaying to enter competitive avenues of industry, encounters at the very threshold of his career an intense and deep-seated distrust of his ability… This is the gantlet which all skilled negro laborers have to run in seeking employment.
Any true uplifting of the negro in this country is to be found in a return to country life and in working the soil…  If he desires to acquire steadiness, sobriety, intelligence, morality, physical harmony…he will find that rural work constitutes a basis for character-building incomparably beyond that of any other agency within his reach.

The…supreme difficulty of the negro mind is its inability to parallel internal with external environing phenomena, because there is no apparent intelligent apprehension and adjustment of its internal mental states to external facts. The negro has all the physical endowments of intellect, but he has a mind that never thinks in complex terms… The consequence is that the freedman exhibits great mental density [but] … he has neither clear nor distinct perceptions of specific facts, inasmuch as in every attempt at primary reasoning he falls into confusion and error… He is largely devoid of imagination in all that relates to purely intellectual exercises, though he has fairly vivid conceptions of such physical objects as appeal to the passions or appetite…

The negro not only lacks a fair degree of intuitive knowledge, but so dense is his understanding that he blindly follows weird fantasies and hideous phantoms. So great is his predilection in this direction, that he appears incapable of understanding the difference between evidence and assertion, proof and surmise… The…chief mental anxiety of the freedman is for the immediate gratification of his physical senses. He lives wholly in his passions, and is never so happy as when enveloped in the glitter and gloss of shams…

To those who know the freedman the fact is obvious that the highest aspiration of negro ambition is, not to acquire the essential spirit of knowledge, but to imitate mechanically what he only succeeds in caricaturing. He certainly is not an intelligent observer of facts, for he can seldom accurately describe objects of daily contact, and…there is no such thing in his mind as capacity for original definition and analysis…

Knowledge, refinement, truth, and honor are to the negro mind acquirable vestments that may be put on or off as occasion requires, but which in no sense work a reconstruction in the nature of man… That what there is of racial scholarship has never passed beyond the mediocre and commonplace in mental character is due to the fact that the negro is always an imitator and never a creator.

Not only do negroes lack the ability to acquire clear and concise knowledge of ideas and things… Vague speech…indicates misty, incoherent conception, just as clean-cut expressions show that the speaker has in his mind clearly defined mental images. Negroes have very meagre conception of the import of words, and are influenced more by sound than sense in their use. .. With him it is a vocal sound, and not a significant symbol representing actual, visible, living qualities…  The negro idea of conversation is a fluent use of words, uttered without any regard to truth or facts.
He will spend hours in talking about the most trivial things concerning himself and others. This disposition to chatter consumes an amount of time of the value of which he has not the slightest idea. Prattle is a source of infinite mischief to the freedman, for it leads him to be very inquisitive about persons… Were he to expend half as much energy seeking to know the why and wherefore of things, as he employs in prying into the personal affairs of others, he would speedily become an intelligent and self-reliant being…

When silent he is not engaged in any endeavor to comprehend what is being said, unless he is the subject of criticism or his vanity is wounded. He is simply waiting, with bated breath and restless impatience….and on whose slightest pause he will, without regard to relevance or sense, instantly plunge in for the sole object of outdistancing others in chattering clamor.

The animated negro is a frisky, frothy creature of overflowing frivolity in speech and action, though one who instantly collapses into a glum, sullen, spiteful reticence at the slightest rebuke. He is, when awake, a person of ever varying moods, but one whom, when the curtain of unconsciousness is drawn over him in sleep, we fully realize to be scarcely more than a sensuous animal.

There is a cunning astuteness about the nature of the negro which renders him an adept in deception and consequently enables him to hide many of the shams of his life. So dominated by insincerity and false-heartedness is he that he is compelled to be a pretender whether he will or not. He has, therefore, neither manly courage nor veracity, and his life and living, founded on fallacious settings, is as artificial and stilted as one’s knowledge of social functions would be if derived from a book of etiquette. Moreover, so great is his vanity, obstinacy, and self-complacency, that he never realizes the depth of his own stupidity nor its identity with that of others whom he upbraids, and whose follies he is ever ready to decry… He is a petty schemer, and one result thereof is that many a white church has enrolled among its members mendicant freedmen who are there solely as gleaners of charity, and who exist in content on the crumbs that drop from the hands of sentimental philanthropy.

The freed people have no conception of the requirements of life or the amenities of society, [they] always cast aside the substantial for that which is showy and flimsy. In speech they are silly and vaunting; in their homes, untidy and negligent; in their associations, coarse and vulgar. Their demeanor toward inferiors is pompous and arrogant, while their conduct toward superiors is always servile and craven. Moreover, as they are improvident and idle, their undertakings often begin in folly and shame, and end in sin and crime.

One of the chief reasons why negroes fail in vital undertakings is because…as procrastination is the normal attitude of the negro toward every phase of activity involving labor, when he does act there is an invariable substitution of trivial for vital action. He has…an aversion to change which involves a deprivation of what he already understands and enjoys. When it is attempted, the preference is for movement along the line of least resistance to established usage… Hence, while negroes are easily influenced by flattering appeals to their passions or vanity, they stubbornly resist everything which opposes their taste and inclination… Moreover, such is his bias…that he resents rebuke for obvious shortcomings, and treats all racial criticism despite its elements of suggestive helpfulness, as the accusation of enemies….

Devoid of insight or belief in realities, the average freedman is constantly settling into reckless indifference as to conduct, and…even glories in obvious infirmities. But, notwithstanding these facts, there is a disposition among many well-meaning white persons to sympathize with, apologize for, and condone his gravest shortcomings under the plea that he is ignorant of his duty and responsibilities to himself and society…. This attitude toward the freedman does no good, and…infinite harm. What he needs is less sentiment and more sense.

The stubborn aversion of the negro to everything implying the substitution of precision and order for impulse and disorder, as well as his purely mechanical adherence to irrational habits, may be exemplified in a hundred different ways… For instance, they will indulge in inordinate eating, wear insufficient clothing, be negligent in bathing…It is well known that negroes are peculiarly susceptible to pulmonary diseases, and that, when attacked with consumption or pneumonia, they die like sheep. This is a fact of which they are as fully conscious as others, but, nevertheless, they cannot be induced to take those precautions which sensible people usually adopt for the preservation of their health. Nor do they employ skilled physicians to any considerable extent, especially in the early stages of their illness, for, inheriting from their African ancestry a belief in the potency of gri-gri charms and fetish incantation, they almost invariably resort to the nostrums of quackery. Consequently, there are, in all of the large cities, North and South, among the race, so-called voodoo and conjure doctors to whom vast throngs go for amulets to ward off disease, and for treatment when sick….

Neither the tabulations of the census bureau nor the reports of municipal boards of health exert the slightest influence on racial habits of living. That the negro readily succumbs to every passing folly and is impervious to sense and sober reason is…fair insight into his character. The question then arises, Can a helpless class, which forever requires suggestion and direction for wise guidance, ever rescue itself from degradation?

The evident shallowness of negro nature could have no other effect than to make the race fickle in every relation of life, and such is the restless disposition of the freedmen that they flit from object to object for no reason other than search for sensational gratification. But, while the lightness of negro temperament disqualifies him for forming either enduring friendships or harboring deep-seated revenge, it is also true that such instability of character seriously handicaps him for strenuous endeavor… Despite constant failures, they never have any realization of incompetency…

There are those who can sing simple vernacular songs with a fair degree of success, but who, despite their defective musical training, disdain, even to their own discomfiture and the public’s amusement, to undertake anything less than the classical compositions of the world’s renowned composers. Then, again, there are music teachers who ought to be in laundries, and dressmakers better fitted for kitchen service than for making garments. There are also numberless preachers and teachers so poorly equipped for their chosen vocation that one sees at a glance the physical industries have been deprived of some stalwart laborers.

There are some genuine musicians among the negro people, with voices of marvelous power and charming sweetness, and to that fact is doubtless due the popular notion that the freedman belongs to a musically endowed race. He is no doubt greatly susceptible to musical impression, and, owing to his imitative ability and vocal powers, he does succeed fairly well in simple melody. But beyond that he must be regarded as a doubtful exponent of rhythmic cadences and harmonic scores. There is no question but that negroes may learn to sing, or that they do sing with great zeal and feeling… They are not, however, creators and interpreters of music in any high artistic sense; that is, they have yet to show such inherent musical aptitude as is found in the German and Italian people…

The morbid somberness of negro character is evidenced by a manifest craving for attending funerals and gazing on the dead, it matters not whether the deceased be a relative or stranger. In many other respects the freedmen exhibit an abnormal disposition to gloat over the ghastly details of physical violence. We have seen men, women, and children gather in immense crowds to witness the hanging of a felon or the burning of a lecherous wretch by a frenzied mob. There is also allied to this brutal, morbid instinct a domineering spirit, which utterly unfits the freedman for rational self-control or the sane supervision of others…The freedman, therefore, is constantly on the lookout for something to domineer that is subject to him, as, for example, his wife, child, horse, mule, cow, or dog, upon whom he mercilessly inflicts brute force, as undeterred whim or temper inclines.

The negro lives only in the present, and though at times doleful in language and frantic in grief, he is, like a child, readily soothed by trifles and easily diverted by persuasive speech. He has both aspiration and desire for higher living, but so long as he is overwhelmed with, an all-pervading sensuousness neither will find expression in concrete form. If he could get what he wants without labor, he would possess the best that our civilization affords; as it is, he soon wearies of mental or physical strain, and studiously avoids efforts that involve prolonged toil.
It may, therefore, be taken for granted that, so long as the freedman has unsupplied desires, and has no inclination to provide for them by work, he will have no scruples about appropriating to his own use whatever lies within his reach and fancy that other hands have wrought. This conclusion is fully born out by the example of those negroes who purloin chickens and the food products of their neighbors, rather than undergo the labor of raising such things for themselves. The same trait is illustrated on a higher scale by the negro preachers and others of the educated class, who will not go through the mental and physical effort necessary to the preparation of original literary matter, even when qualified for such work.
We have known many persons of this character who would, without remorse or blush of shame, memorize the sermon or oration of some eminent person, or copy for insertion in a negro journal an already published article, and with incomprehensible vanity palm it off on their illiterate brethren as their own creation. We have also had some conspicuous negro speakers, whose lectures and addresses were written for them by scholarly white men; and in current literature it is no rare thing to see a negro’s name attached to a publication whose subject-matter was prepared by other hands.

The essential question involved in this matter is, What agency can effectively eradicate the admittedly vicious traits inherent in the negro people? While advice, persuasion, and exhortation have their place and function, none of them will suffice… There is common agreement that the evil instincts of negro nature ought to be eradicated, and, as the freedman is not amenable to verbal suasion, it is our …duty to back up such commands for right-doing with force. We [believe] that, in a social organism of fixed ethical standards, all indwelling, non-conforming inferior types of mankind should be excluded or exterminated. Is this a barbarous suggestion? Assuredly not, so long as we absolve ourselves for summary executions by the plea that the good of society justifies them. It is far better to have individual extermination than national extinction. Besides, whatever we will or may say to the contrary, the simple truth is that the whole fabric of civilization everywhere rests on law and force. Obviously, then, so long as negroes are confessedly on the lowest rung of the ladder of social development, there is emphatic need of thoroughly safeguarding every step in their training with forceful and effectual methods of instruction.