In an effort to understand the underpinnings of racism that would impact America going forward after the Civil war and that might eventually lead to the failings in America’s inner cities, I sat down in 1860 for an interview with a midshipman who had served on the USS Cyane:
Thank you for taking this interview with me. As you know, there is talk in the U.S. of secession of the southern states.
“Yes, I am concerned if this occurs, there will be a war of rebellion. The North will surely win and many think that Lincoln will then free the slaves. That might end the pressure for freedmen to immigrate north, which would be a good thing.”
Why do you say that immigrating north is not a good thing?
“It is just that freedmen are not warmly welcomed as citizens in the north even now, and are barely tolerated in many cases.”
What do you mean?
“Well, in most northern states, they do not have the rights of most citizens to vote, to file law suits, to intermarry, or to sit on juries. In most, they cannot run for office. And in the states that do legally allow these things, in practice, they are heavily discouraged. In some states, they cannot use public transportation such as ferries, and in others, they cannot even own livestock.
Working conditions are deplorable. Freedmen hardly have the chance to rise above the status of laborer and they are relegated to the ghettos to live. Some states have passed laws discouraging freedmen from living there to protect working class citizens’ jobs from being sought by freedmen that would take less pay.
And can you believe this? Some states have passed laws that can have a freedman thrown back into slavery for such petty offenses as laziness! No sir, prejudices run deep in North, and there seems no place other than the harsh frontier where tolerance is gentler.”
Why is it that you think intolerance runs so deep?
“Seems there are many reasons. But for one, we have dehumanized the African race for centuries to the point that we are fearful and repulsed at the thought of integration. Why, do you know when Virginia’s John Randolph emancipated his 518 slaves and intended to have them relocate to Ohio, that Ohio’s Congressman replied that the community would line up at the river with muskets aimed at any who tried to cross the river? In Ohio, the courts even struck down integrated schools suggesting that communion had an invincible repugnance. Indiana, Illinois and Michigan required Freedmen to post a $1,000 bond for good behavior before entering the state. Who in those parts even has a $1,000 to post?”
So if immigration to the north seems intolerable, do you think that the solution to freeing the slaves will be a brokered peace in the South?
“I don’t suspect the once freed, ex slaves will have it any better in the South. While only a few thousand are free now, their lives have been very difficult. They have lived under even stricter laws than up North. For example, if they are caught without their certificates of freedom, they could be sold back into slavery. If they are found outside their town, they can be arrested unless they carried proof of employment. Mississippi even requires free blacks to confine their activities to urban areas. Virginia passed a law that may just banish them to Liberia.”
Speaking of Liberia, you have some experience there, do you not?
“Yes sir. I was a midshipman on the USS Cyane, which was involved in repatriation of freed slaves back to Liberia.”
What were your duties on the Cyane, sir?
“I sailed off the coast of Liberia defending the rights of all men to be free. We were protecting the Liberian colony from re-enslavement and suppressing piracy and the slave trade, and were working with the England’s West Africa Squadron in that effort. The West Africa Squadron was fairly successful in slowing trafficking, stopping over 1,600 ships and saving 150,000 Africans from slavery.”
I understand you escorted the first shipment of freed slaves for the American Colonization Society to Liberia.
“That’s right, without our protection, they would certainly be prone to re-enslavement. Unfortunately, a quarter of the first shipment of Freedmen died in the process of repatriation and the locals kept warring with them afterwards. But perhaps repatriation is still the best solution.”
With such issues as loss of life during transport and wars with locals, why do you believe repatriation to be the best solution?
“Well, the American Colonization Society believes it’s best that they are repatriated. The organization is supported not only by those that feel Liberia will offer freedoms away from the prejudices of American society but also by those that are highly prejudiced and hopeful of a segregated solution. With such conflict, this could be a possible solution for the four million slaves if the war commences and the slaves are freed.”
It seems highly unlikely that if in 40 years, the society has only been able to transport 13,000 freedmen to Liberia, with all the incumbent problems of cost, dangers of transport, and warring factions in Liberia against immigration that this is a viable solution. Do you not think a better solution is to find a way for those of European descent to learn to live in peace and equality with those of African descent here in America?
“Well, I don’t think we will be able to overcome our culture of racial superiority either. Africans have been integrated in the colonies for the past two hundred years, and we have been conditioned to think of them as property. Our ancestors thought little of owning slaves, even if only the wealthiest could afford to own them. We are convinced that because they came from cultures we think of as less advanced and void of the Christian religion, that we had a right to ownership.”
Yes, but the abolitionist movement has begun to enlighten the country of the atrocity of that way of thinking now, and we are at the precipice of war as a result. Slavery is so inhumane, isn’t it time for the entire nation to reject it?
“Inhumane is good description. Slaves’ average age at death is half that of others because of their harsh life. About a half million have died just on the transatlantic crossing over to the Americas. And even though the Cyane sailed the Atlantic trying to save them, if we got close to slaver ships, many slavers just dumped their human cargo overboard to avoid being captured and fined by us.
Our country has been desensitized to this inhumanity and is intolerant to reform because of slavery’s importance to commerce. But our conditioning follows centuries of slavery and warring. Our ships sail throughout Europe and practice war today. As a result of centuries of such war in which slaves were part of the booty, slavery became ingrained as a practice of war. In fact, after years of such wars and a plague that left Europe with too few serfs, 300 years ago the Pope himself was believed by Portugal to bless the slave trade, stating that it was acceptable to enslave all non-Christians. That decree was the start of Portugal’s African slave trade that eventually found its way to America.
It seems that in response to several hundred years of wars between the Islam and Christian worlds that intersected in Spain and Portugal, both religions carted off slaves back to their homelands as war contraband. And after the great plague, Europe needed slaves to replace a great loss of serfs so somehow Christianity got mixed in with commerce, and the corrupted mix was later used as rationale for this evil we have now.”
This has been a productive conversation. With 500 years of slavery ingrained in the culture, it does beg the question, “How are we going to fix the cultural divide that will imminently be thrust upon us?” Certainly, we will have a war. Tens of thousands will die. The slaves will be freed. And then our nation will be asked to find our way across this great bigoted chasm.
With problems of war reparations, forestalling vengeance for the dead, and recovering from an economy in shambles, will the country be capable of rising above such emotions to find a solution? The future of our country depends on resolving racism and truly healing the nation of its scars when this war comes to an end.
If we fail to solve our issues of race here, could we imagine another 100 years of repression leading ultimately to our greatest cities falling into ruin? Thank you for your time today and your earnest responses.