(1867) John Sella Martin, A Speech Before the Paris Antislavery Conference

John Sella Martin
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John Sella Martin was born into slavery in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was carried to Georgia and escaped from there to the North in 1856. Martin lived successively in Chicago, Detroit and Buffalo, where by that point he was a minister and led a church in the city. By the early 1860s Martin was minister of the Joy Street Baptist Church in Boston and a prominent abolitionist speaker. Martin traveled to England three times to promote the antislavery cause and on August 27, 1867, he addressed the Paris Antislavery Conference as a representative of the American Missionary Association. His address appears below.

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen: Mr. Garrison justly rejoices that the statute-books of his country have been cleansed from the thousand clauses that sanctioned its greatest crime and curse; and even I, as a Negro, can rejoice with him that it is not now as it formerly was, when every white man who escaped persecution did so by carrying a lie in his right hand. Looking at the results of emancipation from the standpoint of a white man, there are many things to make the flush of triumph deepen into a blush of shame.

The Negroes are free as to their chains, but everywhere their prospects are darkened by prejudice and proscription, which Fred Douglass forcibly calls the shadow of Slavery. And this fact shows how deeply corrupted the Americans were by that system which they deliberately made their own, in defiance of every claim of justice for those who helped them to win the battle of national independence, and who, in their generous confidence, came again to the rescue when these same breakers of faith were sinking in the waters of strife upon which they had so confidently entered at the beginning of the late war. There is, nevertheless, a hopeful sign about the present state of things, and that is, that even those who used to vilify the Negro are now beginning to apologize for his present state. Yet I undertake to say that the Negro needs no apology. What is the Negro? Why, the popular notion is that he is a coward. Yet he has proved that he will fight, though for one I have no high eulogy to pass upon him for doing that which is the last resort of a cur that cannot run away. I know the whites have another measurement for brute force. While the Negro behaved like a Christian—like the old English slaves who waited for the advance of civilization to gradually melt rather than to break their chains—the whites called him a brute, too degraded to wish for freedom or try to win it. But as soon as he began to act like a brute and to revel in the dreadful orgies of war, then they called him a man. Wendell Phillips truly says that the Negro race is the only one in history which, unaided, broke its chains of bondage. I do not know what gradual emancipation would have brought with it. It is claimed that it would have brought a great deal; preparation for freedom to both master and slave; that it would have prevented the dreadful spectacles which the destitution and starvation, during the transition period of the freedmen, have called for the pity and aid of the world. But I know this: we did not get gradual emancipation, and that the slaveholders refused to have it; and I know, also, that such emancipation as the Negro has got was won partly by his wisdom in waiting till those who had united in oppressing him got too far apart even to join their weapons in putting down a Negro insurrection, and partly by a bravery equal to his brethren of St. Domingo. When events justified the Negro in joining the contest, his ready submission to discipline, his fidelity in helping those who, through necessity only, had become his friends, and his willing assault upon strongholds in which he had to walk over hidden torpedoes, which was considered rather hard walking for white men, made him a place in history that needs no apology. Whatever, therefore, may be the value of physical courage, he is entitled to it.

The Negro, too, is a man that will work. Wise men would have excused him if the first days of his freedom had been spent in visiting the cities which slavery never allowed him to see. Had he feasted his eyes upon the fine things—for which, it is said, he has a taste—displayed in the shop windows, he would have followed very elegant examples. There would have been no wonder in his desire and effort to leave a form of labour which suggested even the most painful reminiscences of murdered kindred, ruined wives and daughters, and degrading submission. And yet whenever they could get works the majority have remained to do it. When they could get paid for their work they have worked to profit; and when they have made money, they have learned to save it. Nobody with any sense denies that there may be a large numbers of lazy Negroes who will not work; the carrion from which the vultures of the pro-Slavery press get their food; and it would be a sad thing for commerce if there were no lazy Negroes, for the race would have to be removed from the American Continent and the cultivation of cotton, for fear of being corrupted into laziness and vagabondage by the too numerous examples of the white race. But this I do contend for: that for a people ignorant of the laws of contract, and beneath the general stimulus to industry which long habit of enterprise, and long enjoyment of the fruits of labour bring for them, to rise from the conditions of bondage, and without any system of constraint, under great uncertainty of getting paid, cheated by those whom they often take at first for their best friends—for such a people to give the world from their industry, within two-thirds the amount of cotton it got before the war began, is to prove beyond question their capacity and willingness to work. Why, Sir, on the Sea Islands, one year’s labour by a few thousand freedmen gave the United States Government, which employed them, 1,000,120 francs’ profit, and three years of labour made the Negroes the largest purchasers of the abandoned lands which were sold for unpaid taxes on these very islands, where, only two years before, they were held as slaves.

The Negro will learn. He has been denied the capacity for it; and in cases where the falsehood could not be dodged, as it could not in the case of Toussaint and Christophe, the pure Negro rulers of Hayti, it has been contended that they were exceptions. As though anybody took Lord Brougham, or the Emperor Napoleon, or Longfellow, Bryant and Beecher, as the rule among the white race as to capacity. Cannot they learn? Why, sir, one of the meanest men I ever saw was a black man; he was a Negro slaveholder, and he kept only the company of white men. The simple fact is this; prejudice and proscription in free society during the time of slavery kept the white people away form the Negroes, so that they knew, and still know, but little of colored people; and the slaveholder, though knowing better, found it to his interest to keep his knowledge to himself; or else it would have been known, that in New York and Boston, in New Orleans and Mobile, there are to be found some of the most accomplished colored men and women to be found anywhere, some of them of such unmixed African blood that they cannot be robbed of their virtues and attainments by that Anglo-Saxon pride of race which believes in no blood it has not corrupted by the vices of amalgamation.

But a new phase—many new phases of Negro capacity are being developed by the opportunities of this transition state of the freedmen, and by the efforts of the various Freedmen’s Societies.

Take my own society, for instance—the American Missionary Association—for which I am one of the delegation at this conference along with the Rev. J. A. Thome. This Association, organized more than thirty years ago to fight against the foul and anti-Christian dogmas and practices of slavery, and supported by the self-sacrificing efforts of such men as Lewis and Arthur Tappan, was the first to begin the work of education among the freedmen. Its first year’s work, after the breaking out of the war, did not bring more than fifty or sixty teachers into the field, because the freedman could not be got at. But as the South could be reached, so eager was the rush of slaves to learn, that the resources of the Government were inadequate to furnish houses and tents to teach them in. And those who mistook this real thirst after knowledge for mere curiosity in the slave to find out what his master feared in a book, have been undeceived by the increasing number of scholars week to week, and from year to year, as well as by the regularity and punctuality of their attendance, and the progress they make in their studies. The American Missionary Associations has in the field nearly 500 teachers, who teach not less than 150,000 scholars. And from every one of them we have the strongest testimony of the most uniform character, that the Negroes, old and young, are eager and apt scholars, and that a great many of them are endowed with most extraordinary natural powers. Whatever the philanthropy of a country may do, governments are made up of elements too neutralizing to each other for them to be carried away by mere sentiment. Hood got off the satire that the abolitionists had tried to wash the Negroes white, and, failing that, they were going to gild them. But governments have no such temptation, and it must be taken as the best of all proofs of Negro capacity, that the Freedmen’s Bureau of Washington has gone on from year to year, spending its 25,000,000 of francs per annum in aid of the Freedmen, much of which goes towards education.

The Negro can be elevated. He has a moral nature that shrinks from bloodshed, and his imitative power is the chief feature of difference between him and the race which has perished from its own native soil, because the instinct of revenge could never be subdued in it; no excuse for the white race, whose every act of intercourse with the poor red men has been as treacherous and as bloody as the policy and code of these poor savages. The Negro is a lover of family and home and some of the most touching records of this transition state are to be found in the efforts of husband to find the wives, and wives their husband, that slavery tore from them, and for parents to find their children, and children their parents. There is to be added to this unselfishness to high moral and social characteristics his love of religion. It may be true that he is, in this respect, peculiarly endowed, or it may be simply, that in being denied access to the family hearth, and in being driven away form the seat of justice and the altar of the Lord, he has contracted a deep religious trust, by having to make an appeal from these unfaithful exponent of Christianity to the author of Christianity Himself. Whatever may be the cause, the effect is, that wherever there are to be found a dozen Negroes together you will get a prayer-meeting. Now the Association that I represent recognizes this fact, and believing not only that the fact ought to be turned to account in getting the confidence of these people, but, believing also, that those evangelical principles which have made the English-speaking race what it is, wherever on the globe it may be, are destined to go on subduing the world to the author of those principles, though empires fall and races decay, till the whole world shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, they have been true to their convictions, while adopting the wises policy in sending the Bible along with the spelling book. Mr. Garrison says his Society is the largest non-ecclesiastical Freedmen’s Aid Society in America. The term ecclesiastical we do not accept, because we are supported by, and employ in, our work, members of every evangelical sect. But the term “religious but non-sectarian” we can and do accept. We are not unmindful of the advantages to the world that are to grow out of the civilization and Christianization of the Freemen in commercial, social and political points of view. Europe and the north will get better cotton and more of it from free men than they did from slaves, and the corresponding increase of their export trade to clothe and satisfy these people, whose daughters must dress, and whose wives will demand luxuries, will not be the least of their gains. We know that a people who can defy the semi-tropical climate of the Southern States, and who possess the secret of the culture of the that staple in which the whole world takes such an interest, if they are once educated will put the supply of cotton on a basis of permanency that no white laborers can put it upon for may generations; and we know, too, if the Negro is educated and made prosperous that he must be the main link of binding the South to the North. His gratitude for his freedom and his love of home and country, along with his love a peace, guarantees permanency in our political relations to the South, more surely than would a colony of New Englanders. But, Sir, above all these consideration with us, there arises this one, that a civilized and converted population of Africans in America means the civilization, in no very distant day, of Africa itself. England and France spend every year their millions to maintain squadrons on the coast of Africa, but the slave-trade still goes on. The whole civilized world has sent missionaries to Christianize the Africans, and but little headway has been made in the work, because of the deadly nature of the climate to the white. But if our labors are aided, as they ought to be, by the good people of every country, we shall send educated Christian coloured men from America proof against the deadly diseases of the climate, possessing a claim to the confidence of the natives in sameness of complexion, and carrying the principles of truth against those of error to an ardent-natured people, with natures of their own as ardent to dry up the fountain-head of the slave-trade, and so stop the stream for ever, and to attack superstition with the strongest weapon next to truth itself—the ability to live where it prevails, and to command the confidence and sympathy of the natives.