Never Forget From Whence We Came

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First Mohonk Conference on the Negro Question, held at Lake Mohonk, Ulster County, New York, June 4, 5, 6, 1890. Reported and edited by Isabel C. Barrows

Judge A. W. Tourgee, of Mayville, N.Y. speaking.

So much has been said this morning about the industrial deficiencies of the colored people of the South that I have been greatly surprised at the omission of any reference to the other side of the question, — their industrial excellences.  I have always been less impressed with the industrial needs of the colored man than his industrial achievements. From 1865 until 1880, I had a peculiarly good opportunity for observing his qualities both as an agricultural and mechanical laborer, having first and last had some hundreds in my employ, and during much of the time each year travelling in different parts of the State in which I then lived.

As a result of constant study of their conditions since emancipation, I do not hesitate to say that the colored people of the South have accomplished more in twenty-five years, from an industrial point of view, than any people on the face of the earth ever before achieved under anything like such unfavorable conditions.

The manner in which they live and the things they do not do have been alluded to here as if they were racial qualities, and not fortuitous, resulting conditions. I was much impressed with the suggestions of more than one who has spoken, as to what they should be taught to do, as if they were industrial babes. I would like to see any of their advisers give the colored man lessons in the management of a mule, or teach him to raise a crop of corn or cotton or tobacco, or work a bad hillside at the South. In those forms of industry which they have had an opportunity to acquire, they have shown an aptitude and success which are simply amazing, when we consider their previous lack of opportunity to learn management, thrift, and economy. The Northern man is always prompt to criticize their agricultural methods; yet the Northern farmer who goes South and relies upon his own judgment and his own labor is very generally a failure.

So, too, in comparison with the “poor whites” of the South, the landless cropper-class, it is unquestionable that the Negro has excelled them greatly in industrial progress since his emancipation. In five of the heaviest cotton-growing counties of five States of the South, it is estimated that from four to six per cent, of the heads of

families among colored people live now under their own roof-trees.

In the regions where agriculture is more varied, the proportion is much greater. Probably six per cent, is a fair average. Now, if, under the conditions prevailing in 1865, two in a thousand had housed themselves in twenty-five years, it would have been regarded, by the observant political economist, as nothing short of an industrial

miracle. I have no doubt that five times as large a proportion of them have become home-owners and self-employers as of the “poor whites,” who most nearly approach them in educational and financial conditions, and with whom alone they can be justly compared.

Indeed, they already stand above the average of the white race in some industrial conditions. There is only half as large a percentage of paupers among them as among the whites of the eight States of the ” black belt ” of the South, and the proportion of paupers among the whites of the South is much less than at the North. It has been claimed that the reason of this is that the old masters support the aged and infirm who have been slaves. No doubt, this is sometimes true ; but, even in slave times, it required special statutes in every Southern State to prevent the masters from abandoning such infirm slaves to live by their own devices, and it is not reasonable to suppose that the white man would support the infirm freedman and send the disabled ones of his own race to the poorhouse. It is simply a remarkable economic fact which establishes beyond controversy the remarkable economic value of the colored man as an industrial element of American life.

 

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