"A Proper Recognition of Our Manhood": The African Civilization Society and the Freedmen's Aid Movement

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"A proper recognition of our manhood": The African Civilization Society and the Freedmen's Aid Movement.

Almost as soon as the Union took control of the Sea Islands of South Carolina in November 1861, Northern missionaries headed to the Islands to educate and uplift former slaves. The Port Royal experiment began what is known as the freedmen's aid movement. Although no African-American reformers were among the first missionaries in "Gideon's band," the missionaries were soon joined by Charlotte Forten and other black reformers, many of whom had been involved in the anti-slavery movement. Northern blacks recognized that they had a great stake in the outcome of any experiment with freedom.(2)

Although historians have alluded to black participation in the freedmen's aid movement, none has studied it.(3) African-American reformers founded and sustained freedmen's aid societies that sought to make freedpeople independent. At the same time, these reformers asserted their own independence from whites. Free blacks fought negative images of freedpeople, and thus fought stereotypes of themselves. Yet black freedmen's aid reformers approached freedpeople with many of the same class and cultural biases that whites exhibited. They too sought to impose middle-class, Northern mores on former slaves. But Northern black reformers challenged whites' definition of independence during Reconstruction. Using gendered language, they combined black nationalism and domesticity to create the image of a new black manhood.

In the Christian Recorder, organ of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, African-Americans from all over the country could read about reform efforts in other cities, report on their own activities, and respond to calls for aid. One of the primary messages put forth by the Recorder during the Civil War was that African-Americans should take care of their own. As Elizabeth Keckley and James Wormeley wrote, "It has been asserted that we, as a people, do not sympathize with the oppressed portion of our race. Let us, my friends, by our benefactions, by words and by acts of kindness, disprove these assertions." The two then appealed for more contributions to Keckley's Contraband Relief Association in Washington, D.C.(4)

As contraband aid societies formed around the country, correspondents wrote to the Recorder of the need for such societies "in every colored community." As J.C. Maxwell of Xenia, Ohio, wrote, "The colored citizens of Xenia have vowed not to be last in the race. A Contraband Aid Society has been formed here, and is under good headway, to which donations are daily given and monthly fees paid by the members.... Our efforts are only begun, and we hope that every colored community will follow in the wake."(5) The message from around the country was clear and strong. African-Americans should assert their independence and show their responsibility to those less fortunate among their race. Richard H. Cain, African Methodist Episcopal clergyman and later congressman from South Carolina, stated, "We know how to serve others, but have not learned how to serve ourselves. We have always been directed by others in all the affairs of life, they have furnished the thoughts while we have been passive instruments, acting as we were acted upon, mere automatons." This condition of dependence applied directly to freedmen's aid, Cain asserted: "In every association established for the amelioration of the condition of colored people of this country, there is not an office or profit, or trust, confined to a Negro gentlemen." Cain's solution to this problem was more involvement by educated, middle-class blacks.

Negro gentlemen and ladies must become teachers, among them by example as well as precept, teach them that though they be black, they are as good as any other class whose skin is whiter than theirs; teach them that their complexions may differ but man is man for all that. Finally, colored men in the North have got to come to this doctrine, that black men must think for themselves -- act for themselves, and thus help our white friends to elevate us by a proper recognition of our manhood. …