(1928) Henry F. Coleman, “The Philosophy of the Race Problem (From a Negro’s Viewpoint)”

Harlem parade, 138th and 7th, New York, 1920s
Photo by James Van Der Zee, Courtesy Museum of Photographic Arts (1987.034.002)

Very little is known about Henry F. Coleman including the actual date of his 1928 speech which appears below.  Nonetheless, it is included because it is a good example of the “defense of the race” speech so common in the late 19th and early 20th Century often given by famous and not so famous spokespersons for African America.

“RAGGED, half-starved, heavy-hearted,… he returned . . . to find his house in ruins, his farm devastated, . . . his stock killed, . . . his trade destroyed, his social system, feudal in its magnificence, swept away.” In these words Henry W. Grady has depicted the return of the Confederate soldier at the close of the Civil War. But there was” a more pathetic scene. Picture, if you can, the newly-liberated slave. He, too, is ragged, half-starved and heavy-hearted. He possesses no home, for his life-energy has been expended in behalf of his master. Released from bondage, he knows not how to use his freedom. He may not become a merchant, for he has no capital. He may not become a farmer, for he owns no land. He may not become a mechanic, for he knows no trade. He may not teach his fellow-creatures, for he has not the rudiments of an education. Ignorant, resourceless, powerless, without home, without food, without money, without a trade, he faces a new and untried life of care and responsibility. He is encompassed by a people solicitous, not for his progress, but for its own injured pride and prestige, a South of hostility and vengeful jealousy. Such was the condition of the negro at the close of the Civil War. To lift this tragic figure from a maelstrom of despair, to make this land a home to him instead of a prison, to give him knowledge for ignorance, self-support for destitution, virtue for immorality, to teach him the broad meaning of liberty and good citizenship,-the execution of these tasks constitutes the great race problem.

Justice and opportunity for the negro, demanded by Lovejoy and the Abolitionists, authorized by Lincoln and the Reconstruction Congress, are prime requisites in the solution of this problem. But in that section of our country most vitally concerned, justice and opportunity, in many instances, have been withheld, and the advancement of the negro, made possible under the new dispensation, has been seriously impeded. This situation has been brought about through certain agitators who decry the bestowal of education, the franchise, and industrial equity upon the blacks. Their grounds for these objections are, chiefly, the ethnic dissimilarities between the negro and the white, the fear of race amalgamation. In short, they condemn the negro for his lack of resemblance to the white, and as vehemently condemn all methods whereby the graver differences may be removed. I have no quarrel with these agitators as men. When I reject their policy, I oppose not the men, but the principles which they represent. My purpose is to disclose fallacies inherent in the philosophy by which they would solve the present problem, and to reiterate those principles which already bid fair to establish harmony and peace.

Mr. Thomas Dixon, Jr., one spokesman for this class, argues that to establish equal terms between die races is to effect ultimate amalgamation. “If a man believes in equality,” he challenges, “let him prove it by giving his daughter in marriage to a negro.” I hold that civic and economic equality does not necessarily mean social mixture. On the contrary, to grant a race social standing is to increase its race-pride, and render it more anxious to preserve its type distinct. The truth is that the mulatto came not through the fault of the negro, and that where advanced intelligence has controlled freedom of is election, the new generation is darker than the last.

Mr. Dixon argues further that the educated negro cannot live and labor in the same land on equal terms with the. white; that sooner or later he will feel upon his throat the clutch of the white man’s unwritten laws,-those laws which deny to him the possibility of a career, and drive him to a choice between a suicide’s grave and a prison cell. In spite of this assertion, the sophist exclaims: “I believe in God’s call to our race to establish and maintain for weaker races, as a trust for civilization, the principles of civil and religious liberty.” Are we to believe that the white race of America will maintain civilization in trust for weaker races, are we to believe that it will establish the principles of civil and religious liberty by clutching the negro’s throat, and driving him to a prison cell or a suicide’s grave? Or are we to believe that those principles of justice and equity which rescued Mexico from Maximilian, preserved intact the unity of China, liberated the Cuban and emancipated, the Filipino will break beneath their own weight if applied to the American negro?

Mr. Dixon seems to believe that physical ~characteristics are more potent factors in determining racial possibilities than are mental and moral traits. Still speaking of the negro, he says: “The more you educate, the more impossible you render his position in a democracy. Can you change the color of his skin the kink of his hair, the bulge of his lips or the spread of his nose with a spelling book ? ”  I thank an all-kind Creator for this tremendous possibility that my skin though black, may cover a heart as pure as any that beats within a Saxon’s breast. I thank Him that my hair, though kinked, may cover a brain which can think as clearly, and reason as profoundly as that of the fairest white.  I thank Him that the bulge of my lips and the spread of my nose need not forever be the inevitable tokens of my disgrace,-that they may become my badge of honor if, after fifty years of education I can show the rudiments, at least, of that mental and moral development, to acquire which, the Anglo Saxon has taken a half-score of centuries. But why quote further? After he has condemned and maligned the negro with rankest venom, Mr. Dixon has no remedy to suggest except deportation -a theory long since discarded by serious students of the race problem.

Less subtle in sophistry, but more dynamic in hate are the utterances of the prominent Senator from South Carolina. He gives vent to his malice chiefly by expressing what he terms the menace of the negro to the country’s morals. He delights to ask “What would you do if your daughter were ruined by a black wretch?” Neither the strongest sympathizer of the race nor any intelligent negro will condone crime because the perpetrator is black. But what would you do if you were a negro possessed of education and Christian training: and your wife, your daughters were never safe from those who assume that all black women are unchaste?

We accept Mr. Tillman’s assertion that the negro is not the equal of the white. It is not remarkable that the white race, with centuries of development in an environment of freedom, has risen superior to a race whose only inheritance is ignorance and oppression. But is the negro incapable of acquiring a culture equal to that of the white? Remember, yesterday, the negro was a chattel in the market, eaten by lashes and bound by chains, the child f hopeless, unrewarded toil. In him ambition was an evil, education a crime; every faculty of his mind and soul was rigidly suppressed: Today the world is moved by the pathos of Dunbar; it thrills with the powerful fiction of Chestnutt and Dumas; it listens, entranced, to the rhythmic cadences of Coleridge Taylor; it praises the superior generalship of Toussaint L’Ouverture; it applauds the forceful energy, and sterling character of Bowen, Vernon, Gaines, Du Bois, and it thunders with enthusiasm before the inspiring eloquence of Bruce, Douglas, Mason and Booker Washington. The genius of these individuals is the gift of God to black men,-men whose stupendous labors have been performed with hands marked by manacles and scarred by chains. We point to their achievements as indications of the cultural possibilities of the race.

If we accept the advice of the agitators from the Southland, ten million souls, pregnant with possibilities, shall lose from within their very grasp the greatest boon which the Almighty has bestowed upon the human race,-the ability and the opportunity to achieve. Imbued with the power of thought, they may not think; capable of achievement, they may not venture; stirred by ambition, they may not strive. They must remain “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” beasts of burden with souls and brains. Longing for knowledge, thirsting for culture, they must turn their backs upon both, and continue to toil without hope of recognition or reward.

Will you ‘who love justice consent to governmental methods which ignore the simplest rights of the negro? Will you accept, then, these pernicious doctrines of foul injustice and base intimidation masked behind the fair-sounding terms, “white supremacy” and “Anglo-Saxon domination”? Can this policy preserve the nation’s safety, harmony and peace? Not the vehement denunciation of a Vardaman, nor the biased legislation of a “Hoke” Smith, nor the malicious hatred of a Tillman, nor the subtle venom of a Dixon can solve the race problem. It has ceased to be merely an intellectual puzzle; it is largely a matter for the heart and will. Mutual sacrifice is necessary. The blacks have suffered and must continue to suffer. The whites must endure the consequences of their fathers’ sins. Side by side must the races strive to lift this mighty burden. Universal heroism on the part of the blacks,-the willingness to suffer, and the ambition to advance,-universaI altruism on the part of the whites,-flinging wide the door of opportunity, patiently leading a faltering race along the rugged path of progress,-these are the factors that must ultimately prevail!

Could the martyred Lincoln have lived to execute fully the policy for which he gave his life, would he have countenanced a rule of injustice and oppression? I seek my answer in the past, and a vision of that heroic soul unfolds to my eyes. I see him watching in the Southern mart; I note the firm resolve that hardens his face like steel. I see him opposed to Douglas in the clash of giant minds, battling for justice to a helpless race. I see him bearing the burden of a nation’s destiny, and imploring divine guidance to lead his steps aright. I see him pen the immortal words that free four million souls. I see him wounded, bleeding, dying,-and for me. And my heart cannot believe that so great a soul would commit the cause for which he lived and died to the policies of men who would discard as loose robes the civilization of centuries, and stride naked into an arena of barbarism and hate. Rather would he strive for peace and harmony between the races,-separate in type, but united in spirit,-brothers in industry, brothers in freedom, brothers in the love of eternal justice.

The spirit of Lincoln still lives,-that spirit born of the teachings of the Nazarene, who promised mercy to the merciful, who taught the brotherhood of man, who lifted the lowly, strengthened the weak, ate with publicans and made the captive free. In the light of His divine example, the doctrines of demagogues shrivel into chaff. Already closer understanding links Saxon and Freedmen in mutual sympathy. America experiences “a new birth of freedom.” In her sons and daughters she incarnates the spirit of her martyred chief. Their loyalty is repledged, their devotion renewed to the noble work he left unfinished. And my heart throbs anew with the hope that, inspired by the example of Lincoln, imbued with the spirit of Christ, they will soon cast down the last barrier to perfect freedom; that I, with my brother of blackest hue, possessing, at last, my rightful heritage, and holding my head erect, may stand beside the Saxon, a NEGRO and yet a MAN.