Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900

By Philip S. Foner; Robert James Branham | Go to book overview

105 MIGRATION IS THE ONLY REMEDY FOR OUR WRONGS

Robert J. Harlan

In 1877 Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew the last federal troops from the South and announced that local government would be left to "the honorable and influential Southern whites." The hopes of African Americans raised by enfranchisement during Radical Reconstruction were soon relentlessly dashed by varying kinds of disfranchisement. Although it was not until the 1890s that legal disfranchisement got under way, techniques ranging from outright violence and intimidation to the more subtle devices of a poll tax and highly complex ballot procedures originated in some southern states as early as the withdrawal of federal troops. Conditions for African Americans, now mostly second-class citizens, rapidly became intolerable. Peonage, inadequate educational opportunities, mob law and violence, and loss of political rights made life in the South increasingly unattractive to many blacks. The first major exodus occurred in January and February 1879 and centered in, but was not confined to, southern Louisiana. A bad crop, a devastating yellow fever epidemic, an unsuccessful effort on the part of black tenants to force a reduction in rent, prompted approximately fifty thousand African Americans to move from the South. Many of them headed for Kansas.* Most, however, were unprepared for the bitter cold of Missouri and Kansas and had hardly enough funds to keep them alive when they reached the Kansas plains. Gradually, the emigration fever subsided.

There was sharp difference among African American leaders as to the wisdom of the "great exodus." Frederick Douglass opposed the exodus, since "it leaves the whole question of equal rights on the soil of the South open and still to be settled." Continued migration, Douglass argued, "would make freedom and free institutions depend upon migration rather than protection."

Douglass's position was challenged by Robert James Harlan, Richard T. Greener, and other leaders. Harlan ( 1816-1897) was the son of Judge James Harlan and an African American woman, and was the half brother of U.S. Supreme Court justice John Marshall Harlan, who issued a stinging dissent in the 1896 Plessy v. Fergusoncivil rights case. In 1849, Robert Harlan struck it rich in the California goldfields, then invested

____________________
The Negro Exodus from the Gulf States: Address Before the Convention of the American Social Science Association, Saratoga Springs, September 12, 1879, in Philip S. Foner , ed. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, vol. 4 ( New York: International Publishers, 1955), 336.
See Nell Irvin Painter, Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction ( New York: Knopf, 1977).

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